Cinematic Scar Tissue and Protective Screens in Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing”

[This is is going to be a huge post. It’s a heavy topic so I’m presenting it in two ways. The first segment is a short form highly abridged walkthrough of what I talk about in the essay. The second segment is a full rendition of the paper I submitted for the assignment for those who are interested. The filmmakers and copyright holders have also uploaded the entire film to YouTube, and I have embedded it into the post between the segments.]

Abridged Version:

The opening scene of the The Act of Killing begins with a procession of dancers moving out of the mouth of a giant fish sculpture, followed by a transition to the setting of a tranquil waterfall, where Anwar Congo is being gifted with a medal by men who are supposed to represent the spirits of dead communists, Chinese, and leftists who are thanking him for killing them. The film chronicles the re-enactment of the 1965-66 state sponsored killings of communists, Chinese, and leftist sympathizers as performed by the killers themselves. It’s a difficult film that doesn’t fit nicely into the usual categories of documentary and ethnographic filmmaking that we have been talking about for the past couple of weeks. I argue that instead of thinking about what kind of film it is, it might be more useful to think about what kind of film it wants to be, and what work it does as such.


Part of the reason why the film is so difficult and controversial is because it has a certain double structure to it, where it is really two films that take place simultaneously. The first film is the primary structure– it is the documentary crafted by Joshua Oppenheimer and his anonymous Indonesian co-director. The second film is composed of scenes of re-enactment where the killers relive their fantasies in front of the camera for the spectatorship of the film’s audience.


The critical reception of the film has, from a general perspective been mostly positive, but this is not to say that it hasn’t also been controversial. Part of the difficulty of the film is that it is capable of– in the words of an Indonesian activist and viewer who watched it with survivors– knocking you out of the picture. The film presents a real epistemological danger in that the referents of the killings of 1965-66 are the ones who are conducting the fictional re-enactments. In this sense, the film’s title is much more sophisticated than it appears at first blush. The effect is that aesthetic distance between the viewer and the film, between the real event and the staged event, collapses– and at numerous points this collapse when it occurs in the film brings the killers closer than they would prefer to the events in their pasts which they are desperately trying to control through the recuperative effects of re-staging.

Congo Victim

Responses to the film outside of boring qualitative “good/bad” judgements are very interesting, and I spend a great deal of time in the paper analyzing and responding to the criticism that the film does not represent the testimony of survivors. This was a deliberate choice on behalf of the filmmakers, not an epiphenomenon or “noticeable absence.” Even more so this was also a choice on behalf of the survivors– which casts light on people’s demands for survivor testimony in being representative of a special kind of political deflection and unwillingness to come to terms with the audience’s own complicity in spectatorship.

Oppenheimer has stated that the film is a documentary of the imagination– in other words, the film is not a documentary of the everyday life of the civilian death squads. Rather the film is interested in understanding how the killers want to be seen. The high degree of reflexivity in the film as a result is part of the reason it is open to what could be in some circumstances problematic readings. However Oppenheimer notes that he was not interested in creating a “clean film” that would allow viewers to safely invest themselves in what they might view as “the good victims” allied against the “evil perpetrators.” What emerges is a very sophisticated political narrative which does not lend itself to shorthand dismissals of scenes of at times overpoweringly repulsive acts. Rather, the goal is– as Nick Mirzoeff has suggested elsewhere– to put you in the water.

A great deal of commentators on the film are extremely worried about the potential predisposition of viewers to sympathize with Anwar Congo, and they condemn Oppenheimer for facilitating these feelings. I argue however, that to read the film in this way is to ignore what the documentary is actually documenting while also patronizing peoples’ capabilities for critical thought. Moreover, I note that throughout the course of my readings I did not come across many who sympathized with Congo, but instead discovered that the prevailing theme was in how people were all too eager to dismiss him via the fastest, savviest, theoretical shorthand arguments available. I suggest that contrary to what some of the authors I have examined have tried to argue, perhaps the most disturbing thing about The Act of Killing for Western audiences who have a degree of distance from the events in Indonesia, are not the portrayals of a group of exceptional killers, nor the re-enactments of the killings themselves. But that instead, it might be the fact that prior to the events 1965-66, these men were not remarkable at all.

(Classmates, you can stop here if you like)

Full Paper Follows:



Cinematic Scar Tissue and Protective Screens in Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing


Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing (TAOK) is a complicated film to try and unpack. Upon witnessing the end credits of the nigh on 3 hour director’s cut, I was extremely uncomfortable with what I had just viewed, and I was unremittingly confused about whether or not it was a film that even aspired to documentary. Even more so, if it is in truth a documentary— and I do think it is— then I am unsure of how to categorize it within the groupings of documentary film outlined by Broderick Fox (who’s text is already on the more progressive side of materials we have read for class.) Instead of thinking about what type of documentary TAOK is, it may therefore be more useful to think about what kind of documentary TAOK wants to be and what work it proposes to do as such.

At first blush the film appears to follow the guidelines of observational cinema (Fox 29)— and perhaps even cinéma verité. The “actors” of the film are real men who were present for the killings en mass of over 2.5 million people in Indonesia during the putsch and the following genocide of 1965-66. In fact, these “actors” are the mass murderers themselves. I place “actors” in scare quotes, because TAOK is in essence two films combined into one. The first is the film that Oppenheimer himself is directly making. The second, mounted within the framing of the first, is a collection of scenes where the killers re-enact their murders in a celebratory manner with the purposes of commemorating, legitimizing, and propagandizing their behaviors for themselves and for future and present generations of Indonesians. The resultant filmic text exuberantly feeds on the difficulty in understanding where the documentary ends and where the re-enactment begins. The film does this in order to construct a truth independent of the immediate behaviors in the plot of the documentary (i.e. the restaged killings); a truth which instead gets constructed through the way that a certain preferred form of viewership is predicated by watching the film. Most unnervingly, this truth is the truth of the perpetrators set in dialectical opposition (or more startlingly in some cases, affirmation) with the hypothetical viewer of the film as s/he watches it.

In this sense (with a very Erving Goffman-ish subtext) these men are performing themselves in a highly sophisticated and sometimes dissociative manner on screen, making it difficult to separate the performed killer from the real killer; or the actively dissociative performance from the celebratory legitimizing performance— even though they are one and the same. Profound examples of these problems emerge frequently in the film and its surrounding commentary, such as when Anwar Congo (the primary subject of the film), after watching it, self-describes TAOK as doing a good job of ‘showing what it’s like to be me (Johnson 2013.)’

Critical Reception:

Watching The Act of Killing is an eerie experience that lends itself well to such a highly reflexive and unnerving documentary film. Nevertheless, the reflexivity of the film is at times problematic. The film is sometimes so obverse that it can confuse its audience, causing us to question the very nature and display the motives of this reflexivity itself. Indeed, this is likely a root cause for why some have critics have taken TAOK to task for being sympathetic towards the killers.

These varying forms of response are highly thematic in the critical reception of Oppenheimer’s film. Some critics have tried to keep the film at a distance due to their skepticism of how TAOK represents the killers (which neglects the fact that they are representing themselves to a large degree) (Johnson 2013), where others have praised it for the manner in which it invites the perpetrators to deliver self-incriminating testimonies (Svoboda 2014, and Bradshaw 2013.) Both perspectives are not without their merits and problematics; but, both are also representative of a certain form of deflection or refusal to engage with one of the primary focuses of Oppenheimer’s film, which is nicely summarized by A.O. Scott in his review for The New York Times:

“Some queasiness may linger at the thought of a Western filmmaker indulging the creative whims of mass murderers, exploiting both their guilelessness and the suffering of Indonesians who remain voiceless and invisible here. But this discomfort is an important indicator of just how complicated, how perverse, the cinematic pursuit of truth can be. This is not a movie that lets go of you easily (Scott 2013.)”

In other words the film, in part, makes us queasy because we are complicit as viewers of it’s narrative content. As Oppenheimer has previously stated, aside from documentaries, we frequently pay to see fictionalized accounts of violence at the cinema (Behlil 29.) In this milieu, part of what makes the The Act of Killing so epistemologically dangerous is that it is capable of traversing the fiction of violent fantasy, which it does frequently throughout its 160 minute run time. This is in part, because the real-world referents— the killers— are in the film performing versions of themselves, and the slippage between performance and remembrance is a perpetual threat to the film and its creators themselves (Behlil 29.)

This is why the participation and directorial sensibilities of the killers in TAOK are so important to Oppenheimer’s project— their involvement serves as a way to push the killers too close to what they are trying to exercise control over, with the intent of bringing about the specters of what is not present in the film. Namely, the absence of testimonies from survivors and the murdered. As Oppenheimer himself notes in an interview with regards to his acquiescence to Anwar Congo’s re-staging of himself:

“The whole time he is struggling to bridge this gap [between fiction and the real], to tame his memories by replacing them with concrete fictional scenes, to create, if you like, a cinematic scar tissue in place of his wound. But each re-enactment fails to grasp the horror: the miasmic horror slips between the frames, between the shots, and he chases it, attempts to pin it down again, in the next scene. He makes scene after scene trying to wrestle to the ground this inevitable excess. In the end, he realizes that this is impossible, and he chokes on the rising terror [literally] that comes with the realization that he will never escape the horror of what he has done. He will never be able to tame it with storytelling, with fiction, or with fantasy (Behlil 28.)”

It rapidly becomes clear when watching the film that observational and direct cinema are inadequate categories for thinking about TAOK. The film itself is principally concerned with the imagination and subjectivity of the killers, and because of this any truth that appears before the lens is perverted within moments due to the structure, method, and content of Oppenheimer’s documentary. However, problematically, this makes it is easy for viewers to mistakenly correspond the feelings of revulsion in watching the film with something like a sense of complete ethical freefall that encourages us to sympathize with the killers. This however, would be a gross misreading of the purpose of Oppenheimer’s film— and ironically to read the film in this way is a challenge to one’s own critical viewing capacities. It is not as though the presentations of the killers go uncontested throughout the body of the documentary— they frequently challenge each other in addition to being questioned by Oppenheimer himself at times, who makes it known that he is always present behind the viewfinder. This is precisely why Oppenheimer openly states that he does not consider himself a documentarian, and that he is in pursuit of a documentary of imagination, as opposed to a documentary of everyday life (Behlil 8.)

That being said, one might persist in questioning his use of the method of documentaries of everyday life in approaching the form of a documentary of imagination. This is significant, because in the absence of a bright line between the two, it is easy for audience interpretation to make political conclusions that are at odds with the filmmakers intent. In other words, a Western audience unfamiliar with Indonesian history, will view TAOK very differently than a sympathetic member of Pemuda Pancasila (Indonesian anti-communist military youth), who again will view it very differently from the perspective of a survivor living in exile. This is a major problem with which the film has an interesting and tenuous relationship.

On Survivor Testimony And Deflection:

TAOK is not a film that immediately seeks to re-present the stories of the survivors and the murdered of 1965-66. Make no mistake: this was a deliberate and judiciously interrogated choice by Oppenheimer and his anonymous codirector. Their attention is instead concerned with understanding how the perpetrators want to be seen (Behlil 27.) The boring old Winston Churchill quote about history being written by the victors is especially salient in contemporary Indonesia, because ‘the winners of the communist and Chinese witch hunts from 1965-66 are still in power’, and they are literally directing what is on screen in TAOK with relative impunity (Behlil 26.) As Joe Cochrane has noted:

“Despite the international press, the reaction in Indonesia has been muted. National television stations largely ignored the Academy Award nomination, which was covered by only a handful of print media including two English-language daily newspapers (Cochrane 2014.)”

If one of the main goals of the film is to begin putting to rest the pact of silence in Indonesia surrounding the genocide and partisan killings of 1965-66, this is not something that can be easily measured. TAOK has yet to be publicly screened in Indonesia for obvious reasons concerning censorship and fear of reprisals; nevertheless once it was available on YouTube the film was downloaded more than 30,000 times— with many of the transferring IP addresses located in Indonesia (Cochrane 2014.) These points about the film and its audience and “cast” are important because they reiterate the fact that the lack of victim and survivor testimony in TAOK is a carefully engineered choice rather than an epiphenomenon, which again is a perspective relevant to the film which anticipates and impacts potential readings.

Oppenheimer’s choice to interview the perpetrators and to largely exclude survivor testimony was governed by a very difficult thought process. However, as Oppenheimer has noted, the earliest concepts of the film occurred to him while shooting for one of his previous films (The Globalization Tapes), when he was interviewing laborers who were recounting horrible stories of violence from their past— when he asked to present these stories in an interview before the camera they refused, and told him to speak to the killers, given how they love to reminisce about them (Behlil 27.) In other words, part of the absence of survivor testimony is a necessary silence on behalf of people trying to protect themselves from reprisals while simultaneously inviting those who have the privilege of speaking to do so and to incriminate themselves. In this light, assuming un-critical viewership of the film is in a sense a direct betrayal of the faith of the survivors in peoples’ abilities to decode the more complicated undertones of the film.

Aside from bare necessity, one of the clearest parts of Oppenheimer’s reasoning to avoid survivor testimony was to flat out avoid making a documentary about victims— which stands on its own as a highly complicated project for several reasons. Among these, as previously stated, are fears of reprisals— given the non-status of communists and Chinese as victims in Indonesia, alongside the debilitating problems that come with victimization. Oppenheimer notes that part of the logic behind this choice was to allow the voices of survivors and victims to haunt the film through miasmic absence (Behlil 30), and as such he edited out clear representations of victims from the film (with one notable exception involving a man [Suryono] who retells the story of the murder of his stepfather.)

Another of the director’s primary reasons for not including survivor testimony was to avoid the myth of thinking that there is such a thing as “clean film.” According to Oppenheimer:

“The only way you can stay clean is to make films about victims, so that the viewer has a comfortable place to invest his or her cinematic identification with the ‘good’ victims as opposed to the evil perpetrators. But this cleanness is a lie, in fact, based on the fantasy that there are good guys, when in fact there are only human beings, some of whom commit evil acts (Behlil 31.)”

This argument is complicated in part because it is prone to creating the feeling of being just a little too democratic. However, Oppenheimer’s point is much more sophisticated than such a reply would seem to disclose. This moment concerning “clean film” is critical for a greater understanding of what Oppenheimer is trying to say in how it very clearly anticipates and illuminates certain types of deflections present in commentary on TAOK. For example, in her article  “Lust of the Eye”, Sylvia Tiwon delivers an intriguing and critical essay about the significance of aesthetic distance in TAOK. Her core argument is summarized very clearly when she writes:

“Aestheticizing these public forms of racial violence in reportage and the visual arts has been criticized for ‘commercializing atrocity’ and, more distressingly, for creating a safe space of aesthetic distance between the atrocity and the beholder, while the victim of racial violence is transformed into an aesthetic object and, as such, a locus from which white subjectivity is generated (Tiwon 201.)”

This is of course a very well composed argument, but Tiwon presents it as if it were something that has gone un-accounted for in the film, when it is clearly informing the core of the project in TAOK. The film is in part so terrifying because of how effectively it compresses aesthetic distances (as opposed to expanding them, as Tiwon wants to argue.) Chinese and communist sympathizers were killed because they were transformed into aesthetic objects— the film literally, in no simpler terms, bears witness to the killers trying to create their own aesthetic distance from the events of their past by creating fictions and re-enactments of the act of these killings. Even the title of the film itself is explicit of this stance which Tiwon seems to ignore. Moreover, her passage on critical spectatorship sounds as if it could have been lifted straight from Oppenheimer’s interview with Behlil:

“As spectators, we might be implicated more deeply than through our relatively simple desire for commodities and the cheap goods Oppenheimer mentions in an interview. It is our ‘lust of the eye’ that makes the restaging possible, necessary, but also disturbing (Tiwon 201.)”

What is especially interesting given the context of the film, is a problematic contradiction present in Tiwon’s opening statements. Tiwon prefaces the article by making the important point that Indonesia does not have a monopoly on genocide or mob injustice, and she makes references to examples of dirty history from the American south in defense of this statement (Tiwon 200.) Of course, part of the reason she does this is to ward off potentially essentializing statements about Indonesia, as a nation of perpetrators, through what appears as a critically informed political stance. The difficulty with her statement is that one of the main problems facing contemporary Indonesia— which The Act of Killing in fact does a poor job of representing!— is that the killing was indeed incited by the state and it was perpetrated by civilian death squads! There is thus a very real dialectical tension between fending off national generalizations and the actual state of affairs within a corrupted governmental system where gangsters have power over life. What appears as critical theory in Tiwon’s argument, in other words, might actually be a deflection that is representative of an unwillingness to come to terms with the past.

In November of 2012 Galuh Wandita watched Jagal (“Butcher”, the Indonesian name for TAOK), in Central Sulawesi with survivors of 1965-66. She notes, that if there is one thing that The Act of Killing does poorly, it is that it does not demonstrate the connection between the killers and the state as clearly as it needs to, and that it potentially makes them out to be exceptional perpetrators when there were quite literally thousands of other Anwar Congos and Herman Kotos killing people throughout Indonesia in 1965-66. In underscoring this argument, Wandita draws attention to a very specific scene:

“An important, but easy to miss, moment in the film is when Medan newspaperman Pemuda Pancasila elder Ibrahim Sinik is questioned by a voice behind the camera about the relationship between the killings and the military. He says, ‘Kodim [the local military command, sic] and us, there was no relation… only when we have abducted the members of Pemuda Rakyat [Indonesian Communist Party youth] that we have beaten up… when we tried to hand them over to Kodim, they didn’t want them. What did they say? Just throw them into the river’ (Wandita 168.)”

The criticism is that the film focuses so much on the killings and the killers that it misses out on the apparatus that incited them in the first place. Sinik, along with his connections to the military, is allowed to abscond from the eye of the camera.  Nevertheless, despite his disappearance from the film, he is still very much present in the construction of the re-enactments.

Indeed, what at first appears to be one of the most violent and bizarre scenes of the film to an outside viewer, once placed within the context of the politics of the state, reveals itself to be one of the most offensive, sexist, radical right-wing performances in the entire documentary. This is the moment in the film where Herman Koto is playing “Aminah”, a murderous Pemuda Rakyat seductress, who is engaged in the act of cannibalizing and force-feeding Anwar Congo (playing a character who is a supposed military officer named “Ansar”) his own mutilated penis. The events that started the killings, partisan reprisal, and finally, the genocide of 1965-66 are at this point clear enough to get a general picture of why the political subtext of this scene is especially important.

On the evening of September 30, 1965, six officers of general Suharto’s military were killed by the PKI militants (Indonesian Communist Party); their bodies dumped down an unused well in an attempted coup. A group of young Pemuda Rakyat women were present and did witness the murder; but, they did not participate in the killing and they quickly fled and moreover reported on the violence of the incedent (Wieringa 196.) Suharto, however, saw this as an opportunity to not only justify partisan violence, but also viewed it as a chance to specifically attack and incriminate the progressive Indonesian women’s organization affiliated with the PKI and Pemuda Rakyat— the organization known as Gerwani (Wieringa 195.)

Via the media that the military controlled, a very different version of the story was disseminated where ‘unspeakably perverted communist women— again the members of Gerwani— seduced the officers with lurid dances before murdering and mutilating them in seclusion (Wieringa 197.)’ This was the start of an entire propaganda campaign that targeted leftist Indonesian women who were portrayed as desecrating the corpses of military officers, the supreme representations of conservative Indonesian masculinity (Wieringa 197.) These events were the bedrock for Arifin Noor’s 1983 propaganda film, Pengkhianatan G-30-S PKI, scenes from which appear as inspirations for the “Aminah and Ansar scene”  in TAOK.

In TAOK, Congo cites Noor’s film and the following state propaganda that slandered leftist women, as the most provocative forms of media responsible for inciting him to kill. Granted, this is a statement not without its own exculpatory psycho-politico content (i.e. the implication that Congo wasn’t responsible for killing people, the film was); nevertheless it is not something that can be easily ignored. Moreover, Ibrahim Sinik, the newspaper and propaganda man, penned the scene (Wieringa 196.) Regarding the representational failings of TAOK, the complete lack of clarity in this scene for foreign audiences, and the glaring omission of Sinik’s role in creating it— and his role as an administrative killer and tool of the military— is extremely problematic. These are the types of blind spots that are present throughout the film and which come at the cost of Oppenheimer’s focus on creating a smaller, tighter, film around and with the killers themselves.

Ethics, Sympathy and Fantasy:

The most vitriolic and common criticism of The Act of Klling, is that the film seeks to inspire sympathy for Anwar Congo. Memory and Culture Historian Lauri J Sears voices this eloquently when she writes:

“Oppenheimer tries to convince the audience that the main subject of the film, Anwar Congo, is a haunted man with some remorse about the 1000+ people he brutally tortured, raped, and/or killed. But I was not convinced of this. Congo is a natural actor with a feel for stealing the scene. He stands out because he is better dressed, more articulate, and seemingly more educated about his the world than his cronies and supporters (Sears 204.)”

As a outside observer, illiterate of the events of 1965-66 prior to watching the film and reading about it, I did not find myself sympathetic towards Congo’s performance. I am inclined to agree with the sentiment that Anwar Congo is “acting” in the film, and that the character transformation that he tries to embody is one that does seek to inspire sympathy— but it leaves me cold. I also feel the need to disagree with the proposition that it is Oppenheimer’s intent to inspire sympathy for Congo in the film’s audience. We must remember when watching TAOK that the representations of the killers are heavily mediated by the killers themselves, and that this mediation is the topic of the film as a documentary of the imagination.

Understandably, impressions from the film that view it as seeking to inspire sympathy for Congo also correspond with a continued outrage over the absence of survivor testimony in the film. Sears articulates this as well when she comments on what she perceives as a vacuum of resistant narratives that might challenge the hubris of the killers:

“Who is brave enough in this film to argue with Anwar and his cronies? Where is any resistance? The killers won and the losers died. What is new about this story except for the fact that an American filmmaker spent a lot of money to tell a debatably sympathetic story of one of the worst of the killers (Sears 206)?”

What Sears seems to be blind to is that the absence of survivor testimony— as was previously stated— cannot be attributed to a simple “artistic” or political choice, solely decided by Oppenheimer. Moreover, Sears gives the impression that she believes that blind viewers, including numerous Indonesians, will automatically find themselves harboring sympathetic feelings towards Congo (Sears 207.) Personally, I find this to be an insulting argument— and one which also stains Sears’ own moral sensibilities via her open willingness to condemn the spectatorship of others while exculpating her own. From the little reading I have done concerning viewership and criticism of the film, it has not been my impression that anyone sympathizes with Anwar Congo except for members of radical conservative Indonesian society who are already predisposed to his political ideology. In point of fact, most seem willing to openly condemn him in the fastest shorthand arguments available, which speaks to an entirely different set of deflections. For example, Gerry van Klinken writes:

“Mind you, these men obviously have zero insight into their own souls…. They simply cannot imagine that others might despise them for their revolting stories. And ordinary Indonesians do react with revulsion… But no, the point of the film is far less about them than it is about Indonesia as a whole. The take-home message is about the impunity with which these trashy insults to humanity are encouraged to crow about their criminality in public (van Klinken 177.)”

Part of the problem is that Anwar Congo clearly does have insight into his own soul, and so do some of the other figures of the film! It is only that it now exists as a phenomenon of what has since become fantasy inverted into reality. This is precisely the core of the filmic text of TAOK. The point resides in how the cathartic moments that we see Congo experience on film are protective screens, or “cinematic scar tissue” (Behlil 28), and it is this cinematic scar tissue which functions as a path back into reality (King 35.) ‘The protective screen that prevents Anwar Congo from experiencing a deeper cinematic crisis and sustains his fantasy is the screen of the cinema… these men experienced reality itself as fiction (Zizek 44.)’

Contrary to what some of the authors I have examined have tried to argue, perhaps the most disturbing thing about The Act of Killing for Western audiences who have a degree of distance from the events in Indonesia, are not the portrayals of a group of exceptional killers, nor the re-enactments of the killings themselves. Instead, it might be the fact that prior to the events 1965-66, these men were not remarkable at all. And maybe, instead of getting bogged down in the politics of decoding the film— though these are important projects— we should start from the perspective that understanding and explaining this behavior does not mean that we are apologizing for, or sympathetic towards it. Instead, the option of choosing such a starting point places a greater emphasis on the potential for ordinary people to become enthusiastic participants in state sponsored murder (Browning XX.) The case of Anwar Congo is especially distressing because he was a civilian, and was under no military duress to kill. If we must persist with conversations about ethics, maybe instead of placing so much importance on trying to find connections between Congo’s death squad and the military, we should be emphasizing and investigating why Congo was willing to kill as a member of a paramilitary unit composed of civilians, with no incentive to kill outside of ideological hatred and racial thinking. This could prove to be an effective strategy, given the the Indonesian government’s blatant recalcitrance in supporting any investigations into this history.

Personally, I find the discourse over whether or not Anwar Congo himself is capable of redemption to be completely tedious. However it cannot be denied that as a figure of a visual regime, the representations of Congo ‘bathing nightly in the sweat of hell (van Klinken 178)’ throughout the course of Oppenheimer’s film are useful, if not poetic, images for opening the door to an Indonesian process of coming to terms with the past.



Behlil, Melis. “The Act of Killing: An Interview With Joshua Oppenheimer.” CINEASTE Magazine. Summer 2013. New York, NY. Interview Article.

Bradshaw, Nick. “Reality Check.” Sight and Sound. Jan 2013, Vol. 23, Issue 1, pp 22-3. London, UK. Review.

Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 And The Final Solution in Poland. Harper Perennial: New York, NY 1992. Book.

Cochrane, Joe. “‘Act of Killing’ Film Fails to Stir Indonesia.” The New York Times. March 2, 2014. New York, NY. Review.

Fox, Broderick. Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice. Allyn & Bacon: Boston, MA 2010. Textbook.

Johnson, Brian D. “Lights, Cameras, Mass Murder.” Maclean’s Magazine. Vol. 126, Issue 28, July 22, 2013. Toronto, ON. Review.

King, Homay. “Born Free? Repetition and Fantasy in The Act of Killing. Film Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Winter 2013). University of California Press: Berkeley, CA. Scholarly Article.

Scott, A. O. “Mass Murder? Gee, That Was Fun.” The New York Times. July 19, 2013. New York, NY. Review.

Sears, Lauri J. “Heroes As Killers Or Killers As Heroes?” Critical Asian Studies. Routledge: London, UK. February 19, 2014. Scholarly Article.

Svoboda, Steven J. “Film Review: The Act of Killing.” Attorneys for the Rights of the Child Newsletter. Vol. 10, Issue 3, Spring 2014. Berkeley, CA. Review.

Tiwon, Sylvia. “Lust of the Eye: The Act of Killing and Aesthetic Sensibility.” Critical Asian Studies. Routledge: London, UK,  February 19, 2014. Scholarly Article.

Van Klinken, Gerry. “No, The Act of Killing Is Not Unethical.” Critical Asian Studies. Routledge: London, UK, February 19, 2014. Scholarly Article.

Wandita, Galuh. “Preman Nation: Watching The Act of Killing in Indonesia.” Critical Asian Studies. Routledge: London, UK, February 19, 2014. Scholarly Article.

Wieringa, Saskia E. “Sexual Politics As A Justification For Mass Murder In The Act Of Killing.” Critical Asian Studies. Routledge: London, UK. February 19, 2014. Scholarly Article.

Zizek, Slavoj. “Living a Fiction.” New Statesman. July 2013. London, UK. Review/Commentary.


14 thoughts on “Cinematic Scar Tissue and Protective Screens in Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing”

  1. I like that you start by saying it doesn’t really matter what kind of film this is, although I am quite certain it is a documentary, and rather what it wants to be, which you then tell us is a document of the inside of the brain of a killer. Two thoughts (and I haven’t read the longer version yet): what a filmmaker says he wants a film to be is nothing like what a film is or wants to be, even if the filmmaker might think so (otherwise we wouldn’t need film critics or scholars we could just report what the filmmakers says a film is), and perhaps more interesting to me: why would we want to see and know inside the brain of a killer, not to say we wouldn’t, but I’m curious what the answers to that question are, it’s not an obvious or necessary quest.

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    • For me personally, as a “leftist sympathizer”, part of the reply is in understanding how the justification for violence is structured and sponsored by the state and how ordinary people are driven to kill. Another part is also invested in an interest in the conversations about why people might explicitly not want to understand the minds of killers– because this too signals a certain form of deflection and culpability. These conversations are really important because they yield a lot of critical discourses, especially when we start talking about why some people are so upset by the absence of survivor testimony.


  2. Great reading of the film. I agree that the conversations about sympathizing with the civilian murderers is a tedious one.

    Generally unrelated, but I have to say that after seeing the film myself I very much thought of it as an attempt at magical realism. I’ve written about magical realism as a highly-political, postcolonial mode. So I found it a bit galling that Oppenheimer, as a white American male, comes in and seems to adapt that sensibility rather ambivalently. I think the way imagination plays in this film is actually quite different from magical realism, and much less political than it should be if it wants to act as such. Anyone have thoughts on the colonial politics of this film, and the treatment of that history from an outsider’s lens?

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    • Yeah. An interesting point. The coloniality of the film is something that doesn’t unpack easily. Oppenheimer himself has given this a lot of thought, and has stated that his position as a white American outsider was a critical component for the creation of the film. It made it so that he was able to build rapport with the killers in a way where were he Indonesian he would have raised a great deal of suspicion– and his affiliation with cinema also endeared him given the killers’ Hollywood sensibilities. It’s also not like he just waltzed and made the film. He’s been working in Indonesia for a long time and the film itself was made as a part of a very reciprocal process. The ethical question about coloniality and the use of magical realism does seem like a more complex issue though. I do think however that the outsider’s lens is part of what made this film possible, given raw material conditions of the political climate in Indonesia.

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  3. I was not expecting this topic, your short essay is thoughtful. I took a quick look at the film, but don’t think I would want to watch the entire thing. I was particularly struck when you mentioned “the audience’s own spectatorship” and how powerful it is to put people in that uncomfortable space. Although the director may see it as a documentary because he has that power to observe and record this group of men, I don’t think the actors would see it as a documentary.

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    • Yeah that’s absolutely one of the main tensions of the film. The men in the film are engaged in creative re-enactment for a variety of reasons, including propaganda and repression (repetition.)


  4. First of all, I think this is a very meaningful documentary, especially for Chinese. The filmmaker use a very unique production ways to show this historical event. Maybe that make some audiences to ask if it is a documentary. But we can not deny it is a great film to let contemporary people to reflect.

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    • I agree. I think part of the directors’ toolset is also the display of a group of men who are not reflecting– or reflecting only for the purposes of looking like they are reflecting in front of a camera recording them– as a means of triggering reflection in spectators. I think this is something that the film has also been very successful in accomplishing.


  5. As you know I saw this film last year at the IDA DocuDay event, and heard Oppenheimer speak after the screening. I had already seen 2 war documentaries that day, and I almost walked out on this film because all the violence had just become a little much for me. However, I’m glad I stayed because I feel like the end scene was extremely powerful and changed my perspective on the rest of the film. It was also interesting to read the quote n your paper ion why Oppenheimer focused on the killers, since it is a little different than what I had remembered him saying at the screening. It is a complex, difficult, and profound film.

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    • Yeah the last scene with him retching on the rooftop is an interesting one. When I watched this for the first time I watched the director’s cut, which has a new final scene where Herman Koto and Anwar Congo are watching the film together in one of their houses, and we see Congo presenting a semi-cathartic (but largely unconvincing) experience while he chats with Oppenheimer off screen. It’s really complicated for sure.

      How did your interpretation of the final scene when you saw it change your perspective on the rest of the film?


    • Yeah the treatment of the truth is definitely an interesting point of focus in the film. I think part of what is ironic about the interpretation of the film, to me, is that audiences have tried to decode it through a detached postmodern lens– which doesn’t really work because such a perspective anticipates the film as overly relativistic/democratic, when it clearly isn’t.


  6. Like many, I found the film itself very troubling, and I think it was meant to be so. I really enjoyed your points in your essay. The difficulty of trying to fit this film neatly into any categories is complicated by real world circumstances–living survivors still under the subjugation of those in power. Oppenheimer certainly blurs the line between fiction and reality, but here fiction seems to be real. After all, the “actors” (like in the beginning) need to enact the “real” thereby feeling what it must really be like to be the victims, even if limited. And because Anwar Congo is asked to dramatize the events, Oppenheimer invokes a fictional quality.

    The part of your essay regarding the absence of victims was quite a conundrum (the situation, not your essay!). In a way, it both represents and problematizes Spivak’s assertion that the subaltern cannot speak but that they must somehow be represented. Like you, I believe Oppenheimer indirectly does so (and can only do it indirectly).

    But I wonder if Oppenheimer’s choice (besides and beyond being practical in protecting the surviving victims) also manifests in inculcating Western–particularly American–viewers as complicit with the killers. After all, they were state sanctioned but also tacit American support. The killers continue to walk and are able to talk about those incidents because we still benefit from their actions–open markets, cheap labor (like Nike), etc. And by tying us to the killers, we become the killers and they are a reflection of us–violent yet remorseful (at best) or perhaps, ambivalent. Just a thought. But certainly, as viewers we sit in our discomfort and uncertainty.

    And perhaps by not showing the victims, Oppenheimer is suggesting that we Westerners cannot sit in our self-righteous indignation, throwing condemnation against the killers and showing once again that we stand on some moral high ground.

    I really appreciate your essay and the thought you put into it. It certainly gave me a lot to think about especially in my own assumptions as a “viewer.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • As you point out, inculcation I think is a big part of Oppenheimer’s larger project. An easy way out of the film’s narrative is to dismiss the killers as exceptional or as evil men. The film does not facilitate this type of reading however, which is also why I think people are so outraged by the lack of survivor testimony. There is nothing to reaffirm this type of reading, which only compounds the sense of inculcation.

      The Spivak citation is also really interesting. There is something to it, in that the survivors are not allowed to speak, because if they did they might be the subjects of reprisals. Such is a textbook definition of oppression and mastery. I do however– like you I think– believe there is something radically inadequate about Spivak’s concept of the subaltern in this case. Oppenheimer originally asked survivors to include their testimony, but they outright refused. This refusal itself requires a double reading. To say that they cannot speak for fear of reprisal violence is a classic reading of the oppressed. But, to also make this assertion of alterity and to reaffirm it as subalterity is to reduce-out any agency that the survivors have in choosing not to speak. Spivak herself is hyper-aware of this problem– which is precisely why she concludes that the subaltern cannot speak. She calls it “the double bind.”

      Of course, it is not as though the subaltern cannot speak (again’s Spivak’s argument carries it’s own form of logocentrism here)…. Clearly they can and do “speak”– but ontologically, they do not exist as speaking subjects in Indonesia. This is why Spivak’s concept is so profound and profoundly useless at the same time, and it’s also why Oppenheimer’s film is so effective. There are subalterns all over Indonesia– there is even one who made it into the film! (Suryono, who tells the story of his father’s murder and moreover delivers it to the men who likely killed him)– however, in Indonesia the Chinese, communists, and leftist sympathizers ‘deserved what they got.’ In this way, to include survivor testimony might actually have been to do more epistemic violence (and not just reprisals) against the survivors, in that survivor testimony might have facilitated all sorts of political exculpations– including a safe space of viewership for the film’s audiences.


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