It is eight P.M. on 17 December, 2015 and there is a palpable sense of disappointment among the hundred or so students waiting outside room BG 101, Politics Faculty, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. After waiting for over an hour to watch the second screening of Joshua Oppenheimer’s new film The Look of Silence, they have just received instruction from the faculty head to return home. The hundred people inside room BG 101 are similarly disappointed. After just watching the first session of the film, their plan for an after-film discussion also cannot go ahead now. Although the dean did not tell the students directly, the reason for breaking up the screening soon becomes apparent. A small crowd of thirty people arrive at the politics faculty shouting their objections to the screening. ‘Saya juga alumni UGM, tidak terima ada pemutaran ini!’ (‘I am also a Gadjah Mada alumni, and I do not accept this film screening’) screams one. Some audience members are prepared to defend themselves, but with the police facilitating the break up, the event ends without physical violence, and the students go home disappointed.

The Look of Silence, an exploration of the continuing lack of resolution and reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia, was already highly anticipated in Indonesia due to the significant impact of its prequel, the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing. Both films explore the suffering, violence and personal and social rupture caused by the 1965-66 genocide in Indonesia. They also challenge common perspectives in Indonesia – that the killings were a political necessity to fight the evils of communism and atheism. The mass killings were the beginning of the Suharto dictatorship, and this particular interpretation was disseminated through schools, museums, religious institutions, monuments, commemoration days, official ceremonies, literature, film, and nearly all facets of society during his thirty-year reign (1967 – 98). It is an interpretation that is still pervasive and passionately defended in Indonesia today. This, combined with semi-notoriety of The Act of Killing guaranteed The Look of Silence would generate some degree of backlash. As a result, what happened at UGM was not the only incident of violence when it was screened around four hundred times in December last year.

I talked to two other activists who had their film screenings disrupted and cancelled. Aji Prasetyo’s screening at his cafe Kedai Tjangkir in Malang, East Java, was shut down by police who informed them that members of a paramilitary group were on their way. Earlier that night in Malang, members of this same paramilitary group,Pemuda Pancasila, who are very unsympathetically depicted in The Act of Killing, helped shut down a screening at a another cafe, Warung Kelir. Hysteria, a community arts organisation in Semarang, Central Java also had their film screening cancelled by the local village head, because they had not gone through the proper process of asking permission. Adin, one of the organisers tells me that this was just a thinly veiled way of preventing them from having the film screening at all. Some other screenings were cancelled before they began due to threats they received.

However, it is important to put these few protests in perspective. According to Baskara T. Wardaya, a Jesuit priest and longtime historical scholar and activist, of the over four hundred film screenings that happened in December, over ninety percent happened without disruption. He emphasises that this is a significant sign of social progress. It indicates an increased openness to confronting this violent past that should not be lost amongst the reporting of the bad news. The Oppenheimer films are playing an important, but only partial role in confronting this past. As some critics have mentioned, the title of the film is somewhat of a misnomer. There are many other local voices who are also telling the story of this brutal and unresolved history, and their efforts should also be known.

Suluh Pramuji, one of the editors of progressive online publication Indoprogress, facilitated discussions at several of the recent screenings of The Look of Silence. He also introduced me to several other local films that have not received the same buzz as the Joshua Oppenheimer movies. Jejak Darah – Surat Untuk Adinda (Trail of Blood – A letter to the Beloved) and Sinengker (Concealed) both emotionally portray stories of Javanese families torn apart by the political violence of 65-66. These films are relevant as historical activism because they treat the suffering of victims and their families with the gravity it deserves. Because of the contexualisation of the killings as a political necessity in the Suharto-era version of history, the suffering of victims is often justified, disparaged and minimised. Another important aspect of Sinengker is that it was made in collaboration with Syarikat, an organisation that is partly made up of young generation members of the Nahdlatul Ulama, a large Islamic organisation that participated in the killings of 1965-66. Syarikat, unlike some elements of Nahdlatul Ulama, are actively involved in seeking reconciliation for the past. Other new Indonesian fiction such as Amba by Laksmi Pamuntjak, or Leila S. Chudori’s Pulang, both released in 2012, also explore the personal and social effects of the violence.

Papermoon, a Yogyakarta-based theatre company has performed Mwathirika (Victim) both throughout Indonesia and internationally in the last five years. This mixed-media, wordless performance using intimate string-less puppets takes a similarly personal approach in exploring the deep wound the killings struck in social and personal life of Indonesia. The show was also the victim of small protests when it was shown as part of an Indonesia and the World 1959-1969: A Critical Decade exhibition in Jakarta in 2011. In a 2012 interview, Maria Tri Sulistyani, the Artistic Director of Papermoon also said that, due to the sheer size of the 65-66 killings, the story naturally had personal relevance for a few members of Papermoon.

In presenting this painful and contested history in Mwathirika, Tri Sulistyani and Papermoon’s Co-Artistic Director Iwan Effendi were informed by the testimonies of people directly affected by the violence. This work of collecting the unheard voices of victims and their families has also played a very significant part in uncovering the past. I attended a forum in Yogyakarta about Menemukan Kembali Indonesia, (Discovering Indonesia Again) a collaborative project between NGOs, activists and academics that brought together victims of various state or military-sanctioned violence in Indonesia to share their stories and to be documented for posterity. Bringing together victims from various incidents of violence is indicative of a common perspective amongst Indonesian activists, namely, that 1965-66 was not an isolated incident of brutality. It was just its most extreme manifestation in a long, under-recognised history of state and/or military sanctioned violence. This collecting of under-heard perspectives by Menemukan Kembali Indonesia follows in the footsteps of many other groups advocating on behalf of victims such as Lembaga Bantuan Hukum, (Legal Aid Foundation), Sekretariat Bersama and KONTRAS (Commission for the Missing and Victims of Violence), founded by assassinated human rights activist Munir. Tempo, a society and politics magazine banned under the Suharto Regime, also published a special edition in 2012 containing stories of victims and perpetrators. Windu Jusuf, another editor of Indoprogress suggests that these testimonies are very important in giving future research, activism, and artistic activities about the 65-66 events a strong foothold in reality.

The things mentioned above are only a minute sliver of the many contemporary cultural products and activism in Indonesia which addresses this topic. There are also many history books that attempt to present an honest and sufficiently complex version of the events. However, the need to understand the geopolitical and economic dimensions of the 1965-66 tragedy in order to truly understand the Joshua Oppenheimer films is something that was emphasised by nearly every person I have talked to about this topic. I have also not mentioned mainstream governmental and civil society initiatives, which have had some degree of success. However, most people I have talked to seem largely pessimistic and unenthusiastic about how the mainstream political power structure in Indonesia has dealt with this issue.

Within this existing cultural activism The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence have largely been received as a worthwhile contributions. At an undisrupted film screening of The Look of Silence that I attended in January, the discussion that followed the film was very personal and cathartic. The small group of people who came to watch it compared what is depicted in the films with their experiences of learning official history in school and discussed generational and political differences in their families that affect the ways they can talk about the killings. From what others have told me, this was a ubiquitous experience at film screenings throughout Indonesia. According to Baskara T. Wardaya, this is an essential part of the way the films are experienced – collectively, as a way of learning, and as a trigger for a necessary conversation. This appreciation is also tempered with a critical eye towards the films. The critiques range from lack of historical context in the films, the filmmaker’s confrontational approach of a sensitive and traumatic issue, and the absence of implication of the Indonesian military in the genocide are just a few examples. However, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence seem to be widely acknowledged as playing a significant part in this struggle with history and reform to which many are devoted.

So, whilst it is very true to say that Indonesian society has not been totally silent, many people that I talked with indicated that there is a pervasive avoidance of the issue that has been enforced from above. The events at the Gadjah Mada University screening of The Look of Silence are somewhat of a metaphor for this situation. Although the group that came to protest the film was outnumbered six-to-one by the participants, and there was enough university security and police to protect the screening, they still shut it down. This is reportedly because behind these small groups, there are more powerful military, government, and religious powers, that are devotedly opposed to reforming the existing versions of history. However, as Tommy Wibisono, one of the organisers of the UGM screening told me, this controversy acts as unofficial promotion, only increasing the interest of people to see the films. This, it is hoped, will further help uncover the truth of the past, and challenge the powers that seek to distort or hide it.

Thanks to all the people who gave their time to be interviewed, and thanks to Gisela Swaragita, Noor Alifa Ardianingrum, Satria Aji Imawan and Sidiq Hari Madya for their assistance with translation.

Zacharias Szumer

Zacharias Szumer is a writer and musician who lives in Naarm/Melbourne. Some of his other writings can be seen on his website.

More by Zacharias Szumer ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *