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Last week we had a showing of Rob Lemelson's film, 40 Years of Silence. Amongst the comments that I got from members of the audience, the word 'disturbing' came up most often. This is a very powerful film, and to my mind works more effectively than the overview films such as Shadow Play or Terlena. I saw the latter at a conference in Cambridge earlier in the year, and it suffers from a lack of good editing, and a too-strident message, although it has some excellent material--most memorably an interview with someone who dug the graves for those executed on one of the beaches at Jembrana, West Bali.

There are a couple of things that set 40 Years of Silence apart. The production values are very high, and the personal approach of the film gives it a greater impact. It basically follows the experiences of four families as they live through the legacy of the Indonesian killings, and what is particularly disturbing is the fact that there is on-going victimisation of those with 'PKI' associations, as with the case of the young man, Budi, whose family were beaten up and their house burnt down when they tried to move into an area that had been a site of conflict in the post-1965 period.

As a documentary, I think the level and tone of the film are right. Some people have commented to me that it is too 'commercial', in the sense that it has some of the production values and ways of narrating found in films for TV distribution, others have criticised the film for being too academic, in that there is a lot of background material and a lot of complex material in it. You can't please everybody (and nor should you try), but I think it strikes the right balance. I'm not sure that Rob should have put himself in as a 'talking head' for some of the background material, I can see that he needed to do this to fill in some gaps, but I would have favoured doing this as voice-over. Some of the commentary of the other talking heads may be subject to challenge, but having John Roosa, Geoffrey Robinson and Baskara Wardoyo as these commentators works well. Perhaps there could have been an 'alternative' political view from a more anti-communist commentator, but then that would have taken the film in a different direction and complicated the message.

The Indonesian reception of the film is interesting. Most people comment on the lack of Muslim figures, although they often overlook the fact that Budi's father is a Muslim. But this comment is very much a retrospective one, in that it casts present-day concerns back into the past, and would have required a discussion about the role of Muslim groups in the killing. Perhaps, though, it could have been pointed out in the commentary that there were Muslims members of the PKI (see for example Hasan Raid's autobiography Pergulatan Muslim Komunis).

Interestingly most Indonesians want to see some commentary on the 'victims of the communists' (as one journalist put it in a question-and-answer session). I see this as the problem of not being able to get over what one history teachers said to me was the New Order 'brainwashing'. As another friend pointed out, for years everyone was made to watch the film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, which portrayed the 'brutality' of the PKI, and presented their opponents as innocents. This image of communist brutality, laid on with hours of sledge-hammer level scenes of bloody corpses and torture, was an effective way of covering up the killing of 500,000 people, since it emphasised the deaths of the 6 matyred generals as the only 'reality'. Some young Indonesians do not even know that the massacres of communists and others even took place, so effectively have they been wiped from any public record. The Suharto regime's 'blame the victim' strategy worked really well to create a monstrous image of 'PKI', and it is still difficult to counter that strategy.

This general problem was raised at a recent conference at the National University of Singapore on the 1965 killings. My own paper at the conference was concerned with this legacy of blindness to the killings, and the fact that we historians assume that all we have to do is document the facts, when actually we have a more complex task of trying to overcome the New Order narrative.

Other papers at the conference have also significantly revised our understandings of what happened in 1965. An important paper by Doug Kammen has cast doubt on whether General Sarwo Edhy (SBY's father-in-law) really was responsible for as many killings as even he claimed. Related to that issue was the presentation by Greg Fealy, who described how responsible some NU leaders were for initiating killings. One problem thrown into relief by the conference was that there is still not good documentation of the killings, or even the killing sites. The film Mass Grave (available on YouTube) is the only example of an attempt to exhume bodies, and that attempt was problematic, both because of strong opposition by local groups, but also because the methods of exhumation were not of the standard required for legal documentation. Rather than amateur attempts at exhumation, however, it would be better if Indonesian groups were at least making maps of the different graves and including documentation from oral history. This can be done using Google Earth and GPS software, but again the oral history documentation needs to be methodologically sound.


Hi, Adrian, Just read your review of this. I saw the film and met Rob in spring of 2009, and thought it was very effective. I used it in my class on memory in Southeast Asia last year instead of Shadow Play for that reason. It is perhaps a bit too psychological in orientation, which makes sense given Rob's interests, but quite helpful. What I find increasingly interesting about the question of remembering 1965 is that it usually focuses on perpetrators or victims, but not on people who were not exactly either--who knew people who died, who experienced terror, who went through the silencing of the New Order era.

hello bro are you indonesian people hehehe salam kenal

Hi Adrian,
I appreciated the opportunity to view 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, and congratulate Professor Lemelson on a thought provoking documentary. I value the emphasis on the legacy of the long term trauma that has accrued to Indonesians - individuals, families, and communities,as an outcome of the 65-66 massacres. Whatever their politics people have suffered, and the suffering is being passed down generations. It is reflected in the poor mental and physical health of individuals, and the displacement and alienation of individuals and groups. Such outcomes take a toll on the fabric of any society. Breaking the silence and starting to talk about the trauma and how people can be helped is one way forward.

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A series of notes and discussions about current research I am undertaking about Indonesia.

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