No, The Act of Killing Is Not Unethical

Author: Gerry van Klinken | KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies)


The first time I saw The Act of Killing (TAOK) I felt both deeply moved by the drama and distinctly uncomfortable about the ethics of this film. Now that I have seen it four times, I feel much less ambiguous. It is simply a stunning film. Since others have written about their sense of unease as well, it might make sense to explain how mine was diminished by close inspection. An astonished silence fell over every audience with whom I viewed this film. The brazenness, the inhumanity, the shallow emotions, and, yes, even the kitschy aesthetics of these old men of violence are deeply disturbing. The idea of interviewing perpetrators of mass violence rather than its victims is inspired. The vain ex–cinema ticket scalper Anwar Congo is the central character in the film. That Anwar and his aging mates so readily agreed to talk on camera about the vile acts they committed over forty years ago seems almost unbelievable. This is where the ethical doubts begin. Inevitably the viewer wonders if this is not one of those films in which a clever journalist uses subterfuge to trick her/his not-so-smart subjects into compromising themselves — the type of film in which the journalist then returns to safety and strikes up the investigative reporting awards while leaving the film's subjects exposed to retribution from fellow criminals. Surely Anwar would be at grave risk from the men who actually vow in the film to kill anyone who dares to demand punishment for their murderous acts? He does not demand such a moral accounting himself, but his story does move most viewers to demand one.

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© Jeff Kingston