Movie Review: The Act of Killing


In 1965, the communist Indonesian government was overthrown by the military. The United States provided weapons and covert training to make this happen. Para-military groups called ‘death squads’ acted as modern-day gangsters, arresting and killing thousands of communists and Chinese.

This film returns to the scenes where these arrests and executions took place with the men who carried them out. Anwar Congo is not only the film’s tour guide but he was a former death-squad leader. He not only takes us to the places but reenacts many of the scenes with a chilling bravado that will make you question if humanity really has learned anything in the past 2000 years.

It’s not just the brutality of the murders, it is the way Anwar and his colleagues tell the story. They are proud of what they did. Still proud. They are so adamant to tell the whole story in as much detail as possible, they start recreating scenes with actors, costumes, and special effects. It is as if you’ve been given a backstage pass to a person’s personal delusion of reality.

Anwar and his friends speak of the evil of communism and the Chinese as an ideology but offer no real stories of what was so inhumane about their rule. We get to see this hate get fleshed out as they extort small Chinese business owners on camera in the markets. A newspaper editor happily recalls selling out communists to the death squads, bragging that he was the final determination of life or death for these people. The hubris is shocking.

There is plenty of documentation of what the death squads did but there is little to no mention of the history that led up to the coup of 1965. Was all this action in reaction to the corruption and atrocities done by communists? It’s as if these death squads suddenly appeared and started killing people in response to the coup. The film hints at a very disturbing reality. That these ‘gangs’ were already in force and were just looking for a cause, an excuse to carry out the act of killing.

The final 15 minutes of the film finally show a chink in the armor of Anwar. He reveals that he is ‘haunted’ by those he killed. Almost every night, their faces return to him in his dreams, terrifying him. His ‘friends’ do not share the experience. They convince him to get help from a doctor, be stronger, push it aside. We are never given resolution to his demons. This is to be expected as there probably will be no resolution for Anwar.

It’s an award-winning documentary and rightfully so. It showed how fragile life is, how little value humanity has in certain circles.


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