By Daniel Lammin
30th September 2013

By presenting an honest portrait of their subject matter, documentaries have the capacity to alter a public consciousness and bring to light people or events lost to the sweep of history. As digital media continues to grow, also grows the potential audience and the methods of documentation, allowing for more experimentation and bolder agendas. This year, filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer completed his own experiment in documentary filmmaking with ‘The Act of Killing’, where the lines between truth and cinema begin to blur and the audience is placed in a most unexpected position.

Oppenheimer’s provocation works as thus: he approaches men who once led the death squads set up in Indonesia following the failed coup in 1965. These men killed thousands in the most cruel and brutal manner, but are still regarded as heroes by the people of Indonesia. Rather than making a film about them, however, Oppenheimer hands the cameras and the crews over to gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, two of the most infamous killers, and ask them to recreate their murders in whichever manner they see fit. While they film their own version of events, he films their process. The question hanging over the project is how being asked to face their crimes will change their perspectives of them and whether, after all this time, these men might be capable of remorse.


It’s a really fascinating idea, and one with tremendous dramatic potential. It also features two intriguing protagonists in Congo and Zulkadry, who speak frankly about the politics of their actions and the manner in which they carried out their murders. ‘The Act of Killing’ offers a chilling portrait of a side of Indonesia most westerners might not be aware of: a country completely at peace with an horrific act of violence in their recent history. However, for its intriguing concept, Oppenheimer’s film suffers from a flaw that can only be described as self-indulgence. Documentaries usually move at a considered pace, but the laborious rhythm of this film is almost impossible to take. Fleeting moments of drama are so few and far between, and in order to reach them, we must first sit through long sections of talking heads repeating information we’ve already heard or, in some cases, men sitting around talking about nothing of any real interest. The subjects might be intriguing, but once the film passes the two-hour mark, that intrigue is pretty much sapped away. There’s no sense of forward motion with this film, no build towards any sort of climax. In fact, it has so many possible endings that by the time it reaches its conclusion, you’re so exhausted from having to maintain interest that it has lost all its power.

‘The Act of Killing’ offers a chilling portrait of a side of Indonesia most westerners might not be aware of.

It could have been bolstered by the film-within-the-film created by the gangsters, but their work is presented without any context or explanation, and often, is terribly amateurish and abstract. It’s hard to be amazed or disturbed by their work when you have no idea what it is you’re seeing. It just appears to be a bunch of people with very little artistic vision playing around with exciting toys, and though we want to see them gain some sort of remorse, there appears to be no change in their view of their crimes until the final ten minutes, when Congo finds himself in the position of the victim and begins to realise what his victims had been through. It should be a powerful moment, but it only comes in the last ten minutes of a 155 minute film, and it’s too little too late.

A little investigation reveals that Australian audiences are getting Oppenheimer’s director's cut of the documentary - half an hour longer than the 122 minute theatrical cut. A shorter running time might have made this an infinitely more powerful experience, and the kind of film that justifies the tremendous critical acclaim it has received internationally. At its 155 minute length, however, ‘The Act of Killing’ is a dull, flabby mess. It never rises above its own clever gimmick, moves at a glacial pace, long overstays its welcome and take too long to deliver its pay-off. There’s a powerful documentary in there somewhere, but in its present form, it simply cannot sustain itself. For such a rich premise, ‘The Act of Killing’ is a great disappointment.

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