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.



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

Royston Tan: Something to remember

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Singaporean filmmaker Courtesy of Royston TanRoyston Tan’s biggest fear in life is losing his memory. He is afraid that one day his brain will give up on him and he won’t be able to remember a single thing.

That is why he makes films. If ever that uneventful day occurred, he said, his films could be played to him in hospital.

“[My biggest fear] is not cancer, or anything else, but that I may lose my brain. In each of my short films, there’s a story. But there’s also a personal story behind it. I want to remember all of this,” he said.

His latest short film project is Ah Kong. Commissioned by Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, the film focused on the issue of dementia. Tan said he had to confront his fear during his research while he talked to people with dementia.

An award winning filmmaker, Tan is one of Singapore’s most prominent directors. His famous short film on Singapore’s street gangster youth subculture, 15, which became a feature-length film, transformed him into a sort of Singaporean cult icon. In 2004, at the age of 28, he entered the list of Time’s Asian Heroes for pushing the creative envelope of Singapore’s cinema.

Jakartans were delighted when they had the chance to see his short films, selected by Tan himself, at the 9th Q! Film Festival. His films were screened for two nights on Sept. 25 and 26, before the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) brouhaha, in which the radical Islamic group rallied in front of the venues demanding the closing of the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual)-themed film festival.

His film screening showcasing four of his short films were packed. Tan also said he could hear the audience sobbing as they watched. A good thing, he said, as that meant his films touched them. He also noted that Jakarta was the only place in which he received long emails from people after his film screenings. He received emails after the screening of his musical 88 at the 2008 Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest), and the Q! Film Festival was not that much different, he said.

The Jakarta Post met up with Tan recently before his departure to Malaysia. Busy as a bee, the young director will soon be film-festival hopping to Japan, Korea, France and Germany. “I’ll be away from Singapore for five weeks,” he said.

Sitting over a glass of cream mocha, he talked about his passion for short films and brushes with his country’s censorship board. One short film screened at Q! was Cut, a hilarious short film lambasting Singapore’s censorship body. Tan made Cuta year after the censorship board cut 27 scenes from his feature film 15.

Tan said that despite the country’s strict censorship policy, he did not expect 15 to receive such a heavy hand. An honest depiction of Singapore’s fringe society, Tan said the film was important for Singaporeans. Tan likened the scene cuts to having delivered a baby in hospital only to be told that the baby was evil and had to have its arms and legs amputated.

The film 15 has received many awards and has been screened all around the world. It was screened once in Singapore, in which it was sold out in 45 minutes, he said. “It shows that Singaporeans are very curious about what is real. It’s a shame that authority refuses to admit that,” he said.

“I just feel that censorship is outdated,” he said, adding that the Internet era could not stop anyone from accessing information. For Tan, censorship only deprives people from discussion. “Witholding content deprives people of knowledge. Through distributing more content, you make them think and reflect on what is right and wrong,” he said. “Let people make a choice.”

With four feature films and 25 short films to his name over his 14-year career span, Tan said he aimed to express what he wanted to say through his works and re-introduce to Singaporeans what was “rightfully theirs”. “Sometimes in the midst of shaping the country, certain things are filtered out. I think what is missing is our real identity”.

Tan’s films are mostly social realist films as well as several experimental ones. For 15, he hung out with Singaporean teenage gangsters for one year before shooting.

His observation skills come from being a misfit, he said. Growing up in a kampung, Tan said he was one of the last to move to Singapore’s housing estates. He said the experience of moving from the kampung to apartment blocks was traumatizing as a seven-year-old.

“So my childhood was different. I grew up with animals. I grew up with people and nature — and [with] people who are generally making do with what we have in the environment. And when I went to elementary school, I realized that the way people did stuff was different,” he said.

Tan said he had trouble communicating with people, and spent a lot of time alone talking to his imaginary friends. He would quietly observe the people around him, he said.

He found his life path as a filmmaker at the end of secondary school. He took video-production class and soon found himself borrowing the camera over again.

His newest project premiered in Sapporo on his birthday, Oct. 5. The 3-D film titled Fishlove is a tribute to Hiroaki Muragishi, the actor of Tan’s experimental award-winning short film Monkeylove. Muragishi died in 2006 in a swimming accident in a river in Kouchi, Japan. The actor played an orange simian in search of his stolen heart during the cold Japanese winter. The monkey could not remember who stole his heart, walking through the snow to ask the mountain for clues.

“I wanted to make this film Fishlove to commemorate [Muragishi]. It’s a story about a fish that kept having memories about him walking through the snow,” he said.

Tan said he would give the film to the actor’s mother. “His mother said, ‘When my son gave me a copy of the short film I was joking with him, laughing. Because why would my son give me this funny film about him being a monkey to me? I just laughed. But now that he has passed away, I know it is to remind me that inside the film he’s always alive’.”

Prodita Sabarini, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta | People | Thu, October 14 2010