JAKARTA — Bejo Untung was a 17-year-old Indonesian schoolboy when armed soldiers came to his village in 1965, forcing him on the run for years until he was caught, tortured and jailed.
A communist-led coup attempt had just failed, triggering a wave of arrests and killings that ushered in more than three decades of rigid anticommunist education and propaganda. The subject is still so sensitive it is rarely broached in public.
But now a documentary, “The Act of Killing,” made by Texan-born director Joshua Oppenheimer, shines a light on that dark era, focusing on the death squads and torture that seem like a myth to the majority of the Indonesian population.
Oppenheimer came up with the idea for the film while working on a different project in North Sumatra and found many relatives of the Indonesians he was talking to had been killed or imprisoned between 1965 and 1966 for trying to form a union.
Most were too afraid to appear on camera to speak with him and suggested he talk to the killers. He took their advice and was horrified by his findings.
“I … encountered the boastful and shocking way that the killers were talking about what they did,” said Oppenheimer in a telephone interview from Denmark.
“That was for me the beginning of the journey. I realized, my goodness, how is it possible that the perpetrators of mass murder should talk loudly and boastfully and with smiles and laughter.”
The film, which runs for nearly two hours and won two prizes at this month’s Berlin International Film Festival, re-enacts several murders and features a member of a death squad.
These death squads were operating systematically across Indonesia mostly in the late 1960s. Estimates put as many as one million people dead in a wave of violence after the aborted coup and purge of communists and alleged sympathizers.
The main character in the film, Anwar Congo, was the one of the most feared death squad leaders in the area around the city of Medan in Sumatra.
“I choke them to death, with steel wire around the neck,” Congo says in the film, demonstrating in front of the camera how it was done. “And then pull it, sometimes with a pole. It’s easier that way and less blood to clean.”
Premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in October 2012, “The Act of Killing” took the Panorama Audience Award and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the recent 2013 Berlin International Film Festival but there have been no official screenings in the country where it took place.
It has been shown in about 265 underground screenings, with secret invitations among small groups, but there is the fear that police might try to block the screenings. Still, some 10,000 have been to see it.
The national police spokesman did not respond to questions asking whether the police would have tried to stop showings of the film.
Young Indonesian had long been taught that communism was sadistic and evil and given no alternative view to that era.
Until 1998 and the end of the iron rule of Suharto, the leader who took power shortly after the coup, viewing of a violent movie about how six generals and an officer were killed in the coup attempt was compulsory for schoolchildren.
Even last year an attempt by Indonesia’s human rights commission to look into the events surrounding the slaughter were effectively blocked by the government.
Bejo Untung said the movie reflected accurately what happened to him and many others.
Caught and imprisoned in 1970, Untung survived a year of torture—beating and electrocution—in prison and then a camp of several hundred men located in Central Jakarta. Three killed themselves while he was there, while others disappeared and were feared to have been killed. He spent eight years in jail without trial, including a stint of brutal forced farm labor.
“Ten of us were forced to stay in a room which can only fit two,” he said of his time in one prison. “We slept like layered cake, my head facing another inmate’s toes so we could breathe while we slept.”
Most of the protein in his diet came from “anything that moved” in the fields, including frogs, rats, snakes and snails.
“My favourite was the baby rat, it’s easy to swallow it alive,” said Untung.
He learned to play guitar and piano and made his own instrument during breaks. To learn English, he copied a dictionary word for word onto cigarette papers.
It wasn’t until 1979 that political prisoners were released, in order to open the way for Indonesia to receive financial grants from the United States and European nations.
Untung was a private music tutor until retiring and now heads YPKP 65, an organization for victims of the brutality. For nearly six years, he marched in front of the State Palace, the seat of Indonesian government, every Thursday together with other human rights victims, demanding resolution.
Now he and others want Indonesian history to be revised to reflect the truth of that period.
Hilmar Farid, a Jakarta-based historian at the University of Indonesia, said this was a lesson—not to allow absolute power to take hold.
“I doubt that the perpetrators will watch the movie and apologize … Political interest plays a big part. There is a need to have mass consciousness, mass repentance if necessary.”
Oppenheimer said his film, which cost US $1 million to make over five years, gave young Indonesians a different chapter to their nation’s history.
“From the history lessons in school, I only remember that they [the communists] killed and oppressed people, that’s it,” said 23-year-old graduate student Frederika Dapamanis after watching the movie. “I was sad and ashamed.”
There were also lessons for those older as well.
“For Indonesians old enough to remember the genocide, the film makes it impossible to continue denying what everybody in that generation already knew. They are closer to the perpetrators than they like to believe,” Oppenheimer said.
“It’s not because they’re communist or Indonesian, but they are human beings,” he said. “The movie, that’s a hurtful truth. Indonesia has to speak out about this. The government has to apologize and the truth has to come out.”