The Act of Killing (Indonesian: ”Jagal”) is a 2012 documentary film directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
When Sukarno was overthrown by Suharto following the tragic 30 September Movement in 1965, Anwar and his friends were promoted from small-time gangsters who sold movie theatre tickets on the black market to death squad leaders. They helped the army kill more than one million alleged communists, ethnic Chinese, and intellectuals. As the executioner for the most notorious death squad in his city, Anwar himself killed hundreds of people with his own hands.
Today, Anwar is revered as a founding father of a right-wing paramilitary organization that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers, and they are happy to boast about everything from corruption and election rigging to genocide.
Anwar and his friends agree to tell the filmmakers the story of the killings. But their idea of being in a movie is not to provide testimony for a documentary: they want to star in the kind of films they most love from their days scalping tickets at the cinemas. The filmmakers seize this opportunity to expose how a regime that was founded on crimes against humanity, yet has never been held accountable, would project itself into history. Anwar and his friends to develop fictional scenes about their experience of the killings adapted to their favorite film genres—gangster, western, and musical. They write the scripts and play themselves and their victims.
Their fiction filmmaking process provides the film’s dramatic arc, and their film sets become safe spaces to challenge them about what they did. Some of Anwar’s friends realize that the killings were wrong. Others worry about the consequence of the story on their public image. Younger members of the paramilitary movement argue that they should boast about the horror of the massacres, because their terrifying and threatening force is the basis of their power today. As opinions diverge, the atmosphere on set grows tense. The edifice of genocide as a “patriotic struggle”, with Anwar and his friends as its heroes, begins to sway and crack.
Most dramatically, the filmmaking process catalyzes an unexpected emotional journey for Anwar, from arrogance to regret as he confronts, for the first time in his life, the full
implications of what he’s done.
The film was shot mostly in Medan, North Sumatra, Indonesia, between 2005 and 2011. Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, after seeing an early preview of The Act of Killing, signed on as executive producers.