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A film that should be required watching in Indonesia

Several months back, I was contacted by the publicists of this film. They asked me to help with its marketing by writing about it. I did so, after screening the picture and finding myself impressed by and very excited about what I think is an important movie everywhere, and pretty much essential in Indonesia. As the film was about to be screened at a Boston film festival, I submitted the review below to a number of Boston papers who ran with it.

I very quickly got a phone call from one of the director’s flunkies demanding to know how I got my hands on a pre-release copy of the film and then insisting that I not publish any reviews or criticism of the film without her approval, or that of the director.

Substantially, I told her to fuck off. The idea that a film review needs the approval of the director or his office manager or janitor is laughable and the attitude with which she approached me pissed me right off. As a result, I washed my hands of the project and forgot all about it.

However, I recently ran across the critic’s copy that the publicist had sent me and watched it again. I realised that my being pissed off at what was no doubt just some silly little intern was no reason for me simply to ignore such an important film. Although I’m not about to make any great efforts to market or help get the film distributed here (other windmills, other tilting, are more pressing at the moment), I do offer this review for anyone who is interested in Indonesian modern history.

40 years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy
Directed and Produced by Robert Lemelson
ELEMENTAL Productions
Running time: 86 minutes

An electronic press kit is available at the film’s website:

The Deafening Silence
Patrick Guntensperger
Jakarta Indonesia

Recently screened at the Boston International Film Festival, 40 years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy is a documentary of great power and subtlety. Although the film has the turmoil of a failed coup and very successful countercoup in Indonesia in 1965 as a catalyst and backdrop, the film is more about the long term effects of propaganda, stigmatization, lies, secrecy, and naked ambition, not just upon a country, but more poignantly, upon individuals, even children of subsequent generations.

In 1965, Indonesia was a military dictatorship run by founding father and western-friendly authoritarian head of state Soekarno. Relatively amiable, liked if not loved by the Indonesian people, Soekarno had close ties with the west but had a fatal flaw: he was not rabidly anti-communist. Tolerant of trade unions, farmers’ collectives and the like, supportive or at least not actively hostile to communal farms and co-ops in the almost exclusively agrarian country, Soekarno became an item of suspicion to the anti-communist west, who began to see Indonesia as a particularly strategic domino on the Southeast Asian board. With the Vietnam conflict getting bloodier and more divisive back home, the notion of a communist sympathetic government in that strategic part of the world had the West seeing red subversion and infiltration in every corner of the desperately poor country.

Any attempt to organize farmers or workers was seen as subversive, intellectualism was looked upon with suspicion, the perfectly legal PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) was blamed for every demonstration, outbreak of violence, and incidence of street violence in the country. The campaign to discredit and demonize the PKI (pretty much unanimously recognized as a US supported and organized effort), divided the country.

The so called attempted communist coup of 1965 started with the assassination of several Indonesian generals in a particularly brutal fashion by paramilitary forces and allegedly US-paid agents who claimed to be communist revolutionaries; the countercoup, supported by the US, was quantum levels more bloody and violent and saw the installation of Soeharto, a rabidly anti communist general, take over as de facto head of government and then within just a few years head of state as well, an un assailed dictatorship he maintained until ousted in 1998.

The intervening years were characterized by purges of anything resembling communism. This included people of Chinese ethnic heritage, artists, teachers, performers, intellectuals, union members, or anybody who failed to denounce members of those groups. Estimates of deaths and disappearances are from 500,000 to over 1 million Indonesian men, women, and children, with at least three times that many finding themselves incarcerated in concentration camps in outlying islands where some were tortured routinely for decades.

40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy tells the story of the legacy that both the brutality and the all-too Javanese reticence to speak of it openly have had on subsequent generations of Indonesians on Bali and on Java.

As Indonesia heads to the national polls to select a president for only the second time since the fall of Soeharto, 40 Years of Silence is an extraordinarily timely document. On July 9, Indonesians will have to choose from a limited field of candidates, every one of whom represents a repackaged version of Soeharto’s “New Order”. The incumbent, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, virtually certain to win a second term is an ex-general who sat on the cabinet of his likely opponent former president Megawati Soekarnoputri, the daughter of the first indigenous dictator, Soekarno. The other leading contenders for the presidency, Prabowo and Wiranto, are both retired generals and both are either under indictment or accused of crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations stemming from their roles in Soeharto’s military.

At this critical juncture in Indonesian political history, a film like 40 Years will spark debate. The broad distribution of this documentary could have the salubrious effect of raising issues that have never been properly laid to rest and, given the Javanese predilection for simply not addressing distressing issues, might finally let more than a million ghosts find some peace.

Seen through the eyes of four people who were tortured, who lost family, and who have had their lives torn apart by the ongoing stigmatization of the latent anti-communism that remains a part of Indonesian culture, the film is heart rending without being hyperbolic. 40 Years allows us to see how the current generation of Indonesians carries Soeharto’s legacy of hatred through an only recently abandoned policy of a mandatory viewing of an anti-communist revisionist history propaganda movie in schools annually, intended to justify the dictator’s excesses through the expedient of branding critics or opponents as ‘communists’.

Oddly reminiscent of the McCarthy witch hunts of the post war period, 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy rings new bells, or perhaps sounds warning bells today, as civil societies, the world over see deadly enemies within their own communities and treat their fellow human beings with suspicion and with fear and loathing.

No one with even a passing interest in 20th Century world history or a desire to see democracy actually work should miss this film about manipulation of entire populations for political gain and the human tragedies that result.


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