The Act of Killing: A Review

The Act of Killing is a haunting and disturbing movie about the 1965 killings in Indonesia as imagined today by several of the perpetrators. It is one of the most memorable films I have ever seen and it deserves the many, many accolades that it has earned. It is hard not to watch the film and think of the banality of evil, or indeed, of the triumph of evil. If you are reading this and you haven’t seen it yet, you must.

The film centers on a man known as Anwar Congo and his friends and associates (Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, Safit Pardede, and some others), mid-level gangsters in the North Sumatran city of Medan. During the 1965-66 Indonesian massacres, these men were some of the thousands of gangsters and thugs mobilized by the Indonesian military to root out and execute communists and leftists. The film follows these men as they describe their actions, and then as they organize and (incredibly) star in their own film about the massacres, playing the roles of both the killers (that is, themselves) and of their victims. Told entirely in Indonesian, with no narration and only periodic off-camera questions from the filmmaker, the result is—in the words of the filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, an “imagination of a regime of terror today”.

The results are raw and intense. The real tears shed by children forced to participate in scenes depicting mass murder. The horrible Safit Pardede bragging about rape as “hell for her, heaven on earth for me.” In one scene, a man named Suryono recounts how his own stepfather was murdered and left under a barrel, to be found and buried in a shallow grave by Suryono (11 years old at the time). Suryono insists that he raises this not to criticize the gangsters, but for the purpose of relating the full story. Immediately following that scene, we see Suryono and the rest acting out a scene of interrogation and murder, with Suryono playing his own stepfather, begging for one last chance to speak with his family, and with the actual killers playing the role of Suryono’s stepfather’s killers. The look on Suryono’s face as they deny his request and then silently garrote him has to be among the most chilling moments of modern documentary cinema.[*] For their part, Anwar and his group decide that the scene doesn’t need to be part of the film.

I read many reviews of the film before seeing it, and was particularly struck by the critical ones, especially the review entitled “The Act of Manipulation” by Robert Cribb, whom I greatly respect. One problem for scholars of Indonesia is that the movie is only a snapshot of a big event, and necessarily incomplete. It inevitably brings up old debates about the origins of the New Order, the “threat” posed by the PKI, the organization of violence in divided societies, and the culpability of the New Order’s foreign allies in the extermination of the Indonesian left. I think it better to keep this film, a piece of art, separate from the continuing endeavor to answer these questions. No one who has spent any time thinking about the violence will learn anything s/he didn’t already know, and if you don’t know much about the violence here is not the place to learn the basic facts.[**] The violence of 1965-66 was horrific, it was wrong, and it was carried out by real people who are alive and in positions of power today. The Act of Killing is not an exposé, or an evaluation, it is (to repeat) a portrait of how we imagine a regime of terror today.

My reaction to the film is shaped by what I like to call Hoesterey’s Rules for Film Criticism.[***]

Hoesterey’s Rules

  1. Everything you see in a film was included on purpose, for a reason.
  2. Except for the filmmaker’s unconscious choices, made without deliberation or consideration of meaning or implication, and which are just as revealing.

As I thought through these rules in the context of the Act of Killing, three points emerge. First is the impossibility of recreating the events without taking into consideration what has followed. Second is that translations are at times problematic. Third is on the ordinariness of mass violence.

Recreating 1965

The film confirms a point that has always complicated the historiography of the killings: there is no way to go back to the events to experience how they happened. The film’s central conceit is that reenacting the events as a film will help to transport the killers back in time, and that we can watch them reflect on their experiences. But it demonstrates to me at least just how impossible that is, because the perpetrators cannot forget the 50 years of history that has intervened. They couldn’t recreate 1965 even if they wanted to.

This problem is everywhere. Early on, Anwar says that he was inspired by gangster films, such as those by Al Pacino, which is impossible. He also forgets, when reenacting an interrogation, that the PKI was not illegal when the killings took place. (It was, in fact, the largest and best organized political party in Indonesia.) What seems to be happening here is that Anwar later watched Al Pacino movies, and has since then fantasized that his actions in 1965 were akin to those of a Hollywood tough guy. I doubt that Anwar realizes this himself.

This problem does come up explicitly, which makes for a powerful scene. Anwar, Adi, and the others discuss the problems of making the film as having implications for what Adi calls the “evaluation of a history” (penilaian satu sejarah). We see that the participants are perfectly aware that they live in a society that has agreed upon one set of narratives in describing the killings, and that their project would upset that. It’s powerful. But it necessarily complicates the idea that we can recreate the killings as “the perpetrators remember that they happened.” What we see, instead, are the killings as imagined by the perpetrators and conditioned by 50 years of history.[****]


This point might seem unfair, but it’s just a fact of life that translations are hard and that meanings are lost. When Anwar Congo is describing a place with ghosts, for example, we see a meaningful addition:

Movie dialogue: Mungkin ya banyak hantunya karena di sini ‘tu banyak manusia yang…yang ‘dihabisi’ [interruption/correction] yang mati dan tidak wajar
Subtitle: There are many ghosts here, because many people were killed here. [interruption/correction] Unnatural deaths.
Translation: Maybe y’know there are many ghosts here because there are many people here who…who were ‘ended.’ [interruption/correction] Who died unnatural deaths.

The actual dialogue shows that Anwar Congo is in a conversation about ghosts, and he is responding to some prompt or question which we do not see: are there ghosts here? why are there ghosts here? It’s also instructive that he does not use the word “killed.” He visibly searches for a good figure of speech until one is provided for him. It turns out that throughout much of the film, Anwar uses various forms of habis (end, or perhaps more accurately in this context, exterminate) rather than bunuh (kill): Sepertinya menghabisin dengan gembira = “It was like we exterminated them with glee.” There are other figures of speech that pop up throughout the film too, including mengerjakan (= to work on) instead of beat, torture, interrogate, and—most memorably by Adi—stab.

A bit later, during a mock interrogation, with Anwar playing the role of interrogator:

Movie dialogue: Rasakan rokok ini yang anda sebutkan dengan neo-kolonialisme. An-anda rasakan rasanya.
Subtitle: Try this ‘neocolonialist’ cigar. Have a puff.
Translation: Try this cigar that you refer to with ‘neo-colonialism.’ Y-you see how it tastes / feel how it feels.

The subtitles just miss the point. Anwar pointedly notes directly what his victim (a presumed communist) calls these foreign cigars: neo-colonial cigars. Then, perhaps unwittingly, he plays on the dual meaning of rasa (taste, feeling, sensation) by demanding that his victim both “taste the taste” of the cigar and “feel how it feels” to be smoking a neo-colonial cigar, to be the type of person who can smoke those foreign cigars.

Later, during a interview on a local TV news program, with an interviewer who discusses Anwar’s efficient (efisien) and humane (manusiawi) methods of murdering people the same way that a local TV anchor might discuss a new hair care product:

Movie dialogue: Setelah semua terkumpul data dari dia [unclear] ini manusia yang tidak bisa diselamatkan, itu harus kita laksanakan.
Subtitle: And after we interrogated them, and decided that they shouldn’t be alive, we had to kill them.
Translation: After all the data had been gathered from them [unclear] these are people who cannot be saved, it had to be carried out by us.

Now, it’s probably a distraction to focus on Anwar’s use of passive voice, because Indonesian uses the passive voice much more frequently than English. Note instead: “gathered data from” instead of “interrogated.” “Cannot be saved” instead of “shouldn’t be alive.” A close translation reveals a lot more about how Anwar imagines his role in the killing than do the subtitles. And finally, a quick one from the same interview, when Anwar explains why the families of those killed haven’t taken revenge against him:

Movie dialogue: Belum ada kesempatan mereka.
Subtitle: They can’t.
Translation: They haven’t (yet) had a chance.[*****]

More accurate subtitles probably wouldn’t change the overall meaning of the film. But they would help to illuminate key scenes, key ideas, and key problems in the events as imagined today.

Ordinariness of Evil

Almost every review of The Act of Killing comments on the banality of evil. Mine is no different. However, like Cribb, I also had the impression from early on that Anwar is mentally disturbed, not just a character, or someone who was particularly open about recounting his own involvement in truly horrific crimes. In the course of the film, Adi even raises the issue directly with Anwar, but distinguishes between a nerve condition (gangguan saraf) and being crazy (gila)—the former not warranting any shame or embarrassment.

We miss something if we assume that Anwar is perfectly ordinary. I don’t think it’s self-evident that he is. None of them are, and seeing Safit Pardede’s boozy eye droop and slurred speech (an Indonesian street tough staple) just reinforces that these killers are not ordinary people. So I am not willing to conclude from these individual stories that evil is banal, or that it is ordinary. Of course, it could be that these were once ordinary people who were irreparably damaged by their actions half a century ago. But we’ll never know that for sure.

That is, until we consider the killer Adi. Here is a man portrayed as well-groomed, confident, prosperous (he arrives on a jet plane), and comfortable with his own role in the killings. That pathetic, broken men such as Anwar and Herman have committed atrocities does not disturb me. The same for monsters like Safit Pardede and Yapto Soerjosoemarno. That there are Adis running around, in Indonesia or anywhere else, truly does.


[*] To my mind, rivaled only by Werner Herzog as he listens to Timothy Treadwell’s final moments in Grizzly Man.

[**] I would recommend three books to learn about the historical and political context of the killings: John Roosa’s Pretext for Mass Murder, Bradley Simpson’s Economists with Guns, and Robert Cribb’s edited collection The Indonesian Killings of 1965-66. If you want to learn about thugs and gangsters and Pancasila today, just Google (or Google Scholar) Pancasila Youth.

[***] Hoesterey’s Rules are named after my friend Jim Hoesterey, whose course on Indonesian film JMP and I audited in summer 2004 at the University of Wisconsin. Jim never directly stated rule 2, but both JMP and I remember him describing rule 1 as we discussed Dead Birds.

[****] This theme of the “construction of history” looms large in the work of another friend of mine, Yosef Djakababa. You should also read Yosef’s review of The Act of Killing.

[*****] I put “yet” in parentheses because the translation is ambiguous. Belum mean “not yet”, but it does not entail that something will happen, only that it might.

Comments 12

  1. Parker Borg (Cornell SEA Program 1964-65) August 15, 2013

    Enjoyed your thoughtful review of this very powerful film, but was surprised you made no mention of the current/recent Indonesian officials (sub-ministers from I believe the youth ministry), who appeared on screen and commented favorably on the role of Pemuda Panjasila. If this happened, it for me was the most disturbing aspect of the film and makes me wonder about the direction of Indonesian “democracy.”

  2. Matt Winters August 15, 2013

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts here, Tom — haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet.

    Your point on extrapolating from a single individual to make the conclusion that “all people” are capable of this is particularly well taken. I feel like I have been walking away from the other reviews of the film thinking that it shows how “anyone” can do terrible things, but you rightly suggest that the “anyperson” in this film isn’t necessarily the modal person in the population.

  3. Tom August 15, 2013

    Parker: thanks for reading and commenting. I think it says more about me than about the film: for better or for worse I am not surprised to see Jusuf Kalla addressed a Pemuda Pancasila audience, or to have the sports minister (I think) comment favorably. I’ve read and seen too much about this (and other similar phenomena) for it to really grab me in the context of this specific film.

    Doesn’t mean that it’s not disturbing, of course.

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  5. Christian Holland (@CRHolland) August 22, 2013

    Tom, I think your interpretation of the film as art is apt, but I also think it can serve some purpose in answering serious questions about Indonesia’s history (and the interpretation of history – where the film seems to stand in a class by itself). Though it may be better to keep the film separate from certain historic debates, can it at least serve to keep those debates going? Could the film help the perpetrators reconsider the agreed-upon set of narratives that describe their mass murders? I’m curious whether the killings are so “ordinary” at this point that the historiographical exercise that took place during the making of the film would have any effect on the people telling the stories of killing. (I haven’t seen it yet.)

    On the other hand, what does watching the killers reflect on their experiences do for us or for the killers’ fellow Indonesians? (Perhaps some are survivors?)

    I want to appreciate the film as an attempt to expose the constructions of historical narrative creation and preservation. For non-Indonesians, it may not add up to much more than a harrowing and disturbing experience, but for Indonesians too young to remember 1965, the film could make them question everything.

  6. tompepinsky August 23, 2013

    Fantastic comment, Christian. Let me push back a little bit, though, on whether this film can play the historiographic role that we hope it can.

    Insofar as the film can lead people to “question everything,” I’m right there with you. But I maintain that we should not view this as a more authentic version of history than the accepted narrative.

    There are at least two reasons why we must to be circumspect in viewing The Act of Killing as a “better” window into history. These points, I think, are the essence of the more critical reviews by Robert Cribb and Yosef Djakababa, both deeply immersed in the historiography of the killings and the origins of the New Order regime.

    The first of these is best expressed by Benedict Anderson in a beautiful essay that you can find here. The killings in Medan were not emblematic of the killings around the country, especially in East Java and Bali. Pemuda Pancasila, moreover, is not the national force today you might suspect that it is from just viewing the film. Writes Anderson, “They had been professional criminals all their adult lives, and if some of the leaders had political ambitions these were essentially local or provincial, aiming no higher than the governorship of North Sumatra, and far removed from Jakarta.”

    The second was addressed to me “offline” by several colleagues who were in Indonesia right before 1965. The fact is that this was a hairy time in Indonesian political history. We in the West don’t hear much about Pemuda Rakyat today but it definitely existed too, and we must imagine an alternative history in which Pemuda Rakyat became associated with the violence and criminality if the PKI had managed to capture power. And, it is absolutely clear that the PKI had the same national ambitions that the rightist generals did. That’s why it’s so important, to me, that we get the translations right: Anwar Congo’s words reveal that this was a real battle of ideas in which the future of the entire country was in question. The film does not highlight that, because it is not designed to do so.

    I don’t know Joshua Oppenheimer but I suspect, given his interview in Inside Indonesia, that he recognizes all of this. So I welcome the perspective that the film may be used to question history, but it does not provide the true, unvarnished, or unbiased alternative.

    • Christian Holland (@CRHolland) August 23, 2013

      Perhaps the film’s impact – as an experiment in first-person storytelling – relies partly on its self-awareness as flawed documentation? While it’s an even less authentic version of history than the broadly accepted narratives of Indonesian society, we, the viewers, are explicitly informed that the film’s protagonists are not unreliable sources – they are more players than sources. We therefore get to see where history and memory play off one another and even melt together. It’s complicated and messy, but shocking. It’s as if it’s a therapy session. Art therapy.

      In any case, I’ll be reading Cribb and Djakababa before I try to draw any more conclusions.

      By the way, I think your points about the translations are an indispensable part of the film’s critical reception. There is this concept in journalism, which you may have heard of, called narrative bias. Reporters and documentarians simply seek stories and events with a beginning, middle, and end, and nuance is the first casualty. The flawed subtitles reveal a bias towards advancing a simplified and somewhat dramatized version of the story Anwar tells and adulterate the reflections by the killers that the film seeks to present.

  7. Richardson H. Kilis (@rhkilis) August 26, 2013

    There are several reviews on Quora on The Act of Killing which may be worth reading to get a general sense of how Indonesians (and non-Indonesians) are perceiving the film. Given that the Quora community is primarily comprised of young professionals, they are not likely to have been exposed to the various narratives of the killings.

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