The Act of Killing is an award winning 2012 documentary film by Dutch director Joshua Oppenheimer. The film does have two other directors, Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian director but Oppenheimer appears to be the driving force behind the film.
The film focuses on the Indonesian genocide that occurred between 1965 and 1966 in which more than 500,000 people were killed. Following overthrow of the first president of Indonesia the incoming government commissioned gangsters to purge to country of communists. These gangsters were notorious, killing thousands of normal impoverished villagers throughout the country. At the time the west turned a blind eye as Indonesia fell in with their anti communist stance.
The production of this film actually began with Oppenheimer and his team following the families of the victims of the killings,but powers higher up got wind of the film and banned Oppenheimer and his team from speaking to the survivors and the families. Instead he was allowed only to speak to the former gangsters who had undertaken the mass murders as the Indonesian government wanted only the winner's tale to be told.
The main focal point of the film then becomes Anwar. An ex gangster, he was a young man back in 1965. The film then reveals that this aging grandfather has actually killed 1000 people.
The film asks the gangsters to recreate their crimes and they accept the task with ease. They are big fans of Hollywood films and relish the chance of playing dress up.
At first they appear not to feel any guilt or have any comprehension of the evil they have done. But things change, the more we get to know Anwar the more we realize he is haunted by his past.
Anwar's actions are unforgivable but the man we see on screen is engaging and likeable putting the audience in an uncomfortable position. The films illustrates the complexity of humans.
It's much easier to hate the other gangsters, we don't follow them as closely and they don't appear to be as troubled as Anwar. They tell stories of the past; about how they burnt down houses and raped women.
The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics when it was released. Many predicted an Oscar win and although it was nominated it lost out to 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about under appreciated backing singers.
The Act of Killing is an immensely important film and one that will stay with you forever. I cannot recommend this film more highly.