© 2013 kpeters3

The Act of Killing: Challenging Assumptions & Altering Perceptions

In Introduction to Documentary, author Bill Nichols introduces documentary films as ones that “challenge assumptions and alter perceptions” (1), allowing audiences to see the world in a new and different light. They may be structured as stories, but they are stories that speak of the world that we collectively share – they “address the world in which we live rather than a world imagined by the filmmaker.” They can also address historical events from the past and take a deeper look into the lives of those who were affected (either positively or negatively) as well as those who took part in the acts that give the historical event its name.

The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, is one that does this. Oppenheimer challenged former Indonesian death squad leaders, including gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, having them reenact the real-life mass-killings that occurred from 1965-66 – killings that occurred as a means to extort any and all ethnic Chinese and kill any individual who was or who was thought to be a Communist.

The three commonsense assumptions [about documentary] that Nichols mentions in the first chapter of his book are true of The Act of Killing. First, documentary films “speak about actual situations or events and honor known facts; they do not introduce new, unverifiable ones” (7). This is true in that Oppenheimer chose to document and research the Indonesian killings of ‘65 and ’66, actual events that took place in this world we share.

The second commonsense idea is that “documentaries are about real people” (8). Anwar Congo and the countless other death squad leaders and members are real people. They were not playing roles – they were “playing” themselves, presenting themselves to the audiences that would later be watching all around the world. Yes, there were times they were “playing roles” while filming the reenactments, but the difference here is that the men were still playing themselves. Just as Nichols explains, “they [people in documentary] draw on prior experience and habits to be themselves in the face of a camera” (8). This is precisely what the men did in The Act of Killing. In the beginning of the documentary, when talking about the horrific things that happened, things they personally were a part of, Anwar’s explanation is simple: “This is who we are.”

And they were “killing happily.”

In his paragraphs about this second commonsense assumption, Nichols goes on to explain how people in documentaries are presenting themselves in everyday life in ways that differ from actors in fictional performances. This presentation of self involves how a person goes about expressing themselves – their personality, their characters, their individual traits – rather than suppressing those things in order to take on a role. This self-presentation that Nichols writes about allows an individual to reveal more or less about him or herself (9). It can most definitely be seen in the movie in the way that Anwar Congo presents himself as someone who simply did what had to be done. At one point in the film, one man (whose name I cannot remember) says that the proof that their killings were okay is that “we murdered people and were never punished.”

In the beginning of the film, Anwar Congo’s self-presentation is frank, lacking emotion, and open, yet also seems distant in a sense. It was so easy to see that he was repressing the true memories and images of what he did, bottling the accompanying emotions in order to make himself appear powerful, unaffected, and guiltless. And it is made even more apparent as the film moves forward. First, we start to see a change in the way Anwar reacts to the reenactments of the mass-killings, particularly during the village scene where families are being ripped apart, women and children are being beaten, and homes are going up in flames. For a moment, we see Anwar take a step back – he’s standing there in the midst of the false chaos with a look on his face that seems to be one of simultaneous confusion and horror. Later, he is not even able to complete a reenactment of his own death [by strangulation] because of the distress it brings about in him.

Most obvious, Anwar’s change in demeanor and personality is unmistakable when, later, from the comfort of his own home, he is watching the scene of his death (as Oppenheimer films his reaction, sitting right in front of him through it all). In speaking of those whose lives he took 45 years prior, with a look of confused fright on his face, Anwar says to Josh, “I could feel what they felt … Is this how they felt?”

He seems to be on the verge of tears when Josh responds, explaining that Anwar’s helpless victims actually felt far, far worse. He attempts to clarify for Anwar that while he knew it was all fake and just for the film, the people whose lives he took knew with certainty that they were about to die. In a moment of such blunt honesty and realization, viewers are able to see absolute desolation and defeat in the eyes and demeanor of Anwar Congo. It was psychologically captivating while equally heartbreaking.

As mentioned earlier, Anwar Congo drew on prior experiences to be himself in the face of a camera in order to be a part of this documentary, The Act of Killing. However, what is unique and quite haunting about his overall experience in being a major part of Oppenheimer’s film is that Anwar ended up coming face-to-face with his real self – a guilty, depraved, and traumatized man who is haunted by his own nightmares as a result of being responsible for the death of nearly 1,000 innocent human beings. In presenting himself in everyday life for the film, Anwar did in fact endure personal change (as opposed to representing that change in a fictional character, as Nichols explains in his book). And precisely as Bill Nichols says, the presentation of self is a flexible means of adaptation and suggests that “individual identity develops in response to others and is not a permanent, indelible feature” (9).

Nichols, Bill. “How Can We Define Documentary Film?” Introduction to Documentary. 2nd
ed. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2001. 1-41. Print.
The Act of Killing. Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer. Perf. Anwar Congo. 2012. Documentary.


  1. Posted September 10, 2013 at 4:45 pm | #

    This is a wonderfully written response, Kara. Well done. I’ll give you a more formal response later.

  2. Posted September 11, 2013 at 2:22 am | #

    Thank you, Christopherson! I appreciate that.

  3. Ted
    Posted August 12, 2021 at 1:54 pm | #

    Thank you! Very interesting.

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