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A taboo film no longer labeled 'dangerous' in Indonesia

Excited festival crowds flocked to see 'The Year of Living Dangerously,' the Oscar-winning movie banned as subversive by the Suharto regime.

By / November 10, 2000



The crowd surged, desperate to get past the doors before it was too late. For a moment, the pushing, the clove-cigarette smoke, the shouting laughter were like a Jakarta bus terminal before the major Muslim holidays.

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But this group wasn't afraid of missing its bus home. Instead the mostly young, hip moviegoers wanted in on the country's first legal screening of "The Year of Living Dangerously." Peter Weir's 1983 film followed the last days in power of charismatic leader Sukarno, who like many Indonesians, used only one name.

The movie was famously banned by Suharto, the general who in 1965 ousted Sukarno, the nationalist leader who helped gain Indonesia's independence after World War II. Former President Suharto's 1998 fall after 32 years in power and the Reformasi movement that accompanied it have allowed Indonesians to openly reconsider their traumatic history for the first time.

Suharto had fashioned critical discussion of the still-disputed circumstances that brought him to power into the nation's ultimate taboo. Official Indonesian history had it that Suharto foiled a Communist coup against Sukarno. It ignores what came next - the massacre of half a million Indonesians.

"Something happened in '98. When Suharto fell, it was like a plug was pulled, and ideas could burst out,'' says Sharly Harmayn, the chairwoman of the Jakarta International Film Festival, which screened "Dangerously."

"I think what you saw last night," she adds, "was how thirsty the younger generation is for information, perspectives, anything about their own history.''

The two-week festival is a small testament to how far Indonesia has come since Suharto's fall. The overriding focus since that fall two years ago has been on problems like a military refusing to bow to civilian control, separatist movements, and brutal communal conflicts. But artists, journalists, and others have been quietly moving to seize on opportunities created by the change.

The festival is loaded with films that would have been banned, or resulted in Ms. Harmayn's arrest, if shown just a few years ago. Among them is a documentary on Indonesian military atrocities in Aceh province, and a series of films about Islam in the modern world.

This is the second year Harmayn and friends have run the festival, and she says it was much easier to get past the censors this time. Last year, she says she half-expected the festival to flop, with attendees drawn primarily from Jakarta's tiny arts and activist community. "Instead, we had 20,000 spectators." she says. "It was extremely exciting.''

Mr. Weir's film - starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver - disappointed most Indonesians in the audience. They had been expecting more of their history, particularly about the banned Indonesian Communist Party, the boogeyman of Suharto's "New Order" government.

Every Indonesian schoolchild was warned of the blood lust of the Communists. They were terrified annually with the propaganda film, "The Betrayal by the September 30th Movement and the Communist Party of Indonesia," which depicted Communists murdering innocent families. Constant reminders that they could return were used to terrorize the populace. "I think most of us wanted more on what the Communists were really like,'' says Sylvie, who works at a nongovernmental organization.

Instead, the film abandons the historical detail that makes the Christopher Koch book it's based on such a great read in favor of a love story and a tangle of subplots. The movie, which landed Linda Hunt a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, has not aged well.

So, will Indonesia's tragic history get the movie it deserves? Harmayn hopes so. She's currently producing an Indonesian-language film, called "Whispering Sands," about a family displaced during the turmoil of 1965.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society