Breaking the 40-Year Silence About the Anti-Communist Purge
A feature-length documentary that was shown at the Boston International Film Festival over the weekend is an intergenerational depiction of the 1965-66 anti-Communist purge, in which an estimated 500,000 Indonesians were killed at the hands of the military.
“40 Years of Silence: An Indonesia Tragedy” was shot between 1997 and 2007 on the islands of Bali and Java. The film follows the stories of four people whose parents fell victim to the violence and torture of the military; some even witnessed the executions of their parents.
After keeping their stories to themselves for 40 years, they reveal how they struggled to survive discrimination under Suharto’s New Order regime and how those experiences still haunt them today.
Kereta, a Balinese farmer, saw a group of men kill his father with a sword after his own family turned him over to authorities. Lanny, a woman from Central Java, has similar memories and finds peace only in her spirituality. Degung, also from Bali, remembers as a child watching a group of men drag his father away and decapitate him. He was abandoned in Surabaya after his father’s death and was raised by sex workers there.
Although Budi was born decades after the killings, he has been harassed and stigmatized by his fellow villagers in Java because his father is an ex-political prisoner. He was eventually put into an orphanage to protect him from the villagers who tore down his family’s small home. The young man comes face to face with the villagers who tormented him and tells of his anger and desire for revenge.
The director, Robert Lemelson, who is also a trained psychologist, said in a press release that all four of his subjects suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, characterized by frequent nightmares, emotional flooding and hypervigilance.
Degung has focused his energy on political activism, raising awareness of the trauma caused by the mass killings. Lanny focuses on Buddhism to overcome the memories of her father’s death. She recounts her childhood, which was spent largely alone as the other children branded her a Communist that couldn’t be trusted
Kereta returns to a peaceful life after years of being fearful and wary, also with the image of his father’s brutal execution in his mind.
Explanations and opinions from three historians are also included to give a broader political perspective of the purge.
Some of Lemelson’s sources were at first reluctant to speak.
“It was only after I knew them well that they agreed to speak about their experiences,” Lemelson said. “Some feared for their personal safety, but ultimately, they all felt that their stories should be told.”
Living in the United States, Lemelson and his crew returned to Indonesia several times over the years to track the everyday lives of the four subjects and to record their psychological progress.
“[This film] took this long to complete because we wanted a long-enough scope in the characters’ lives to really track their development,” he said.
Lemelson’s film is adding to the pool of information slowly being disclosed from a time shrouded in secrecy.
“One of the striking features of the violence under Suharto’s regime was the degree to which the government successfully repressed all memorials, remembrances and recollections of the event,” he said.
A screening of a rough cut of the film was shown last year at Sanata Dharma University in Yogyakarta, but there is no word yet on whether the film will be screened again in Indonesia.