The Media and Conflict Interchange: My thoughts on “The Act of Killing”

I wrote this essay in response to “The Act of Killing” (2013), a documentary film by Joshua Oppenheimer follow THIS LINK to find out more about the film.

The film was screened as part of the Media and Conflict Interchange, an event organised by The University of Bradford’s Media School and the Department of Peace Studies to highlight and discuss the relationships between film and conflict. More information can be found HERE

The Media and Conflict Interchange: My thoughts on the “Act of Killing”

Amongst all of the films shown at The Media and Conflict Interchange, a film which dealt with the representation of conflict most interestingly, was ‘The Act of Killing’(2010), by Joshua Oppenheimer. It follows the making of a fiction film based on a genocide that occurred in Indonesia and how a notorious death squad attempted to purge the country of communists. Interestingly, the perpetrators of these acts who are celebrated as heroes, yet to stand trial for their crimes, are the makers of this fiction film.

Oppenheimer did not aim to create his film this way. Initially, he wanted to talk to victims and their families but through fear of the repercussions and political pressure, this route of enquiry was closed. However those responsible for killing a collective estimate of one million people were more than happy to talk about their experiences. The ‘killers’, as they are known, are associated with the Pancasilla; a powerful militia organisation. This coalition of murderers and warlords attempt to use the fiction film as a vehicle to further push propaganda on an already brainwashed public.

Conversely, the documentary film employs observational conventions to expose the truth behind a state that has inflicted genocide. However, it has been critiqued that it may glorify violence. This is a counter-hegemonic decoding of the film as Oppenheimer has publicly defended his choices.

 “the film is essentially not about what happened in 1965, but rather about a regime in which genocide has, paradoxically, been effaced [yet] celebrated – in order to keep the survivors terrified, the public brainwashed, and the perpetrators able to live with themselves…. It never pretends to be an exhaustive account of the events of 1965. It seeks to understand the impact of the killing and terror today, on individuals and institutions.” Oppenheimer, Melvin, Inside Indonesia last accessed 3/11/2013<;

Subsequently, the film appears to deal with the ideas of representation and the truth supporting them. This is due to the documentaries’ reflexive conventions which leave the viewer with enough power to decode the messages in what appears to be our own way but the poetic blur of the real and surreal promotes a dominant hegemonic reading giving an “insight in to the circumstances of others and [we can] identify with them” (Dennis Mcquail 1987)

Throughout the film we hear boasts and claims of heinous acts. Gruesome murders are re-enacted by Adi and Anwar (of the renowned death squad) and casual boasts of raping underage girls by a member of the Pancasilla. The apparent honesty of these claims makes them shocking for the viewer to receive, but the way in which the information is framed encourages the viewer to decode them as admissions of truth.

The observational style by which we are shown the Pancasilla member speaking about murdering whole families and relishing in the memory of how he raped 14-year-old girls is represented as a filmic event. Another occasion at an event shows him speaking with other men about soliciting extreme sex acts and making misogynistic comments. These examples show how Oppenheimer has included these instances to inform the viewer that this man and probably the whole Pancasilla use their power to achieve sexual gratification in ways that are deemed unacceptable in most of society. Oppenheimer has framed these examples in a way that the viewer is left at a critical distance and the information we decode from these representations is evidence and in this instance any interaction from Oppenheimer is distracted from. If we consider the pro-filmic aspects of these examples, we notice that the contributor is likely to be wearing a radio microphone or there will be a boom microphone that would have been in his vision. We then concur that it is highly likely he and the people around him will be aware that they are being filmed which could encourage them to play up to, or control the discourse of information revealed, to the camera. This would support the agenda setting that we are already aware that the Pancasilla have and have already applied to create a state who use media, as Maslow’s hierarchy would explain, as using media for safety; for example which political party to vote for and which war criminal to celebrate. To further this we can infer from their co-operation and hospitality towards the Oppenheimer that they believe they have considerable control of their representation; they seemed unaware how a free media could choose to represent in a way that wasn’t to their specification.

This apparent deception raises issues over the impartiality of Oppenheimer’s argument. It would seem that the deception he employed lead the social actors in to a trap. The contributors appear to be free to create the film as they wish and speak freely about their experiences, which give them equal time and weight to Oppenheimer, which gives balance. He conveys his argument through the discourse that runs parallel to the facts revealed by the contributors, effectively using their ammunition against them. This kind of deception is widely sanctioned by media platforms especially where the information obtained by the deception is of clear public interest. The BBC’s editorial guidelines states on the topic of deception:

“It may occasionally be acceptable for us not to reveal the full purpose of the output to a contributor. Such deception is only likely to be acceptable when the material could not be obtained by any other means. It should be the minimum necessary and in proportion to the subject matter” (BBC Editorial Guidelines, p89 6.4.17)

Conversely, the truth of Anwar’s  and Adi’s representations are framed in an entirely different way. The film they devise and produce blurs the line between fact and fiction. We see their efforts to produce a film that hyperbolises facts to glorify their cruelness. Although we are aware that these events actually happened through the supporting interviews, we decode the facts as truth but the representations as false. This encourages the viewer to question the power of framing, selective inclusion and omitting of facts.

The fiction film utilises local people as actors as we are shown how they are affected by re-living horrific events. An example of this is when one of Anwar’s friends recalls the murder of his stepfather who was Chinese and assumed a communist. Recalling the event, he makes it clear that he is telling the story not because he resents the people that killed his stepfather, but instead believes that it will be a good addition to the film. He then continues to act the part of a communist being interrogated by Anwar and Adi. His performance is emotional and distresses him as he is put in the same position as his stepfather before execution.  There are many occasions when the actors who, some will have lived through these events, are seen to be in emotional distress. As a filmmaker, Oppenheimer has a duty of care over his contributors; an accepted convention of filmmaking. He should ensure that they do experience any harm or distress. It could be argued that Oppenheimer is an observer and Anwar  and the Pancasilla (who are amateurs and may not be aware of this practice) are the filmmakers, which would show them in a further negative light. Moreover, without Oppenheimer’s involvement the film is likely to not have been made and the apparent truths that surface through the re-telling of these events from the men that were responsible would not have come about. Therefore, in the greater scheme, an editorial decision may have been made to partly ignore the duty of care to ensure that the killers and the Pancasilla  are able the expose themselves in the truest way possible.

Truth in this film is constructed, observed and exposed. It is both insightful and problematic; the blurs between fiction and reality mirror a country torn apart by powerful men. The surreal rapport that is created between the viewer and the social actors attest to the state of Indonesians and those who killed so many in their community. It is important that Oppenheimer has represented the conflict in this country in such a reflexive way, as the film would simply be a collection of claims with insufficient support from victims willing to speak the truth. In this narrative structure, the context is incredibly powerful and I believe fulfils it’s purpose. While accepting the film is not easy to decode and deals with a difficult subject matter, the representations of conflict delivers at least some important message or argument to an audience member; educating, informing and revealing the truth thus completing an important task. It is also available as a free download within Indonesia making it accessible for the ‘brainwashed public’ to become informed and spark the beginnings of justice for those murdered during 1965-1966


Oppenheimer, J. et al. (2012) The Act of Killing [Documentary].  UK, Denmark, Norway : Final Cut For Real

Herzog, W. Morris, E. (2013) Warner Herzog and Errol Morris talk about “The Act of Killing” [Online Video]. US: Vice. Available from:  [Accessed on: 29.10.2013]

Oppenheimer, J. (2013) DP/30: The Act of Killing Documentarian, Joshua Oppenheimer [Online Video]. Unknown: DP/30 Available from: [Accessed on: 27.10.2013]

UK, BBC (2010) BBC Editorial Guidelines. London : BBC. Pp. 89, 95

Robert, C. (2013). Review: An act of manipulation? [Online]. Melbourne : IRIP. Available from : [Accessed on 29.10.2013]

Melvin, J. (2013). An Interview with Joshua Oppenheimer. [Online]. Melbourne : IRIP. Available from : [Accessed on 29.10.2013]

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