Dec 17, 2012 in DocWest Projects

“An absolute and unique masterpiece”
Dusan Makavejev

“THE ACT OF KILLING invents a new form of cinematic surrealism.”
Werner Herzog

“Every now and then a non-fiction film comes along that is unlike anything else I have seen: Buñuel’s LAND WITHOUT BREAD, Werner Herzog’s FATA MORGANA, Hara’s THE EMPEROR’S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON. Well, it’s happened again. Here, Joshua Oppenheimer invites unrepentant Indonesian death-squad leaders to make fiction films re-enacting their violent histories. Their cinematic dreams dissolve into nightmares and then into bitter reality. Like all great documentary, THE ACT OF KILLING demands another way of looking at reality. It is like a hall of mirrors––the so-called mise-en-abyme––where real people become characters in a movie and then jump back into reality again. And it asks the central question: what is real? Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in a Paris Review interview, wrote about reading Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” for the first time, “I didn’t know you were allowed to do that.” I have the same feeling with this extraordinary film.”
Errol Morris

The Project

THE ACT OF KILLING (Denmark/Norway/UK, 2012)  is a feature length documentary directed by DocWest Senior Research Fellow Joshua Oppenheimer, co-directed by Christine Cynn and Anonymous, produced by a team which includes DocWest Director Joram ten Brink and  Signe Byrge Sorensen (Final Cut for Real, Denmark), and executive produced by a team which includes Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Andre Singer and  Joram ten Brink.

The project was funded by a combination of industry and research money (AHRC Research Award), with support from the University of Westminster’s New Directions Fund.

The film premiered in September 2012 at the Telluride Film Festival, screened in the International Competition at the Toronto International Film Festival and opened CHP:DOX, Copenhagen International Documentary Festival, where it was awarded the main DOX: AWARD. The film is currently on general release in 20 cinemas across Denmark, after screening simultaneously in sixty Danish cinemas with live director q&a on the 7th of November 2012.

The Story

The Act of Killing‘s subjects are the Indonesian paramilitary leader Anwar Congo and his band of dedicated followers. In the 1960s, Anwar and his friends spent their lives at the movies, where they controlled a black market in tickets, while using the cinema as a base of operations for more serious crimes. When the government of President Sukarno was overthrown by the military in 1965, the army recruited them to form death squads, as they had a proven capacity for violence and they hated the communists for boycotting American films – the most popular – and profitable – in the cinemas. Anwar and his friends were devoted fans of James Dean, John Wayne, and Victor Mature. They explicitly fashioned themselves and their methods of murder after their Hollywood idols. In this chilling, almost surreal documentary, the unrepentant former members of Indonesian death squads are challenged to re-enact some of their many murders in the style of the American movies they love.


Director Statements

The filmmaking method we used in THE ACT OF KILLING   is best seen as an investigative technique refined to help us understand not only what we see, but also how we see, and how we imagine. These are questions of critical importance to understanding the imaginative procedures by which human beings persecute each other, and how we then go on to build (and live in) societies founded on systemic and enduring violence”. (Joshua Oppenheimer, director)

My hope was that the film might lead us to question the role of our imaginations in perpetuating a delusional social cycle, driven by struggles for power, and spiked with performances of terror and mass murder that are invariably followed by false historical narratives.” (Christine Cynn, co-director)

On ‘Anonymous’
“Due to the nature of this film – its subject matter, production methods and the context in which it has been made – it has been necessary to credit numerous Indonesian partners and collaborators, working across all aspects of the film (from Co-Direction and Cinematography to Sound Recording, Production Management, Make Up, Music, Choreography and Technical Support) as Anonymous. Behind this naming stand many remarkable people, who have worked tirelessly to bring these profoundly disturbing stories to wider attention.  We share with them a deep hope that our collective labour might contribute in some way to a shift in the forces currently shaping and governing Indonesia, and towards a justice for both individuals and communities. We thank them for their trust in us, and the extraordinary commitment they have brought to this project“.

Press (Selected)

Screen Daily
Indiewire (Telluride review)
Indiewire (Joshua Oppenheimer interview)
The Guardian
The Guardian (TIFF review, video report)
Sight and Sound (Telluride review)
The Documentary Channel
The Documentary Blog
International Institute for Asian Studies (TIFF wrap by B Ruby Rich)