Off the Radar: Lessons on Filming ‘The Killing Act’

Off the Radar is a weekly column that profiles overlooked films and is available to students for free through NYU’s streaming partnership. “The Act of Killing” is available to stream on Kanopy and NYU Stream.

Alia Lutra

The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer is available on Kanopy and NYU Stream. (Illustration by Alia Luther)

The documentary genre is often seen as a simple statement of fact—investigative journalism that uncovers answers to real-world phenomena. The passive camera seems to reveal objective truths that would otherwise be hidden from the rest of the world. Yet films like Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012) tread the blurred lines that separate documentary from fiction.

The film focuses on individuals who participated in a brutal campaign of anti-communist assassinations in Indonesia under the Suharto military government. In the documentary about figures such as Anwar Kongo, the gangster who became a symbol of the paramilitary formation, the mass murderers recreate their crimes in stylized scenes from the film. This unconventional approach forces both subjects and viewers to confront traumatic memories, creating one of the most disturbing cinematic experiences in decades.

Like Oppenheimer, many documentarians have covered themes of genocide, and they often do so for educational purposes and with the goal of closure. Those guilty of unspeakable horrors are vilified in the eyes of the public.

What makes Oppenheimer’s film so distinctive is his complex relationship with the characters on screen. There is no doubt that Kongo and his compatriots are convicted murderers. They openly accept their role in the brutal torture and murder of thousands of people without remorse for their actions. However, despite their awareness of their bloody past, audiences may find themselves drawn to their infectious charisma. Kongo addresses the camera with a familiar warmth, welcoming all of Oppenheimer’s questions and bringing a cheerful energy to the screen. Here, the boogeyman of national tragedy is more than a one-dimensional villain: he is a polite sadist.

Oppenheimer does not seek to absolve Kong of his horrific crimes. In fact, the filming of his stories of mass murders only serves to further incriminate the thug. Spending time away from the Congo and participating in fictional reenactments of his past, Oppenheimer forces him to consider the consequences of his actions. For decades, people like Congo have been famous for their role as violent outlaws of military rule. Anyone who dares to oppose them will be marginalized and punished.

When savage killers are supported by society, welcomed into the arms of the community, they are often unable to feel guilt. While most people involved in mass killings never show any signs of remorse, Congo is different. Towards the end of the film, after stepping into the shoes of one of the murdered, Kongo begins to realize the gravity of his actions. For the first time, he examines the fear his victims felt.

“The Act of Murder” makes you think deeply not only about the historical crime, which is widely ignored, but also about the attitude of the audience to the film itself. Spectators ask sharp questions. How to interpret the truth when performance and reality are seamlessly combined? How does a director like Oppenheimer reconcile his intimate relationships with inhumane subjects? What is the role of the viewer in the legacy of violence and traumatic memories?

Unlike other documentaries that have a clear thesis, Oppenheimer’s film leaves the audience with more questions. The Act of Killing deeply and uncomfortably interrogates the collective memory of the past while desperately searching for humanity in the moral abyss.

Contact Mick Gow at [email protected]

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