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Killing the Documentary: An Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Takes Issue With ‘The Act of Killing’

Killing the Documentary: An Oscar-Nominated Filmmaker Takes Issue With 'The Act of Killing'

Editor’s note: The following editorial was submitted to Indiewire’s editors by the author, an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker. While we have published many positive responses to “The Act of Killing” since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, we felt it was important to represent multiple perspectives on this film, which continues to generate much discussion.

In March 2013, I bought a ticket to a screening at the Museum of Modern Art.  There was a big buzz about a new film called “The Act of Killing” and I wanted to see it.

In the theater, first I was fascinated, then puzzled, then increasingly disturbed by the film’s shock therapy approach to the horrors of political life in Indonesia. After an hour, I walked out, stepping on the toes and handbags of mesmerized audience members. I walked not because talk of murders by murderers made me queasy. These stories, told by low-level assassins, employed during General Suharto’s 1965 coup to depose left-leaning President Sukarno and to destroy all his opponents, aren’t new.  (Estimates range from 500,000 to two million accused “communists” and ethnic Chinese were slaughtered.) I walked out because I was miserable in my viewer’s seat – shackled in the intolerable position the film suggested I should be comfortable in. I wasn’t.

Two months later, perplexed by the rave reviews trailing the film from festival to festival, I went to see it again when it opened in theaters. “The Act of Killing” now began with a new introduction by the filmmaker. Addressing the camera, Joshua Oppenheimer gives the audience permission to laugh when there is something funny. Why do we need his permission to laugh? Is he demanding that we feel comfortable watching boastful reconstructions of mass butchery by the death squads of Medan? What is he nervous about? Oppenheimer also reminds us that we are all capable of good and evil…that any among us could be tempted. Hmmm?

Since then, the raves, awards and prizes have continued. No critic seems to be examining – at least in print or on the net – what there is to learn from this “unruly documentary artivism”: the new moniker for non-fiction films which assert their status as both art and activism and thus the license they claim to refuse compliance with certain classic codes of ethical documentary filmmaking.

In my opinion, unruly artivist films are obliged to produce useful experience. Good filmmaking comes down to education – education of the senses, including the sixth sense, as the Buddhists would have it, the mind. Unruly or not, the questions to ask of all films remain the same: How is the audience constructed by the film – that is, to whom is the film addressed – and how?  What generalizations are made about the represented…and about us/them differences? What information is privileged or repressed? What arguments are made? Is the experience of the film useful? How are we changed by it?

I suspect that the critics – like the rest of us – don’t know what to do with their engagement with this “bold” film. Without noting any personal discomfort, they stab wildly, flattering the film with platitudes: audacious, timeless, explosive, shattering, horribly brilliant, shocking, transporting, unprecedented, bizarre, hypnotic, surreal, disturbing, timeless, unforgettable, unmissable, essential, stunning, a minor miracle, a new form of cinematic surrealism, an absolute and unique masterpiece, a radical development in the documentary form, unprecedented in the history of cinema, every frame is astonishing, and so on.

I read these vague and awkward phrases as fumbling attempts to avoid the writers’ own confusion. Or perhaps the critics lack the energy, or the means, or both, to confront what has happened to them in their cinema seats. Yes, they have endured extreme sensation – sensation way off their critical charts. They can say they’ve never seen anything like this before, and they haven’t. Yet, without analysis of their own experience in the theater – and perhaps not wishing to be left off the cheerleading bandwagon – they jump on and more amazed raves flow forth.

As far as I have been able to discover, no critic has admitted discomfort in the face of this “candy-colored moral migraine” (J. Hoberman).  Here and there are tiny hints: Nicolas Rapold wrote from the film’s premiere, “Toronto shock and outrage at the grotesque spectacle of impunity settles into helpless numbness [emphasis mine] over the course of the 116-minute running time.” Anthony Lane, in the The New Yorker, queries: “Unforgettable though such scenes may be, however, is it wise to weave such fantasies—however distressing or therapeutic—around the practice of evil when the facts of the case are, to most viewers, so obscure?” Jonathan Rosenbaum, on his blog: “Maybe there’s some other use value for his showcase of the feelings of mass murderers that I haven’t yet been able to tease out of this material.” So far, only Nick Fraser, a BBC Commissioning Editor, and the independent critic, Jennifer Merin, both at, have written negatively about the film – elegantly and succinctly. The rest of the critics have handled this hot and “revered” documentary without respect for the Indonesian people, or, it’s my understanding, for the film’s international audiences.

Throughout the film, Oppenheimer encourages his collaborators to produce ostentatiously surreal and violent dramatic film reconstructions of their death squad activities. Ever since Robert Flaherty asked his Inuit collaborator, Nanook the Bear, (his real name was “Allakariallak”) to fake the capture of a seal in 1922 – at the very beginning of ethnographic film tourism – we have seen hundreds of social actors perform “real” re-enactments of their lives for the cameras of documentary filmmakers. There is nothing new in “The Act of Killing” but carnage, and the special, cozy relationship we are urged to enjoy with the killers. Perhaps this is exactly what the critics are avoiding with their raves – that they have been duped into admiring, for an hour or two, the cool Rat Pack killers of Medan.

Collaboration is a way to share, with the social actors represented, responsibility for a film’s acts of description, strategies and arguments…a way to “keep it clean.” Some of the most useful films I’ve seen in the last twenty years – non-fiction and otherwise – have been the products of collaboration with the social actors represented, in unique and disparate ways. Carolyn Strachan and Allessandro Cavadini’s “Two Laws,” Kent MacKenzie’s “The Exiles,” and Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr’s “Ten Canoes” come quickly to mind.

First on this list should be Rithy Pahn’s “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine” – the perfect counter model to “The Act of Killing.” In S-21, the two survivors of the infamous Cambodian prison and their Khmer Rouge prison guards are brought together in a patient re-enactment of their crimes, which the traumatized guards cannot otherwise recollect.”The Act of Killing” is also a collaboration of sorts, but for me a non-productive, uncomfortable, even unclean one.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Here are six warnings based on what I saw in “The Act of Killing,” a dangerous model for the future. I write here to start a dialog with other filmmakers where there is none – not yet. It is up to us to learn from this film and work hard to avoid its miscalculations and mistakes.

Don’t Make History Without Facts

In spite of the scale of their deeds, the Medan gangsters featured in “The Act of Killing” are, in fact, no more than foot soldiers and footnotes to a much larger drama – a 50-year sequence of upheavals, which permitted a paranoid and aggressive U.S., with other allies, to depose left-leaning leaders and popular movements in any way they saw fit – all over the world. It began in Iran in 1953, then in Indonesia, 1965, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia starting in 1965, in Chile, 1973, then in El Salvador and Nicaragua, 1979, in Guatemala in 1982, in Iraq, 2001, and then some. There is no mention in Oppenheimer’s film of the role of the U.S. in the Indonesian massacres, or of the bigger Cold War drama.

It is irresponsible, even obscene, to take up the current abysmal Indonesian political condition without laying out the history of who was complicit in the military overthrow of President Sukarno and the massacre that followed, activities that threaten citizens even today. The U.S. Embassy in Jakarta supplied the right-wing Indonesian military with lists of up to 5,000 suspected Communists for elimination. (Steeped in the “domino theory”, which argues that if one state in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding states would follow in a chain reaction, President Lyndon Johnson was dedicated to the “containment” of China’s and the Soviet Union’s capacity to spread communism throughout Asia. Johnson continued to support Suharto’s “New Order” coup until the general had terrorized and then completely secured the country.)

Without context, there is only sensation and spectacle. Yet there is the illusion of learning and caring. After two hours of “The Act of Killing,” we leave the theater with a fantasy degree in Indonesian history… credentialed, but ignorant, and absolved. Instead of offering useful history and analysis, the film’s exploitation of the Medan thugs actually rebunkers the traces of the 1965 genocide and its aftermath, further perpetuating the crimes.        

Think Twice Before Representing Displays of Violence Perpetrated on Little Brown People By Other Little Brown People

Consider whether your film helps anybody understand anything useful, especially when representing people of another color, or any other category of human, in unique and complex historical situations.

Horror shows, like the terrorizing of the Indonesian people, make us gasp in horror and disbelief. Yet, as with all liberal-consensus documentaries, we feel we are doing some civic duty by just witnessing the troubles. We feel we have “cared.” Then, when the film ends, as the lights are coming up, we recuperate ourselves in our cinema seats, semi-consciously, with the unspoken sentiment, “Thank God that’s not me… nor mine.”  (Thank God I don’t live in a gangster paradise, as Indonesia is represented in this film.)  The horror show is over and we can go home, enlightened, ennobled, refreshed…absolved.

After 60 odd years of “underdeveloped” and “third world” geo-political constructions by “first world” cultures, to step into “third world” waters requires respect and extreme caution to avoid unconsciously generating chauvinistic representations. There is no evidence in this film – and there should be – that the Indonesian people are capable of resistance to domination and terror. The history books and filmed records tell us they are capable. (For example, witness Joris Iven’s “Indonesia Calling,” a 1946 documentary film about trade union seamen, waterside workers and passionate Indonesian freedom fighters, refusing to service Dutch ships containing arms and ammunition destined for Indonesia to suppress the country’s independence movement. There is “A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry” (“Puisi tak terkuburkan”), by the Indonesian filmmaker, Garin Nugroho, made in 2000…the first Indonesian film to revisit the 1965 massacres. And more recently, the 2011 documentary Dongeng Rangkas. There are others.)

The Swedish filmmaker and University of Minnesota scholar Dag Yngvesson, currently writing a PhD dissertation on Indonesian Cinema, has watched “The Act of Killing” at many different Indonesian screenings and describes the relation of us (western filmmaker/western audience) vs. them (Indonesian subjects) in this way:  “As ‘The Act of Killing’ uses the information it has gathered to shock its Indonesian audience into accepting the truth of its representations, it simultaneously reduces its local viewers, who are implicitly “in” the film, to the level of not yet democratic, not yet enlightened, and, at some level, still in need of a caring outsider to help guide them on the path to positive change.”

In a recent panel presentation, Yngvesson expanded his analysis of how “The Act of Killing” secures the post-colonial country of Indonesia to our understanding of a doomed state:

Yet each moment of creativity, and each ostensibly ‘free’ admission of violence, lechery, or lack of remorse from its participants ultimately serves to tighten the reigns of Oppenheimer’s discursive control. Using their candid descriptions, he feeds both local and international audiences an Indonesia that is too easily digested, shocking atrocities and all, and settles comfortably within the pre-processed realm of the known. Well-stocked with ideas born of the Geneva Convention and the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Oppenheimer places his interlocutors, and their film, in a hermetically sealed story-world where a typically crumbling, underdeveloped nation is neatly divided along axes of good and evil by the contemporary standards of international law.

Don’t Produce Freak Shows of the Criminal, Oppressed, “the Primitive”

Don’t herd “others-than-us” into cinema cages and then examine their “peculiarities” of action, speech, their fears, their limitations, their despotisms, as if they are foreign to the natural, the human… the family of man. Don’t wantonly project unexamined political criteria, especially on a people with a long history of colonial subjugation. And, as importantly, refuse to make any representations that suggest that the others-than-us are needy of our caring, filmic intervention.

Be Fair to Your Social Actors

With gentle encouragement from the director, the movie gangsters of Medan serve themselves up as willing subjects to be consumed. There is a pining for the spotlight, for the opportunity to exhibit their power. However, to “empower” social actors in documentary, when the “actors” don’t realize how they will be seen on the world stage (in this film as immoral, grotesque, juvenile and pathetic) is a questionable practice. Many times over we have witnessed, on film and elsewhere, debased, paramilitary mad men in the pay of power. There is nothing new here about these particular criminals – nothing except their ignorance of their own exploitation in the cinema.

The writer, Jeremy Mohler, has suggested that Anwar Congo, the central figure in the film, might have been pleased to tell his tales to an American filmmaker, as he and his mates were hugely enamored of the American action films that were banned by Sukarno’s left leaning government in the 60’s. Mohler writes, “Congo and his buddies resemble the lower-level gangsters in The Sopranos (1999-2007), eager to please the bosses but unaware of the larger games being played above them.” Because Congo’s corrupt bosses received funding, weaponry, manpower and kill lists from the CIA, Congo might have understood, naively, that the American documentary director would thus be delighted with his lurid accounts of murder, since that’s just what the U.S. aid was paying for.  I base this speculation on Yngvesson’s account of Congo’s sense of betrayal on seeing the finished film.

Yet a few months after the highly successful launch of Oppenheimer’s film at several major Western film festivals, in an Al Jazeera follow-up report inspired by “The Act of Killing” (Vaessen 2012), Congo weeps during a Skype conversation with his former admirer, who is now safely back in Europe: “I very much feel that what you’ve produced has made things very difficult for me.” Oppenheimer indicates that he understands Anwar’s predicament, but assures Congo that he will never forget his bravery in opening his story to the world, revealing “how people can commit evil acts.”

Oppenheimer has indeed succeeded in documenting, and drawing mass attention to, a predicament both uniquely horrifying, and, at the same time, rather typical in the discourse of the Third World: that of gross human rights violations, and, in this case, genocide, at the hands of a corrupt regime and its supporters. The film is thus both problematic and also potentially powerful as a local political tool, depending on the context in which it is shown and what other sources of information viewers have to process its sweeping claims.

Congo, having heard Oppenheimer out via Skype, says nothing, but instead raises himself, still streaming tears, and walks away, leaving laptop and camera alone in the room. For him, and Indonesia, there will be no ending scene, plane ticket home, or “180 degree turn” that leads to an unambiguous truth.

Oppenheimer has said, on the record, that he would be in danger if he returned to Indonesia…in danger, perhaps, from the government, but maybe from the gangsters themselves.

Avoid Building a Film on the Bedrock of Pornography

Pornography is the use of other people’s “reality” for our pleasure. In “The Act of Killing,” our pornographic interest is generated primarily by the gangsters’ ignorance of us watching and disapproving. It’s titillating to stand on the safe side of a one-way mirror…unseen, amazed, judging…as the gangster’s cinema fantasies grow more and more grandiose. The film keep stimulating wonder, and titillating narrative questions: “How far will the gangsters go… especially on camera?” “Don’t they know we are watching them… aghast?” “Why have they been tolerated for so long?”  There are adequate answers and explanations of the gangsters’ performances but explanations would dampen audience fascination with the sideshow.

Don’t titillate us with others’ sad condition, with the Medan gangsters’ demonstrations of their power and their Hollywood fantasies. Rather, try to de-titillate or de-pornographize such experiences, so that the underlying structural forces producing and protecting these criminal behaviors are laid bare. There are many techniques to do this: Harun Farocki de-pornographized napalm in “Inextinguishable Fire.” Trinh T. Minh-ha de-pornographized African villagers in “Reassemblage.” Alain Resnais de-pornographized the atomic bomb in “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”

Don’t Compromise Your Audience

As the cameras roll, Congo proudly demonstrates his preferred killing technique (strangling with piano wire…“less blood”) then carefully directs the re-enactment of it on film. Because the American director stands in for viewers, we enjoy, vicariously, his intimate, non-judging, comfortable collaboration with Congo. As the filmmaker’s accomplices, we are unable to separate from identifying with his methods of seduction – cameras, crew, make up, props, costumes, and extravagant lighting instruments – so that the gangsters can squeeze, in their inept way, sinister, and sometimes absurdly romanticized, movie experience from their histories.

Normally, in non-fiction film – for better or for worse – we are left alone with our Judeo-Christian “thou-shalt-not-kill” and certainly our “thou-shalt-not-kill-and-boast-about-it” judgments. But here, both our invisibility behind the camera, and our comfortable and confident superior moral position has been eroded by our partnership with the unseen but very present director, who keeps encouraging the gangsters’ boasting demonstrations.

We want to trust the director but we are not used to this treatment and so we squirm… we squirm, rationalize and hope… hoping, for almost two hours, that the end of the film will loose the narrative straightjacket we have suffered by Congo’s finally realizing remorse.  We feel deeply compromised by the intimacy and collusion. We struggle to exercise our own judgment. Our occasional snickerings at the glamorized fantasies are but feeble attempts to twist ourselves out of this excruciating dilemma. The filmmaker has forced a trade of our moral reasoning for grotesque cinema thrills.

Avoid Using Documentary For Confessions And/Or Primal Therapy

When, at long last, we see Congo in pain, unable to retch… seemingly weakened by the memories he has been attempting to reproduce for the screen, the narrative has completed its task and the audience is relieved of tension…I guess. Theoretically we have been “paid back” for our time and interest, but the payback is unsatisfying and we feel it.  Congo’s remorse is not useful for anything except resolving the film’s narrative and rationalizing the compromising footage that preceded it. Congo’s retching can’t stack up against the murders. It can’t unravel the director’s web of intentions. It offers nothing in the way of restorative justice. And it can’t explain how it was possible for Indonesia to be turned on its political/social ass almost overnight and why it remains in its ghastly condition today. It can’t explain anything that we want to understand. That would require a different kind of film.

Poor Congo. On the “Act of Killing” website, the director explains, “He needs the filmmaking to address his own nightmares so he can live with himself. He’s trying to deal with his pain. He’s trying to experience his pain.” The unseen but ever present filmmaker captures his audience with daring tales of murder, and then rationalizes audience discomfort with the suggestion that we have witnessed the saving of one person’s soul. Congo’s pain is not our business. We are not priests. We cannot pardon anybody. This witnessing makes us feel helpless and distraught. Confessions are private matters unless part of a reconciliation process.

As with scenes of people praying and meditating on camera, it’s hard to believe that these are not performances of self for the camera… perhaps, even unconsciously…performed to pay back the filmmaker’s expensive investment in the social actor’s participation in the film. I trust that I am not the only one in the audience who has speculated that Congo felt he owed the American filmmaker an ending, and delivered it.

The possibility that Congo dutifully performed retching for the American filmmaker had apparently never occurred to Oppenheimer. Errol Morris, one of the executive producers of the film, queried the director about this issue, and, as reported in Morris’ Slate article in July, 2013, Oppenheimer was very disturbed by the suggestion that Congo’s participation in his film had not brought him to remorse, that the retching — like the gangsters’ other productions, was a required performance, that Anwar was not seriously interested in confessing guilt. Oppenheimer responded:

You’re raising a very, very scary thought. It’s so disturbing in some way that it would’ve been hard for me to maintain my relationship with Anwar, if this were an operating assumption. It could be right. If Anwar doesn’t have a past and also has these at the very most echoes, reverberations or stains from what he’s done that he doesn’t recognize, and if the final moment is maybe yet another moment of performance, if he then disappears into the night and we’re left in this shop of empty handbags, and there’s no connection to the past on that roof, then it’s almost too chilling for me to contemplate what the whole movie is really saying. It’s a disturbing thought.

It is a disturbing thought.


One afternoon, in a dentist’s office, I leafed through People magazine’s December 30,, 2013 issue. There were many top ten lists, among them the Top 10 Movies of the Year. Sandwiched between #3, “American Hustle” and #5, “Gravity,” was #4, “The Act of Killing,” summarized as: “The year’s most stunning documentary unmasks men responsible for mass killings in Indonesia as both boastful and pathetic – and disturbingly, still in power.” Hot stuff – but that’s entertainment. And entertainment, combined with Judeo-Christian high moral education, is what liberal-consensus audiences seem to desire. It’s what gets nominated for Academy Awards.

Perhaps distribution of this film should be limited to the numbed and fearful Indonesia people, among whom – and I take the director’s word on this – the portrayal of Congo’s movie fantasies, and now Congo’s discomfort and guilt are sparking renewed interest in examining the last 48 years of Indonesian history. The director suggests that Congo’s cheesy re-enactments will help reduce fear of the right wing state, which has ruled with violence and intimidation all those years. I hope it does. But I would suggest that the possibility of empowerment has been eclipsed. This would have required input, real collaboration between the perpetrators and victims.

The education of the rest of us has failed. Without education, we are likely to stay silent the next time our politicians see it in their interest to destabilize another peoples’ government, by any means necessary.

Jill Godmilow has produced and directed award-winning non-fiction
and narrative films for several decades, including Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman
(1974); FAR FROM POLAND (1984), Waiting
for the Moon (1987): Roy Cohn/Jack Smith (1995); What Farocki Taught, (1997); and Lear ’87 Archive (Condensed), (2003). Her work has been recognized by the
Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, nominated for an Academy Award, and
featured at the Whitney Biennial, the Sundance Film Festival (1
st prize
for Waiting for the Moon), and many
She has been interviewed in American
Film, Afterimage, In These Times, History and Theory, Text Performance Quarterly.
In 2003, ANTONIA was added
to the prestigious National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. All her
films are archived at the Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater
Research.  She has just retired
from 20 years of teaching film production and critical courses in the
Department of Film, Television & Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.

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I was on board through the first page of your article. Your observations about this film being a uselessly numbing presentation of the worst kind of evils was spot on. Then our rivers parted and your piece devolved into a left wing screed peppered with soft racism and a horrendous grasp of history. How fitting that you would never have been able to write your opinion(one that goes against the grain) in your hero Sukarno’s Indonesia as you would have been thrown in jail to rot by his police squads as so many free thinking writers did during his rule. People were incarcerated(and tortured) for playing rock muisc. He pulled his country out of the United Nations and would rather let Indonesians starve than accept aid to feed them. You are a damn fool for your wilfull ignorance of history. You are a petty and clueless ideologue.


Gosh, I think you should chill Jill! ;) You really got it wrong. You are criticizing a film for not fulfilling your wishes of what you would have liked to have seen in it instead of decoding it and try find out what is its actual message. Maybe you should go out there and make the film you were wishing it was instead?
This is a doc about the human condition and it works without any previous knowledge of Indonesia’s socio-politic historic background. It is so profound because it is a universal subject and you can understand it without having ever even heard of Indonesia in your entire life.


" I walked out because I was miserable in my viewer’s seat – shackled in the intolerable position the film suggested I should be comfortable in." – i don’t think there’s any suggestion by the film, or filmmaker, that they want you to be comfortable watching this movie.

Christopher Daniggelis

Someone might like a movie called a revenge fantasy, others might watch a portrait of a sociopath who might be totally immune to guilt ala the sopranos. This movie is revenge without the crime of psychical violence. This really isn’t a movie but an event. This film is an elaborate set up and manipulation that the above critic does not see, the film uses fame as the bait to draw the actor into a role and lose himself in it….like brando, sellers, Lewis or bale might, to ruin any chance he has of a peaceful moment for the rest of his existence.


This review is an embarrassment to film reviews, an embarrassment to art and media. I was so fascinated by it’s banality that I looked up some of the author’s "work". (See what I did there? I put a word in quotations.) Is this the best neoliberalism and its sociopaths and lackeys can do to defend themselves against the truth? Think for yourself, the problem is "An Act of Killing" is a brilliant film, beyond the construct of documentary, and beyond the history (and present) it shows. It’s a shining jewel of meaning whose force will continue to unfold for years. A film addressed to truth and to the soul, a Heart of Darkness for the 21st Century. For those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, go see it. For comedy, go watch some this reviewer’s films. (She actually made a film about the Solidarity movement in Poland, without being there and talked about what she thought of it as an anti-communist movement or some such thing. What is Indiewire?)

John Roosa

Six Ways of Not Seeing a Film
John Roosa

Jill Godmilow asks that documentary film educate the viewer with “useful history and analysis.” Her critique reveals that she completely missed the education that The Act of Killing offers. Oppenheimer is teaching calculus and she’s complaining he’s not teaching her addition.

Poor Jill. So much went over her head. Like the meaning of the re-enactments. For Jill, “there is nothing new” in these re-enactments; they are like those in Nanook of the North (1922). Wow, that’s quite a comparison given that the decades-long discussion of Flaherty’s film has been on the fact that his re-enactments were not revealed to the viewer as re-enactments. Oppenheimer does the exact opposite: he films people as they present themselves to the camera. The viewer sees them talk about how they wish to re-enact events; the viewer knows the subjects in the film are performing for the camera. We learn about the subjects from their manner of self-presentation. Oppenheimer turns Flaherty inside-out and Jill just sees the same old Flaherty.

You know Jill is the student needing new glasses when you find her expressing the point of the film as a criticism of it: “As with scenes of people praying and meditating on camera, it’s hard to believe that these are not performances of self for the camera… perhaps, even unconsciously…” Kudos to Jill for getting the right answer for the wrong reason. Yes, they are performing for the camera. That’s what Oppenheimer wanted you to understand.

The only thing Jill sees as new in TAOK is “carnage, and the special, cozy relationship we are urged to enjoy with the killers.” Carnage. Is that how this film is to be described? Somehow Jill missed the majority of the scenes which are about Anwar and his posse talking about the meaning of the killing and the ways they should represent themselves. It takes some effort not to see all those scenes and fixate on the re-enactments of violence. It also takes some effort by a viewer to feel that the film is urging her to enjoy a “cozy relationship” with the killers, or duping her “into admiring, for an hour or two, the cool Rat Pack killers of Medan.” I would have thought it was clear that the film presents Anwar and his friends as repulsive. The film encourages us to see them as human, not as caricatures of evil. But it certainly doesn’t allow the viewer to feel cozy with them. (Since she sees Anwar and his friends as the Rat Pack, I’m worried about the kind of bad crowd this student Jill is hanging out with.)
Read rest of essay on Act of Killing's Facebook page


The misguided wrath of Godmilow's Professorial Emerita should be re-directed towards the redundant, bland, award-ridden insult to documentary film: '20 Feet From Stardom'


I only read the first page because I don't care what some white woman thinks about this. Maybe the message you're missing is – not everything in the world is all about you & your feelings.

Also because pagination is rly annoying. Single-page-view plz


I will watch the film now! I want to know what I feel after watching the movie! Thanks for the article


Hi Indiewire,

Great site and a fascinating article that makes me want to do a point-by-point rebuttal. For free, to submit to feed the hungry Indiewire web beast! To some immediate-ish deadline otherwise, I won't have time. I'm not a filmmaker though, I am a journalist, writer and doco-film geek (studied at university blah blah), who happens to live in Indonesia.

I was one of a handful of people who first saw the film here, and some of the things I think this writer says are spot on, and others, well, they offend me. Enough to make me want to "go into dialogue" without payment, y'know, with the crushing possibility of rejection, if not up to scratch… Thing is, most sites have a place you can contact for editorial (I know it's annoying, those fanboys and girls at your virtual door all the time…) but, ummm, not Indiewire, or am I just going blind?

PS. I don't really do Twitter — I guess that kills any likely response from editorial team right there, heh.


I'm a little taken aback by the vitriol in the comments.

Godmilow's piece seems to me to be making a reasonable critique:

1. The filmmaker and the critics have represented this piece to the public as "unprecedented" and described their own bewilderment over dealing with the ethical considerations involved in making (and seeing) the film.

2. But in fact these issues have come up many times before in the practice of documentary filmmaking, and many intelligent, experienced filmmakers have come up with rules for dealing with them and made solid arguments why those rules are important.

3. When those rules are applied to the way The Act of Killing was made and presented, the film exhibits a number of serious ethical violations that experienced filmmakers have carefully avoided for decades for very good reason.

If you disagree with any part of this analysis, you should say so. But I've seen little in the comments making reasoned arguments against any of the statements in the article.


This 'critique' is a factually innacurate, ranting piece of pseudo-intellectual garbage – all six 'points' have already been answered many times over in the past 6 months or so. Big fail, Jill Godmillow. Also the disingenuousness of labeling her as a 'Oscar-nominated director' is laughable. I've never heard of any of her or any of her films, potentially for good reason if the quality of her films match the paltry intellectual rigour of this.


Thanks to Indiewire for giving Jill Godmillow and a generation of righteous, pedantic bores enough intellectual rope to hang themselves.


i'm indonesian and i found this piece of garbage movie manipulative and onesided. it is a fact that the USA/CIA financed the killers. why is this not in the movie? this movie portrays indonesia like some backwards country full of thugs and idiots that are in dire need of help from the western world. well SCREW YOU! did you forget about all the native indians you murdered? all those innocent people in hiroshima and nagasaki you bombed? the list goes on and on.


Have you considered retiring and allowing new, interesting and challanging film makers the freedom to make films?


Very interesting piece. I'm of two minds regarding the film, with one foot in the door of calling it "landmark" and another in the cesspool of doubt wondering if it exploits its subjects and subject matter. I guess if it can generate such strong reactions from me and others there must be something to it.


This deranged rant of a "critique" doesn't even justify a detailed response – it's simply incoherent.

nina menkes

Totally agree with the article. I myself walked out of the film, found it revolting, and ethically………………… the garbage.


Thanks so much to Jill for articulating everything that the documentary didn't and for offering up a higher standard to which we all should aspire.


WOW. And to think that innocent perusal of People magazine led to this nightmare of a piece.

1) Indonesian victim groups told him to make this movie.

2) Indoneisan human rights groups are encouraged because this movie has literally single-handedly got a leader of Indonesia to admit the massacres were a crime.

3) How can you both be angry that they are letting killers talk and then feel sorry for the central killer when he admits the film is "making life difficult for him"? And then ALSO be angry that the film was a catalyst and chronicle of his coming to grips with his crimes?

4) "Little Brown People"?????

5) Oppenheimer has been on a media tour explaining the collusion of the US (and other Western powers) in the killings. He specifically details CIA involvement and explains how elements of the corrupt dictatorship have kept power even up until now with Western support. He left this out of the film so that it would secure a wider audience. It is highly unlikely that it would've received such universal acclaim and nominations had it focused on US involvement, and his goal with the film was to make the biggest impact in terms of Indonesia changing and the world being made aware of the crimes. Those who wish to follow up, and there are many, will easily find the truth, even from the special features on the DVD.

Liam then

I really hope next time mr oppenheimer would make a real documentary on how freport mcmor
rans for decades safely digging down a mountain in papua..paying only a percent of royalty back and how did they land on such a sweet deal..would be very interested how mr.oppenheimer disclose later what freeport use to secure their sides…then lets talk about morality and of these hypocrisy.thank u again jill.g

Liam then

thank u alot Jill G. your lenghthy review just bridges what i really think about this so called documentary..which i think you are too kind..i'll put it simply with my bad english that this documentary is rubbish…made by hiprocrisy disguising itself as moral police…i wonder how many died in the fight against communism all over the world back in that time…and now this mr.oppenheimer did this rubbish as an art of uncovering truth ..

Deaf Ears


The Dog

Absolutist ethical standards are based on the theory that someone – or Someone – is keeping score. Documentaries like this remind us that there is no such assurance of supreme justice. We will never know if we are seeing the "real" Congo at the end because that real Congo has no single definition, no "moral centre" (to use a really silly term). Neither does the filmmaker. Despite our protestations, neither do we, the audience. I like the film because it made me a better atheist.


"made with Cassandra Gerstein and an all-female crew"

Yeah, there's someone without an axe to grind….


"Little Brown People"??? WTF?? Wow, I couldn't read past this racist stereotyping. At least Oppenheimer treated them like individuals. Even if the murders were US backed, the guys on screen were the ones who did the killing, with relish.

Kyle Burton

This argument intimates that documentary comes from and must remain in this mode of historicity, fairness, morality, ethics, process–a mode of journalism. Only one part of that assumption is true.

"The Act of Killing" maintains firm insubordination toward those expectations for a very clear reason: The doc cannot make sense of the situation. Politically, that situation's complex. But the doc is not incited by politics. Its is a human reaction: How could this be?

Is it Oppenheimer's responsibility to make "Shoah: Indonesia"? Of course not. Instead, he peers inside these men. Forget the sociopolitical circumstances that give way to like terror. What in a person–an individual–can be seduced by this wretched course of life? The doc aims to confront. It aims to upset. "It’s titillating to stand on the safe side of a one-way mirror…unseen, amazed, judging": Are we so weak an audience that our premium pleasure with documentary is categorizing and judging the people on screen? We're supposed to feel repulsed neither by these "foot-soldiers" themselves nor some sympathetic or even "glamorized" platform they've been given; rather, the doc, as others have pointed out, recognizes that evil action is not so definitively traced back to an evil person. Where do we go from there? Oppenheimer's looking.

The dialogue opened up here is worthwhile. But it's important to accept these "warnings" as preferences, not lessons. These are regressive "warnings," but they are restrictions with a productive track-record.

We should be thankful for this article. While it is codified in a standard of expectation paralleling the one it's trying to impose on "The Act of Killing" (and nonfiction film as a whole), people responding this emphatically, disparately, and theoretically to a film is testament to it pushing us to a place many of us aren't yet comfortable with. Not a fan? The coming film-scape will be generous to your dissension.


"Waaah! Someone is calling this film a documentary, and I feel personally that it should fall under more stringent guidelines to be addressed as such! WAAAH!! Give credence to my pedantry! Waaaaaahh!"

Victor Morton

Meanwhile, I can't not note that the very same paragraph praising "a dedication to history and context" claims that "US style anti-communism" existed before either the United States or the birth of Karl Marx's grandfather. A statement that is completely ahistorical and/or … well, "anti"-contextual.

Victor Morton

"imagine a documentary with Al-Qaeda more or less boasting they murdered people on 9/11 would that be oscar nominated? it is powerful and ''fascinating'' as long as it happens somewhere else isn't it ?"
Why do the people who object to ACT OF KILLING's existence assume that they know the answer that those of us who think it's a great film would give to that question, or its Godwin cognates? Wait … I know … and if I thought like these "critics," I'd feel perfectly free to state it and attribute it to them as if it were true. A taste of their own medicine, one might call it.

Regardless … that hypothetical al Qaeda film (or the Nazis bragging about Auschwitz) would not exist (or rather it wouldn't be an ACT OF KILLING cognate if it did) for a very simply fact that is part of what makes ACT OF KILLING great. Al Qaeda (and Nazi Germany) did not win. The only reason ACT OF KILLING is possible is the actually honored position these men and/or their 60s deeds objectively hold in the real-life country called Indonesia where life has gone on, under the Suharto coup. That victory over Sukarno is the presupposition of the film's tension, its characters, its intellectual stances, its surreality (on several fronts).

Allan Weisbecker

Had I not been too exhausted to deal with this silly review, I would have written something like this:

These men are not monsters. They are pretty average guys, except for the fact that they are mass murderers. As a viewer, I had to figure out a way to deal with that, just as any thinking person has to deal with the fact that genocide and politically motivated atrocities happen all the time and are perpetrated mostly by "average" people with families. I never saw these men as "brown people" or somehow less civilized than I am. In fact, I saw them as very much like some people I know, who, if put in a society and political regime similar to Indonesia and given some power that went along with deep-seated political beliefs (which can happen ANYWHERE jingoism, political corruption, and religious fundamentalism co-exist), would probably act the same way.

Which was written by someone else (below) and exactly reflects my feelings.

DeeDee Halleck

I haven't seen it, but after seeing those stills from it, and the creepy trailer I saw in a theater, as Bartleby said, "I prefer not." Another problem is the fact that the biggest booster of the film is VOA– Voice of America–which is part of the "security establishment" that brought us the real Indonesian horror. I am glad Jill is taking this on. She has paid her dues in trying to make new forms of documentaries. Challenging, yes, but always with a dedication to history and context. On one point I disagree. "It" did not begin in Iran in 1953. US style anti-communism started with genocide of the puritans against the indigenous population of this continent. The most important reason for that murderous crusade was the fact that the natives could not accept the notion of private property. They were the original communists. Throughout Latin America from 1898 on, any left government was swiftly eliminated. My film, The Gringo In Mañanaland shows how Hollywood and "educational"/industrial films supported and promoted those moves. As to Act of Killing, obviously the Academy members prefer song and dance, overlooking the context and history of (our many) Dirty Wars.
(I am also an Oscar nominee– for The Mural on Our Street (doc short subject) 1965!


What better way to chastise the assumed Judeo-Christian, liberal audience and critics who were moved by the film, than to present a bunch of Judeo-Christian, liberal "rules" that all documentarians should abide by. Yes, let's take away "confessional" documentary practices. We should assume our subjects may lie anyway, being that authentic confessions only happen in private to generate rapprochement. Yes, let's only show our subjects in the best possible light. After all, they were nice enough to appear on camera. Also, no more depictions of "little brown people" hurting other "little brown people" by Western lenses, since the West is usually the instigator of such conflicts, and "judge not, lest ye be judged."

These flimsy rules may benefit the documentarian who thought them up (or they may not), but as for their beneficial qualities to all documentarians, I am more than skeptical. For someone so stringently opposed to "making" history without facts, she presents very few facts herself in her attempt to undermine Oppenheimer's integrity as a filmmaker. The author stabbed at every perceived chink in the armor of the film, without ever penetrating with a clear and factual example of how the film or filmmaker actually sinned.

It would be interesting to see this article presented in a documentary form that attempts to adhere to the dogma laid out in it.


I was shocked when watching this documentary in a theater that it was met largely with peals of laughter, followed by awe at the cinematography – which was by all admission, breathtaking. The third reaction was shock at this horrible and very recent history so many of us know very little about. True, the film was poetic and beautifully shot and it's artistic merits can not be faulted. But I don't think it's artistry elevates it above being a piece of fairly indulgent film-making for both the director and participants rather than a profound study in the events it portrays, or indeed how we, as spectators consume the film.

Rather than portray the ravaging effects of war or mass hysteria and its ramifications on 'ordinary' people and how it changes their behaviour, it showed a group of men who showed no remorse and who were still proud and quite visibly, feared in their community. The only iota of self recognition by them was crudely grafted onto the film for me at the end in the torture recreation scene and when one of the forerunners' grandson finds a wounded chicken. Forgive me if these references are wrong; by this point I was completely uninvested in the documentary and in even identifying with these men as human beings, never mind ones who are have intimidated the denizens of their home place into treating them as celebrities.

It was surreal and it was stunning but past the surface, the thing which was most surreal for me was the wide audience treating it as spectacle rather than a documentary. To laugh at a man who has killed thousands pompously putting on a wig and make up is giving him a platform he quite simply doesn't deserve.


A delight to read this. The Act of Killing is not yet available here, so I haven't seen it, but it's so good to see a thoughtful, filmmaker-written, discussion about the ethics of documentary filmmaking when working with social actors in another culture. Many thanks to you, Jill.

Jim Dodge

Only two critics wrote negatively about the film? She didn't research the article very much. A simple Rotten Tomatoes search reveals six critics who wrote about it negatively.


I see many more than 3 or 4 documentaries a year. I make documentary films and have quite a bit of historical knowledge of the genre. I thought The Act of Killing was one of the most thought provoking, mesmerizing, and uncomfortable documentary I have seen in quite some years and while I found this article interesting, I really don't agree with much of what the author is saying. She and I had a fundamentally different experience watching this doc. At first, when I heard about The Act of Killing, I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch it. But I did, out of some sense of duty (I was voting for the Spirit Awards). Yes, it was jaw dropping. Yes, I watched in horror as the men the doc focused on talked about the horrible things they had done as if it was just another day at work.

But it was so much more than "pornography."

These men are not monsters. They are pretty average guys, except for the fact that they are mass murderers. As a viewer, I had to figure out a way to deal with that, just as any thinking person has to deal with the fact that genocide and politically motivated atrocities happen all the time and are perpetrated mostly by "average" people with families. I never saw these men as "brown people" or somehow less civilized than I am. In fact, I saw them as very much like some people I know, who, if put in a society and political regime similar to Indonesia and given some power that went along with deep-seated political beliefs (which can happen ANYWHERE jingoism, political corruption, and religious fundamentalism co-exist), would probably act the same way.

I have always felt the best films (fictional or documentary) confront the viewer with ideas or emotions that are challenging and sometimes difficult to process. The more we think about the implications of what a film means, whether we liked or hated it, the more successful the film was at accomplishing its goal. So, for me, The Art of Killing was an incredibly successful film and one I won't soon forget. I wish I could say that about most documentaries I see or even the ones I make.

Allan Weisbecker

Although I disagree with with virtually everything said here, I'll only make a simple observation, which, I would submit, is inarguable, almost by definition: If 'The Act of Killing' didn't spawn outraged, moralizing diatribes like what we have here, it wouldn't be the profound piece of art that it is.


It may feel bracing and righteous to mount an attack like this, but each of those six elements is present in all documentary film in one way or another. For better or worse, docs manipulate. What makes The Act so completely arresting is that it is a mirror of our current relationship with media – voyeuristic, awful, uncomfortably engaging, etc. It's also true that many of the author's points are simply overstated. e.g. The last idea – no therapy – is too dogmatic to be real. Confessions can be private, but need not be. And reconciliation doesn't have to be an officially sanctioned effort to work. It may be grim and uncomfortable, but we are all complicit in this world, whether we like it or not. Today's media – and docs included – makes us witness terrible events, too often without bearing it. The Act makes this profound point. My take here, in case there's interest:


Sophistry and entertainment value mean more to people than political or ethical considerations. That many of Act of Killing's admirers are people who only see 3 or 4 docs a year and who have NO historical knowledge of the genre (not to mention its overlaps in anthropology and ethnographic procedure) tells you much that you need to know about its situation in the US.

"Gee, I had an emotional response, after all. The thing held my attention like nothing but Mad Men can!"


"compliance with certain classic codes of ethical documentary filmmaking"

What are these codes? Where are they written? Who made them?

You offer some interesting criticisms of the film and counterpoints against which to measure it (the attempt to dismiss critics that liked the film is too self-serving). The headings in the article that suggest there are some "commandments" being offered for documentary filmmaking, however, are a bit much. One person's aesthetic is not a code by which others are obliged to abide.


This long diatribe reads like the death rattle of an old world order of documentary filmmaking.

The author could have summed it up with one sentence, "Joshua Oppenheimer and I have different opinions on what makes an ethical and good documentary."

With all do respect, the authors view point lurks behind a thick lens of 40 years in the business, and documentaries are no longer subject to the norms of earlier documentary norms.

The story and, dare I say, the 'Truth' (with a capital 'T') of this work shines through.


Contrary to a lot of comments here, I think JG has really nailed the problematic political and ethical stance of the film. An intelligent and brave piece of writing. Thank you.


“It’s titillating to stand on the safe side of a one-way mirror…unseen, amazed, judging…”

That you say this with such confidence surprised me because I never – not for a moment – felt that I was in a position to judge the gangsters. The lack of historical information made it all the more apparent that this isn’t really a movie about Indonesia; it’s a movie about human nature and the atrocities it enables.
I watched this at home alone and not at the theater. I certainly would have been a lot more uncomfortable had I been among a group of people experiencing the detached disgust and shock you describe. Such a shallow reaction renders the movie completely pointless in my opinion and so I probably wouldn’t have been able to push through till the end.

“The possibility that Congo dutifully performed retching for the American filmmaker had apparently never occurred to Oppenheimer.”

Another bizarre statement coming from an actual documentary filmmaker. I don’t see how it would even be possible to make this movie without constantly questioning the authenticity of its central subject. This is what adds another layer of complexity to the film – Congo is undoubtedly “performing” for the camera even outside of the reenactments but does that make it less true? Isn’t his conscience clearly affected anyway? One moment he’s proudly showing his grandsons a reenactment scene and the next moment he’s crying in horror. You can’t make this stuff up.
Can anyone be truly genuine in front of a camera? We’ve seen Herzog perversely play with this question and manipulate his subjects, deliberately placing them in situations where they feel compelled to act in a certain way, creating an odd and artificial mood that says a lot about the documentary film medium. For Congo the reenactments are certainly forcing him to reevaluate his life, but even the simple act of sitting in front of a camera (and filmmaker) is drawing out emotions. What exactly is the point of documentary film if one simply reduces his gagging to “Oh, he’s acting”? Human nature is endlessly tragic and fascinating – it’s a shame that as a filmmaker, you don’t seem to think so.

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