Filmmaker fears reprisals for exposé on mass murders
Reign of terror ... a student from a communist university in Jakarta is attacked by Indonesian youths during the crackdown in 1965. Photo: Fairfax Archive
A FILM hailed as a masterpiece for its disturbing depiction of real-life mass murderers re-enacting the killing of alleged communists in the 1960s has not been submitted for censorship approval in Indonesia for fear it will be banned.
The filmmaker, Joshua Oppenheimer, also fears returning to the country because of the passions he has stirred.
''I'm not afraid for my life, but I don't know what would happen if I'd be let in to Indonesia, or let in then not let out, or if I'd be safe,'' he told Fairfax Media. ''I have another film to finish. It's not worth the risk of me being beaten up or languishing in detention.''
Firestorm … a scene from the documentary The Act of Killing.
Instead, the movie is being shown at underground screenings. The Act of Killing, which was secretly screened for foreign correspondents in Jakarta recently, is a documentary in which the self-confessed killers of thousands of alleged communists in 1965 and 1966 collaborate to make a dramatised movie about their crimes.
Up to 2 million people were killed in Indonesia in that period as the dictator Suharto consolidated his power. The movie within the movie celebrates sadistic violence and brutality, and includes cowboy and gangster themes alongside cross-dressing musical numbers.
But it also prompts one of the most feared death squad members, Anwar Congo, now an old man, to undergo an emotion-filled reassessment of his guilt.
Oppenheimer said releasing the film widely in Indonesia might be dangerous, particularly because of its portrayal of the modern-day actions of the politically connected gang Pancasila Youth.
''If we submit the film for censorship approval in Indonesia at this stage, the risk is that they ban the film or they rip it to shreds … which becomes an excuse to not protect screenings if they are attacked by Pemuda Pancasila [Pancasila Youth],'' he said.
The paramilitary group is shown in the film demanding protection money from poor stallholders, and at rallies being addressed by Indonesia's immediate past vice-president, Muhammad Yusuf Kalla, who praises its members as ''free men'' and encourages them to commit violence.
Pancasila Youth's leader, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, is shown as a wealthy and misogynistic he-man. He has threatened to sue Oppenheimer or the movie's producers.
The editor of a regional Indonesian newspaper was beaten up recently after his paper mentioned Pancasila Youth by name in reference to the film.
Other Indonesian media play it safe and simply refer to it as the ''ormas'', or organisation.
Oppenheimer said he had received a tweet suggesting if he came to Indonesia the title of the film could be changed to ''The Act of Being Killed''. He said he was not sure whether to take the comment seriously. In the credits for the film, known in Indonesian as Jagal, ''numerous Indonesian partners and collaborators'' are credited simply as ''Anonymous'' over fears for their safety.
Producers hope to seek censorship approval in the future, but in the meantime they are holding screenings ''by invitation only''.
Apart from the contemporary material, the historical period depicted is still the subject of mass denial and suppression of information in Indonesia.
The mass murders by the gangs, as well as by the army and religious, youth and paramilitary groups have gone without official acknowledgement or punishment, and there has been no reconciliation process.
Indonesia's human rights commission, Komnas HAM, recently produced an exhaustive 850-page report based on hundreds of interviews, arguing that the atrocities constituted a serious violation of human rights.
However, the Attorney-General, Basrief Arief, said the report lacked evidence and balance.
Oppenheimer said producers would seek censorship approval once discussion about the film in Indonesia was entrenched.
''If there are more and more screenings to the point that there starts to be a serious demand for the film with people writing about it, blogging about it, it being discussed in the press, then, if the censorship board should at some time choose to ban or overly censor it, there will be political consequences,'' he said. ''Our vision is that some day, hopefully soon, people can watch Jagal in any cinema in Indonesia with popcorn and a can of soda.''