Movie, Books Push Indonesia to Confront Its Bloody Past

Three new works ask Indonesians to take another look at the killings of 1965-66.

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Carlos Arango de Montis

A still from The Act of Killing. The documentary shows how self-professed killers of the 1960s massacre in Indonesia reenact their violent acts, including burning a village

One of the most-shocking films ever screened in Indonesia isn’t likely to be shown in movie theaters, but rather in bookshops, university campuses and art spaces. The Act of Killing (2012), directed by Joshua Oppenheimer together with Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian filmmaker, tells of brutal state-sponsored mass killings through the eyes of the perpetrators. They are preman — Indonesian for gangsters — who took part in the massacre of suspected communists in the town of Medan, in northern Sumatra. It was part of the purge that engulfed the country in 1965 and ’66, targeting members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), their friends and families, sympathizers and ethnic Chinese (because of the party’s close ties with Beijing). Many lost their lives at the hands of the army, Muslim militias, youth gangs or rampaging mobs.

In Oppenheimer’s documentary, which will be screened at Berlinale 2013 starting this weekend, the self-professed and now elderly killers not only recount and boast of their violent acts — they reenact them for a film within a film, acting as both victims and perpetrators. Their openness is a chilling reminder that in Indonesia, these mass murderers are still influential, untouched by the law, treated like heroes and even hailed as role models for the young. This gives The Act of Killing — known as Jagal in Indonesian, meaning slaughter — added poignancy as an indictment of the country’s political elite. From a Vice President to a Deputy Minister and a governor, they are shown praising and hobnobbing with the preman and the killers. The documentary, says Oppenheimer, a Texas-born filmmaker who now lives in Denmark, “is a game changer because the story is told from the side of the perpetrators. They never lost the war, they built the society.”

But The Act of Killing, which was shown at the Toronto Film Festival last year and had its first Indonesian premiere in early November, isn’t the only artistic work currently renewing pressure on Indonesians to confront their dark past. Novels penned by two of the country’s well-known authors, also dealing with the trauma of the 1965–66 witch hunt, came out in the last quarter of 2012, just months after the country’s National Commission on Human Rights declared the purge was a gross violation of human rights.

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Amba, which hit bookstores last October, is a tragic love story by 41-year-old Jakarta-born poet and novelist Laksmi Pamuntjak. It draws inspiration from the Mahabharata, the Sanskrit epic that inspires much traditional puppet theater and dance drama in the Indonesian archipelago. The novel is set against the backdrop of the violent clashes between the communists on one side and the nationalists and members of Muslim groups on the other. The title character, Amba, journeys from Java to the eastern island of Buru to look for her long-lost love, Bhisma, an East German–educated doctor who sympathizes with leftist ideals, three decades after he’s arrested and sent to the penal colony there.

If Amba is a tale of ill-fated lovers, Pulang (Coming Home) by Leila S. Chudori — a Jakarta-based journalist and award-winning author — is a story of families and friends entangled in the cruel snare of history. Released in mid-December, the novel centers on Indonesian political exiles who are abroad during the purge and later end up in Paris during the height of the 1968 leftist student protests there. (Pulang, a six-year labor of love for the author, was partly inspired by a group of exiles who ran an Indonesian restaurant in the French capital.) Meanwhile, their relatives back home are persecuted, ostracized and treated as pariahs.

The film and the novels all convey the horrifying scale of the 1965–66 anticommunist atrocities, which ushered in the iron-fisted, 32-year rule of General Suharto. Different army estimates place the number of those killed at between 1 million and 3 million. Hundreds of thousands of political prisoners languished behind bars or toiled in far-flung gulags (and, upon release, were deprived of their civil rights). By one count, around 1,500 people were forced into political exile overseas and stripped of their citizenship.

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The fall of Suharto in 1998 has opened a floodgate of memoirs, academic works and films, challenging an official view of events that highlights the communists’ alleged atrocities while sweeping anticommunist massacres, torture and detentions under the carpet. Despite growing public pressure, subsequent governments have largely failed to confront the atrocities. “What happened in 1965–66 in Indonesia is one of the 20th century’s bloodiest state-sponsored massacres,” says Laksmi, who visited Buru Island with a former political prisoner to research Amba and spent nearly eight years writing the book. “As long as the state continues not to address this fact, there is a danger that future generations will become increasingly distanced from it. These generations will assume that it is OK for state-sponsored human-rights violations of such scale and magnitude to go unchecked.”

In July 2012, the National Commission on Human Rights concluded the state was responsible for the atrocities that took place during the purge, and called for prosecution of the perpetrators, but Indonesia’s Security Minister responded by saying that the mass killings were justified to save the country from communism. The Attorney General said the evidence was insufficient to justify a legal probe. “The New Order [Suharto’s regime] planted the rulers’ version of history for a long time,” says Leila, a senior editor at Tempo magazine, which has published special editions on the 1965–66 massacre since 2005. “For Indonesians, being left means cruel and evil.”

The country also still retains Cold War-era laws banning communism, Marxism and the dissemination of atheism. “Indonesia has progressed a great deal in many areas, but it has been largely stuck in the 1965 mentality,” says Ariel Heryanto, associate professor of Indonesian studies at Australian National University. “Those who uphold New Order propaganda not only survived the regime change in 1998 and outlasted the New Order. They managed to hold on to state power. They continue to rely on outdated anticommunist propaganda to maintain their interests.”

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The establishment view of the past isn’t in any danger of being unseated by Amba, Pulang and The Act of Killing just yet, given the small audiences being reached. The first print runs of the novels, though sold out within several weeks, were a modest 5,000 copies each. To stay ahead of the censors, The Act of Killing, which was seven years in the making, can only be shown at small private screenings, often advertised at short notice via social media. It has been shown in over 90 cities in Indonesia, but has probably not been seen by more than 7,000 people (even if it has generated online buzz far out of proportion to its actual reach). Indonesians who have worked on the film are afraid to be openly associated with it, meanwhile unsure of his safety, Oppenheimer hasn’t returned to Indonesia. “If the film were released in the Suharto years, we’d know for sure what would happen: our lives would be in danger,” says the anonymous Indonesian co-director. “But in the reform era, nothing is clear. Maybe the lives of the film crew and publicity team in Indonesia would be threatened, but maybe not. Not knowing is more worrying than realizing that for sure we are under threat or in danger.”

And yet change comes from small beginnings. “What we are fighting against is not just historical amnesia but also historical ignorance,” Laksmi says, pointing out a 2009 survey that found half of the university students in Jakarta had never heard of the 1960s mass killings. “So it is important that works dealing with 1965–66 keep being produced.” Leila says that young readers “born in the 1980s and 1990s” have told her that “they already felt there are holes and gaps in the official history they studied in school.”

Even the perpetrators are being affected. There are several scenes in The Act of Killing that show a couple of former death-squad members reflecting on whether what they did was completely right. Oppenheimer singles out the main character Anwar Congo as being the most affected. “He can’t find the moral courage to say he feels guilty. He says he doesn’t feel guilty, but I think his body speaks more than his words,” the director says. “We can see that it has destroyed these men.” And just as the massacre troubles the onetime executioners’ conscience, it is likely to keep haunting Indonesia — until it can offer justice and reconciliation to the victims.

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