Making Peace with Our Past
A movie about the atrocities of the Dutch troops led by Raymond Westerling in 1940s triggers a controversy in the Netherlands. This opens the door to a range of interpretations on that dark period of history.
CONTROVERSY often arises after historical movies are shown, and the same is true for the De Oost, a new film directed by Jim Taihuttu. The movie portrays the actions of soldiers of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) in South Sulawesi under the leadership of Raymond Westerling.
From the Dutch perspective, the 1946- 1947 slaughter was a ‘police action’ to ‘wipe out rebels and terrorists’. For other nations, especially the still-young Indonesia, the mass killings were clearly a crime. These two opposing viewpoints came to the fore after the movie about Westerling was shown on an online movie streaming services.
A number of Dutch organizations, including the Federation of Dutch East Indies Veterans (FIN) protested the movie. They see De Oost as anti-Dutch propaganda. FIN claims the film defames KNIL troops, who defended the Netherlands.
A historical movie is an interpretation of the past. Therefore it is normal to have differences in viewpoint. FIN had every right to file a lawsuit over the movie, although the courts should rightly rejected it, finding the moviemakers had done nothing wrong.
The film tries to be balanced by showing the brutality of the KNIL soldiers, but also portraying how Republicans cruelly killed and detained Dutch citizens. This kind of perspective can be a lesson for Indonesian film makers when making historical movies, especially about sensitive issues in Indonesia such as the 1965 incident, East Timor, or Papua.
Unfortunately, historical films in Indonesia often fall victim to the narrow political viewpoint of those in power, who only want to maintain one version of history and reject any alternatives. Films about the 1965 coup attempt, for example, only portray the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) as traitors, and claim that as a result, the party and its followers must be silenced. Movies such as The Betrayal of G30S/PKI and The Eradication of the South Blitar PKI Remnants (Operation Trisula) are propaganda that celebrate the viewpoint of the New Order regime. The government closed its eyes to the atrocities carried out by the military and ordinary people towards other groups seen as communist or communist sympathizers.
The government also tries to maintain its version of history by banning or censoring movies with the courage to offer other viewpoints. The movie Balibo, about the killing of Australian journalists by the Indonesian Military in East Timor in 1975, was banned from being shown at the 2009 Jakarta International Film Festival. The movie The Act of Killing, by Joshua Oppenheimer, which tells the story of people who slaughtered communists in 1965, has not been officially banned, but every attempt to show it attracts threats and raids by the security forces.
This government stance only limits public understanding of their shared past. What then happens is the strengthening of a viewpoint that sees historical truth in black and white terms: the government version is always right, and others are wrong. This is then used by certain groups to persecute those who offer differing perspectives.
The controversy over Westerling still continues in Netherlands. This is not a problem because people need to be given the opportunity to access different versions of history. This will enrich their understanding and lead to wider and healthy debate on a dark period in the history of their nation. The Indonesian government must abandon the old-fashioned way of limiting public access to other versions of history. Only this way will the people slowly make their peace with history.