A Strange Bird

Among yesterday’s Oscar nominees was this movie, nominated for Best Documentary Feature:

‘The Act of Killing’ relives a murderous era in Indonesia

To describe “The Act of Killing” as a riveting documentary about Indonesian death squads that terrorized that country’s citizens in the 1960s might be factually accurate. But it doesn’t get nearly to the heart of it. This audacious, horrifying, boldly experimental plunge into the mind-set of murderers and the culture of impunity breaks so many rules of documentary decorum that it virtually creates its own genre: investigative improv, perhaps. Or, better yet, Brechtian nonfiction.

Whatever you call it, “The Act of Killing” is a must-see. Using blunt stagecraft, probing psychological insight, elegant interrogation of narrative truth and characters steeped in a particularly terrifying brand of self-mythologizing, director Joshua Oppenheimer has succeeded in turning “The Act of Killing” into both a sharply confrontational vehicle for bearing witness and a craftily layered meditation on the cinematic medium itself.

“The Act of Killing” focuses on the years 1965 and ’66, when a young man named Anwar Congo became a legendary death- squad leader in North Sumatra, murdering communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals following the military coup that brought longtime authoritarian leader Suharto to power. It’s estimated that 1 million people died during those purges, which were carried out with the help of a paramilitary organization called the Pancasila Youth, an organization that thrives even 15 years after Suharto’s resignation.

Despite its historical context, “The Act of Killing” contains none of the expected stock footage or newsreels of atrocities and trials. Rather, Oppenheimer catches up with Congo, his cronies and Pancasila Youth leaders in the present day, as they proudly recall their actions 50 years ago. What becomes unnervingly clear as Oppenheimer films these men swaggering through city streets, shaking down shopkeepers and bullying citizens who nervously laugh along with them, is that not only have they not been prosecuted for their crimes, but they’re also lionized for them. Congo is so proud of his past deeds that he eagerly shows Oppenheimer how he preferred to dispatch his victims, strangling them with a taut piece of wire so they would bleed less.

As “The Act of Killing” progresses, Congo and his fellow criminals explain that they learned most of their postures and methods from Hollywood crime movies, for which they were scalping tickets when they were enlisted to become freelance domestic terrorists in the 1960s. Citing Marlon Brando and Al Pacino as role models, they call themselves “gangsters” throughout the film, reminding anyone who will listen that the word for “gangster” in Indonesian has its roots in the term for “free man” in Dutch. In time, Congo and his colleagues are donning garish costumes and bloody makeup to reenact the torture and murders they committed, staged like cheap film noir knockoffs with chillingly bad dialogue.

This movie is a strange bird, not just because of the way it was made but because of it’s topic. The only major Hollywood film to touch the subject of the Indonesian killings of 1965–1966 was The Year of Living Dangerously, which only dealt with the events leading up to the military coup that triggered the killings. Most Americans know nothing about Indonesia other than it’s somewhere in Asia and that Barack Obama once lived there. (Ironically, his family moved there in 1966.) It’s the fourth most populous country in the world and there are more Muslims in Indonesia than in any other country.

How is it possible that 1 million people could be murdered and no one noticed or cared? Part of the reason was that in 1965-1966 we were busy fighting in nearby Vietnam and the American media still hadn’t figured out what was really going on in that part of the world, or if they had figured it out they weren’t telling us. The US government liked Suharto, so they didn’t complain when he started killing commies. In fact, we encouraged it. This was back during the LBJ era when liberals were still anti-communists.

This movie reconfirms the banality of evil and the dangers of authoritarian rule. Left, right or center, there is no “good” kind of dictatorship. American history would have been very different if George Washington had proclaimed himself king or president for life.

The Act of Killing was released in July 2013. Check with Netflix if you want to see it.

About Myiq2xu - BA, JD, FJB

I was born and raised in a different country - America. I don't know what this place is.
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50 Responses to A Strange Bird

  1. The Klown says:

    BTW – I am hoping that Angie will graciously volunteer to run our annual Oscar pool again this year. She usually wins it too.

    The Academy Awards will be held on March 2nd.

  2. driguana says:

    Made by Santa Fe filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer and being highly touted there as we speak…especially by current mayoral candidates as they strongly push to make Santa Fe and northern NM the independent film capital of the country/world….Holywood, as compared to Hollywood, as I called it when I worked there helping to establish the second Media District in the country and home Santa Fe Studios. Lone Survivor another award nominee filmed there.

  3. threewickets says:

    And today the communists in Vietnam and China are two of the most successful capitalist economies in the world. And North Korea is a bigger basket case than ever. Who can predict these things.

  4. DeniseVB says:

    Speaking of the act of killing, oops…..death was too slow, family suing state? How about his victim’s death? Rapey killing a pregnant lady didn’t sound too fun for her either.


    • The Klown says:

      My opposition to the death penalty has to do with wrongful convictions – you can free a man from prison but you can’t resurrect him. I have no pity for the ones who are really guilty. AFAIC they can die in screaming agony.

      Even hanging, the gas chamber and electrocution are far more humane than the way these guys killed their victims.

      • DeniseVB says:

        I remember Old Sparky in Florida, the malfunctioning electric chair that simmered you to death. I believe the state’s violent crime dropped for several years after? I’m for any deterrent that prevents the most heinious crimes, especially against children.

      • After so many years of watching the justice system pendulum swing further and further to the side of prosecutorial overkill I’m (surprisingly, because I’ve testified in death cases) coming to the same position. Any conviction based on circumstantial or potentially tainted evidence needs to be disqualified as a death case, IMO. And I blame it on unethical DA’s, but I repeat myself.

        • DeniseVB says:

          Plus the under-represented poor and minorities. I always thought the Obamas could have used their skills to improve legal aid in their city rather jump in bed with the high rollers and Acorny types of “justice”. Nothing like that in their professional bios. Showing up for work is barely in their professional bios.

        • DVB I agree with your aim but not the method. The justice system is essentially a state operation, and the less federal gov’t intervention the better IMO (not including a well functioning SCOTUS).

  5. DeniseVB says:

    Snort …..

  6. lyn says:

    “The Hunt” from Denmark is in the Foreign Language Film category. It is a powerful movie about a man who is wrongly accused of showing his erected penis to a friend’s daughter and the hate that results in the small town. The movie shows early on how and why the girl made her false accusation. It’s heavy but riveting and free on Netflix.

  7. votermom says:

  8. Lulu says:

    Jezebel got the un-retouched photos of lovely Lena. Now the commenters are fighting over if releasing them is fair to the attention hog or something. These horrible photos were taken by Annie Leibovitz who didn’t have much to work with. I should not laugh at stuff like this but I can’t help it. http://jezebel.com/here-are-the-unretouched-images-from-lena-dunhams-vogu-1503336657

  9. helenk3 says:


    can not even write a report. after spending all that money for college and going into debt to pay for it, many can not even write a report

    • Tweeted about this last night. Misleading headline. The “can not even write a report” is an aside, and refers to “some”(?).
      The big issue here, Helen, is the writer unquestioningly accepts the meme it is better for PD’s for cops with only one or two years of experience over and over again, for two decades, than to have the same total of experience in five or six policing subspecialities. That’s bogus, IMO. And borrrrrrrrrrrrrring. It’s bureaucratic malarkey.

  10. helenk3 says:


    ok lets do away with the oscars all together. after all every body that makes a movie does the best they can . it is just not right to reward some and not others

  11. The Klown says:

    I finally hit 300 followers!

  12. foxyladi14 says:

    Good for you. 😀

  13. NewOrleans says:

    Poor Cher. She’s lost that Hope ‘n Change feeling.

  14. The Klown says:

    I’m watching one of the best war movies ever made – Kelly’s Heroes.

  15. Nancy says:

    Do u recommend the movie?

    Some things can’t be unseen Sent from my iPhone


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