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Jakarta Post

LSF moves to silence '€˜Senyap'€™

  • Jess Melvin

    The Jakarta Post

Melbourne   /   Sat, January 10, 2015   /  10:37 am

On Dec. 29, the Film Censorship Institute (LSF) banned public screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer'€™s second groundbreaking documentary on the 1965 Indonesian genocide, Senyap (The Look of Silence). So far, the ban appears to be effective only in East Java. It nonetheless sets a disturbing precedent.

The LSF'€™s seven reasons for the ban betray its New Order past and threaten Indonesia'€™s democratic space. Unless challenged, attempts could be made to generalize the ban nationally.

The first reason cited for the ban is that Senyap contradicts '€œthe principles, aims and function'€ of the film industry, which includes a requirement for all films to promote '€œbelief in God, to demonstrate benefit, to foster unity and wholesomeness [kebajikan]'€, and support the '€œunity and integrity of the nation'€.

Beyond the probable shock of an outsider in noting that it is illegal to release a film that depicts an atheistic view of the world, Indonesia'€™s censorship laws are quite liberal. As the many thousands of debauched and materialistic Hollywood-type films available in Indonesia suggest, concepts such as wholesomeness are usually applied in only the broadest sense.

Cases of censorship appear to be largely politically motivated, such as the 2009 banning of Balibo, for its unfavorable depiction of Indonesia'€™s invasion of East Timor, and the 2014 banning of Noah, which LSF head Mukhlis Paeni explained was due to its controversial interpretation of the creation story shared by the Judaic, Christian and Muslim faiths. As with the banning of Senyap, these films were banned following political pressure regarding their message, rather than questions on the explicitness of their material.

This has not stopped the LSF playing the role of film critic. The second reason for the ban is that the interviews with perpetrators in Senyap have '€œdebatable authenticity and lack objectivity'€ because they are conducted by the '€œchild of a PKI [the defunct Indonesian Communist Party] member'€, and because the film '€œdoes not provide background information and social context'€ to the '€œbloody events of 1965/1966'€.

Authenticity and objectivity are crucial in film quality. They do not, however, usually determine whether a film is banned from public screening. Many biopics and historical dramas could be wrenched from the public realm for precisely this reason.

Yet Senyap is, after all, a film in which each character speaks from personal experiences of historically verifiable events and where perpetrators of serious human rights abuses incriminate themselves knowingly on film.

The problem with the film'€™s authenticity and objectivity, according to the LSF, is that these accounts are elicited by the '€œchild of a PKI member'€ '€” meaning they are told from the wrong perspective.

If it seems perverse to suggest that it might be possible to create a film in which the exact same story is told, but in which the characters'€™ identities are reversed, so that the victims of widespread state-sponsored mass killings are presented as the perpetrators of this violence and those who carry out this violence become the story'€™s victims and heroes '€” this is precisely how official Indonesian versions of this history are told.

Moreover, the LSF attempts to lay down its own correct interpretation of the violence. The LSF opined in its third reason that the killings in North Sumatra were the result of an outpouring of local resentment from the mid-1940s, rather than as part of a national and coordinated campaign led by the military, as Senyap explains.

This is a serious overstepping of the LSF'€™s mandate. Only the most draconian of regimes will presume to dictate not only its version of history, but also dictate what interpretations may even be proposed.

As exposed in the fourth reason for Senyap'€™s banning, the film, the LSF warns, '€œencourages viewers to be sympathetic to the PKI and the teachings of communism'€, a situation which '€œcreates social and political tensions and which weakens national resilience.'€ The institute forgets the Cold War ended almost a quarter of a century ago and former president Soeharto'€™s military dictatorship 17 years ago.

The LSF'€™s partisanship is further demonstrated in its fifth reason for the film'€™s banning '€” that Senyap breaks social norms for '€œpoliteness'€ by having '€œa relative of a PKI person'€ interview a perpetrator about their involvement in the killings.

It does not comment on whether the actual killings may have been a little less than polite or why mass murderers are free to walk the streets as survivors still fear for their safety.

This partisanship is compounded in the institute'€™s sixth reason for the ban, that even '€œfrom an educational perspective'€, Senyap is unacceptable because it shows visual images that '€œinclude the articulation of hateful attitudes and behavior'€ that might be passed on to younger generations, including '€œextreme descriptions of the killing of PKI people'€, using sarcastic words such as '€œeye gouging'€, '€œthroat slitting'€ [and] '€œtongue slitting'€ in front of primary school children.

That is, Senyap does not graphically depict these forms of violence, as seen in the government'€™s own sadistic propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, which was compulsory viewing for all elementary children until 1998; but rather Senyap should be banned because it describes such acts, as a means of exposing and condemning them.

Such logic is no different to demanding that all documentaries about the Holocaust remove all mention of concentration camps, or that any documentary films about US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan refrain from mentioning water boarding and cluster bombs, as if the mere mention of these acts of violence was an active incitement for their use.

Such a demand amounts to a whitewashing of the past. It is also hypocritical considering the institute'€™s continued approval of Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, which was used to justify the violence of the genocide.

'€œThe scenes shown in this film'€, the LSF concludes in its last reason, '€œpresent actions that are inappropriate for viewing as they foment anger within the community which is building a social system that values diversity and ['€¦] multiculturalism'€. The film also allegedly prevents the '€œnatural reconciliation'€ currently underway in Indonesia.

Diversity and multiculturalism will not be served through silencing genuine and necessary debate about Indonesia'€™s dark past any more than '€œnatural reconciliation'€ can be achieved, by continuing to cling to the past, official propaganda version of the genocide while victims continue to be silenced.

Silencing Senyap will only strengthen growing perceptions both domestically and internationally that Indonesia is not serious about confronting the New Order'€™s crimes and remains intent on stifling public debate about the topic.

President Joko '€œJokowi'€™ Widodo must revoke the film'€™s ban to demonstrate his government'€™s seriousness about upholding human rights and democracy, in this 50th anniversary year of the killings.

The institute should stop playing politics and allow Indonesian viewers to make up their own minds.


The writer recently completed her PhD thesis, Mechanics of Mass Murder: How the Indonesian Military Initiated and Implemented the Indonesian Genocide, The Case of Aceh, at The University of Melbourne, Australia.

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