by Jennie S. Bev
What do Benedict Anderson, John Roosa, and Robert Lemelson have in common? They have all talked about the G30S/PKI incident and its aftermath. Anderson with his Cornell paper A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965 Coup in Indonesia, Roosa with his book Pretext for Mass Murder, and Lemelson with his psychiatric anthropology documentary film 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy. These three works complement each other very well as Anderson’s is a view from high politics, Roosa’s perspective is linear in historical fashion, and Lemelson’s is from a grassroots vantage point in which it portrays innocent people suffering long-term adverse effects from the incident.
In a recent meeting at an Indonesian restaurant in Berkeley, California, Lemelson explained that 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy was a work 10 years in the making with a budget of less than US$500,000. Both the director and the producer of the film, Lemelson appears in a few of the scenes as well. The film is also supported by big names like Pietro Scalia, who won two Academy Awards for Best Editing (JFK and Black Hawk Down), and historians John Roosa, Geoffrey Robinson, and Baskara T. Wardaya. Richard Henderson, a winner of the Golden Reel Award, served as the music editor and Malcolm Cross, a trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, served as the composer. The music featured Dengue Fever, a Los Angeles-based band that combines Cambodian pop music with psychedelic rock, which brings a new aura to the “Genjer Genjer” song.
Apparently, residing in the world’s movie capital of Los Angeles, and teaching at UCLA as an anthropology professor provide an unprecedented advantage over accessible intellectual capital needed to produce an unforgettable movie.
He mentioned that his personal connection with Indonesia began in 1993 and was due also to being a Fullbright scholar in 1996 and 1997. His project at that time was a study on recovery outcome after being hospitalized for serious mental illness, in which those in Indonesia recovered better. After 10 years, 75 percent of those patients fully recovered, while only 35 percent recovered in the United States.
Lemelson also disclosed that casting for the film was done carefully to ensure diversity. The Balinese character Kereta is a low-caste farmer and Degung is a high-caste activist. The Javanese character Lanny is a Chinese Catholic-turned-Buddhist whose father was executed and Budi is a native boy born decades after the incident. All were psychologically and emotionally affected by the 1965 mass killings under the so-called “communism eradication.” With Suharto’s regime successful repression on all memorials, remembrances, and recollections of the event, these people’s memories captured on celluloid provide the needed record for posterity.
Lemelson might have inherited his idealism from his father Jerome, who was one of America’s most prolific inventors. Today, The Lemelson Foundation founded in 1993 has donated or committed more than US$150 million in support of its US and international missions. In Indonesia, its Recognition and Mentoring Program, at the Bogor Agricultural Institute and Technology Innovation Foundation, facilitates invention and innovation promotion at the grassroots level. He said the foundation donates approximately US$1.5 million annually.
The film, however, is Robert Lemelson’s own project, without any support from the foundation.
The movie is expected to be watched by President Barack Obama eventually, as he would surely be interested considering he once lived in Indonesia and his sister is half Indonesian. Obama’s statement in The Audacity of Hope is also cited at the beginning of the film:
“In 1965, under the leadership of General Suharto, the military moved against Sukarno, and under emergency powers began a massive purge of communists and their sympathizers.
Between 500,000 and 1 million people were slaughtered during the purge. With 750,000 others imprisoned or forced into exile. It was two years after the purge began, in 1967, the same year that Suharto assumed the presidency, that my mother and I arrived in Jakarta.”
As of this interview, the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has received a copy of the film.
When asked about the political aspect of the film, Lemelson said, “Film is a free expression and government shouldn’t be involved. It is a very important project in which historians need to get the history right.” He added that distribution for general consumption, however, has been an uphill battle, as today’s trend in political documentary seems to favor Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth type of movie.
Lemelson might not be as famous as Steven Spielberg, but he is someone who loves Indonesia dearly. With his dedication in unveiling one of the world’s most overlooked massacres through 40 Years of Silence, his contribution to a more just Indonesia is highly admirable.
Tempo English, October 6-12, 2009