This story about Indonesia's most-notorious propaganda film, a brutal, bloody piece of state-sponsored cinema about a failed communist coup attempt on 30 Sept. 1965, begins with nervousness—and confusion. Subarkah Hadisarjana, the film's makeup artist, was told that he had to transform Umar Kayam, a sociologist and writer, into Sukarno, Indonesia's founding father, and a man portrayed as man in poor health and waning influence in the film.
The problem was, Kayam had no idea. Arifin C. Noer, the director of Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, which roughly translates to "The Betrayal of the Communists," had already gone through 27 potential candidates to play Sukarno before deciding on Kayam. The sociologist was called to the Bogor Palace, where Subarkah would have to inform him of the decision and get him film ready.
Watch: Blood, Guts, and Bad Acting: Inside the B-Movies of New Order-era Indonesia
Subarkah was just a novice in the movie makeup industry. He was pulled from his second year at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts by the movie's director to work on a film that would be, at the time, the most-expensive ever made in Indonesia. At first, Subarkah tried to decline the offer, explaining that he had never worked on a film before, let alone one of this scale. But G30S/PKI, as the movie is popularly known, was funded by Gen. Suharto's authoritarian regime, so "no" wasn't really an option.
"I refused the offer at first, but the letter said that I had to participate in the project," he told me. "It was Arifin himself who asked me to do it. We didn’t even know each other."
That's how a first-time movie makeup artist was tasked with turning a sociologist into the country's first president. It took him two hours to transform Kayam. Subarkah styled his hair the same as Sukarno's, even adding new eyebrows to more accurately match the photo he was working off.
“I was scared that I did it wrong," he told me. "I didn’t want to be fined and lose my money."
But his work paid off. Even the domestic staff of the Bogor Palace thought that Kayam was actually Sukarno. Subarkah was relieved. But it was only one out of a half-dozen major characters he worked on in the film. Subarkah was in charge of doing the makeup of Aidit and Syam Kamaruzzaman, both members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), as well as the daughter of DI Panjaitan during one of the film's most-iconic scenes, when her face was smeared with blood.
Subarkah handled all the gore for the film, and there was a lot of gore because, at it's heart G30S/PKI is a horror film. The movie follows a failed coup by members of the PKI that captured and killed 6 generals, and one lieutenant, in the Indonesian military (TNI). The generals were taunted, tortured, and killed, their bodies thrown into a well called Lubang Buaya, or the crocodile pit.
It wasn't exactly historically accurate, little propaganda is (more on this later), but it was effective. It scared the hell out of most children who grew up in Suharto's New Order—the regime made the film mandatory viewing every 30 Sept., an easy task when there was only one state-run TV channel and the state made it required viewing in schools.
The film effectively indoctrinated children in the rhetoric and ideology of the New Order regime. The PKI were the monsters and Suharto and the TNI were the heroes. It was a simple message that helped foster support for an authoritarian, military run regime for three decades.
It was also an attempt to justify and normalize state-sponsored violence. The anti-communist purges that followed this failed coup left as much as half a million dead. Later, men, all of them accused of criminal acts, started to show up dead in the streets overnight. The deaths were called "mysterious," but everyone knew they were the work of the state—a fact that Suharto later admitted in his biography.
The idea connecting all this violence, real and cinematic, was that there were dangerous people and ideologies out there, and the only thing protecting all of us from them was the firm hand of the New Order.
But for G30S/PKI to be effective, the violence had to be memorable. When one of the communists said "Darah itu merah, Jenderal!" ("the blood is red, general!") he had to mean it. So Subarkah spent his nights studying government reports and grainy images of the generals' torture. He handled all the special effects personally during the torture scene—the film's climax—including the burning of a general's hand with a lit cigarette, the slashing of another, and the corpse with its eyes gouged out.
“It was very difficult to create the corpses," he told me. "It was a huge psychological burden for me because I’ve never seen people being mutilated."
The thing is, by most contemporary accounts, the torture probably didn't even happen. The allegations of torture were all over the press at the time, but the doctor who actually performed the autopsies on the generals later said that the bodies he saw were only shot, not tortured. That doctor—Dr. Liauw Yan Siang—examined all but the body of Lt. Pierre Andries Tendean.
Subarkah denied that the torture allegations were untrue. He said that he was interested in realism, not propaganda, when he worked on the special effects for the scene.
"I used the notes of the doctor in question and the Kipam’s research, who collected the generals’ bodies," he said. "We talked. I did my research. I have all the data."
He showed me some of the photos of used as references to prove his point. The images were blurry and of corpses in various stages of decay. It was hard to see how you could notice a cigarette burn on those, but they definitely were of the generals.
I asked him why, if the movie was accurate, did the Ministry of Information urge people to stop showing the movie? Surely, today the movie is seen as what it is—a piece of New Order-era propaganda?
Subarkah denied that any form of historical revision had happened in the film.
"The G30S/PKI movie gave everyone the impression that the PKI was bad," Subarkah explained. "That the PKI wasn't right. [But] I don’t understand the politics surrounding 1965. To this day, I still don’t want to get involved in politics."
Politics or not, one of the key things missing from G30S/PKI is context, explained Baskara Tulis Wardaya, a historian at Sanata Dharma University's Democracy and Human Rights Research Center who studies the transition of power from Sukarno to Suharto (and the involvement of the United States in that period).
No one can look at the events of 30 Sept. in isolation, Baskara explained. The world was in the midst of the Cold War at the time, an ideological battle between Western capitalism and democracy and Soviet bloc communism. Indonesia was, under Sukarno, part of the Non-Aligned Movement. It was basically neutral, which meant that Sukarno was free to be tight with people like Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il Sung.
But it also had avowed anti-communists in the military and ties to the US, which was interested in have a friendly government in charge of Indonesia, a country in the middle of a region where communism was making some serious in-roads. All of this, Baskara said, was missing from G30S/PKI.
“This movie came out almost twenty years after the incident happened," he said. "It was part of the New Order administration’s plan to secure its political, social, and economic position.
“You have to look at this film in that context. This film was made by a powerful regime that wanted to maintain its power. A regime will always fight to remain in power, even the most corrupt ones. It happens everywhere. Just don’t let this propaganda film be viewed as a neutral documentary film."
Others, like Embi C. Noer, the film's composer and the brother of the director, argued that the movie was just one representation of what happened on 30 Sept. 1965. He considers the film a high-budget horror movie produced by the state. It's fine, today, to question its accuracy as a historical document.
“I’m proud that I got my foot in the door in the early stages so I could be part of this massive wave," Embi said. "[But] if someone says this film is wrong, then go ahead and make one that isn’t. There are funds and technology today that make things so much easier."
It's true that today, after 20 years of democracy and reform, there are alternatives to government propaganda like G30S/PKI. Documentaries like Joshua Oppenheimer Academy Award-nominated look into the violence of the anti-communist purges, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence offer viewers a more personal, accurate portrayal of the post-coup years. Other films like Shadow Play and 40 Years of Silence try to capture a more nuanced understanding of the period as well.
But just because these films exist doesn't mean that decades of New Order propaganda is suddenly washed clean, Baskara said. And while authorities are actively shutting down underground screenings of Oppenheimer's documentaries they are also backing calls to get more people watching G30S/PKI at new public screenings. And as long as G30S/PKI viewers outnumber those checking out alternative, more realistic takes on the historical events, then the propaganda film will continue to shape Indonesians perspectives on '65, the New Order, and the military.
“We don’t have the privilege of forcing people to watch an alternative take on the events of 1965.” Baskara said. “I don’t think we should use propaganda or any forceful methods. Those are their tactics, not ours."