Picturing Violence

Anti-Politics and The Act of Killing

Author: Leslie K. Dwyer | George Mason University


The Act of Killing (TAOK) is a brilliant film. Following a cohort of former "movie theater gangsters" from Medan who freely confess to their brutal part in carrying out the 1965–66 massacres of alleged Indonesian communists, the film upends the conventions of documentary violence. Eschewing the format of most retrospective accounts of atrocities in which experience-distance expert commentary and close-up victims' testimony are intercut to render legible the unimaginable, TAOK's director Joshua Oppenheimer chose instead to work in a far more intimate and innovative way, encouraging the killers to act out their memory fantasies in a stylized, color-saturated film-within-a-film that features— in addition to copious amounts of blood—ghosts, waterfalls, dancing girls, and a portly killer-turned-drag-queen, back-ended by the song "Born Free." In a media landscape so crowded with images of mass violence, TAOK manages to do the nearly impossible, breaking through our numb satisfaction as consumers of violent images not by ratcheting up the number of body parts, but by confronting us with far more jarring juxtapositions: terror and its garish aesthetics, deadly enmity and riotous humor, deep emotion and utter banality, all of this epitomized in the bizarre sequence that veers the film off into a hallucinogenic reenactment of the killings, the scene in which the central protagonist, the aging- yet-dapper thug Anwar Congo, happily demonstrates his garroting technique on a Medan rooftop after dancing the cha-cha, only to lament that if this was really real he wouldn't be wearing white pants.

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