Indonesians in Queens Are Beginning to Learn About Film on Genocide

 

A prayer meeting at Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times
A prayer meeting at Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens. Credit Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times

Every Friday afternoon, Mas Pratomo, 83, sips tea at Fay Da Bakery on Justice Avenue, in Elmhurst, Queens, and catches up with fellow Indonesians. He never forgets to list the day’s attendees in his journal.

 

Having left his home country four decades ago, the teatime ritual is his way of connecting with his roots, as he and friends converse in their native Indonesian.

 

On a recent Friday, the conversation turned to “The Act of Killing,” the recent documentary film about Indonesia’s 1965 genocide.

 

The film, released last year, features two notorious figures in the mass killings discussing and even re-enacting some of their actions in the anti-Communist purge. The killers’ boastfulness has shocked some viewers, and the film has brought new attention to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of suspected Communists across the archipelago nation in Southeast Asia.

 

But in Indonesia, where the anti-Communist campaign remains a sensitive subject, defended by some powerful figures, the film was not widely seen or embraced. And in New York’s small but growing Indonesian enclave in Elmhurst, word of the film has spread slowly.

 

Photo

Joshua Oppenheimer,  the director of “The Act of Killing,” participated in a discussion after a recent screening of the film in Brooklyn. CreditKatie Orlinsky for The New York Times

 

Many of the estimated 7,000 Indonesians living in the city came to the United States hoping to make a new life here after the bloodshed of 1965 or the upheavals of the late 1990s.

 

For Mr. Pratomo, the film awakened him to the brutality of the killers and the scale of the massacre. “I was appalled when I found out about the truth,” he said.

 

At the time of the anti-Communist campaign, he was living in the capital, Jakarta, while much of the bloodshed was carried out in small towns of East Java, on the Hindu island of Bali, and in North Sumatra, where the film is set.

 

A year later, in 1966, he encountered a hint of the violence. An architect, he went to Bali to manage a hotel project. But he could not find workers, he recalled. In hushed conversations, he was told that all of them had been killed.

 

It was a fearful time in Indonesia. Government propaganda had demonized the Communists, who were alleged to have staged a coup. Many Indonesians accepted the government line or were too scared to challenge it.

 

Mr. Pratomo left for New York a year later and he had put that era behind him, he said, until friends told him about “The Act of Killing.” He watched it on Netflix with his wife.

 

“How could it come to this — murdering people as if it were a feast?” he said.

 

For some among his generation, the film evoked difficult memories about the years leading up to Suharto’s rule. For some younger Indonesians who have come to New York, the film has been an eye-opening window on a period still shrouded by fear and trauma.

 

Among those living here, word of the film has spread slowly. Many Indonesian immigrants working busy blue-collar jobs have little time for films.

 

At Grace Indonesia Baptist Church in Woodside, Queens, none of the congregation members at a recent prayer meeting had heard of the film, except for the church’s leader, the Rev. Sutoyo Sigar, 65, who was a witness to the bloodshed.

 

The two-year-old church is one of the 32 Indonesian churches that have sprung up in New York in the past decade, partly to accommodate the influx of Chinese Indonesian immigrants that followed the upheaval in the late 1990s.

 

Anastasia Dewi Tjahjadi, 45, owner of Java Village, an Indonesian restaurant on Justice Avenue, was not aware of the genocide. “I heard from my parents that a lot of our relatives returned to China at that time, but we didn’t talk much about it,” she said.

 

Curious after hearing about the film, she played it a couple of days later on her restaurant’s big-screen TV. But she found herself struggling to watch it while attending her restaurant, she said.

 

Mr. Pratomo said the film had helped him realize how much his homeland was scarred by the events of 1965, and he hopes it spurs a search for the truth and justice.

 

“There should be a tribunal, there should be reconciliation, there should be an apology,” he said. “And the apology should be accepted and everyone can continue to live together side by side.”

 

MARCH 27, 2014

‘The Act of Killing’ doesn’t end

Safit Pardede (from left), Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, and Joshua Oppenheimer behind the scenes in “The Act of Killing.” Drafthouse films
Safit Pardede (from left), Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry, and Joshua Oppenheimer behind the scenes in “The Act of Killing.” Drafthouse films

THE LIGHTS went off for the “The Act of Killing” when it lost the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature to a feel-good tribute to struggling backup singers.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that with the dimming of publicity surrounding the documentary feature on death-squad leaders re-enacting their crimes in Indonesia’s anti-communist purge of 1965, the memory of victims and survivors would also fade. The murder of nearly a million people with the backing of the CIA had been ignored for 50 years until “The Act of Killing” shocked viewers with the open boastfulness of the killers. To its credit, Hollywood has boosted the profile of the film, and the bloodletting, in a way that no previous reports or studies on the massacre have achieved. But now that the curtains are drawn, will the film share the same fate as its disturbing subject matter?

The families of victims are still around and cry for justice. The Indonesian government justifies the massacre on national security grounds and has refused demands for a criminal inquiry. It sat on its hands last year when a group called Anti-Communist Forum of Indonesia attacked and threatened to kill survivors gathering for a discussion. And just last month its armed forces broke off a discussion on Tan Malaka, Indonesia’s former communist leader.

Anwar Congo, the main character in “The Act of Killing,” grew up selling black-market cinema tickets. Later, he acted out his deeds with the image of John Wayne in mind, playing the good guy fighting the communist villains. One reason that motivated Anwar was that the Indonesian communists hated American movies. By focusing on the killers who identify themselves with the cowboys of the West, Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of “The Act of Killing,” held a mirror to Americans suggesting that they may have more in common with the perpetrators than most like to think. What the film viewers saw was ugly, but it also shows the different paths the killers took to live with their guilt. At the end of the film, we see no redemption for Anwar Congo. As he slowly comes to realize that he’d done something terrible, his retching body does not give him release.

Oppenheimer and his fearless Indonesian crew dream bigger than the Oscar: They aim to bring justice for the survivors. As retaliation for an alleged communist coup, the Indonesian army, operating with the help of civilian death-squads, extinguished nearly the entire Indonesian left in a period of six months. They slaughtered union members, teachers, journalists, leftist artists, ethnic Chinese, and nearly all members of the communist party. The speed and scale of the killings are comparable to the worst recorded cases in modern history — six million Jews killed in eight years in German-occupied Europe and two million Khmers in Cambodia in four. But while the Nazis and Khmer Rouge have been defeated, and their atrocities universally condemned, the perpetrators of the Indonesian massacre have won and the Western world cheered on the bloodshed.

In a number of public screenings I attended — whether at Harvard or Columbia, an independent cinema in Brooklyn or at the Library of Congress — there was a sense of confusion and helplessness among the audience. They would often ask the director “but what can we do?” Oppenheimer would say they needn’t look as far as Indonesia for the answer but at their own neighborhood.

It’s no longer a secret that the West encouraged and supported the actions of the Indonesian army. The United States — at war in nearby Vietnam at that time — provided a list of people to be targeted for the Indonesian army and also equipment for their operations. At the height of the Cold War, America openly celebrated the annihilation of Indonesia’s Communist Party, the third-largest after the Soviet Union and China, over a mountain of corpses.

The word amok has passed into international vocabulary from the Indonesian amuk, describing a state of murderous frenzy. Perhaps Western intelligentsia could learn more about the real-life background behind the grammar. The lasting experience of amok is not over till we break the silence following the horror.

Joshua Oppenheimer has called for the United States to break the silence and admit the role it played in the massacre. At least one senator, Tom Udall of New Mexico, heard his call and raised the possibility of releasing a “Sense of the Senate” resolution on the issue. While this might be a glimmer of hope for survivors to get the recognition they deserve, American citizens could take advantage of this gesture and call on their senators to ensure the United States discloses its involvement and finally comes clean.

“The Act of Killing” is a re-enactment of a nation’s collective memory, a killer slowly comes to grip with the moral wrong of torturing and murdering hundreds of people. Neither Indonesia nor the United States has faced the truth so far. How long can we ignore what we know in our deepest hearts until we damage ourselves to a point of no redemption?

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-14 IWMF/Elizabeth Neuffer fellow.

Published in The Boston Globe  |    MARCH 29, 2014

‘There have been efforts to move to an independent Asia’

Noam Chomsky: (AFP)
Noam Chomsky: (AFP)

Noam Chomsky, the world-renowned linguist and philosopher, was a vocal advocate for formerly occupied East Timor (now Timor Leste) and continues to be a proponent of the Papuan struggle for self-determination. He spoke recently with The Jakarta Post’s contributor Prodita Sabarini in his office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, US, on the impact of US foreign policy on Indonesia and how Southeast-Asian countries should be more independent.

Question: What do you think are the main factors enabling impunity on cases of abuses such as in the 1965 communist killings, the war crimes in East Timor and continuing human rights violations in Papua?

Answer: There’s a very simple reason for it. The US supported it all, every one of them. The US was ecstatic in 1965. In fact, the support was so overwhelming that it was just public. The New York Times and other journals were euphoric about it. They didn’t suppress it. They described the massacre as wonderful. Same in Britain. Same in Australia.

What happened in East Timor was because the US and its allies supported it for 25 years. West Papua is the same. As long as the US primarily and its allies as well — the Western powers — support atrocities, they are carried out with impunity, just like their own atrocities are. I mean, the Vietnam War was the worst atrocity in the post-World War II period but nobody’s [found] guilty for it.

Indonesia’s election is just around the corner. How do you see the potential shift from the desire for more political freedom to a return to the old powers in Indonesia?

Same as everywhere else, the powerful win. I mean the overthrow of the dictatorship in Indonesia was important. Part of the reason [for the overthrow] was Soeharto not carrying out roles that the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and the US demanded. And in fact, Madeline Albright, the [then] secretary of state at one point said that the US was dissatisfied with what Indonesia was doing and they ought to think about real change. About four hours later, Soeharto resigned. I don’t know if there was a causal connection but it was awfully suggestive. It is the great powers who decide. Mainly, the US in recent years decides what happens.

What can citizens do to guide where their country’s heading, given these external forces?

Well it’s not hopeless. In fact there are changes. Striking ones. Take Latin America. Ever since the beginning, for 500 years Latin America has been under control of Western imperial power. But now, South America is pretty much liberated. Just in the last 10 years, the changes are enormous.

When the spying scandal broke, Brazil was by far the most outspoken opponent. And in general, Latin America has witnessed a stark change. They’ve pretty much freed themselves, not totally, but largely from imperial control.

There’s recently a study of rendition of which country cooperated: all of Europe — Sweden, France, England, Ireland — Canada and the Middle East of course because that’s where they send them for torture; and Asia mostly cooperated.

One region refused to cooperate: Latin America. And if you think, Latin America not long ago was just the backyard, they did whatever they were told. That’s a pretty astonishing change. I think that should be kind of a model for what could be achieved.

So it’s not hopeless. Latin America was the last place one would have expected to find real independence, given its history, and now it’s maybe the most independent area in the world.

Do you think Indonesia should look into the experiences of Latin America?

You can’t carry over the model. Latin America doesn’t have security problems. Outside of the US there’s no real threat to Latin America. Indonesia does. China’s there. All countries in Southeast Asia have to be concerned with Chinese power.

What do you think of the role of ASEAN is in terms of resisting China’s power?

My feeling is that there have been efforts to move to an independent, non-Chinese Asian system. Like Asian Development Bank for an example. Most have been blocked by the US in the past.

There was a Japanese-based effort to form a kind of Asian Development Bank, but the US undercut it. They want the World Bank, which is US-run, to handle it. But those things can be done and it has to be done in a way which doesn’t form a part of an alliance against China. I don’t think it’s impossible for Southeast and East Asia to become a sort of independent bloc in world affairs, separate from China, separate from the United States.

They’re not doing it now. They’re becoming part of the US system but that’s not good for anyone. That could lead to major serious confrontations.

The US is now strengthening their relationship with Asia.

Pivot to Asia. Well, unfortunately it’s being done in a way which is really threatening to China. I mean, China is not a nice government. They’re not going to be nice to people, but they do have their problems. They’re surrounded and contained.

Take a look at the conflicts between the US and China now. The conflicts are mostly over the seas near the China coast. The US wants to have free rights to send military vessels into those waters and China wants to control those waters. So that’s a confrontation.

There’s no confrontation over the Caribbean or over the waters near California. That would be inconceivable. That tells you about the balance of power.

China is encircled. There’s a ring of military bases from Japan, South Korea, Australia. These are hostile bases and they just surround China. In fact that’s one of the reasons why China is moving to Central Asia where they don’t have these barriers.

If East Asia and Southeast Asia move toward more independence in world affairs, they have to be careful not to be just part of a ring of military containment around China, preventing it from exercising pretty legitimate rights to have free access to its own maritime [sources] in the area.

The Jakarta Post | World | Wed, March 19 2014, 11:31 AM

Joshua Oppenheimer: Facing the monsters in the dark

Joshua Oppenheimer. Daniel Bergeron
Joshua Oppenheimer. Daniel Bergeron

Joshua Oppenheimer was walking down a glacier on Mount Karakoram in Pakistan when he had an epiphany.

It was the mid-1990s. He had been crying while sitting on the top of the glacier, remembering something about his childhood, said Oppenheimer.

When he walked down the black rocks, he realized that recording how humans imagined themselves could help people better understand reality.

He was spending a summer in India that year, working on a street theater project.

Around that time, Oppenheimer had changed his undergraduate major to philosophy from theoretical physics.

As a boy he was interested in the nature of reality and its relationship to consciousness. He said he was amazed as a high school student to learn that subatomic particles only show a fixed nature once we
observe them.

However, when he started at university, quantum physics were not as developed as the science is now and students were geared to become engineers, which Oppenheimer was not interested in.

However, after his moment of clarity on the glacier, he returned to Harvard and crammed three years of film studies in two.

Nearly 20 years after his epiphany, Oppenheimer, 39, has made a film, The Act of Killing, about former death-squad leaders as they re-enact the work during the mass killings following the purported attempted Communist coup in Indonesia in 1965.

The film is favored to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary, which will be handed out Monday morning, or Sunday night in Los Angeles.

The Copenhagen-based American was recently in New York after screening the film at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Beyond racking up a host of awards, The Act of Killing, eight years in the making, has achieved something that no other documents or reports on the genocide have.

It has broken the taboos on speaking about Indonesia’s dark past, stirring a national conversation that has been stifled for nearly 50 years by government propaganda and media self-censorship.

Internationally, the film has raised awareness about the killings and the collective role Western governments had in encouraging and ignoring one of the greatest massacres in history.

Oppenheimer himself has become a spokesperson about the genocide as the film gain prominence.

At both the Washington screening and when he accepted a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award, Oppenheimer said that the Western world had not only ignored the killings: They encouraged it.

He called on the US and the UK to acknowledge their collective role in the genocide.  “I often talk about how The Act of Killing is a film about when killers win and take power.

“But the killers include the Americans, the killers include the CIA officers and the State department officials who gave a list of thousands of names to the Indonesian Army,” he said referring to the 5,000 names of public figures US officials gave to the government.

“It would be hypocritical for example for the US or for me to say the government of Indonesia should apologize without articulating equally forcefully [that] the US should apologize,” he said.

For Oppenheimer, the role of art is to show us “things that we already know but maybe had been too afraid to acknowledge or too afraid to remember”.

He chose nonfiction cinema to capture “the rainbow of stories that make up our factual reality”, which he said was made up of “almost innumerable number of fragmentary molecular interacting fantasies, stories, narratives, fictions”.

Non-fiction storytelling, he says, can “make visible the fiction” behind our perceptions.

“I think there’s a false and boring notion of nonfiction film that it’s a kind of window onto the world and you look into the window and you see the world,” he said.

Whenever people are filmed they “present” themselves, according to Oppenheimer. “We start acting out some of these invisible, second-hand, third rate, half-remembered script or stories that we have of ourselves that we identify
with — images that we have of ourselves that come from movies and culture and our parents and history.”

Oppenheimer said that filming people as they presented idealized images of themselves, as he did in the reenactments in The Act of Killing, gave a window into people’s deepest fears.

“What are they hiding? Why do they have to act like something that they’re not? Why do they have to act out an image of themselves. Which is pretend but very real?” he asks.

“Anytime you film anybody, you can see the fictions that people cling to so they can live comfortably withthemselves and you can glimpse behind that — who they really fear that they are.”

“There are events that we’re too afraid to inquire about,” Oppenheimer says. “But we know [they] lurk there like a kind of monster in the dark.”

Oppenheimer started his work in Indonesia in 2001, three years after the fall of Suharto, to examine the impact of globalization.

He filmed workers in a Belgian plantation in North Sumatra struggling to form a union. Many had family members who had been killed in 1965 or 1966.

When news of the project reached the authorities, the military intimidated the workers to keep silent.

At the suggestion of one of those who survived the genocide, Oppenheimer aimed his lens at the perpetrators.

To his horror, he encountered boastful men who would tell stories of how they killed — and reenact the deeds using their wives as subjects or in front of bored grandchildren.

Oppenheimer is now editing his next film, The Look of Silence, about a family of survivors of the 1965 violence confronting the killers.

“The Look of Silence is in some ways the film that I set out to make. But it’s not. It’s really different because making The Act of Killing changed everything and changed me in how I see what’s happening,” he said.

The second film Oppenheimer said has turned into “poem about silence that’s born out of fear and the necessity and trauma that comes out by breaking that silence”.

The Look of Silence will be Oppenheimer’s last film about the genocide in Indonesia. Conscious of the importance of acknowledging and the crimes of the past, Oppenheimer said that he could be a spokesman for the issue for as long as the film is in the spotlight.

He said there have been many activists and historians who have raised this issue, comparing the people to the truth-speaking child in the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

“We’re trying to create a space where people can talk about and therefore to address their biggest and most frightening problems because if we don’t address them we’re doomed to continue living in the nightmare.”

Prodita Sabarini, Contributor, New York | People | Mon, March 03 2014, 12:40 PM

Published in The Jakarta Post

Director calls for US to acknowledge its role in 1965 killings

The killer: Former death-squad leader Anwar Congo (center) re-lives his savage past in The Act of Killing. (Dogwoof.com)
The killer: Former death-squad leader Anwar Congo (center) re-lives his savage past in The Act of Killing. (Dogwoof.com)

 

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer on Tuesday called on the US to acknowledge its role in Indonesia’s communist purge after screening The Act of Killing, his film on 1965 death-squad leaders, for US Congress members and staff.

“Fifty years is a long time to not call a genocide a genocide,” he said. “If we want to have a constructive and an ethical relationship with Indonesia moving forward, we have to acknowledge the crimes of the past and we have to acknowledge our collective role in supporting those crimes, in participating in those crimes and ultimately in ignoring those crimes,” he said.

The Army, with the help of civilian death squads, killed 500,000 to 1 million people between 1965 and 1966 after the assassination of six army generals in an alleged communist coup attempt. The US government, which at the time was waging a war against Vietnamese communists, was reportedly pleased with the crushing of communism in Indonesia, and saw it as a success in their containment policy. Declassified CIA documents and investigative reports by journalist Kathy Kadane have showed that the US supported the communist purge by providing a list to the Army of around 5,000 people to be killed. The US then supported the Soeharto regime, responsible for orchestrating the massacres, as the new regime took over the country.

Despite the enormity of the crime, the International Criminal Court could not try the perpetrators of the 1965 genocide as it happened before the signing of the Rome Statute that founded the court. “What can happen is a special tribunal like the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia can be formed and that usually happens at the level of the UN Security council,” Oppenheimer said. “Before that can happen, probably the countries that were involved with supporting this, will actually have to say ‘Hey enough time has gone by for us to become comfortable with acknowledging what has happened here, in the name of addressing impunity and corruption in the fourth most populous country in the world’,” he said. “We need to pursue this because this was in fact a crime against humanity,” he said.

The Act of Killing was recently nominated for an Oscar Award in the Best Documentary category. The chilling film that follows death-squad leader Anwar Congo happily re-enacting the killings of 1965 has picked up awards in film festivals around the world. In Indonesia, the film has been shown in thousands of underground screenings across the country and as of Sept. 30 last year has been available for download in Indonesia. It has become a catalyst for national conversation on a topic that was largely buried under government propaganda during the Soeharto regime and self-censorship after reformasi (reformation).

“Bringing it here [Washington] is a new step in that journey for me,” Oppenheimer said. “I’m just pretty moved sitting here talking to you because it has been our hope that this would start a conversation everywhere about this past and about who we are as human beings in some deeper ways as well,” he said to the audience.

US Senator Tom Udall, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, organized the Tuesday night screening. “When I heard about this film, I thought that this should be given an opportunity for members of congress and staff and everybody to see,” he said.

Some 60 people, mostly staffers of Senators, attended the screening held at the Library of Congress. The audience was silent for a couple of moments after the film ended before giving a somber applause. After watching the film, Udall called Oppenheimer an artist. “Artists sometimes tell us stories that we don’t want to hear, that we don’t want to face. They open a reality to us,” he said.

Udall said it was significant that the film was screened here. “This is our nation’s capital. This is the seat of government. As you heard from his [Oppenheimer’s] interview, we [the US] were involved. So it’s important that this space be created to have a discussion also,” he said.

Prodita Sabarini, Contributor, Washington, DC | Entertainment | Sun, February 16 2014, 11:25 AM

Published in The Jakarta Post

Take that, stereotypes! The new Ms. Marvel is a Muslim teenager

REUTERS/MARVEL COMICS In the new Ms. Marvel debut, Kamala Khan is the first Muslim woman character to get a solo title comic series.
REUTERS/MARVEL COMICS
In the new Ms. Marvel debut, Kamala Khan is the first Muslim woman character to get a solo title comic series.

MARVEL COMICS is releasing its new Ms. Marvel superhero on Wednesday — a Pakistani-American from Jersey City succeeding the original Ms. Marvel, a blonde, blue-eyed Bostonian introduced four decades ago. The 16-year-old Kamala Khan will be the first Muslim woman to get a solo title in a comic book series, which is a big deal in the superhero universe.

The Ms. Marvel of the new millennium has come a long way from the original Carol Danvers character of the 1970s. Comic superheroes cater to a niche readership, but they also serve as signs of their times. The first Ms. Marvel was penned in the height of the 1970s women’s movement, of which Boston was one of the centers. Today, over a decade after the terrorist attacks on the twin towers and the repercussions for Muslims around the world, a new teenage superhero is born just across the Hudson from New York City. And she faces Mecca as she prays!

The author of the new series, graphic novelist G. Willow Wilson, has disclosed in interviews she wanted to “give” the Pakistani-Americans their own superhero in Jersey City, the city she grew up in. Among groups that need a hero of their own, American Muslims seem most suitable. For a long time they had to deal with being labeled the “enemy” even when they, too, were being targeted as Americans. In Jersey City, where the two towers can no longer be seen on the Manhattan skyline, Muslims are constantly reminded that their religious identity could be seen as a security threat, regardless of how unfounded that perception is.

The new Ms. Marvel tackles both stereotypes of both oppressed Muslim women and terrorists. Many Muslim women chose not to wear a hijab, and Kamala’s character is one of them. She carries her US history book side by side with a book on prophet Mohammed’s sayings and another book on illustration and design. Her creators claim she was born “out of a desire to explore the Muslim-American diaspora from an authentic perspective.” They would know because they, too, have had to navigate their way of being Muslim and American.

The idea of Kamala was inspired by Marvel editor Sana Amanat’s childhood as a Pakistani-American, she told The New York Times. And Wilson is a Muslim convert who once kept her religious identity a secret, a strategy many Muslims young and old employ in order to fit in a society where believing in Allah and the teaching of prophet Mohammed could be a liability. (Remember the uproar when rumors spread that President Obama might be Muslim?) With firsthand experiences of Muslims breathing into Kamala’s life, she might turn out to be more than a politically correct token Muslim in a predominantly Nordic superhero landscape.

Carol Danvers debuted as Ms. Marvel in 1977.

REUTERS/MARVEL COMICS

Carol Danvers debuted as Ms. Marvel in 1977.

Kamala can shape-shift, shrink, and grow. She struggles to reconcile her identity as an American teenager and daughter of Muslim immigrants. Her powers then seem to match the ways in which she would have to navigate the cultural terrains of mainstream America and her Pakistani Muslim roots. She is not the first Muslim superhero. In 2002, Marvel Comics introduced Soraaya Qadir, a niqab-wearing former Afghan slave that goes by the moniker Dust. DC Comics also has Simon Baz, the new Green Lantern, who was falsely accused of being a terrorist, and Nightrunner, the French-Algerian Batman of France.

In an interview with the BBC, Wilson said, “Superheroes represent the zeitgeist.” If the births of superheroes are influenced by the historical context in which they are created, then it’s no wonder we are experiencing a wave of Muslim superheroes in the last decade. Just a year after 9/11 we had a Muslim superhero that could turn into dust. Was it the sign of times, or something rooted in the American psyche? More Biblical perhaps, in that we all, victims and suicide bombers alike, turn into dust when we are blown to smithereens.

Kamala arrives just as we have witnessed a real-life hero of Pakistani descent in 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, who took a bullet from the Taliban, survived, and wrote a book about her experience. Is this the right time for the birth of a new superhero? Sure, she does not fit the stereotype. She is not a man. She is not sexed up. She is a Muslim. But she is a teenage girl who can throw a punch with a giant fist. Who would dare to mess with her?

It will be cool to see how Kamala morphs into her multiple identities and grows as a superhero. Will she be able to live up to the mantel of the former Ms. Marvel whom she idolizes? Be as strong as her Afghan predecessor? Could she be America’s new superhero and save us all from prejudice? Time will tell. Let us watch her ride the zeitgeist and may she travel on the palm of Allah.

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-1014 IWMF Elizabeth Neuffer fellow.

Published in the Boston Globe’s Opinion section February 3, 2014

Errol Morris: No redemption

(AFP/Larry Busacca)
(AFP/Larry Busacca)

 

Errol Morris sits in his office in Cambridge in the US. A horse’s head hangs from the wall in the dimly lit room, while snow falls outside.

The 65-year-old former private investigator’s latest film, The Unknown Known (2013), about Donald Rumsfeld, was born out of a fascination with a different kind of precipitation: The 20,000 internal memos that Rumsfeld called “snowflakes”, produced over his six years as defense secretary for George W. Bush.

One memo, dated several months before 9/11, contained what became Rumsfeld’s foundation for invading Iraq.

With a subject heading: To Discuss with P, he wrote: “Known knowns, known unknowns,and unknown unknowns. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

In March 2003, Rumsfeld answered journalists asking about the links between Saddam Hussein and terrorists with those definitions.

Morris’ film title, however, describes a state that Rumsfeld failed to grasp.

Philosopher Slavoj Zizek said Rumsfeld forgot to add a crucial fourth term: the unknown knowns: “The disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, although they form the background of our public values.”

Morris, after interviewing Rumsfeld for 34 hours, wonders if Rumsfeld had not been aware of what he did not know in the first place.

In 2003, as Rumsfeld was making the case for invading Iraq, Morris released The Fog of War, an in-depth interview with former US defense chief Robert McNamara, who publically stated that the US-Vietnam War was a mistake and that the US had carried out war crimes.

The film won an Oscar for best documentary.

Today, Morris is one of the executive producers of Joshua Oppenheimer’s eye-opening documentary The Act of Killing, nominated for the same award.

Morris’ career as documentary filmmaker spans three decades and covers a host of topics, from Gates of Heaven (1970), about a pet cemetery business, to The Thin Blue Line (1988), which freed a man falsely convicted of murder.

An underlying thread connects Morris’ films, he says. “I’m fascinated by all these kinds of questions: What is our relationship to the past? Do we ever see ourselves and what we’ve done? These are the questions that are the heart of almost everything that I do.”

For Morris, the key question is what the thoughts of those behind such mass killings are.

The lack of satisfactory answers in his 34-hour interview with Rumsfelf reminded Morris of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil, which she wrote of after following the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Morris said he watched Margarethe Von Trotta’s film on Hannah Arendt the previous night. “She engaged [with] this issue. She thought about this issue [….] In some crucial moments where you thought that there should be something there was nothing.”

He continues. “It was not that Eichmann was not really such a bad guy or was so ordinary but that somehow ultimately he could give no real account. It’s one of the frightening things in my recent Rumsfeld movie. I’m left with Chinese fortune cookie slogans platitude — these evasions — but I never really have a feeling that he had engaged with any of it.”

This is a depressing and different conclusion from The Fog of War. Morris said his wife, art historian Julia Sheehan, likens McNamara to the Flying Dutchman, who flies around the world seeking redemption, and Rumsfeld to Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, who cannot stop grinning.

In The Fog of War, some focus on McNamara’s admission of guilt and remorse, finding redemption in the elderly man’s tearful regrets about the American, Japanese and Vietnamese who perished in the wars he fought.

Morris said that such a focus was skewed.

While McNamara’s admissions that the war was wrong were remarkable, he says that viewers should not mistake the film for an apology.

“People like stories of redemption,” according to Morris. “But there is nothing redemptive about the story. [It’s a] story about a man who’s involved in the death of millions of people. He’s a war criminal properly considered.”

“I liked him, but he was a war criminal. There is no redemption for anything.”

Morris agreed to executive produce The Act of Killing after watching a rough cut of the film, which depicts boastful killers in Medan re-enacting how they murdered suspected “communists” in the 1965 Indonesian genocide.

“It’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Morris said. “I thought it was a great achievement.”

Morris said he knew nothing about the period in Indonesia before the film. “I remember of this feeling of shock, when I realized, wait a second, when we’re talking about 1964 and 1965, these are years in which we escalated the war in Vietnam.”

“I began to wonder if there’s a connection. There had to be a connection somehow to Vietnam and Indonesia,” he continues. “Then I read this one extraordinary passage in Bradley Simpson’s book Economists with Guns. He cites Robert S. McNamara, saying that the war in Vietnam was really unnecessary because we already have prevented the dominoes from falling in Indonesia by killing whatever the figure is.”

For Morris, The Act of Killing also offers no redemption.

On the film’s final scene, where Anwar Congo retched on the roof where he killed his victims, Morris said: “You can vomit as much as you want in whatever roof top you want. You can cry. You can say you were sorry [or] ‘I don’t know what I was thinking’ but it doesn’t bring back the millions of people that are dead.”

“They remain dead”.

 

Prodita Sabarini, Contributor, Cambridge, the US

Published in The Jakarta Post| People | Sat, January 25 2014

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