Poverty, Anti-Western Beliefs, and the Bloody Communist Movement of Jakarta: Indonesia in the 20th Century

by Stefanie Malandrino

In the 20th century, Indonesia was most definitely among economic inflation and political catastrophe which contributed to the poverty and genocide it presumed among it all. The events of the Holocaust, the World Wars, and the Great Depression seem to have overshadowed the harsh truths that occurred in Indonesia during the final moments of President Sukarno of Indonesia’s ruling. These events do not make the struggles endured by Indonesia less real and tragic than they were. The film The Year of Living Dangerously, written by Peter Weir and David Williamson, who also directed the film, provides its audience with the truth behind the events that took place in this third world country in 1965. This is done through the story of Guy Hamilton, an Australian journalist who is a foreign correspondent in Jakarta, Indonesia, and his new friend Billy Kwan, a morally righteous Eurasian videographer. Along the way, the film depicts raw images of poverty at the time, the realness of anti-western beliefs, and the chaos that was resurrected by the communist movement. Each of these themes contributes to the depiction of the political and economic downfalls of the time that seem to be overlooked in history. Through this film, viewers can get deep within the realities of Indonesian life of 1965, and it ultimately, provides the audience with emotions of sympathy and empathy, while promoting the same sense of anxiety that is felt by the characters. The storyline of The Year of Living Dangerously efficaciously portrays themes of poverty, a sense of chaos, and political menace, while the audience is indulged in the provoking imagery, narrative, and characters that convey them. 

In order to fully understand the political concepts and issues presented through the film The Year of Living Dangerously, one must be aware of the historical events of the time that took place in Indonesia, specifically in Jakarta. President Sukarno was the existing president of Indonesia from 1949-1966, where he was the leader of the Indonesian independence movement and was the creator of the Guided Democracy system (Sukarno, Encyclopedia Britannica). Sukarno’s journey through the presidency began as promising and active but was later on spiraling down into a disaster that would soon impact life in Indonesia immensely. Sukarno established himself, his governance, his riches in the splendid palace of the Dutch governors-general in Jakarta, where he proceeded to preside elegantly over a sight that was at once diverting and disturbing (Sukarno, Encyclopedia Britannica). In other words, the president created a world separate from the realities of a slum in his country and turned a blind eye to the issues before him. In late 1956, Sukarno “dismantled parliamentary democracy and destroyed free enterprise”, where the economy was now in favor of communism, rather than capitalism (Sukarno, Encyclopedia Britannica). The Indonesian economy then submerged in turmoil, thus the heavy depiction of poverty within The Year of Living Dangerously. Nonetheless, Sukarno remained the voice of the people, and therefore, his opinions were the opinions of Indonesian citizens as well. At the time, Westerners were viewed as “the enemies,” as it is mainly at the hands of Dutch which caused Indonesia its never-ending struggle for independence, as they had “dissolved themselves into a unitary republic of Indonesia,” where Indonesia was essentially controlled by Netherlands (Taylor, 336). At the time, Sukarno suggested that “Western concepts of parliamentary democracy in Indonesia had led to recurring crises, because of the weakness of government authority and the vehemence of political opposition”, suggested a system “in harmony with the soul of Indonesian people” (Van der Kreof, 113). This is directly related to the representation of how the Indonesian characters of the film acted toward European characters much like Guy Hamilton. The chaos that is conveyed within The Year of Living Dangerously provides the audience with insight on the period of an attempted coup in Indonesian history, and the beginning of an Indonesian genocide. On September 30, 1965, the Indonesian National Armed Forces attempted to overthrow the communist government, as a result of “fear of the rise of anti-communist factions, both inside the military and the country as a whole” (Sukarno, Encyclopedia Britannica). This can be seen within the last few minutes of the film, and clearly depicts the beginning of a significant, and bloody, event that took place in Indonesian history. It is clear that themes of poverty, anti-west movements, and the insurrection caused by communist efforts are depicted within this film, and demonstrate how The Year of Living Dangerously demonstrates the political society of Indonesia.  

Within the film The Year of Living Dangerously, the depiction of poverty relates to a distinct gap between the living conditions of Indonesia’s civilians and the elite government officials. Within the first few minutes of the film, Indonesian slums are spread across the screen. Images of people walking the streets with their rib-cages prominently submerged from their bodies are displayed, while each person is barely clothed and covered in dirt and debris. It is clear that poverty is a major issue in Jakarta, and the economy is definitely sunken. Billy Kwan explains Jakarta as “the city of fear” where all civilians live in fear of death by starvation or disease. The narrative of the film contributes to the melodramatic images of poverty and appeals to the emotion of the audience, where Billy explains the situation of poverty in one line: “the real Jakarta is scrounging for another handful of rice just to keep them alive for another day.” Ironically, a scene toward the middle of the movie displays a frenzy of famished people as a bag of rice, among many others stacked in a truck, is split open. As the rice spills out and the civilians rush to get their share, a little Indonesia girl grabs the rice from the sandy ground and shoves handfuls directly into her mouth. The use of this character and structure of ironic relations that are used appeals to the audience’s emotion, where viewers are sympathetic and possibly empathetic. 

Weir effectively uses characters to depict the issue of the disadvantaged citizens, where Billy’s moral righteousness takes over and allows him to become committed to helping a needy mother and her young sick son, who, he states: “both drink and bathe from a canal that carries disease.” This small family alone provides the viewer with insight on the poverty occurring at the time and helps the audience consider how difficult it must have been to live in Indonesia during the time of an economic depression. The images of a third world country are clearly conveyed throughout the plot of The Year of Living Dangerously, and Weir is effective in continuously portraying the hardships of poverty through narrative and characters.

 In relation to the political aspects of this film, it is definitely tacitly conveyed that the economic downfall of Indonesia is a result of Sukarno and his presidency. The issues of poverty definitely give the reader a message of how the government can put such strain on its people in times of crisis. The film points to problems in the political world where there is a gap between the lavish lifestyle of higher political powers and the disadvantaged one of them civilians. Weir subtly ties this issue into the film, where scenes of poverty are contrasted with scenes of luxury. One scene depicts women in a cemetery who fall back on prostitution to make ends meet and survive, then jumps to the privileged Caucasian journalists, who stay in a high-end resort laying by a pool, who pay these prostitutes “just one dollar to spend the night.” 

It can also be understood by the audience, without the need for a statement, that the economic turmoil that contributes to the poverty that is being seen is a domino effect of Sukarno and his government. Billy is outraged when the child of the family he has supported dies of malnutrition and disease as a result that Sukarno has betrayed the revolution which put him in power. Upon his one-man protest which speaks the truth of the matter, security personnel murder Billy, and use suicide as a ruse to cover it up. This goes without saying that instead of Sukarno inspiring the “necessary coherent programs of the organization, rehabilitation, and development” for the poverty issues surrounding him, the president focused his attention on “nightly soirees of receptions, banquets, music, dancing, movies, and wayang” (Sukarno, Encyclopedia Britannica). Poverty, a separation of class, and oppression of the people as a result of political downfall are all topics of concern that clearly displayed through the film. 

The film The Year of Living Dangerously provides the audience with a sense of consistent unease felt by Westerners within the Indonesian society of that time in the 20th century. The film helps readers understand what it is like to be an outsider in a place country of unfamiliar culture and language, and how it is to cope with being a stranger in a country that does not see you as their ally. Within the first few minutes of the film, Guy is seen getting his bags checked suspiciously by Indonesian officials at the airport. This is later followed by a quote made by Billy to Guy where he states: “You’re an enemy here Hamilton, like all Westerners. President Sukarno tells the West to go to hell. And today, Sukarno is the voice of the Third World.” At the same time, later in the film, Jill feels anxious with her knowledge that a ship left with arms for the PKI, where she states: “If the PKI takes over, they will slaughter every European in Jakarta.” This information really lets the audience know how the West was perceived by this third-world country. The use of this narrative allows the audience to feel a sort of nervousness for Hamilton, as he is vulnerable in his surroundings. It also could create a sense of empathy, where viewers may understand what it is like to feel lost in a new place and feel uninvited or much like an outsider. Weir allows the audience to gain insight into the dangers of the Westerners meddling in third world countries. 

At the same time, this sense of unease is carried with the civilians as well, where the film shows how Jakarta is filled with chaos as the Sukarno gives power to the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). One scene conveys such chaos, as Guy and Billy drive into the city but are trapped by a large protest with hundreds of Indonesians bearing signs reading “Crush every form of imperialism.” The scene is almost claustrophobic and gives readers a feeling of anxiety. I feel as though this scene of chaos and feeling of madness can be relatable to many people who have experienced war and corruption in their government. This scene displays tensions between the Indonesian people and the government, and the Indonesian people and the Westerners.  This theme of unease and chaos is an overtly political way of displaying the experience of all people of Indonesia, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, in 1965 during the last few moments of Sukarno’s ruling. It makes the audience think of how one minute there is peace and normality within a place, and the next minute, the country is breaking out into riots and violent protests. This helps the audience relate to their own experiences of outrage, and really gives an insight into how much tension was in the air due to politics during this time. The film The Year of Living Dangerously, successful shows themes of anti-western beliefs in Indonesia during the mid 20th century, and confronts the audience with the reality of uncertainty and menace, along with a sense of unease in developing countries, regardless of race or religion. 

The rebellion caused by the communist movement is a major political issue that is addressed in the film. In The Year of Living Dangerously, the last few moments of the film display the reality of communist executions by the military and provide the audience with horrifying pictures of alleged communists being viciously shot to death. The structure and narrative of the film helped contribute to this idea of a bloody revolution that is to come, as Guy and his driver are incredibly nervous when approaching the military correspondents when trying to pass by them in their car. This scene later in the film depicts the fear that the government, or perhaps the anti-government, is capable of instilling upon its people. In a tacitly way, Weir addresses the political problems of that day in Indonesia, where the PKI was potential to be thrown over. With the support of Sukarno and the air force, the Communist party gained increasing influence at the expense of the army, ensuring the army’s hatred (Ricklefs, 272–279). By late 1965, the army was divided between a left-wing group allied with the PKI and a right-wing group that was being “courted by the United States” (Ricklefs, 282). Although this political information was not provided in the film, the audience is still able to identify that chaos is about to erupt through the narrative of the characters. Guy refers to such disorder as the “military declaring Marshall law” which gives the audience a sense of disruption that is about to occur. The scene at the end of the film where Guy is attacked by an Indonesian Military Correspondent, where he is aggressively jabbed in the eye with a gun, ultimately sets the bar for the future of Indonesia and gives the audience a sense of how the insurrection caused by the communist party led to a genocide. Although it is not shown, it can be inferred that the events that took place in reaction to this rebellion were no more merciful than the killings that were shown in the film. This political issue is demonstrated throughout the film but is definitely made more significant toward the ending, and although the final scene romantically depicts Guy and Jill meeting on the plane as they board, the thoughts are still with Indonesia as they leave the country behind in its turmoil. 

The Year of Living Dangerously successfully uses imagery, narrative, and dimensional characters to convey active themes of poverty, lack of order, and political menace that was very much alive in Indonesia during the mid 20th century. Weir effectively displays the Indonesian culture through this picture, even though the majority of it was filmed in the Philippines, and clearly provides the audience with a high quality, educational, and emotion-provoking film. The Year of Living Dangerously leaves its viewers with food for thought and entices one to feel thankful for their blessings, while also opening their eyes to harsh realities of politics that impact innocent people during that time, and that perhaps continues even in the 21st century. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hanna, Willard A. “Sukarno.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sukarno>.

Kroef, Justus M. Van Der. “Guided Democracy” in Indonesia.” Far Eastern Survey: Institute of Asian Studies 26.8 (1957): p, 113.

Ricklefs, Merle C. “A History of Modern Indonesia since C. 1200.” Stanford University Press 3 (1993): 272-82. Web.

Taylor, Jean Gelman. “Indonesia: Peoples and Histories.” Foreign Affairs: Yale University Press 82.5 (2003): p, 336. 

The Year of Living Dangerously. Written/Directed by Peter Weir, David Williamson. 1982. USA. United International Pictures, MGM/UA Entertainment Company.

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