Public screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Look of Silence” in Malang, East Java, on Dec. 9 last year ran aground when self-proclaimed groups of anti-communists decided to break up the gatherings.
No communists were present — only people keen to learn Indonesia’s hidden history, from some of our darkest days, told by those who witnessed it personally.
In the raids’ aftermath, local police asked the Film Censorship Institute (LSF) to deliver its verdict on the legal status of the documentary. The answer, in the form of a letter, was outright condemnation.
The LSF is the official government body — formed originally in May 1965 as the Film Censorship Board (BSF) by Sukarno in order to maintain his increasingly tenuous grip on autocratic rule during the waning days of his presidency — mandated with determining whether films may be screened and distributed within the country.
General Suharto’s rule exercised the power of the BSF, later the LSF, to its fullest and managed to survive Reformation with its New Order mentality mostly intact.
The LSF’s letter of judgement on the “The Look of Silence,” strangely issued even though the film was never submitted for review, obsesses over the fact that the documentary was “created by a foreigner.”
The LSF’s xenophobic preoccupation with the director’s nationality ignores the fact that the documentary’s story is told exclusively by Indonesians — and that the film crew that produced it was overwhelmingly composed of Indonesians.
Even if the director’s nationality was relevant to the film’s approval, the LSF ignores both logic and its own prior judgement, since foreign films have dominated the Indonesian market since the 1980s — with LSF’s stamp of approval.
The government’s irrational indulgence of paranoid nationalism appears to remain in vogue during President Joko Widodo’s first 100 days in office. From the unilateral sinking of foreign boats poaching in our waters to the resurrected dispute of Singapore’s control over air traffic above Riau, our government remains eager to point fingers at everyone but itself, starting with the pernicious influence of foreign forces working to undermine Indonesia.
Does the government, LSF included, realize they are doing a good of eroding our nation’s standing all by themselves?
If the LSF is keen to cultivate cinematic sovereignty in Indonesia, it may want to work harder to ensure better quality for Indonesian films.
Instead of passing judgement on a thoughtful account of history but not plagiaristic imitations of foreign franchises or vapid horror flicks, maybe LSF ought to prevent local film producers from making buffoons of themselves.
LSF is also wrong on history. It accuses Oppenheimer of failing to see the nationwide 1965-66 purge of accused communists within the proper historical context.
The alternative, officially sanctioned historical context has, until very recently, been the only one available: “Pemberontakan G30S/PKI,” a remarkably effective piece of New Order propaganda that stamped a false impression on generations of Indonesians — after, of course, it first receiving its LSF stamp of approval.
“The Look of Silence” tells a story LSF does not want heard, and which is potentially divisive. It further warns of endangering a “reconciliation process” that shows only the faintest signs of having begun due entirely to the film’s prequel, “The Act of Killing.”
One wonders how the censors imagine reconciliation taking place when their central objection to this latest documentary, besides its purported foreign origins, is that a descendant of a massacre victim interviews the perpetrators.
It should be seen as progress that the son of a victim can talk with his family’s murderer without resorting to violence. But LSF does not.
The censors further demonstrate that historical scholarship is far from their area of expertise the state-orchestrated purges of 1965-66 is attributable to “repressed seeds of discord” dating back to the struggle between the local aristocracy and commoners in 1946.
The LSF’s characterization of the documentary as sympathetic to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), whose ideology it says “incites social unrest and threatens national stability,” only shows how out of touch they truly are.
There’s no evidence today that communism is an ideology that many Indonesians would happily subscribe to.
One would expect the LSF, for all their shortcomings as in areas of logic and history, to at least be knowledgeable about film. Sadly, they disappoint here, too:
The censors objects to the first person narrative used in the documentary. Although legitimately employed by countless other academic documentaries, LSF says this method is flawed, as it limits the historical perspective.
Any reasonably educated individual should know that any account of a historical event merely offers different angles from which to view it. Oppenheimer’s documentary offers one such angle in an ongoing debate. But the LSF is trapped in the Suharto time warp in which only one angle of history is permissible.
Rather than safeguard freedom of expression, the Indonesian authorities have sided with thuggery and repression.
Yet the LSF’s attempt to censor “The Look of Silence” has achieved nothing but publicity for the documentary.
Its opposition, in effect, proves one of the points Oppenheimer tries to make in both his documentaries on the massacre: Indonesia remains reluctant to address the 1965-66 communist purge.
Johannes Nugroho, a writer from Surabaya, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.