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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:

  • Above Good and Evil: Adi seems to think of himself this way, arguing that there's no real "right" or "wrong" since history is Written by the Victors, and he thinks of himself as a victor.
    Adi: The Geneva Conventions may be today's morality, but tomorrow, we'll have the Jakarta Conventions and dump the Geneva Conventions. 'War crimes' are defined by the winners. I'm a winner, so I can make my own definition.
  • 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.
  • A Nazi by Any Other Name: While they don't describe themselves as such, the Pancasila Youth are fascists in all but name. Beyond being boorish and violent extremists, they're bigoted towards women and ethnic minorities like the Chinese Indonesians. It's doubly ironic that they're named after Sukarno's "Pancasila" philosophy, given that he was a left-wing nationalist and a steadfast ally of the communists.
  • Arc Symbol: The dilapidated fish statue seen in the page image, which is used as something of a visual refrain throughout the film.
  • Arc Words: A few.
    • "The word Gangsternote  comes from Free Men."
    • "This is history."
    • "Exterminate them down to the roots!"
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: The Pancasila Youth are deeply involved in almost all the organized crime in Indonesia.
  • 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".
  • Black Shirt: The Pancasila Youth militia movement, the organization behind most of the killings. They were formed in 1959 and hold significant power to this day, numbering 3 to 9 million strong.
  • Butt-Monkey: The other Pancasila guys constantly make fun of Herman for his weight, and trick him into running a fraudulent election campaign as a joke. Anwar talks down to him too, telling him he's not a "real artist" while filming their movie.
  • Chewing the Scenery: Herman tends to ham it up whenever he's in front of the camera, especially when he's tormenting Anwar's character.
  • 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.
  • Critical Research Failure: In-universe, Adi seems to think that psychiatrists prescribe people "nerve vitamins".
  • Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangster!: The attitude of the gangsters is summed up as "Relax and Rolex".
  • Democracy Is Bad: Pancasila commander Yapto opines about this when Joshua interviews him.
    Yapto: We have too much democracy. It's chaos. What is this 'democracy?' Things were better under the military dictatorship. Better economy. More security.
  • Dies Wide Open: Anwar recounts being haunted by nightmares about the wide, staring eyes of a man he decapitated.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Anwar fondly recalls executing some of his victims by placing a table leg over their neck and then having all his men sit on top of the table, joyously singing showtunes as their weight slowly forces the table leg down through the victim's throat.
  • Dirty Old Man: A particularly ghastly instance of this is seen with the gangsters who fondly recollect raping Gerwani members (many of whom were teenagers) during the genocide.
  • Drone of Dread: The only non-diegetic music in the film is a faint, eerie drone that plays over some of the more intense and surreal sequences.
  • Establishing Character Moment: A bizarre and unintentional example. As he's first seen getting off the plane, Adi Zulkadry is seen wearing a shirt showing the literal dictionary definition of "Apathetic". Later on, Adi is shown to be fully aware of the moral ramifications of his actions, but indifferent to them. Oppenheimer opines in the DVD commentary that it's one of the many details in the film that's too bizarre to be fictional.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Anwar and Herman both have children and grandchildren that they dote on.
  • Evil Is Petty: Even among the other genocidaires, Ibrahim Sinik comes across as intensely petty and vain, insulting the other death squad members as soon as they're out of earshot and attempting to claim credit for all the killings himself.
  • 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.
  • The Fashionista: Anwar is a snappy dresser, and repeatedly shown to be quite vain.
  • Fat Bastard: Herman Koto is a portly paramilitary officer. There's also Corrupt Politician Syamsul Arifin, whom Anwar describes as "ball shaped".
  • Fat Idiot: Herman is not shown to be very smart, and basically serves as the film's Plucky Comic Relief.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Safit Pardede smiles genially as he extorts Chinese shopkeepers under the threat of violence. The other death squad members comes across as genuinely Affably Evil, at least around Oppenheimer.
  • 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.
  • Harmful to Minors: Indonesian schoolchildren are made to watch gory propaganda films about communists torturing people to death to traumatize them into supporting the purges.
  • 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.
  • Heel Realization: The entire film is the process of getting Anwar to have one of these. Subverted with Adi, who had his a long time ago, but is completely unbothered by it.
  • 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.
  • Leave the Camera Running: There are many silent, lingering shots of scenery and people's faces.
  • Mathematician's Answer: When Oppenheimer asks Pancasila commander Yapto Soerjosoemarno about the genocide.
    Joshua: How did Pancasila Youth exterminate the communists?
    Yapto: We killed them all.
  • 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.
  • Never My Fault: A recurring theme is the killers' constant attempts to deflect responsibility for their actions. After he reenacts mutilating and killing a little girl in front of her mother, Anwar, in character, tries to argue that the mother is the "real barbarian" for offering her child to him to begin with, justifying his Disproportionate Retribution.
  • 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.
  • Only Sane Man: Adi is the only death squad member who sees through the propaganda and realizes that what he did was evil. He doesn't care.
  • Past Experience Nightmare: Anwar has recurring nightmares about the killings he committed.
  • Pet the Dog: Anwar is seen scolding his grandsons for injuring a duckling and instructing them how to take care of it at one point.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: The Pancasila members are all quite racist and sexist, particularly against Chinese people. Safit specifically goes out of his way to intimidate and extort Chinese shopkeepers because he knows they're more vulnerable, and Anwar reminisces on how he and his comrades would shake down Chinese people for all their money and kill them if they refused to pay up. They also make frequent misogynistic comments and even fantasize about raping teenage girls. Safit and Ibrahim even make fun of Anwar for looking African at one point.
  • Propaganda Machine: As head of the local newspaper, Ibrahim Sinik's sole job was to make people hate communists as much as possible. He also admits to presiding over interrogations where he knowingly twisted answers to send innocent people to their deaths.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The filmmakers reenact a village massacre using real villagers and Pancasila Youth members at one point. It gets uncomfortably real before Anwar tells them to stop. Before the cameras start rolling, Safit is actually seen fantasizing about raping every woman he comes across, particularly relishing the thought of raping a 14 year old.
  • Red and Black and Evil All Over: Almost. The Pancasila Youth's fatigues are colored black and bright orange, clearly intended to emulate tiger stripes.
  • Refuge in Audacity: A meta example. Oppenheimer and his crew initially approached the aging death squad members with caution, but after they started landing interviews with several high-ranking government officials with right-wing paramilitary ties, the hitmen mistook it as an endorsement from their "bosses" and started to cheerfully open up about their past crimes in loving details. Now that the movie is out, the ruse is up, and Oppenheimer has mentioned in interviews that bringing a spotlight onto a group of mass murderers with such extensive criminal ties means that he probably won't be able to return to Indonesia safely for a long time. Most of the local crewmembers are uncredited for the same reason.
  • Retired Monster: Anwar and his fellow death squad leaders.
  • Right-Wing Militia Fanatic: The Pancasila Youth are a massive and powerful fascist paramilitary organization. In their heyday they were a full on State Sec, but the reforms have somewhat reduced their power to merely being this.
  • The Sociopath: Adi is fully aware that what he did was pure evil, he just doesn't care.
  • 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.
  • Torture Technician: Execution technician at least. Realizing how inefficient it was to simply beat each of his victims to death, Anwar devised a system where people would be brought into an execution chamber, tied to a pipe, and then strangled to death with a wire noose before being dragged out in a sack like they're on an assembly line. He admits to killing hundreds of people this way.
  • 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.
  • Villains Out Shopping: Half the film is Anwar and his friends doing mundane things like going to the dentist and playing with their children.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Herman Koto can hardly be described as a "wholesome" man, but an inordinate number of the gang members' scenes require him to dress up as a woman.
  • Would Hurt a Child: One of the scenes the gang reenacts is a woman offering her daughter to Anwar in exchange for her life, only for Anwar to be offended and mutilate the child in response. While the "woman" is Herman and the "child" is just a stuffed doll, Anwar acts it with intensity that could only come from experience.
  • Written by the Winners: Repeatedly discussed, largely by Adi. On a meta level, the film itself is an attempt to deconstruct this.