The Act of Killing

A Film


Joshua Oppenheimer

This 2012 documentary is chilling and hard to watch, but it made a lasting impression on me for the way it investigates the imaginative processes by which human beings can distance themselves from the consequences of their actions. The film stirred some controversy because of its unconventional form. Director Joshua Oppenheimer overturned documentary conventions by choosing not to investigate in depth the mass killings in 1965-66 Indonesia, but instead explored the horror and its long aftermath in collaboration with the death squad leaders, encouraging them to restage some of their many murders  in the style of the American films they loved and modeled themselves after. In my opinion, it is Oppenheimer’s use of this method that turns what might have been a regular ‘issues film’ into a work of art with wider implications about what we see, how we see, and how we imagine.


I could not get the film out of mind, and it illuminated and expanded research questions that I had already been exploring in my practice. What are some of the imaginative process we apply to edit and frame our experience? A O Scott of The Times wrote that The Act of Killing ‘destabilizes the boundaries between make-believe violence and its real world counterpart.’ Although most of us are not mass murderers, I believe that we all create or participate in fictions that shape our sense of reality and have consequences in our lives. I began to research ways that I could create artwork that might point to, or even rupture, these habitual patterns of dissociation.


The film informed my practice in a more general sense as well. In a recent interview, Oppenheimer said, ‘I think it’s our obligation as filmmakers, as people investigating the world, to create the reality that is most insightful to the issues at hand.’ Without the reenactments, The Act of Killing would have been a safer, but much less significant film. This view of artistic enquiry has inspired me to apply more courage in developing strategies that are guided by the questions that underpin my work, even if these lead into uncharted territory.