Breaking from the 'Silence'

“I want to torture people the way they did my family,” proclaims Budi, a young Indonesian boy, at the start of Robert B. Lemelson’s documentary film, “40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy.” Such is the sentiment that now prevails over the long silence that followed in the wake of the mass killings which took place in the mid-60s in Bali—deeply embedded anger is passionately released, experiences of discrimination and pain fervently expressed. In a film both moving and disturbing, psychological anthropologist Lemelson explores the lives of four individuals and their families in Indonesia, and reveals their suffering through “one of the largest unknown mass killings of the 20th century.”

Produced and directed by Lemelson and edited by two-time Academy Award winner Pietro Scalia (“Black Hawk Down,” “JFK”), “40 Years of Silence” documents the systematic and discreet extermination of an estimated 500,000 to 1,000,000 Indonesians from 1965 to 1966. The killings, which targeted members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), a then-legal political entity, occurred under the direction of General Suharto at the time of his rise to power. Suharto eventually ascended to the presidency and remained there until 1998. It is only now, a decade after his resignation and 40 years after the massacre, that survivors of the atrocities are finally sharing their stories.

The film, which was screened at Harvard on February 12th, was well received by its audience, but also subjected to certain pointed criticisms. Spectators found fault with the film’s lack of emphasis on the involvement of the U.S. government in the killings, and on Lemelson’s portrayal of the PKI’s lack of culpability.

The former criticism held that the film ought to have addressed the CIA’s involvement in the atrocities, which included covert support and funding of Suharto’s army. In response, Lemelson stated that the choice to omit that part of history was an “editorial decision,” and cited the limited amount of time allotted for imparting information.

The latter criticism contended that Lemelson did not adequately express the PKI’s role in the atrocities of 1965, choosing instead to lay all the blame on Suharto and his “New Order” regime.

Of this criticism, Lemelson admitted, “[The film] gives a little bit of a false picture.” Although he is a self-professed “anti-Communist,” he conceded that the film is “soft” on the PKI’s contribution to the extreme tensions in Indonesian society during 1965.

Despite these criticisms, however, the film is strong in several areas. The film’s score, which was edited by Richard Henderson (“Borat,” “The Life Aquatic”), is entirely original and complements the intense testimonies of the participants. The use of archival footage and historical commentary is also effective, as is Lemelson’s attention to character development. As one spectator commented, the film does not attempt to “glamorize or create saints” out of the victims. Rather, they are portrayed honestly as complicated people coming to terms with the trauma of their past. In fact, all of the survivors interviewed in the film are struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the social stigmatization that still haunts Communist-affiliated citizens in Indonesia.

Lemelson, a professor at the Department of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, began conducting research in Indonesia in 1996 as a Fulbright Scholar, and has continued his work on culture and mental illness there ever since.

He learned of the 1965 holocaust through a conversation with a man who had lost his family as a result of the purge.

Lemelson said he hopes that the film is eventually viewed by President Obama, who moved to Indonesia the year that Suharto became President. Lemelson believes a public acknowledgement by Obama of the victims’ suffering would serve to validate their experiences.

For now, “40 Years of Silence” gives voice to both survivors and victims in an attempt to legitimize a painful history and ensure that the memory of it, once hidden, is not lost.

—Staff writer Anita B. Hofschneider can be reached at hofschn@fas.harvard.edu.