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Film / The Act of Killing

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"Imagine, in all this darkness, it's like we're living at the end of the world. We look around, there's only darkness. It's so very terrifying."
Anwar Congo

The Act of Killing (Indonesian: Jagal, "Butcher") is a 2012 documentary directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.

When the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, Anwar Congo and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals in less than a year. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.

Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to acts of genocide.


Anwar and his friends claimed to have been inspired by the violent American films they watched growing up, and so the filmmakers challenged Anwar and his friends to develop fiction scenes about their experience of the killings, adapted to their favorite genres – gangster, western, musical. They write the scripts. They play themselves. And they play their victims.

The documentary and its companion piece The Look of Silence can be viewed on YouTube, albeit in unsubtitled Indonesian.note 


This film provides examples of:

  • Acceptable Targets: invoked The killers consider communists to be this.
  • Affably Evil: If you didn't know what he did, you'd think of Anwar as a Cool Old Guy with some eccentric habits. Critics compared this to Hannah Arendt's concept of the Banality of Evil.
    • Off-screen, the killers developed a cordial relationship with the crew over the course of several years, and kept in touch with them after the movie came out. One of the younger paramilitary leaders depicted, Herman Koto, even organised a screening in the city of Medan.
  • Arc Words: A few.
    • "The word Gangsternote  comes from Free Men."
    • "This is history."
    • "Exterminate them down to the roots!"
  • Bad Dreams: Anwar has recurring nightmares about the killings he committed.
  • Black Comedy Rape: For the militia and only for them. One of the groups targeted during the killing was Gerwani (Gerakan Wanita Indonesia, Indonesian Women's Movement), a left-leaning feminist group with some communist ties. When the Pancasila Youth members show up to help the death squad vets with their film shoot, they joke about taking advantage of tied-up Gerwani activists and remark that "the 14-15 years old ones are the best".
  • Corrupt Politician: According to Herman, all of them. Many government higher-ups are associated with the paramilitary group Pancasila Youth, and Indonesia's vice president openly praises gangsters at one of their rallies.
    • A provincial MP talks plainly about the variety of illegal businesses and he and his paramilitary allies are involved in.
  • Crapsack World: Indonesia is portrayed as one. Oppenheimer has stated in interviews that while this was not his intention (and the country has indeed undergone significant reforms in the past couple of decades), the right-wing paramilitary and criminal outfits brought into power by the New Order kleptocracy are still deeply rooted within the society, and the whitewashing of their past crimes is a very real problem.
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: The attitude of the gangsters is summed up as "Relax and Rolex."
  • Eviler Than Thou: Discussed at one point. In 1984, the New Order government released the propaganda film Pengkhianatan G-30S/PKI, which shows communist rebels kidnapping members of the Army staff and gruesomely torturing them to death. When Oppenheimer asks two death squad members about their opinion of the film, they reply that they find its depiction of ritual torture unrealistic, as they personally preferred to hack through their victims dozens at a time without much fanfare.
  • Evil Is Not a Toy: When the military government hired gangsters to do their dirty work, they probably were not expecting that the gangsters would end up becoming part of the government. Possibly subverted in that while members of the paramilitary networks did end up in high positions, their organisations remain under military and police control to this day.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Anwar and his crew started out as street thugs making quick bucks by scalping movie tickets in Medan. He ended up a fairly well-off local hero with a multitude of high-level political and business ties through the simple act of torturing and butchering thousands of suspected communists, the vast majority of them likely innocent.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Oppenheimer can be heard interviewing the subjects in lightly-accented Indonesian in some scenes, but he's never actually in the frame.
  • Ironic Echo: The very end of the film has Anwar return to a rooftop seen near the beginning. The first time, he happily described the method by which he executed prisoners in that very spot. The second time, he breaks down and starts gagging.
  • Lack of Empathy: Adi in general. Anwar starts as this, but slowly realizes the enormity of what he's done throughout the film.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: At the end of the film, Anwar watches footage filmed earlier in which he plays one of his own victims during an interrogation and execution. He then asks, "Did the people I tortured feel what I felt? Have I sinned?" When Oppenheimer tells him that his victims actually felt worse, the look on his face says it all.
  • Neighborhood Friendly Gangsters: Deconstructed when the cameras follow a Pemuda Pancasila leader on a shakedown. While the gangs and paramilitary organizations try to present themselves as this, everyone knows exactly what they really are, and are terrified of them.
  • No OSHA Compliance: Some of the killers' torture re-enactments are a bit too realistic for comfort. The big outdoor shoot at the plantation towards the end of the movie is also filmed without safety precautions, and clearly traumatises some of the extras.
  • State Sec: The Pemuda Pancasila paramilitary group is one part this, one part organized crime, and one part Right-Wing Militia Fanatic. In fact, right-wing paramilitary groups (of both secular nationalist and religious varieties) became the military's main instrument of terror during the killings, and many of them retain high-level political and military ties well after the Reformation. Their lingering presence across Indonesia was one of the reasons for the clandestine nature of the movie's production process.
  • Retired Monster: Anwar and his fellow death squad leaders.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Towards the end of the movie, Anwar starts to realize just how heinous the actions he committed truly were.
  • Villain Protagonist: Anwar, although he doesn't see it that way.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: The gangsters are officially treated as heroes, at one point even appearing on a talk show celebrating their actions. The producers of said talk show are shown to be disgusted with what they're being made to air.
  • Written by the Winners: Repeatedly discussed, largely by Adi. On a meta level, the film itself is an attempt to deconstruct this.


Example of: