The Act of Killing: in praise of difficult documentaries

Joshua Oppenheimer’s film about Indonesia’s ageing torturers finds a novel way to leave moral judgements in the hands of the audience.

Joel Cohen

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After any period of clear political or moral purpose, the arts are often used to lament or reflect on the actions we no longer consider legitimate. So it was after the First and Second World Wars, after colonialism and the war on terror; so it is in The Act of Killing, a documentary that recalls Indonesia’s own twentieth-century tragedy: the execution of alleged communists following the country’s military takeover in 1965.

Supported by executive producers – and documentary legends – Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, approaches the guilty benefactors, politicians and paramilitary leaders of authoritarian rule in Indonesia with the kind of masterful honesty that is turning the feature-length documentary into a revered and sophisticated form of moral engagement.

There are several reasons to applaud The Act of Killing. First, its portrayal of unapologetic wrongdoers avoids the preachy pitfalls of naming evil just to shame it. By accepting a victor’s version of events, the film succeeds in bringing humanity (and even humour) to its subjects, who parade their transgressions by daring to justify themselves: ‘the word gangster has its roots in the positive idea of free men’, boast former executioners, paramilitary leaders and senior politicians clad in uniformly bright orange camouflage. In their country, there is clearly little they have to hide from, but on film, the absence of criticism for the confessions of killers invites the audience to pass judgement maturely and without self-righteousness.

The second reason to love this film is that it is typical of a new breed of difficult documentaries. As in other examples – The Ambassador being a notable forerunner – the viewer is shielded from discomfort with brutal subject matter by the construction of more palatable fictions within the facts. In The Act of Killing, an amiable protagonist – former death merchant Anwar Congo – creates a film within a film in which he re-enacts the interrogations and slaughters that earned him infamy. Having defended the all-American action heroes he adored from communist censorship in 1965, Congo’s own cinephilia inevitably puts him alongside the audience, decoding and reflecting on the spectacle. These re-enactments become a therapeutic mechanism for him to reconcile his guilt and recurrent nightmares.

Wrapped in these fictional dimensions, it would be easy to allow Congo his excuses. Even when dressed in a cowboy’s clothes, I have no sympathy for his argument that he copied the violence he witnessed at the pictures. The cinema I use to condemn him may well be the same court of public opinion that inspired and legitimated his actions, but as he readily admits, Congo’s sadism went beyond the silver-screen fictions that guided his youth.

After a visit to a newspaper publisher, Ibrahim Sinik, it is revealed that journalists often decided who was guilty and who was not. Congo and his company only executed those condemned by reporters sat behind desks. As a critic, this trial-by-reportage makes it difficult to reach ethical judgements about the film and its producers without replicating the injustice. If, based on the information confided in Joshua Oppenheimer throughout the film, his testimony were used to bring Indonesia’s elites to some kind of justice, would that undermine the integrity of Oppenheimer’s journalism?

The question can be posed in several other, more familiar, ways. Is it acceptable for a journalist to feed bad men the infamy they crave, without censorship or criticism, in return for a juicy headline? Must we defend the right to publicise the views of those whose opinions and actions cause us worry, even upset? What difficult documentaries like The Act of Killing show us is that the answer to both questions must be yes. The ability to bear moral witness to another is as much a joy to be cherished as a burden to be suffered.

As elements of Britain’s media increasingly intermingle with the country’s legal establishment to threaten the freedom of the press more generally, Oppenheimer’s film is a clear demonstration of what can be done with the freedom to inquire and to publish without the threat of punishment.

Joel Cohen is a recent graduate of the School of African and Oriental Studies in London.

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