Oscar-Nominated Documentary Scrapes at Raw Wound in Indonesia

By Kanupriya Kapoor & Jonathan Thatcher 1 March 2014

JAKARTA/MADIUN, Indonesia — A chilling documentary about one of the worst massacres since World War Two is up for an Academy Award this weekend. If it does win, don’t expect the Indonesian co-director to go on stage to receive an Oscar: he’s worried for his life.

The nearly three-hour “Act of Killing” centers on one of the killers in Indonesia’s bloody purge of what was then the biggest communist party outside China and the Soviet Union, as he re-enacts for the camera, with no apparent sign of remorse, the way nearly 50 years earlier he had dispatched his victims by strangling them with a loop of wire.

It touches on the darkest period of Indonesia’s already violent early years as an independent state, which even after almost half a century is so raw a memory that it remains largely brushed from mainstream debate. The version in school textbooks still adhere to the line propagated by the autocratic leader Suharto who initiated the purge and who was forced to step down 15 years ago.

At least 500,000 people are thought to have died in the rampaging violence that started in late 1965 after then-general Suharto and the military took power following an abortive communist coup. A million or more people were jailed.

“It’s a tragedy and we, just like anybody else, despise those in the movie and the reenactment of the atrocities. These people don’t belong in Indonesia today,” said presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah.

He added: “It requires a lot of revisiting but…I don’t think we are mature enough [yet] as a nation.”

In a sign of how sensitive the topic remains, the Indonesian co-producer of the documentary and the other Indonesian members of the film crew say they do not want their names to be made public.

“Maybe we are too paranoid, but we discussed with various activists groups about the risk, the possibility of going from a threat to a real attack on our lives, and we really don’t know what would happen if we revealed our names,” the co-director told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Triggered in the midst of the Cold War when the West feared that communism was sweeping through decolonizing Asia, much of the slaughter was in the populous main island of Java and the now-resort destination of Bali.

Initially, it was the military that led efforts to crush the communist party. The operation was headed by a general, Sarwo Edhie Wibowo, the father of the country’s current first lady, and whose son is thought to have an eye on the presidency.

“Still Divisive”

The campaign mushroomed into an orgy of killing that saw the country’s biggest Muslim group, landowners, paramilitary organizations and those simply with a grudge against a neighbor, go after communist party members and their supposed sympathizers.

“To this second, I don’t know what I did wrong, why I was held, why I was beaten every night for six years, why they tore out my nails and…electrocuted me,” Parmoen Soedjarwo told Reuters, sitting in his simple, red-roofed house in Madiun in the agricultural heartland of East Java where much of the violence occurred.

“The military asked me if I belonged to the [Communist Party of Indonesia]. Whatever they asked me, I just said ‘yes, yes, yes’ to everything, even though I didn’t understand what they were asking. I would have said anything to survive and be freed quickly.”

Soedjarwo, who served in the military before he was detained, was finally released in 1978.

Like many other victims and their families, he found himself shut out of the system. He was unable to get a job in the public sector or secure a bank loan to start a business.

He said he got by for years on handouts from his community. Now 70, he has saved enough to start a small fish farm.

For decades, children of alleged communists were kept at arm’s length by the government. One of Suharto’s closest advisers at the time even sent his daughter abroad after she developed a relationship with the son of a supposed communist.

Some observers worry the film does little to show the political context of the period and the tension at the grassroots level between religious groups and landowners and the communists, which was already seething before the attempted coup.

“The issue is still divisive in society and nobody has ever really tried to reconcile,” said Agus Widjojo, a retired army lieutenant-general who heads a think-tank on policy and strategic issues.

“Indonesian society is not brave enough to start the endeavor to face the truth of the past…. But it’s the only way we can learn lessons about what we have done wrong and to correct it so that we can assure future generations of Indonesia that those mistakes will not be repeated.”

For the film’s Indonesian crew, the anonymity will not end any time soon, according to the co-director.

“Revealing our identities would need a genuine structural change in Indonesia…and that genuine reconciliation will take a long time, but the time to start that is now.”