JAKARTA--When Indonesia was in the iron grip of President Suharto, more than 100 movies were produced annually, many as propaganda tools.
Today, unshackled, people in their 30s who were involved in a student movement to protest Suharto's regime in 1998 in its last days are now creating films to shed light on the nation’s turbulent past and the violence that has persisted.
The filmmakers, part of a band known as “generation 98,” are tackling the sensitive subjects because they believe unraveling and revealing the murky past is essential for the nation to move forward.
One such filmmaker is screenwriter Salman Aristo, 36.
Aristo said that Suharto’s 32-year rule shaped the mind-sets of many Indonesians. His legacy, and the fear that he instilled, remains, even 14 years after the strongman’s departure.
“Even today, fear of learning the truth among the public overpowers their desire to get to the truth,” he said. “So, people pretend that they have not seen what they saw.”
Aristo penned the script for “The Dancer,” a film that portrays a farming village in the 1960s set against the backdrop of the raging crackdown and purge of Indonesian Communist Party members.
The 111-minute movie, which has won several awards in Indonesia, was screened from last autumn to early this year.
Aristo was a college student in Bandung in the state of West Java when his country started a new chapter as a fledgling democracy. He participated in demonstrations and discussed the future of Indonesia with his friends in a hut situated in the middle of a rice field.
Aristo said there is something from Indonesia's past that needs to be overcome for the country to grow into a true democracy.
“We need to come to terms with the nation’s dark past and what really happened behind the incident that gave rise to Suharto as a dictator,” Aristo said. “But we had earlier turned away from that.”
The dark past refers to “the 1965 incident,” in which a band of young military officers attempted a coup on Sept. 30, 1965, while President Sukarno was in power. The ensuing upheaval was quelled by General Suharto, enabling him to take over after Sukarno.
But it left a deep scar on the country’s history, many say.
The Indonesian Communist Party was accused of being responsible for the coup attempt and became the subject of a fierce purge.
More than 500,000 people, most of them party members, were murdered, according to one estimate.
Ifa Isfansyah, who directed “The Dancer,” portrays the incident as a military conspiracy.
Isfansyah, 32, emphasized that his movie is a "love story," but added that it would have been banned at the stage of writing the screenplay if it had been attempted in the Suharto era.
“We have to restore the credibility of movies after they had been used so long for political purposes,” he said.
Gotot Prakosa, dean of the film and television faculty at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts, said members of generation 98 are eager to look squarely at Indonesia’s violent past.
“They are familiar with movies made in Western nations through Hollywood movies and the Internet,” Prakosa said. “They are exploring what themes Indonesian films should take up after looking back on their country’s history.”
Another member of generation 98 is Daniel Rudi Haryanto, a director. He is casting light on the terrorist attack in the resort island of Bali in 2002 in his documentary, “Prison and Paradise.” The attack killed 202 people, including a Japanese couple.
The 93-minute film won Haryanto, 33, the Directors Guild of Japan Award at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Yamagata Prefecture in 2011.
Haryanto is determined to reveal the events that have been kept out of the public eye. It took him seven years to shoot the documentary.
“I want to know what really happened in that terrorist attack 10 years ago and the clampdown on the Communist Party 47 years ago,” he told members of an audience at a gathering after a recent screening of the film in Jakarta.
Several members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a radical Islamic group based in Southeast Asia, and others were arrested in connection with the terrorist attack. Three men were executed for their roles in the bombings. Haryanto interviewed the convicts in prison to document what they had to say.
In the film, one inmate proudly said that he did the right thing, while another expressed remorse.
The documentary also captures their family members struggling to cope with the snubs of people around them.
Originally from the central region on Java Island, Haryanto moved to Jakarta to join an anti-government riot in July 1996, when Suharto’s long reign was nearing its end.
He decided to learn how to create a documentary at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts.
“I wanted to convey to the public what really happened by seeing things with my own eyes,” he said.
Indonesia’s shift to democracy has opened the opportunity for filmmakers to shoot movies at their own discretion.
But it is another thing to get them on theater screens.
For example, “Prison and Paradise” was banned by Indonesia’s Film Censorship Board.
Mukhlis Paeni, chairman of the board, said the decision was due to opposition from the state government of Bali.
But Haryanto gave a different version.
“I was told that my film was rejected because it will adversely affect Muslim youngsters,” he said.
Censorship is not the sole problem in their struggle to get their movies screen time in Indonesian theaters.
Members of generation 98 complain about the monopoly of movie theaters by Group 21, which operates 141 of Indonesia’s 147 theaters as of late last year and is believed to have close ties to the Suharto family.
Haryanto gave up screening "Prison and Paradise" at large theaters and, instead, travels to many parts of the country to show it in small gatherings.
Indonesia’s first movie was produced in the 1920s when the country was under the colonial rule of the Netherlands. After Indonesia became independent, founding father Sukarno banned screenings of foreign films to nurture patriotism.
After Indonesia shifted to democracy, only seven films were shot in 1999. But the number jumped to 80 in 2011, and some movies attracted more than 1 million theatergoers, each.
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