Bejo Untung was a 17-year-old schoolboy when armed soldiers came to his village in 1965, putting him on the run for years until he was caught, tortured and jailed.
A communist-led coup attempt had just failed, triggering a wave of arrests and killings that ushered in more than three decades of rigid anti-communist education and propaganda in Indonesia. The subject is still so sensitive it is rarely broached in public.
However, now a documentary, The Act of Killing, made by Texan-born director Joshua Oppenheimer, shines a light on that dark era, focusing on the death squads and torture that seem like a myth to the majority of the population.
Oppenheimer came up with the idea for the film while working on a different project in North Sumatra when he found many relatives of the Indonesians he was talking to had been killed or imprisoned between 1965 and 1966 for trying to form a union.
Most were too afraid to appear on camera to speak with him and suggested he talk to the killers. He took their advice and was horrified by his findings.
“I ... encountered the boastful and shocking way that the killers were talking about what they did,” Oppenheimer said in a telephone interview from Denmark. “That was, for me, the beginning of the journey. I realized, my goodness, how is it possible that the perpetrators of mass murder should talk loudly and boastfully, and with smiles and laughter?”
The film, which runs for nearly two hours and won two prizes at this month’s Berlin International Film Festival, re-enacts several murders and features a member of a death squad.
The death squads were operating systematically across Indonesia mostly in the late 1960s. Estimates put as many as 1 million people dead in a wave of violence after the aborted coup, and the purge of communists and alleged sympathizers.
The main character in the film, Anwar Congo, was the one of the most feared death-squad leaders in the area around the city of Medan in Sumatra.
“I choke them to death, with steel wire around the neck,” Congo says in the film, demonstrating in front of the camera how it was done. “Then pull it, sometimes with a pole. It’s easier that way and less blood to clean.”
Premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in October last year, The Act of Killing took the Panorama Audience Award and the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the recent Berlin International Film Festival, but there have been no official screenings in the country where the killings took place.
It has been shown in about 265 underground screenings, with secret invitations among small groups, but there is the fear that police might try to block them. Still, about 10,000 have been to see it.
A national police spokesman did not respond to questions asking whether police would have tried to stop screenings of the film.
Young Indonesians have long been taught that communism was sadistic and evil, and given no alternative view to that era.
Until 1998 and the end of the iron rule of late Indonesian dictator Suharto, who took power shortly after the coup, viewing of a violent movie about how six generals and an officer were killed in the coup attempt was compulsory for schoolchildren.
Even last year, an attempt by Indonesia’s human rights commission to look into the events surrounding the slaughter was effectively blocked by the government.
Bejo Untung said the movie reflected accurately what happened to him and many others.
Caught and imprisoned in 1970, Untung survived a year of torture — beating and electrocution — in prison and then a camp of several hundred men located in central Jakarta. Three killed themselves while he was there, while others disappeared and were feared to have been killed. He spent eight years in jail without trial, including a stint of brutal farm labor.
“Ten of us were forced to stay in a room which can only fit two,” he said of his time in one prison. “We slept like layered cake, my head facing another inmate’s toes, so we could breathe while we slept.”
Most of the protein in his diet came from “anything that moved” in the fields, including frogs, rats, snakes and snails.
“My favorite was the baby rat, it’s easy to swallow it alive,” Untung said.
He learned to play guitar and piano, and made his own instruments during breaks. To learn English, he copied a dictionary word for word onto cigarette papers.
It was not until 1979 that political prisoners were released, to open the way for Indonesia to receive financial grants from the US and European nations.
Untung was a private music tutor until retiring and he now heads YPKP 65, an organization for victims of the brutality.
For nearly six years, he marched in front of the State Palace, the seat of Indonesian government, every Thursday with other human rights victims, demanding resolution.
Now he and others want Indonesian history to be revised to reflect the truth of that period.
Jakarta-based University of Indonesia historian Hilmar Farid said this was a lesson — not to allow absolute power to take hold.
“I doubt that the perpetrators will watch the movie and apologize ... Political interest plays a big part. There is a need to have mass consciousness, mass repentance if necessary,” Farid said.
Oppenheimer said his film, which cost US$1 million to make over five years, gave young Indonesians a different chapter to their nation’s history.
“From the history lessons in school, I only remember that they [the communists] killed and oppressed people, that’s it,” 23-year-old graduate student Frederika Dapamanis said after watching the movie. “I was sad and ashamed.”
There were also lessons for those older, as well.
“For Indonesians old enough to remember the genocide, the film makes it impossible to continue denying what everybody in that generation already knew. They are closer to the perpetrators than they like to believe,” Oppenheimer said.
“It’s not because they’re communist or Indonesian, but they are human beings,” he said. “The movie, that’s a hurtful truth. Indonesia has to speak out about this. The government has to apologize and the truth has to come out.”