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.
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