Joshua Oppenheimer and the Act of Killing

Jan 17, 2024 | Articles, Media

Anyone who is interested in documentaries and crime reporting must be aware of the mass killings in Indonesia. Joshua Oppenheimer covered the mass killings of 1965-66 in this crime documentary, and this masterpiece was released back in 2012. An anonymous Indonesian director was also included in this documentary, along with Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn. Against the New Order regime, the people of Indonesia and communists were tortured and killed.

Joshua Oppenheimer did an amazing job uncovering the atrocities committed by the killers during the dark period in Indonesia. Anwar Congo and Herman Koto are the very first subjects of the documentary, and they used to sell cinema tickets in black. and as American movies were banned at that time, they started working for the death squad. This death squad used brutal methods to execute people, and this was the start of the genocide. Stabbing, strangulation, and throwing people in the river were some of the most commonly used by the death squad. Joshua Oppenheimer contacted a few killers from the mass killings so actual facts could be presented to the audience. Anwar Congo alone was responsible for killing more than 1000 people.

Key Motivations behind the Act of Killing

There was too much blood in the movie, and Congo used to dance on dead bodies after beating them to death. In the documentary, Anwar explains how he used to kill people, and he still experiences nightmares at night. Viewers need to have a little knowledge of the background of the genocide, as more than a million people and communists were killed during the coup.

This documentary was started by Joshua Oppenheimer a decade ago, and he interviewed different survivors. The facts were unclear at that time, and one of the survivors suggested Joshua Oppenheimer interview the killers. So, instead of covering the stories of survivors, he started working on the stories of killers. Congo explained that most killers had their own reasons to justify their acts of cruelty because they used to think they were from the ruling class. Killers even labeled their acts as heroic. Here are some key motivations that encouraged Joshua Oppenheimer to cover the atrocities by the death squad:

  1. Uncovering Historical Atrocities
  2. Examining the Perpetrators’ Perspective
  3. Humanizing the Perpetrators
  4. Challenging Impunity and Denial
  5. Psychological Exploration
  6. Encouraging Accountability and Truth-Telling
  7. Revealing Societal and Cultural Dynamics Influencing the Killers

Joshua did an extraordinary job at exposing the acts of cruelty, and this crime documentary has an outstanding IMDb rating of 8.2/10. This movie was also nominated for several popular awards and prizes. Documentary lovers like to explore unique stories and ideas, and the factor of suspense and thrill makes these documentaries even more exciting. You might have read stories about casinos and casino heists. Casino companies scamming their players is also a common topic, but these things no longer exist as the digitalization of different industries has made things better for all.

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Release outside Indonesia

Right after its release in Indonesia, the movie premiered for release in the USA and UK. Joshua had doubts about the interest of viewers in the original documentary because they said that no one was going to watch the movie in the cinema about the crime that most people have not heard about. But he wanted the audience to realize the sensitive nature of the crime. After the screening of the documentary in the UK and the USA, viewers had positive reviews of the documentary. Finally, a final documentary of 160 minutes was released for the cinema audience. After the UK and USA, this documentary was released in other countries, too. At popular film festivals, this crime report was nominated for different awards, including:

  • Academy Award for Best Documentary
  • Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Documentary Feature
  • Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Documentary Feature
  • Satellite Award for Best Motion Picture, Documentary
  • European Film Academy Documentary Award – Prix Arte
  • BAFTA Award for Best Documentary
  • Robert Award for Best Documentary Feature
  • BAFTA Award for Best Film Not in the English Language
  • Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary

Many other cuts were also released in different regions, including an audio documentary by the director himself. The release of the documentary in Indonesia was a tricky matter because the censorship board was more likely to ban the movie. After some efforts, the documentary was released in Indonesia. In 2013, DVDs of the movie were distributed among common people, and more than 1096 copies were distributed in a total of 118 cities and 29 provinces. The prime purpose of the documentary was to let the world and Indonesian people know the facts behind the genocide. The online copy of the movie was even made available for free for the audience in Indonesia.

Many social media platforms also saw a huge trend about the mass killings, and more than 1200 tweets were made about the genocide after the release of the movie. Now, this movie will be available at different top streaming sites in 2024. If you have not watched this documentary yet, you should give it a try.



Joshua Oppenheimer, an American film director renowned for his work in Denmark, has earned acclaim for “The Look of Silence” and “The Act of Killing”, both Oscar-nominated. His portfolio, enriched by diverse art degrees from Harvard College and Harvard University, includes other noteworthy films that showcase his unique storytelling and deep understanding of cinematic arts. His contributions to film are not only artistic but also educational, influencing a generation of filmmakers.

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Thomas B.