The nearly three-hour "Act of Killing" centres 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 and 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
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
"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 decolonising 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.
The campaign mushroomed into an orgy of killing that saw the
country's biggest Muslim group, landowners, paramilitary
organisations and those simply with a grudge against a neighbour,
go after communist party members and their supposed
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"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
"Indonesian society is not brave enough to start the endeavour 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."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)
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