Life

Films tell the lost history
of May riots

The Holocaust did happen and was historically well-documented by historians and its survivors with their published journals and testimonies.

Yet, there are people -- the Iranian president is only one of them -- who believe the event was a grand hoax.

History, we are thus reminded, is not always forgotten; it is sometimes denied, especially when the truth is hidden by ceaseless propaganda and buried in the bulk of bent information by those in power.

An anthology of self-funded short films and one commercial film were separately screened on May 13-14 to commemorate -- as well as remind the public not to fall into a state of denial of -- two of the darkest days in the country's history that occurred on the exact same dates a decade ago.

A group of filmmakers, who voluntarily worked on a project called Proyek Payung (Umbrella Project), screened 9808 -- a compilation of short films (mostly feature and documentary) that reflect on the May 1998 riots.

A day after the first screening of 9808 at Kineforum, Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center on May 13, Flix Pictures (producer of teen flick Dealova) screened May -- the first middle-of-the-road film that dares to take the horrific May riots as its background -- at Studio XXI at the EX Plaza.

Each of the film directors said they did not intend to open old wounds and that their films were made "carefully". They added their films would hopefully not offend certain groups in society and, more importantly, be presented in the spirit of "forgiving".

Still, they acknowledged they were dealing with a thorny issue that might upset some people.

Both 9808 and May are vivid and blunt when bringing to the screen the collective memories of the 1998 riots -- the looting, the burning of buildings and the violence targeted toward the Chinese-Indonesians and their properties -- through the use of media images, documentation and testimonies.

The case is different when they try to remind us of the most gruesome violence that occurred during the riots; the gang-rapes of Chinese-Indonesian women.

This highly sensitive issue is ghastly murky: When the fact-finding team of the May Riots revealed that the rapings of Chinese women indeed occurred during the incident, confirming what had been widely rumored previously, a number of people, including Muslim hardliners, quickly denied the reports, saying there was no proof.

The reports became fuzzier when the outraged international community discovered that photos of the atrocious gang-rapes said to have happen in Jakarta, which were widely spread on the Internet and even displayed at a formal exhibition in Singapore, were false and had actually been taken from porn sites.

Meanwhile, the rape victims, for the sake of their dignity and in fear of further traumatic abuse, chose to remain silent, leaving the women's activists with only pseudonymous and third-party testimonies in their fight for justice.

The public, meanwhile, was left in the dark: Did the gang-rapes happen? If so, how widespread were they? And were they really carried out systematically?

There are three films in 9808 that touch the anti-Chinese issue, but only one, however, that implicitly tells the sexual violence suffered by Chinese women during the riots.

The other two films go far back to the years before the riots to highlight the long history of racial discrimination against ethnic Chinese under the New Order regime.

Huan Chen Guang (Happiness Morning Light), written by Ifa Isfansyah, tells the story of a Chinese girl named Chen Guang, who decides to leave Beijing for South Korea in an effort to erase the sad memories of her mother, who was killed in the May riots.

In the opening of the film, Chen listens to news reports from a Chinese-language radio station that Chinese-Indonesian women were gang-raped on the streets in broad daylight.

The story is not specifically about the rape victims, but rather about their families who held on to the memories of their brutally and unjustly murdered loved ones.

Lucky Kuswandi with his piece A Letter of Unprotected Memories, which depicts the Imlek ceremony, and Ariani Darmawan with her piece Sugiharti Halim, which ludicrously mocks the stupidity of the New Order's policy to "Indonesianize" Chinese names, told the audience after the premiere screening that they just "wanted to share what they felt about their ethnicity". Both are Chinese-Indonesians.

The most intriguing piece in the 9808 anthology is Edwin's Trip To The Wound, which tells the story of Shilla (Ladia Cherryl), whose strange hobby is collecting the stories behind people's wounds.

One night, she meets Carlo, who in erotic scenes peruses her body only to find that the Chinese-looking Shilla has no wounds. The story leads to the assumption that Shilla was a rape victim, but Edwin insists that she was not.

"It's a film about a wound, which is a universal thing," he said, but adding that he leaves his work open for interpretation.

May is a film about the controversial gang-rapes. It follows a Chinese girl named May (played by debutante Jenny Chang), who was raped during the May riots and fled to Malaysia after being saved by a foreign journalist, who found her crying alone and frightened in a dark tunnel.

The story is centered around her life and the relationships with her lover, Antares (Yama Carlos), her mother, Cik Bing (Tutie Kirana) and her son Tristan. May is not sure who fathered Tristan; Antares, or one of the strangers who raped her.

Unlike the poetic Happiness Morning Light and Trip To The Wound, May is more blunt in describing the tragedy.

"I tried to make it more light and popular. This is basically a love story. It's not really that arty in the sense of, you know, that other kind of art," director Viva Westi said.

However, she added that she tried to make the riot scenes carefully and avoided violent images in the movie: The chaotic and tense situation surrounding the riots were mostly depicted through television images and glass reflections.

Viva said no rape victims had been interviewed in the making of the movie and stressed that the main character was fictional. But she said she believed the rapes truly happened.

May is not her first film to touch on a sensitive issue.

"Actually, I made a short film on this issue when I was still studying at the Jakarta Arts Institute in 1998. At that time, it was difficult to find a rape victim who wanted to talk," she said. Her only clue at the time was a letter sent to Kompas daily from a doctor who asked whether he should abort the pregnancy of a rape victim.

A decade later, Viva said she still couldn't find a victim willing to talk about the atrocious gang-rapes. But she made the film anyway, which she said is actually a story about love, guilt and forgiveness.

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