Re-enactment and traumatic memory: cinematic ethics in The Act of Killing and S21: Khmer Rouge Killing Machine

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The Act of Killing (Oppenheimer, 2012) and its companion piece, The Look of Silence (2014), are powerful works of cinematic ethics. The former is a ‘perpetrator documentary’ that invites killers to make movie re-enactments of their crimes, the latter a case of ‘ethical witnessing’ in which a victim’s descendant questions his brother’s killer. In what follows, I explore The Act of Killing’s use of stylised re-enactments, using various movie genres as distancing and mediating devices, which enable the perpetrators to approach and expose their traumatic acts of violence. I contrast this with Rithy Panh’s perpetrator/witness documentary, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), focusing on the mass killings perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime (1975–1979), which uses both visual representations and a more direct, bodily performative mode of re-enactment, to represent and communicate traumatic memory. Both films examine a range of moral emotions, solicited through interview sequences and different modes of cinematic re-enactment. These strategies enable the perpetrators to expose their traumatic violence and, in some cases, acknowledge the suffering of their victims, but also allow the perpetrators to be questioned and held to account, staging an ethical encounter wherein the social recognition of traumatic memory of political violence might become possible.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)124-142
Number of pages18
JournalEmotions: History, Culture, Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 13 Jul 2021


  • documentary re-enactment
  • trauma
  • historical memory
  • cinematic ethics


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