In Indonesia, an Oscar-nominated film reopens old wounds

look-of-silenceJAKARTA: Indonesia’s first film production to be nominated for an Oscar is at once a source of national pride and of shame for the world’s third-largest democracy.

“The Look of Silence” centers on one of the worst massacres since World War Two, when at least 500,000 people died in violence that raged after then-general Suharto and the military took power following an abortive coup in 1965. A million or more people were jailed, suspected of being communists.

Up for best documentary at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, the film has forced many to confront one of the darkest periods in Indonesia’s history and remains banned from commercial cinemas.

“Successive governments have failed to address the events of 1965 as a lesson that needs to be learned by the nation,” said Muhammad Nurkhoiron of the national commission on human rights.

“There needs to at least be official recognition but that hasn’t happened. But we feel happy this film has been nominated so the world can see those events are finally being questioned.”

Government officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the film.

Despite the ban, “The Look of Silence”, which has an Indonesian co-producer, is available online and had hundreds of private screenings across Indonesia.

This year’s nomination will be the second for director Joshua Oppenheimer, whose similarly-themed “The Act of Killing” lost out in the best documentary category in 2013.

While the first film unveiled some of 1965’s unrepentant killers who still remain free, “The Look of Silence” tells the same tale through the eyes of a victim’s family.

In the film Adi Rukun comes face to face with the alleged torturers and killers of his three siblings.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” Rukun said in a telephone interview. “What I wanted was to hear a confession, but I saw them feel no remorse.”

The films go beyond tracking the cathartic journeys of those involved to show how many continue to turn a blind eye to past crimes.

“I hope the films will energize the movement in Indonesia against impunity and against a system based on fear and intimidation,” Oppenheimer told Reuters by telephone.

Indonesia began a transition to democracy in 1998 after more than three decades of authoritarian rule.

The 2014 election of Joko Widodo as president, the first leader to come from outside the country’s political and military establishment, offered hope to human rights activists that past violations would finally be addressed.

That has not happened, and last year Indonesia censored several events to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 killings.

“The hope is small,” said Nurkhoiron. “But these films are a step to reconciliation with the past.”

– Reuters