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Genjer Genjer

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In the spring of my freshman year, I found out that I’d received a grant from Haverford’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship to travel to Indonesia with two Haverford anthropology professors and would have the opportunity to do independent research.  I knew little about Indonesian politics, except for the research I’d done as part of my application.  The two professors organizing the trip were finishing a book together on the 1965 political massacres in Indonesia, when up to a million people linked to the communist party were killed by the newly formed Suharto regime.  Although I’d done some background reading on the massacres, I had little understanding of their current political context, or how Indonesian society was dealing with this violent history, so I was excited when I heard that an LA-based filmmaker would be screening his documentary, 40 Years of Silence at Haverford.

The film is incredibly important in the way that it is generating dialogue around a topic that truly has been shrouded in silence.  At the same time, however, the film’s framing of the tragedy ignores the reality of how people today understand and grapple with history. This is largely true in the stories that “40 Years of Silence” tells – of four individuals affected by the massacres whose lives are dictated by trauma and pain.  But one of the most poignant aspects of the film was the opening of the film, when the song “Genjer, Genjer” was played along with an explanation of the songs signifance.

From the “40 Years of Silence Website:”

Inspired to write about the economic conditions of his town, Banyuwangi, Muhammed Arief wrote the song "Genjer Genjer," the theme song in the "40 Years of Silence." In 1942, the Japanese held colonial rule over Indonesia. The Japanese took all the crops grown in the town, which resulted in conditions of poverty and famine. The townspeople resorted to eating a weed that grew in the paddies, called the genjer plant (limnocharis flava). The lyrics of the song "Genjer Genjer" are about women who pick the young genjer leaves, tie them in bunches, and sell them in the market.

Arief later joined Lekra (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat), an artists group that shared ideology with the Communist party. The artists in Lekra began to sing and perform the song, and the song quickly became popular among Indonesians of all political leanings. The song became even more popular when two famous singers, Bing Slamet and Lilis Suryani, began to perform and record the song everywhere. The song later was sung at Communist political rallies, and its presumed association with the PKI increased.

Later, a college newspaper called Harian KAMI (Kesatuan Aksi Mahasiswa Indonesia), published altered lyrics to "Genjer Genjer." Instead of describing how the genjer plant was picked, sold, and eaten with rice, this version described how it was Communist supporters that were responsible for the coup that led to the death of the six military generals on September 30, 1965. These lyrics also implicated Gerwani, a women's organization, of being involved in torturing the generals. Although these were not the original lyrics, the publication of this version of the song further strengthened the public perception that the "Genjer Genjer" was associated with the Communist party.

As a result, the Indonesian government banned the song entirely. Anyone who was known to have performed or recorded the song was subject to suspicion and often arrest. Thus, the song "Genjer Genjer" now holds great significance for Indonesia's political history.

In the film, “Genjer, Genjer” was framed as an incredibly important part of Indonesian politics, but only in a historical context.  The song was described as having been killed along with the massacres, and even though a recent recording was used in the soundtrack, no mention was made of the fact.  The filmmaker – who had the power to shape the song’s meaning for viewers both in Indonesia and abroad – chose to enshrine it as a part of history, and as being intricately tied to mass murder.

I was surprised, therefore, when I traveled to Indonesia a few months later and within days of my arrival saw Genjer Genjer being performed at a popular Sanur nightclub by a reggae band from Malang, Java. The concert was largely attended by members of an underground arts community who use street art to make political statements, and members of a peace and reconciliation community group in Denpasar.  In talking to people, it became clear that the song’s history was important, but it’s symbolic meaning today is much more closely tied to current political struggles.

So how did an American filmmaker, and the NGOs who helped in the production of the film,  make the decision to create this framing?  In trying to answer the question, over three years since I first asked it, I’m drawn to literature on the politics of memory, or “institutional modalities of dealing with a violent past, specifically the numerous manifestations adopted by state terrorism.”  Mario Rufer explains that institutions create identities and mediate experiences as a way of both literally remembering a painful past, but also as a way to create exemplary memory, or to dictate the future through remembrance.  The politics of memory, when guided by the State, are shaped through political rhetoric, and the formation of new laws, public trials, commemoration rituals, memorial museums, and other public reminders of the past.

Non-state actors also play a role in guiding memory, in what some call “the political in memory.”  As Rufer explains, “The non-governmental institutional politics, instead (propelled by NGOs, Human Rights agencies, and international cooperation agencies) usually strive for the recognition and visibility of collective processes of underground remembrance.”  So, the organizations who helped produce the film, such as PUSdEP (The Center for History and Political Ethics) were likely trying to uncover memories that they felt had been concealed, including the history of Genjer, Genjer, and use that memory to demand greater memorial and recognition from the State.  The problem, then, is not the necessarily the way in which the film’s story was told through the window of victimization, but rather the fact that life in 1965 was portrayed as static, having not evolved into Indonesian life in 2009.  Jawaika, the band performing at the club I visited, were also a part of the political in memory, but in a much more nuanced way – they were remembering the past, but also carving a memory of the current.  Organizations like PUSdEP, and films like “40 Years of Silence” play an important role in demanding reconciliation for past tragedies, but their narrow lens can obscure the ways in which reconciliation is happening in organic non-institutionally mediated ways.

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