Posted by: mel | August 1, 2009

Digging into Indonesia’s ‘black hole of silence’

Jakarta Post | Isabel Esterman ,  Jakarta   | Entertainment | 1 August 2009  

Beginning in October 1965, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed in a state-sanctioned mass murder of accused communists. Neighbors killed neighbors, and bodies piled into mass graves across the archipelago. It was one of the bloodiest episodes in one of the bloodiest centuries of human history.

Even in Indonesia, though, it’s a story that remains largely untold. Unlike the mass killings in Cambodia or Rwanda, which were followed by war crimes trials and public processes of reconciliation, the history of the 1965 massacres disappeared into what historian Geoffrey Robinson describes as a “black hole of silence”. The perpetrators of the massacre remained in power, promoting a version of history that cast blame solely on the victims. Under Soeharto’s New Order, anyone related to or associated with communist party members was stigmatized, keeping survivors from speaking out. Even the number of dead remains unknown, with an accepted range of 500,000 to one million.

In his deeply emotional documentary 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, American anthropologist and clinical psychologist Robert Lemelson examines the effects of the killings, and the ensuing suppression of memory, on individual survivors and on Indonesian society as a whole.

The film, which had it first Indonesian screening on July 23 at a private showing at the Goethe Institute, opens with graphic archival footage of unarmed men and women being chased down, rounded up and beaten on the streets.

From there, it quickly shifts from public scenes of violence to personal recollections of loss and trauma. The film centers on the stories of four families victimized by the killings: Kereta, a Balinese farmer whose father was executed in front of him when he was a child; Lanny, the beloved daughter of a wealthy ethnic-Chinese family from Central Java, who also witnessed her father’s murder; Degung, a high-caste Balinese who was abandoned after his father’s death and raised by prostitutes in Surabaya after running away from an abusive relative; and Budi, a Javanese teenager born decades after 1965, but so traumatized by the persecution he faces as the son of an ex-political prisoner that his parents placed him in an orphanage to remove him from their village.

Lemelson began the project in 1996 and 1997, while conducting research into the relationship between culture and mental health in Indonesia. As he conducted his anthropological research, he learned many of the people he encountered were suffering from trauma rooted in the 1965 massacres. At the time, Soeharto’s New Order regime was still in power, and some of his interview subjects had never before discussed their experiences. Their memories went unacknowledged by their communities, their country and the world.

“Under the New Order, there was a monolithic state narrative about what happened in ’65,” recalls Lemelson. “You really couldn’t talk about it. . It created an extraordinary climate of fear and suppression.”

That silence and fear obstructed the process of healing for both individuals and society, explains Lemelson: “When children experience something violent and fearful that involves loss, silence has a negative effect on health.”

Narrative, by contrast, can help reverse some of the damage “even on the cellular level”, he explains, pointing to studies showing improved immune function in survivors given the opportunity to discuss their memories. So he encouraged subjects to explore this painful past.

Despite the risks of disclosing their connection to communist party members, the subjects of the film consented to having their interviews filmed. Over the next decade, Lemelson and his crew made regular trips to Indonesia, collecting more than 300 hours of interviews and following his subjects as they struggled to come to terms with the past.

Archival footage and expert interviews with historians John Roosa, Geoffrey Robinson and Baskara T. Wardaya provide a basic background on the social and political conditions that led to the massacre. But it’s clear that Lemelson is approaching the topic as an anthropologist and psychologist, not as a historian or political scientist.

People seeking an in-depth examination of high-level political machinations or CIA involvement in the massacres will be disappointed.

“We’re trying to show the event through the subjects and as experienced by them,” explains Lemelson. “The issues that concerned them were personal and local,” he adds and, given the enormous amount of footage he had to edit down, he wanted to be sure to keep those issues front and center.

What the film lacks in broad political critique, it makes up for with the emotional depth of the interviews with Kereta, Lanny, Degung, Budi and their families as they grapple with the past and struggle for redemption. In an early interview, the young Budi trembles as he recalls persecution by his neighbors; he stares straight into the camera and says he would like to find those responsible, soak them in gasoline, set them on fire and make them suffer like his family did. Years later, we meet him again, watching as he learns to master his anger through martial arts.

Lanny and Degung, too, explain their personal transformations.

“Maybe hatred made me live, but also killed me,” Lanny says in the film. “If I still have the hatred, it’s like I have a bomb inside me. I think I have suffered enough.”

Instead of succumbing to bitterness about the past, she finds peace through Buddhism and returns to the village where her father was killed to practice good works for the future.

Degung, too, learns to push back his anger, channeling it into scholarship and activism. Kereta, the elderly Balinese farmer, seems the most disturbed, but he too finds a kind of peace by retreating into the Balinese spirit world, and wearing camouflage and a helmet as totems against harm.

Although Lemelson stresses that “we didn’t come to ostensibly make a political film”, he is not entirely without political intentions. He hopes bringing these personal stories of trauma and healing to the public can help reignite a broader discussion in Indonesian society. After decades of silence, having history reworked, rewritten and contested is a healthy process for society, he says.

“You see the positive effects of opening up a dialogue on difficult national issues,” he told the audience at the Goethe screening, giving the example of Barack Obama’s election as US president after the struggles of the American civil rights movement. “I hope this film can be a small drop in the process of democratization.”

40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, directed by Robert Lemelson, is in English, Indonesian, Javanese and Balinese, with Indonesian subtitles. Lemelson is currently seeking Asian distribution for the film, which he has submitted to the Jakarta International Film Festival. Read more about Lemelson in tomorrow’s Sunday Post.

The writer is an intern at The Jakarta Post.

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