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Indonesian Officials Try to Revive a Suharto-era Propaganda Film

FILE - A statue of former Indonesian president Suharto is pictured at the Suharto museum in Yogyakarta, March 29, 2014.

A decades-old propaganda film has become a lightning rod again in Indonesia. The 1984 film called "The Treachery of the September 30th Movement/ Communist Party of Indonesia," was sponsored by and became a propaganda tentpole of the Suharto military dictatorship.

It presents a revisionist account of an attempted coup on September 30, 1965, when six generals were assassinated. The murders were orchestrated, according to the film, by the Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI. The failed coup was the pretext for a military-led massacre of up to one million suspected communists and leftists, which subsequently helped General Suharto ascend to a 31-year authoritarian presidency.

More than five decades after the coup attempt and 33 years after the film was made, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo announced last week that the movie would be shown to all military personnel, drawing criticism from some senior figures, who advised the military not to reopen old wounds.

But President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo himself suggested there should be a remake of the film for the “millennial generation.”

FILE - Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, center, delivers his State of The Nation address ahead of the country's Independence Day at the parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 16, 2017.
FILE - Indonesia's President Joko Widodo, center, delivers his State of The Nation address ahead of the country's Independence Day at the parliament building in Jakarta, Indonesia, Aug. 16, 2017.

The film — often abbreviated to G30S, for “Gerakan 30 September” or the September 30th movement — was required viewing during the Suharto regime, which ended in 1998. According to a 2000 poll, 97 percent of students had seen it, most of them multiple times.

Renewed debate

The fiery military chief Gatot, who has made waves with his freewheeling statements and actions, such as unilaterally suspending military cooperation with Australia, spoke about the G30S film while visiting founding President Sukarno’s tomb in East Java last week.

“We cannot let the younger generation become fragmented again,” said Gatot. “The goal is not to discredit anyone who is wrong, but to give the full picture, so as not to let those bitter and black events happen again.”

President Jokowi, somewhat surprisingly, echoed Gatot's suggestion, saying "millennial children" need movies as an entry point to history.

“Let them understand the dangers of communism, let them know about the Indonesian Communist Party,” he said to reporters in Central Java last week.

The president's acquiescence illustrates “the weak reality of Jokowi's leadership and the long feud between human rights defenders and the military,” according to Arbi Sanit, a political analyst at the University of Indonesia. “Jokowi's weak assumptions allow him to be stepped over by press statements like those of the Commander,” and essentially be pressured into public agreement, said Sanit.

Sidharto Danusubroto, a member of the president’s advisory council, stated that rehashing the events of 1965 would be counterproductive to Jokowi’s economic and social agenda, and he discouraged both the military’s promotion of the film and recent discussions of the killings at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute.

“Frankly, don’t hold [either of] them,” said Sidharto. “For us to fight to become the world’s fifth economic power, there needs to be political stability; if there are these movies, that seminar, some other noise here and there, those things don’t support the national interest,” he said at the council’s office.

Approaching anniversary

The pitch of the debate is only rising as the anniversary of the attempted coup approaches. There will be a number of informal screenings across Indonesia this week, as there have been, on and off, since the fall of Suharto.

The late president’s youngest son, Tommy Suharto, chimed in over the weekend to say that the film represents the “true version of history, and nobody could change that.”

The film’s narrative has been widely disputed by historians for at least two decades. Its major communist characters are eye-gouging gangsters, and it shows a leftist women’s group literally castrating military generals. Despite a runtime of over four hours, the film is not without artistic value, according to many latter-day Indonesian directors.

But the director of the Jakarta Arts Institute, writer Seno Gumira Ajidarma, disagrees, saying recently, “The film sucks.”

“Every year it was just a ritual all over Indonesia, and the movie was just terrible,” said Reza Muharam, now an activist with the International People’s Tribunal, which seeks justice for the human rights violations of 1965. “Imagine a bunch of 10-year-olds watching an interminable film with that much violence… it was just horror, you couldn’t sleep after that.”

Muharam hopes that a wider revival of G30S film is not in the cards.

“I think it was the biggest hoax ever made in Indonesia,” he said. “And everyone believed it.”