The perpetrators of genocide generally don’t get to tell their own stories. But in Joshua Oppenheimer’s new documentary, The Act of Killing, he does exactly that, by giving perpetrators of the 1965 genocide in Indonesia the reigns and allowing them to re-enact their crimes.

Told through the perspective of the perpetrators in a powerful, dream-like fashion, Oppenheimer gives viewers disturbing insight into the psychology of the unrepentant and unapologetic perpetrators.

Oppenheimer’s documentary focuses on the 1965 genocide in Indonesia, commonly referred to as the Indonesian Killings. The massacre began when the military seized power from the government and began murdering alleged communists in response to a failed coup. In addition to suspected communists, ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, union members and enemies of the military were targeted as well. Over 500,000 Indonesians were murdered in less than a year.

The Act of Killing focuses on the story of Anwar Congo, an executioner of one of the most notorious death squads at the time. Congo decapitated more than 1,000 victims with a garroting wire in 1965 and is a founding father of Pemuda Pancasila, a right wing paramilitary group that participated in the killings and is still highly influential today. But Oppenheimer also shows another side of Congo – a dapper, dancing and Western movie-loving grandfather. The unsettling portrayal of Congo, along with other perpetrators, shows that they are not simply archetypal evil killers, but rather human beings.

By portraying this dissonance, Oppenheimer works to raise questions about the complexity of humanity and what happens in a society where genocide is justified by a culture of impunity. The questions raised by Oppenheimer are not only for viewers, but also the perpetrators themselves. The film shockingly documents the perpetrators reenacting their atrocities. While at first the perpetrators do this coldly and without introspection, this slowly changes during the course of the film.

The film does what hasn’t been done in Indonesia – allow reflection of the genocide. Unlike genocides like that of Nazi Germany and Rwanda, there has been no attempt towards justice or reconciliation for the perpetrators and victims of Indonesia. Also unlike other instances of genocide, many of the perpetrators are revered as patriots and still hold positions of power and privilege today. The complete lack of accountability in Indonesia has allowed them to go on and determine history.

Oppenheimer explains his motivations for making the film by asserting, “We attempt to shed light on one of the darkest chapters in both the local and global human story, and to express the real costs of blindness, expedience and an inability to control greed and the hunger for power in an increasingly unified world society. This is not, finally, a story only about Indonesia. It is a story about us all.”

While the genocide in Indonesia in 1965 is a relatively unknown mass atrocity, Oppenheimer’s documentary is beginning to initiate discussion necessary for a reconciliation process. The Act of Killing serves as a reminder of the need for constant vigilance and indefatigable efforts to confront genocides of the past and actively work to prevent future ones from happening.


The Act of Killing premieres on PBS on Monday, October 6th and will also be streaming online from October 7th to October 21st.

Watch The Act of Killing and continue the discussion:

Photo: Steve Evans (c)

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