‘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

Driving a clever move against larger injustices

Associated Press/Saudi Women for Driving via Change.org/Eman Al-Nafjan The passenger of a passing vehicle looks across as a woman drives her car in defiance of Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 2011, in this video frame grab from the Saudi Women for Driving coalition.

Women behind the wheel have the potential to change Saudi society


What hope is left for the Arab Spring? Egypt is returning to military dictatorship. Syria is a bloodbath, spiraling into a deeper and more violent civil war. Yet some remnant of idealism remains — on the roads and highways of Saudia Arabia.

In 2011, inspired by the revolutions in neighboring Gulf States, Saudi women started their own movement. Silenced and hidden in a virtual gender apartheid, they revolted by cunningly tackling a seemingly mundane issue — the right to drive a car.

While some protests in the region faltered as they descended into factionalism and civil war, the women’s movement in Saudi Arabia continues to throttle ahead. Like similar protests in 2011 and 2012, this Saturday is being promoted as a day of defiance behind the wheel.

More than 16,000 people have signed a petition demanding the government provide means for women to obtain driver’s licenses. There is no official law that prohibits women from driving, but women cannot obtain driving licenses from local authorities. In some ways, this paradox reflects the depth of the women’s challenge, the deep roots of the cultural norms they are challenging. But in doing so, they may liberate some men, as well.

In Saudi Arabia, neither men nor women have political rights. Learning from the 1979 Iranian revolution, in which the religious establishment managed to mobilize a people’s revolt against the shah, the Saudi royal family has made sure to appease the country’s clerics by implementing strict Islamic codes. Unfortunately, in the patriarchal society, stricter religious codes have been interpreted as justification to undermine women’s rights.

Under a system of male guardianship, women are forced to be dependent on men. To travel, study, marry, or even receive medical treatment, they must obtain permission from their fathers, husbands, or sons. Women received the right to work without a guardian’s permission only as recently as 2011.

It was once enough to tell women that to be virtuous is to be obedient. But in recent years, as women’s level of education has risen, it has become harder for the religious establishment to keep women down. There are more women with higher-education degrees than men, according to 2011 data from Saudi Ministry of Higher Education ministry, but the women make up less than 15 percent of the workforce. Lacking the right to drive, those women who do have jobs must rely on male relatives to take them to work or spend between 30 to 60 percent of their salaries to hire drivers.

Manal al-Sharif, who became the face of the women’s movement after being jailed for driving in 2011, said that Saudi women’s awakening, signaled by their determination to gain access to the driver’s seat, has the potential to change the whole Saudi society. Saudi men have posted supportive messages on social media. On YouTube, one can see men giving the thumbs up when seeing women driving. A Saudi man said to Sharif: “In Saudi, to get your rights you need to be a woman, because women know how to fight for their rights.”

Focusing on driving as a symbol for a fight against larger injustices has been a smart move by the activists. First, they have the advantage that no explicit law bans women from driving, thereby giving them more space to make their protest. They aim to hit the male guardianship system, but to choose their battles strategically. (Had they protested against the guardianship directly they would have faced a steep wall of resistance.) Second, the issue strikes an immediate chord with American women, giving them an instant source of sisterhood and support.

The movement has seen other signs of progress. No longer do clerics cite religious law to justify the driving ban, Sharif has observed. Instead, they rely on much-ridiculed scientific claims that driving can be damaging to a woman’s reproductive organs. Meanwhile, women are now allowed to ride bicycles, albeit for recreational purposes only. Two female athletes competed in the 2012 London Olympics. King Abdullah has appointed 30 women to the Majlis al-Shura, a council whose 150 members advise him on matters of public policy. Some women councilors have since supported activists’ demand to lift the ban on driving. And in 2015, women will be able to vote and run in municipal elections.

There has been no revolution in Saudi Arabia. But the persistence and cunning of the Saudi women’s movement has breathed life into the concept of the “Arab Spring” as a source of peaceful awakening. And the key to its success has been behind the wheel.

Prodita Sabarini, an Indonesian journalist, is the 2013-14 International Women’s Media Foundation Elizabeth Neuffer fellow.


Embarking on a new journey of learning – Elizabeth Neuffer Fellowship

I will be spending time in the United States during the fall and winter as International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF)’s 2013-2014 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow. I plan to research on the phenomenon of increasing religious intolerance and violence in Indonesia at the MIT’s Center for International Studies.

There are burning questions that I’m sure a lot of us who are sickened by the endless news about religious violence would like to find answers to. What are people so afraid of? Why do people feel threatened by those who are different? Is it important to differentiate between the sacred and profane? How do political and economical factors play in acts of religious intolerance and violence?

I will also have the opportunity to intern at The Boston Globe and The New York Times.

The fellowship will start in September and I will be posting thoughts about the experience here. In the mean time before my departure I will be posting my reports for The Jakarta Post.

The fellowship is named after Elizabeth Neuffer, The Boston Globe reporter and winner of the 1998 IWMF Courage in Journalism Award. Neuffer who reported on human rights and social justice issues was killed on assignment in Iraq in 2003.

Elizabeth Neuffer - IWMF
Elizabeth Neuffer – IWMF