JAKARTA — Everyone in Bulumulyo village knew the mass grave was there, but no one dared to visit.
Relatives of accused communists slaughtered there nearly a half-century ago thought it was safer to forget since the killers still lived among them. Some resented the dead for the stigma that continues to brand their families. Others believed what they were taught: That the deaths were justified to save the nation.
A new American-directed documentary, “The Act of Killing,” challenges widely held views about hundreds of thousands of deaths carried out across Indonesia from 1965 to 1966 in the name of fighting communism. It explores the country’s darkest open secret by allowing former mass killers to re-enact their horrors on screen.
Bulumulyo residents recently screened the film at the mass gravesite, and this week the producers made it available online across the country, slowly beginning a long-overdue conversation.
“Most of the families of the victims are still frightened and traumatized because they lived under suppression and intimidation for three decades,” said 73-year-old Supardi, who spent 14 years in prison camps before settling in the Central Java village with many other suspected communists.
International film critics have hailed the award-winning production, calling it chilling and surreal. But most people in this Southeast Asian country of 240 million have never heard of it, even though it was shot entirely in Indonesia and in the local language.
The film offers an unorthodox—and sometimes downright bizarre—window into the mass killings of suspected communists, Chinese and leftists committed by the army, paramilitary units and gangsters. The slayings were sanctioned by longtime military dictator and US Cold War ally Suharto as he seized power from founding President Sukarno.
“The Act of Killing” focuses on a group of low-level, aging gangsters in the North Sumatra capital of Medan who were part of the death squads. They have never been accused of any crimes and enjoy hero-like status while rubbing elbows with high-ranking officials.
In an unsettling twist, these men take on the role of actors. They spackle their faces with thick, bloody makeup, ride horses like cowboys and dress in drag to perform dance numbers, all to play out their version of a Hollywood movie depicting their murderous past.
“The Act of Killing” has received more than 1,000 underground screenings in Indonesia, and must-watch reviews in some of the nation’s biggest newspapers, but it has not appeared in theaters because it was never submitted to the government film board. The creators were concerned the film would be banned, setting off violent protests or attacks against venues trying to show it.
Instead, director Joshua Oppenheimer, Drafthouse Films and other partners took the unusual step of making the picture free online to everyone nationwide beginning Monday, the anniversary of the event that kickstarted the killings. The 159-minute version of the film was downloaded thousands of times the first day alone and is geo-blocked without subtitles to restrict the audience to Indonesia.
“The film is an invitation for Indonesians to confront painful aspects of Indonesia’s realities that, in fact, most Indonesians in some ways know about but may be too afraid to discuss,” Oppenheimer said by phone from Finland.
Relatively few Indonesians are even old enough to remember the purges. Half of the country is younger than 30.
“I often thought when I was making the film with so much time passing that no one will care anymore,” Oppenheimer said. “But I think, on the contrary, because so much time has passed, people are ready to open up to this conversation in the same way that maybe time had to pass in Germany before the Germans were ready to look at what happened dealing with what their parents had done in World War II.”
Yet the topic also remains sensitive enough to keep Indonesians who worked on the film from listing their names in the credits for fear of retribution.
The killings began after Suharto blamed the deaths of several high-ranking generals on an alleged coup attempt by members of the Indonesian Communist Party, known as PKI, on Sept. 30, 1965. The event’s buildup was dramatized in Christopher Koch’s novel “The Year of Living Dangerously” and its 1982 film adaptation, which was banned in Indonesia until 1999.
Indonesia’s mass killings were aided by the West—the US Embassy in Jakarta handed over the names of thousands of suspected communists—when the United States was also battling the spread of communism in Vietnam. The deaths were downplayed outside Indonesia at the time and never drew the same level of international outrage as atrocities elsewhere, such as Cambodia’s killing fields.
The main figure in “The Act of Killing,” Anwar Congo, demonstrates in one disturbing rooftop scene how he garroted victims with a wire to avoid making a mess that would later smell. Then he breaks into a little jig, singing and dancing the cha-cha in white pants and a bright green tropical shirt.
Though the film captures moments of regret, Congo and his cohorts boast proudly of their past.
“War crimes are defined by the winners,” says Adi Zulkadry, one of the documentary’s admitted killers. “I’m a winner. So I can make my own definition.”
Congo declined to talk to The Associated Press, saying without elaborating that many reporters had “cornered” him in the past.
Suharto was overthrown 15 years ago after three decades of tight-fisted rule, and memories of the killings were quietly buried in a country still new to freedom of expression and democracy. But many of today’s elite benefited from the previous era and continue to prosper from those connections—President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s late father-in-law played a major role in crushing the communists.
For years after the purges, every Sept. 30, children were forced to watch a brutal propaganda film demonizing communists for massacring the nation’s heroes. Even now, the official version of the 1965 coup attempt is memorialized: Flags are lowered to half-mast and the president presides over a ceremony. History textbooks teach a whitewashed account of patriotism where good overcomes evil.
The film includes a recent clip from a local TV talk show in which a smiling female host enthusiastically introduces Congo, hailing him for developing a “new, more efficient system for exterminating communists.”
Last year, Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission released a report concluding that the mass killings constituted gross human rights violations. It was dismissed by the government, which refused to examine it further.
“I think it’s too late for justice: The main perpetrators are all dead. What is important now is the truth,” John Roosa, an expert on the 1965 atrocities at the University of British Columbia, said in an email. “The state has all along not wanted public discussions about the killings: it has only wanted to condemn the PKI…. It has pretended like they never occurred.”
But the film has put cracks in the silence that has always supported this notion.
After watching it in Bulumulyo village with some of the known killers, survivors and family members cleaned the mass grave and began offering prayers for the dead. A sign that some Indonesians are ready to start talking about the country’s best-known secret.