The film, ‘The Act of Killing,’ has resurrected memories of one of the great forgotten mass murders of 20th Century Asia

The Academy Awards are most closely associated with expensive, red carpet dresses and banal acceptance speeches. There is rarely space for the edgy, politically meaningful, or foreign. This year, however, one Oscar nominee for best documentary feature, “The Act of Killing,” resurrects one of the great “forgotten” mass murders, some would say genocide, of 20th Century Asia.

The murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia is well known to have killed up to three million people. Estimating the death toll of Communist Party misadventures in China continues to produce internationally acclaimed books with figures as high as 45 million for the famine that resulted from the Great Leap Forward. And yet, while killings by communists are well publicised, the killing of communists, has received far less attention.

However, between 5,00,000 and three million communists, or people branded as communists, were slaughtered in Indonesia between 1965-67, a massacre that has been airbrushed out of Indonesian history textbooks and the world’s consciousness at large.

The Act of Killing” — co-directed by American filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer, and produced by Errol Morris and Werner Herzog — examines this little documented, or even acknowledged, part of Indonesian history, to deeply disturbing effect.

The facts behind the massacres remain shrouded in obfuscation, propaganda and resultant historical amnesia. What is known is that an attempted coup on the night of September 30, 1965, led to the killing of six Indonesian generals. In the days and weeks that followed, the Indonesian Army fingered the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) as the perpetrators, unleashing a killing spree in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of suspected communists were murdered.

The army is known to have instigated many of these murders, although large parts of the civilian population were implicated in them as well, through their mobilisation via religious and social organisations. There was also alleged U.S. involvement, with the CIA having possibly provided the Indonesian Army with lists of names and other details for thousands of communists.

Prior to the massacres, the PKI had emerged as the largest communist party in the world outside the Communist bloc, with over three million members and up to 18 million followers. It was a formidable political force, well disciplined and organised. After the 1965-66 killings, the PKI was wiped out and even the contemporary democratic Indonesian political landscape has a gaping hole for a Left.

Storyline

In the film, Oppenheimer stays clear of the complex historical details that engendered and enabled the massacres. Instead, he looks at the impunity enjoyed by some of the perpetrators, who, almost 50 years later, remain unpunished, unrepentant, and eager to recount their tales of bloodshed.

Set in a city in northern Sumatra, the movie abruptly switches from a lighthearted, almost cheery mood, with ageing gangsters joking about, and singing songs, to unvarnished horror, as they detail their brutal killings and carry out surreal re-enactments. The movie has an off-kilter feel, with the lines between fact and fiction blurring disorientingly. It is after all a documentary about a movie that the gangsters agree to make about mass killings that they undertook which are officially unacknowledged in Indonesia.

The question that looms large upon watching “The Act of Killing,” is why the massacres of 1965-66 remain buried in the rubble of history, rather than dug up and confronted. The Suharto-led military dictatorship that came to power in the midst of the murders, and that consolidated its power as a result of the elimination of its communist rivals, developed a narrative that stressed the cruelty of the communists and painted them as the aggressors rather than victims.

Schoolchildren were forced every year to watch a gory, propaganda movie, “Pengkhianatan, or Treachery,” that focused on the September 30 killings of the six generals by so-called communists and reinforced the idea that the nation was saved from communist terror.

“I saw so much stuff about communists being the bad guys that it somehow became the ‘truth.’ There was no access to any other version of reality,” explains 29-year-old Ray Hervandi, who went to school in Jakarta.

What is startling however is that even more than 15 years after the downfall of the Suharto regime, the killings of the communists remain largely unvisited. Today, Indonesia is a vibrant democracy with a general election scheduled for later in the year. And yet, there are no revisionist histories, no political party that has made a cause of the murders, and little discussion in the mainstream media about the “genocide.”

Release and reactions

That is, until “The Act of Killing” began to attract attention. The movie has not been released in theatres in Indonesia out of fear of an outright ban. It has however been available to download online for free, and also been shown in private venues across the archipelago. The Oscar nomination has predictably garnered interest, but much of the reaction within the country has been negative. If the film is to win, it will likely be discomfiting for, rather than celebrated in, Indonesia.

Teuku Faizasyah, a government spokesperson, was quoted by the Jakarta Globe newspaper claiming that the portrayal of Indonesia in the film was “as a cruel and lawless” country, and “not appropriate, not fitting.” “Much has changed since the 1960s,” he said.

However, Andreas Harsono, a journalist and human rights activist, points out that it is precisely because “not that much has changed (since the Suharto-era),” that the communist massacres remain so difficult for the political establishment to address.

He points out, for example, that the current Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is in fact the son-in-law of Sarwo Edhie Wibowo who was the military commander of the Special Forces unit that quelled the 1965 coup.

Mr. Harsono, who was born only a few months before the massacres began, says he has not been able to finish watching “The Act of Killing” in its entirety despite repeated attempts. It brings back an image that has haunted him since he was seven years old, when an employee in his father’s electronics company in East Java took him to the banks of the Jompo river and told him how the river had run red with blood. The employee recounted having seen a baby crying with hunger as it tried to suckle the breast of its slaughtered, dead mother.

There have been sporadic attempts in Indonesia at coming to terms with the massacres. During his brief presidency (October 1999-July 2001) Abdurrrahman Wahid, the leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a religious organisation that played a major role in the killings, asked for forgiveness from surviving ex-communists on behalf of the NU. No other national-level politician has followed his example, despite Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission having released the results of an investigation into the slaughter, in 2012. The commission found that “crimes against humanity” had occurred and that the military was responsible. It urged further investigation by the attorney general’s office. But, state authorities largely rejected the report and the attorney general has failed to take up the case.

Mr. Harsono makes the point that “The Act of Killing’s” detractors in Indonesia, who criticise it as a “foreigner’s” fetish, are often unaware that the movie is in fact co-directed by an Indonesian. The co-director, as well as the more than 60-member strong Indonesian crew, have all chosen to remain anonymous. “There is an Indonesian who has also made this movie, and he must remain nameless, because even today he fears for his life. What does that say about Indonesia?” asks Mr. Harsono.

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