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Review: An act of manipulation?

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a bold, disturbing and ultimately unsatisfactory exploration of the place of violence in modern Indonesia

Robert Cribb

Credit: Final Cut for RealCredit: Final Cut for Real

Filmed over several years in the North Sumatra capital, Medan, The Act of Killing is a sprawling work that encompasses three distinct, though related, stories. The core of the film consists of the reminiscences of an elderly gangster who took part in the massacres of Communists in 1965-66. Anwar Congo appears early on in the film as a genial old man, but his subdued charm evaporates as he begins to recount, and then to re-enact, the killings that he carried out. He takes the film crew to the rooftop where he garrotted his victims with wire to avoid making a mess with blood. Using an associate as a stand-in, he demonstrates the technique of slipping a wire noose over the victim’s head and twisting it tight for as long as was needed to bring death. One of Congo’s friends describes killing his girlfriend’s father, while another recalls his rape of 14 year old girls, exulting in the cruelty of the act.

Pleasure in killing

The pleasure that Congo and his friends take in the memory of cruelty makes The Act of Killing a difficult film to watch. Not surprisingly, audiences have viewed it as a courageous revelation of the darkest secrets in Indonesia’s recent past. Yet the film’s depiction of the terrible months from October 1965 to March 1966 is deeply misleading. Although the opening text tells viewers that the killings were carried out under the auspices of the Indonesian army, the military is invisible in the film’s subsequent representation of the massacres.

The killings are presented as the work of civilian criminal psychopaths, not as a campaign of extermination, authorised and encouraged by the rising Suharto group within the Indonesian army and supported by broader social forces frightened by the possibility that the Indonesian communist party might come to power. At a time when a growing body of detailed research on the killings has made clear that the army played a pivotal role in the massacres, The Act of Killing puts back on the agenda the Orientalist notion that Indonesians slaughtered each other with casual self-indulgence because they did not value human life.

Bravado, memory and manipulation

The film makes no attempt to evaluate the truth of Congo’s confessions. Despite persistent indications that he is mentally disturbed, and that he and his friends are boasting for the sake of creating shock, the film presents their claims without critique. There is no reason to doubt that Congo and his friends took part in the violence of 1965-66, and that the experience left deep mental scars, but did they kill as many as they claim? At times they sound like a group of teenage boys trying to outbid each other in tales of bravado.

There is no voice-over in the film. The protagonists seem to speak unprompted and undirected. Towards its end, however, the film portrays an incident which, to my mind, casts doubt on its apparent claim to present an unmediated portrait of the aged killer. Returning to the rooftop scene of the murders, Congo seems to experience remorse. Twice, he vomits discreetly into a convenient trough on the edge of the rooftop, before walking slowly and sadly downstairs. By this time in the film, Oppenheimer has made clear that Congo regarded him as a friend. Did Oppenheimer really just keep the cameras running and maintain his distance while his friend was in distress? Did Congo really think nothing of vomiting in front of the camera, under studio lights, and walking away as if the camera were not there? The incident seems staged.

The sense of manipulation is all the stronger in those scenes that present the second story. Congo and his friends plan a film about their exploits in 1965-66, and The Act of Killing is interspersed with both excerpts from the finished film and scenes of prior discussion and preparation for the filming. Neither the plot nor the structure of this film-within-a-film is ever made clear. Instead we see extracts that are alternately vicious (torture scenes and the burning of a village) and bizarre. A fat gangster called Herman Koto appears repeatedly in drag, sometimes in a tight pink dress, sometimes in a costume recalling an extravagant Brazilian mardi gras. Some scenes resemble the American gangster films that Congo tells us he used to watch; some are more like the modern Indonesian horror-fantasy genre, complete with supernatural beings.

The apparently finished scenes that we see from this film-within-a-film are slick. The cinematography is expert, the costumes and sets are professional. It seems too much to imagine that a retired gangster like Congo or a cross-dressing thug like Koto could have produced something of this quality on his own. Nor did they need to, with a professional film maker like Oppenheimer in house. Yet the film is presented as the work of Congo and his friends. It is hard not to sense a betrayal here. Congo and his associates seem to have been lured into working with Oppenheimer, only to have their bizarre and tasteless fantasies exposed to the world to no real purpose other than ridicule.

The politics of gangsterism

In the third major element in the film, Oppenheimer takes us beyond the confessional and the studio into the sordid world of the Medan underworld. Actually, it is hardly an underworld. Gangsters hold high government office, members of the paramilitary Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth, PP) strut through the streets, a gangster called Safit Pardede openly extorts protection money from Chinese traders in the Medan market, and the nation’s Vice President, Jusuf Kalla, attends a PP convention to congratulate the gangsters on their entrepreneurial spirit. The title of the film-within-a-film, Born Free, deliberately echoes the identity claimed by the PP for itself as preman, or 'free men'.

Oppenheimer films the PP leader, Yapto, as an accomplished capo who can be suave or coarse as required. Another PP leader proudly shows off his collection of expensive European kitsch. ‘Very limited’, he grunts, self-satisfied, as he paws piece after piece. The condescension that Oppenheimer shows to the Indonesian criminal nouveau riche is unfortunate because it trivialises the film’s powerful portrayal of the shamelessness of the Medan gangster establishment and its close connections with political power.

Whatever might be criticised in the rest of the film, anyone interested in modern Indonesia will want to watch the scenes in which Safit Pardede prowls through the Medan market collecting cash from his small-trader victims. Manipulative and misleading The Act of Killing may be; it is nonetheless an extraordinarily powerful film which we should not ignore.

Robert Cribb ( is a professor of Asian history and politics at the Australian National University.


Inside Indonesia 112: Apr-Jun 2013
Article Type: Reviews
Arts: FilmCinema
Society: Gangsters
Timeframe: 1965-66
Human Rights: Human Rights (other)


Tue 24 June 2014 08:42 pm +4
why do you say Congo 'vomits discreetly'? He doesn't. That's the whole point of that scene. Congo wants to show us he's remorseful so fakes a vomit. The director wants to show us he's acting and to reveal something about Congo - that he has a desire to be seen as remorseful. I'm surprised you've used something you didn't see to make a bold claim about the directors manipulation and 'friendship' with Congo.
Paul Cooke

Tue 24 June 2014 08:37 pm +2
Why do you say that Congo 'vomits discretly'? He doesn't vomit at all. That's the whole point of that scene. He's acting out a vomit but it's fake, there is none. He wants to show that he's remorseful. But the director wants to show us he's acting. I'm surprised you've used something you haven't seen to make a bold claim about the directors manipulation.
Paul Cooke

Fri 11 April 2014 05:33 pm -4
This is the best critique I have read of the film to-date.
Wendy Ames

Thu 13 March 2014 06:10 pm -3
I couldn't help but feel that some of the scenes were contrived, especially the end of the film that called for a poignant conclusion out of necessity, I guess, or else the cameras would just roll on into oblivion. But after all the talk of murder, political corruption and countless injustices to God only knows how many people, the whole thing left me empty and hopeless.

Mon 03 March 2014 08:38 pm +19
I thought that Congo's dry heaving was his fake attempt to show remorse and that this is so obviously fake that the film maker left it in to show exactly that.
Sometimes I wonder if the pedantic pseudo-intellec tual movie critics would even have one half the guts that it must have taken to make this film. Just saying.

Mon 17 February 2014 01:06 pm +8
i am from north sumatera, at that time 1965, the pancasila youth group dan islamic side did all the killings of comunist members and chinese, supported by the army. at that the the whole rivers of sumatera full of death bodies,many of them are gang raped, beheaded, from baby to elderly comunist members,include d chinese (symbol of comunist).
kopeng hasibuan

Sun 09 February 2014 05:46 pm +28
"Did Oppenheimer really just keep the cameras running and maintain his distance while his friend was in distress?"

Ridiculous question. For one, there's no indication that Oppenheimer ever considered Congo his "friend". Congo is a mass-murderer, and Oppenheimer was interested in him as a subject. Any sort of "friendship" you see comes from the necessary ability for any filmmaker, or really any storyteller, and especially documentarians, to sympathize with their subjects no matter how terrible they are. He kept the camera running because he is a professional.

Sat 01 February 2014 01:39 pm +14
I don't agree with this review. I'm brazilian, had never heard or read anything about the 65-66 massacres before - actually didn't have any information about Indonesia's recent past at all - and nonetheless it was perfectly clear for my, from the movie, from the very beginning of the movie on; that the killings those premem did were part of a bigger campaign organised and financed by the government and the military. Don't worry, this history is getting to the viewers, rest assured
Fernando M.

Tue 28 January 2014 09:26 am -3
I don't think there is nothing wrong with the review. I saw the doc twice today to try to see if there is manipulation in Anwar's face. I could not see it. From all the director's interviews I scanned on the web, I believe that he had hundred hours of material before he made it in a packed two and half hours story.

It shows how "cheap" lives back then and maybe still is now, how killing seems to be just another normal occupation. How some people can go home without stress after their long working day and some other are really haunted by what they have done. There should not be any manipulations with that I would say.
The truth is a perception of the beholders. It will never come out, it always lies in between. Adi's comment struck me most in the interview in the car when he stated that reopening this case is a provocation to fight, and he also claimed that he is ready for the war when the world wants continuous war. But who is the world?
Erwin Praatmans

Tue 12 November 2013 03:58 pm +26
From the third paragraph of the piece:
"The killings are presented as the work of civilian criminal psychopaths, not as a campaign of extermination, authorised and encouraged by the rising Suharto group within the Indonesian army..."

From the second-to-last paragraph of the piece:
"...the film’s powerful portrayal of the shamelessness of the Medan gangster establishment and its close connections with political power."

So.....which is it?
John Leppanen

Thu 29 August 2013 02:35 pm -1
Jaap and Daniel McGuire: With all due respect, I don't think Robert Cribb's review should be dismissed as "petty academic jealousy" or "typical uninformed critique by an academic". Cribb has been writing and researching about the Indonesian massacres at least since 1990 and is a major contributor to the small literature about this subject. I wouldn't be surprised if Oppenheimer got his part of knowledge of the historical background by reading Cribb's work.

I think the review is fair and it never scaled down the enormity of the tragedy. He merely questioned the methods Oppenheimer used to draw out his subjects' memories and share them. Was there some form of misrepresentati on to elicit this unabashed glee in re-enacting their killings? Are these killers representative? These surely are valid questions. There was great variation in the way the massacres played out in different regions of Indonesia and it wouldn't be right to take Oppenheimer's account as defintive.
Faizah Zakaria

Tue 13 August 2013 07:54 am -12
Yes. I agree with Vanessa. The review by Cribb is very much needed to balanced the unfair depiction of the mass killings. The very much criticised theory of psychopath as the root cause of mass killing as in the study of terrorism, is misleading. It inadvertently or deliberately obscures the role of the real mastermind of the killings. In addition to the parties mentioned by Cribb, however, one should not overlook the campaigns by the Communist Party and its supporters from 1960-1965 which earned them a lot of enemy.
Zifirdaus Adnan

Mon 12 August 2013 10:46 pm +22
@ Andrew.
This is not a film about America, nor is it a "troublingly condescending dynamic between Western audiences and his Indonesian subjects." Whose "subjects" - Suharto's?

Get off your high horse and consider that Indonesians have been brainwashed and that a whole generation was forced to watch 'Pengkhianatan G 30 S-PKI' ( on TV every Sept. 30th, and also in schools, from 1984 - an apt year? - until Suharto's 'abdication' in '98.

Yes, we know that the USA, the UK and Australia provided names of suspected 'communists: creche workers, farmers, writers, artists et al. But the pogrom was also about neighbours settling scores - by the score, or more.

Letting Indonesian know about the lies of preceding generations offers hope for their future - theirs, not yours.

My review:
Terry Collins

Mon 12 August 2013 07:10 pm +27
No, manipulation would be to make a film suggesting that the mass killings did not take place at all - or on a smaller scale. Of course, Joshua's film is imperfect: it's an anecdotal account of what happened. Yet given that this topic is as taboo as porn is in Saudi Arabia, to get first hand accounts of the tragedy is a remarkable achievement in itself.
tempo dulu

Mon 12 August 2013 01:28 am -4
Thanks for this. I've had similar concerns. An important film, but as a proxy, the filmmaker sets up a troublingly condescending dynamic between Western audiences and his Indonesian subjects. It felt a little too comfortable sitting in an audience in New York gawking in disbelief at the Indonesians utter lack of self-consciousn ess about the killings, knowing at the same time that Americans have done little work to recognize the mere existence of this mass murder of historic proportions, much less to acknowledge the US's direct role in supporting the regime that carried it out and the economic incentives that kept that regime in place. I respect Oppenheimer's efforts to tell an important story under difficult circumstances, but I wish he were more transparent with his subjects and with his audience about his role. Still, it's a film that needs to be reckoned with.

Sun 11 August 2013 10:32 pm +20
Bad review. Completely misses the point.
John Hayes

Mon 22 July 2013 05:59 am -23
There is ample evidence in The Act of Killing that Anwar Congo and his murderous companions suffer from the emotional and cognitive disorder called psychopathy, which as far as psychiatric science can tell appears to be a hereditary disorder. Please do not watch this film and believe that these are ordinary men. The evidence in frame after frame points to the fact that these killers are psychopaths - particularly the final scene. I have studied psychoanalysis and have written a book on dangerous personality disorders. Oppenheimer's incredible film is the clearest evidence I have seen that psychopaths are the root cause of mass killings - not just in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 - but the world over. It's greatest value would be that it would waken us up to that fact.
Ian Hughes

Mon 22 July 2013 01:52 am +24
"The condescension that Oppenheimer shows to the Indonesian criminal nouveau riche is unfortunate because it trivializes the film’s powerful portrayal of the shamelessness of the Medan gangster...." Really? The condescension that Oppenheimer shows? And it trivializes it? C'mon. Maybe you could discuss how he emits the notoriously vague essence of condescension without ever showing himself on camera, and limiting himself to a few soft spoken questions? Or maybe, you could imagine working on a film about mass murderers for 7 years, and then try to imagine how you would act in their company. "The Act of Killing puts back on the agenda the Orientalist notion that Indonesians slaughtered each other with casual self-indulgence because they did not value human life" What? I am interested how you came to that conclusion? It is quite a leap go from a closed study of a small group of horrible criminals, and infer that the film is trying to make a point about a country of 240 million.

Sun 21 July 2013 11:08 pm -25
Gratified to see another critique in sync with my own. I was the first to pan this movie on Rotten Tomatoes.
Louis N. Proyect

Fri 21 June 2013 07:53 pm -14
"We don't distribute the short version in Indonesia because it's a product made for 'sastra wangi/perfumed literature' market, while the longer one is 'sastra perjuangan/figh ting literature' audience. But both are good.'" Yeah and it seems the director and his co-director really enjoy it having their doco praised highly by perfumed critics in the perfumed Western market who care more for "art" than for fighting documentaries.

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