Joshua Oppenheimer's documentary The Act of Killing observes original perpetrators of the 1965 Indonesian anti-communist purge reenact their killings in the form of movie scenes in whatever cinematic genres they choose, resulting in a wide range of disturbing movie scenes growing in surrealism. However, apart from the various scenes whose actual making we observe through the documentary itself, we never see the full cinematic product of this film within the film in its entirety. Yet, Anwar is clearly shown watching an apparently finished product at the end.

Now, I understand that this final filmic product wasn't so much the purpose of the documentary rather than the process of producing those reenactments and their effects on the perpetrators and the public awareness of this matter. And I could imagine quite a few reasons why releasing it to the public in uncommented form might be a bad idea:

  • It might be regarded tasteless, or a glorification of the killings, as that film is ultimately the killers boasting with their deeds and trying to get redemption from them. Yet similar accusations about the actual documentary have already been refuted by Oppenheimer previously. And the film also does contain slightly more self-aware scenes of Anwar being haunted by what he did. Likewise did the perpetrators already reason about the change of public opinion their film might have on the killings, so that aspect as well as what they did wasn't completely lost on them, especially on Anwar.
  • It might detract from the purpose and message of the documentary itself, which, as said, wasn't so much about the end procuct of a finctionalized version of the killings rather than the process of producing it.
  • It might be a problem for the makers who might regard the final product of it as a rather personal document and opt against publishing it. Though, one might argue that they would have a bigger problem with the actual documentary itself. And during the documentary there were multiple discussions reasoning about an actual publication of the movie they produce, yet Oppenheimer never seemed to actually lie to the perpetrators regarding what movie he really intends to do (and according to Oppenheimer Anwar supposedly doesn't feel betrayed by The Act of Killing).
  • Or we might simply already have seen more or less the whole product in pieces during The Act of Killing and releasing it as a whole wouldn't add anything at all.

Yet, in the spirit of true neutral observation and complete disclosure, the actual final product the making of which the documentary observed all the time might still be a fruitful addition to the The Act of Killing, as a kind of accompanying material, similar to the more victim-centric The Look of Silence.

So is there any official commentary whether there is any intent on publishing the fictionalized reenactments produced during The Act of Killing as a film on its own? If not, have there been any specific reasons mentioned?


There's a snippet in the excellent "Documentary Case Studies: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest (True) Stories Ever Told" that relates to an interview given by Joshua Oppenheimer. In it, he makes it clear that the 'film within a film' created by the various murderers was never intended for broadcast as a separate film for a number of reasons;

  • He promised those taking part that it wouldn't be released
  • The production quality is exceptionally low
  • The film was only ever intended to be part of a wider documentary and is essentially a series of disconnected scenes rather than a completed film in itself.

"And much of The Act of Killing, in fact partly the source of its title, involves Congo and his fellows filming scenes that dramatize their killings on improvised Hollywood-style movie sets. Oppenheimer encouraged Congo to imagine appropriate scenes and action, and together they found writers to write scripts, television stations to provide studio space, and crew to help shoot. Oppenheimer picked up the costs for the scenes. "We of course funded the scenes since they were only existing for our movie." They kept costs to a minimum by calling in favors whenever they could, and made clear to the men that the scenes they were making were solely intended for The Act of Killing and were not going to end up in any separate stand-alone film. They were set up as closer to therapeutic filmed exercises than for any theatrical legacy.

As to the scenes where you see the film being screened, this is analogous to showing the actors "the dailies" rather than a completed film

Oppenheimer decided to continue the experiment, hoping Congo's reflections on the footage might get them to psychological insights they couldn't have otherwise attained. He'd shoot, they'd screen, over and over. Along the way, Congo opened up more about his nightmares, rages, and ragged feelings. Oppenheimer reciprocated and emerged from these encounters with a fresh epiphany about his film: he'd spent two years looking for monsters but then realized to his intense discomfort that what he was searching for all along were simply—people. "With Anwar, I finally saw a human being. I've refused to make the leap from saying he's a man who's done something monstrous, to he's a monster."

  • Point 1 is a bit confusing, though, since the makers are seen actively debating about the film's publication (in private as well as during the talk show). Or did they simply mean the documentary? – Napoleon Wilson Nov 21 '15 at 18:00
  • @NapoleonWilson - Good question. Dunno – user7812 Nov 21 '15 at 18:01
  • As to the last point about watching dailies, this is certainly true, yet there is a scene pretty much near the end where Anwar does seem to watch the complete product in its entirety (as he watches the end and does rewind back to some other previous scene). – Napoleon Wilson Nov 21 '15 at 19:47
  • @NapoleonWilson - I've watched the scene a few times. It's not really certain whether there's a continual narrative. – user7812 Nov 21 '15 at 19:49
  • Sure, I wasn't trying to imply that either. Just that there is a continual movie at least. – Napoleon Wilson Nov 21 '15 at 19:52

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