Toggle Main Menu Toggle Search

Open Access padlockePrints

Performing Mass Murder: Constructing the Perpetrator in Documentary Film

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Simon Philpott



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC 4.0).


The massacre, torture, persecution, and imprisonment of real and imagined communists and sympathizers in mid-1960s Indonesia was among the greatest state-sponsored atrocities of the twentieth century and yet remains little known and even less understood outside Indonesia. An elaborate mythology about the supposed communist coup attempt of September 1965 was foundational to the military government’s legitimacy discourses. The dead, the tortured, and the imprisoned remained an existential threat to Indonesia’s survival according to these discourses, and yet they could not be spoken of, or acknowledged without fear of retribution from the state. This article explores one attempt to break the silence surrounding the massacres and to make visible the suffering of millions of Indonesians; it does so through an analysis of the documentary film, The Act of Killing, in which a number of those involved in mass murder re-enact their killings. It explores the contribution of the film to understanding the politics of mass murder through an interrogation of the history it purports to address and through the methods employed by filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer. It concludes that while the film is a singular achievement, it fails as a political intervention aimed at deepening understanding of the mass killings.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Philpott S

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: International Political Sociology

Year: 2017

Volume: 11

Issue: 3

Pages: 257-272

Print publication date: 01/09/2017

Online publication date: 11/05/2017

Acceptance date: 01/01/1900

Date deposited: 05/06/2017

ISSN (print): 1749-5679

ISSN (electronic): 1749-5687

Publisher: Oxford University Press


DOI: 10.1093/ips/olx011


Altmetrics provided by Altmetric


Find at Newcastle University icon    Link to this publication