Oct 20, 2017 Last Updated 12:09 AM, Oct 20, 2017

Local Politics

Silencing The Look of Silence

There are some ominous signs that justice for past crimes, including the 1965 mass killings, is off the government’s agenda

Grace Leksana

To commemorate Human Rights Day on 10 December 2014, the National Commission of Human Rights and film producers, Final Cut for Real, organised ‘Indonesia Watch: The Look of Silence’, a series of screenings of the second film from acclaimed director, Joshua Oppenheimer. Following on from his first film, The Act of Killing, this film tells a story of the brother of a victim of the 1965 mass killings, who later confronts his brother’s murderer. 

On 10 December, film screenings and discussions were held in 457 locations across Indonesia, from Aceh to Papua. All event locations were published on the film’s website. The film production team and organisers of this event, might never have imagined that under the hopeful democratic government of Joko Widodo anything would impede or disrupt the screenings. Unfortunately, this is precisely what happened, with the most intense attacks taking place in Malang, East Java. 

The chronology

In Malang and Batu, East Java, the film was due to screen across several locations: at the Faculty of Cultural Studies at Brawijaya University; the Faculty of Social and Political Science at Brawijaya University; Machung University; Kalimetro Community; Warung Unyil; and Omah Munir. Of these locations, only the event at Omah Munir was successfully held. The film commenced screening at three locations before being interrupted by the military or mass organisations and was unable to continue. At the remaining four locations, the events were cancelled due to prior intimidation or bans from local authorities such as the university rector.

On 9 December, when two Brawijaya University students were questioned by the military and asked to cancel the screening. In Warung Kelir, organisers were interrogated and threatened by a group of men from the non-government organisation (NGO) Pribumi and members of Pemuda Pancasila (Pancasila Youth), who forced the cancellation of the screening. The reason they gave was that the film is a threat to the nation’s unity and does not consider the victims of the Indonesian communist Party’s (PKI) own cruelty. Intimidation of the Warung Kelir organisers continued after 10 December and led to the cancellation of several screenings planned for other days at other locations. A public letter in support of the film released by the National Commission for Human Rights on 12 December, made little difference. 

On 17 December, a screening organised by the Malang branch of the Indonesian Islamic Students Movement (PMII) was stopped by local religious leaders.  On the same day, a similar incident took place in Yogyakarta, where a screening was organised by the Student’s Press Organisation (Sinesta) at the Faculty of Social and Political Science, University of Gajah Mada. On this occasion, following the disruption, the university issued a statement condemning the intimidation, saying it was inhibiting intellectual debate in universities and reiterating that the event was not intended to spread communism. 

On 21 December, Pemuda Pancasila held a discussion in Malang at which they attempted to analyse the film from the perspective of national unity. The outcome of their discussion was a four-point statement: Pemuda Pancasila loves the wholeness of the nation; national unity should not be negotiated; there will be no more screenings of the film The Look of Silence; and The Look of Silence is against the law. They also stated plans to sue the director and producers of the film for violating the Film Law and Government Regulation on the Film Censorship Board (LSF), on the grounds that the film is endangering national unity. 

On 23 December, the Malang Peace Alliance sent a delegation to the city police to file a protest against the acts of intimidation and disruptions of the screenings and discussions. The police chief commissioner responded to their complaint by stating that he must first clarify the film’s status with theLSF. He told the group that if the LSF decided that the film did not pass censorship, then Malang police would themselves take action against future screenings. Until then, the chief commissioner stated, the police do not have any objections to public showing of the film, so long as such events did not provoke conflict. Less than a week later, on 29 December, the LSF issued a ban on public screenings of the film, although it would appear that such a ban is only in place in East Java. 

The situation became even more peculiar when on 26 February 2015 the district military command in Semarang, Central Java, screened The Look of Silence for its soldiers. Photos of the activity was uploaded on their website, which described the activity as an exercise in ‘evaluation and monitoring… to prevent potential conflict in society’. 

The absurdity

The startling thing about the incidents described above is their sheer absurdity. The military involvement in actions to stop screenings of the film was clearly not an instruction from the central Jakarta office. Local activists speak of Malang’s particular role as a military centre in East Java and point to the fact that just a few days after the screenings, on 15 December, Malang was to host the ceremony marking an anniversary of the Indonesian Army. When asked about the reasons for their actions to stop the film, Commander of Military District 0833/ Bhaladika Jaya, Lieutenant Colonel Gunawan Wijaya told a Tempo journalist, ‘Communist ideology should not live in this country’.  Given that the statement were made by authorities who had not yet seen the entire film, this simply did not make sense. 

Meanwhile, following the film screening in Semarang in February, Lieutenant colonel Infantry M. Taufiq Zega told Tempo, ‘the activity was not a public screening, but part of instruction-giving activity to members of the District Military Command 0733 BS Semarang’. As time went on, it became clearer that despite previous disruptions of screening and the LSF ban, there are no solid reasons behind the protests. Statements such as ‘endangering the nation’s unity’, ‘preventing conflicts’ and ‘preventing the resurrection of communism’ lack deep analysis. These repressive actions in support of the official version of 1965 were based on fear of imaginary conflicts and chaos after the screenings. There can be several explanations for this fear. For members of mass organisations, such as Pemuda Pancasila, they felt the need to rebuild their image after The Act of Killing, which exposed their involvement in the violence and killings. For society, their involvement could be a result of intimidation from the military, or due to a fear of communism within the collective memory left over from the New Order. There are many groups with a vested interest in maintaining the New Order’s version: that the victims became victims because of their involvement with PKI. 

The complexity of history

The 1965 violence itself was a complex ‘event’. How it is remembered in Indonesia today, fifty years on, is just as complex. Until now this remembering has been done by forcing a single version of history and silencing others, but there were always contradictions and untold truths just below the surface. Many people received the state’s version of 1965, whilst knowing that mass violence happened against people who were accused of being PKI members and who belonged to organisations affiliated with the party. Meanwhile, others (especially Indonesia’s younger generation) only know of the 30th of September Movement (G30S) and simply have no knowledge of the mass violence. What is needed now is the opportunity to face the truths of 1965 in its complexity, and to do away with the perception that it is about the state versus the victims. 

For this reason films like The Look of Silence must be made, not only to bring the victim’s stories to the surface, but also to dare us to uncover more of its complexities.  By preventing these screenings and events, the authorities and organisations like Pemuda Pancasila, are stymieing this search to uncover the truths of this period in Indonesia’s past. 

The National Commission of Human Rights has described The Look of Silence as part of the effort towards national reconciliation. However, it is alarmingly clear that we remain far from reconciliation. When the state has not yet acted to address past human rights abuses, it can at least ensure that Indonesians are able to talk about 1965 openly and without fear. 

Grace Leksana (grace_leksana@yahoo.com) is a researcher of The Indonesian Institute of Social History, Jakarta and the Center of Culture and Frontier Studies, Brawijaya University, Malang. She is based in Malang.

 

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