On 30 September, Joshua Oppenheimer released his documentary The Act of Killing for free unlimited download in Indonesia, the country where 48 years ago the mass killing of communists and their sympathisers that his film deals with took place. It is a bold stroke – the film, titled Jagal in Indonesian, had not been released in theatres in the country but it had been widely available at smaller venues and for group screenings. By all accounts the vivid and lurid description of how probably some 500,000 people or more were killed by the army, nationalist and Islamic militias and thugs has already had a momentous impact in Indonesia, where for decades state ideology erased these events from official history and demonised anything even remotely left-wing. The country still bans all things communist. Under the military-dominated regime headed by general Suharto that lasted until 1998, each year television showed the same propaganda movie on the alleged communist coup attempt and the kidnapping, torture and murder of six generals on 1 October 1965 that sparked the mass killings. Students across the country also had to attend screenings of the movie. “I remember watching the propaganda movie every year. It was scary,” one former student told me recently. Even after Suharto and his coterie lost power in 1998, there was no active, or effective, re-examination of the past.
“I remember watching the propaganda movie every year. It was scary”
That is where The Act of Killing comes in. The film’s Holywoodised style, twisted narrative and obsession with sickening detail are what makes it compelling to a larger Indonesian audience, I was told on a recent trip to the country. Exactly the qualities that made me wary about what is after all a serious documentary about a horrendous, nearly forgotten crime are what make it succeed where more sober treatments have failed. When I earlier posted about The Act of Killing , I saw only one side of the story, what was in front of me, and other than many people who also saw the movie I was disturbed by the balance of its choices. I made the mistake of assuming that the main target for the movie was a Western audience while the real impact will be felt in Indonesia itself, of course. Also, I had no idea to what degree the old New Order, initiated by Suharto during his purge of the communists, still exerts a hold over the country, despite democratisation since the 1998 Reformasi.
A colleague of mine has made a career out of stressing the fallibility of journalists and of suggesting that we should be open about our lack of knowledge.
Indonesia, the largest Muslim country by population in the world, is a fascinating place with huge potential but seems to be held back by corruption and political paralysis that have their roots in the past. I cannot claim to know it after spending several weeks there and talking to many well-informed people but I understand a tiny bit more than before I went. Which brings me to the point I raise in the sub-heading: What can we write about that which we don’t know very much about? I’m not phrasing this as an absolute: Should we write at all about what we don’t know intimately? Because a negative answer would mean the total dismissal of the majority of what appears on social media and would even invalidate much of ‘traditional’ journalism. Clearly writers are not all-knowing, even if they are experts in their fields. We all have to fill in the blanks to a certain degree and how intelligently we do that may often be more important than the extent of our knowledge, assuming that we possess some basic information on our subjects. A colleague of mine has made a career out of stressing the fallibility of journalists and of suggesting that we should be open about our lack of knowledge. I find it patronising and impractical to pack stories with lists of caveats and mostly just assume that I’m writing for a relatively sophisticated audience that realises that I give a picture to the best of my abilities. But there are occasions where you fuck up or where you change your mind after finding out more. I guess my formula to deal with that is: Try very hard to avoid it but don’t be paralysed by it.