What It's Like to Watch 'GS30/PKI' for the First Time
Illustration by Dini Lestari


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30 Sept 1965

What It's Like to Watch 'GS30/PKI' for the First Time

Before somebody takes up the president's calls to remake the anti-communist propaganda film for Millennials, I decided to watch the 1984 original.

This year's most-talked about #Throwback film is, undoubtedly, Pengkhianatan GS30/PKI. The brutal anti-communist propaganda film—a mainstay of life under Gen. Suharto's New Order regime—is back in the news as the country's goes through the latest iteration of its half-century-old Red Scare.

The Indonesian military said it would hold a mandatory screening of the movie to remind people of the "correct" version of history. "We need to get our history straight," Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, the chief of Indonesia's military, told local media.


President Joko Widodo said that someone should remake the 1984 film for a millennial audience, prompting a lot of discussion about what, exactly, the role of such a movie should be. The film, which is shortened to GS30/PKI and roughly translates to "The Betrayal of the Communists," was never meant as something to be enjoyed, explained Seno Gumira Ajidarma, an actor and the current rector of the Jakarta Institute of the Arts (IKJ).

"It's interesting to study the film, but it's not something to be enjoyed, let alone be a source of historical facts," he told the state-run Antara News agency.

The movie is widely remembered as a brutal retelling of the failed coup by the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) on 30 September 1965. The story as it's presented in the film shows the bloodthirsty men and women of the PKI sadistically torturing military generals before dumping their bodies in a well in South East Jakarta.

In reality, this part of the story is still under dispute. Indonesian scholar Ben Anderson wrote that the generals were fatally shot, but they were not tortured, after discovering a copy of an official autopsy report. The stories of torture that made the rounds in the domestic press were likely a very effective form of psy-ops meant to terrify people, historian John Roosa wrote in his book on the coup and subsequent anti-communist purge that left an estimated half-million people dead.


But the military, and members of the Suharto family, say the events presented in GS30/PKI are the "correct" version of history. That's why the movie, which suddenly gained a renewed interest this year, remains such a controversial topic.

So what's all the fuss about? I'll be honest here, I don't know. The movie was required viewing for Indonesian kids who grew up during the New Order years, a regular fixture on television and in school curriculums. Well, it was required viewing for everyone but me it seems. I'm 21 years old and I had still never seen GS30/PKI until very recently. How, you ask, could I miss seeing something that today seems so central to growing up under Suharto?

Here's what happened. Halfway through fourth grade, my parents transferred me from an Islamic public school to an English-language, all-religions-welcome private school. That school never showed its students GS30/PKI. We never even discussed the 30 Sept. coup or the PKI. So until last week, I never knew much about the movie. And now, as it makes headlines again, I wondered, what did I really miss out on?

A lot apparently. I've been trying to catch up on some of the things I missed out on while attending private school and then living abroad for years. So I sat down and decided to watch GS30/PKI in its entirety for the first time ever.

I first heard about the film from author Leila Chudori, who came to an art museum in Seattle to talk about her book on alleged communists who were living in exile: Pulang. I asked my mother about the film. My mother was born in 1965 and she told me that she used to watch the movie on television back in the day. I told her I was going to watch it myself for the first time. She left my message read but with no response.


I was feeling pretty optimistic about this when I hit play. I've spent hours stuck in Jakarta traffic, so how hard could it be to watch a three-and-a-half hour movie? The opening scene sets the tone: a mob of communists were attacking people gathered at a mosque for the Subuh prayer. It immediately showed me why people were so afraid of communism. The PKI, as they were presented in this film, stood in violent opposition to capitalism, government as we know it, and religion. No wonder people were so afraid.

The second thing that strikes me about the movie is its aesthetics. The set designs are so good. The eerie score make it sound like a horror movie—which it sort of is. And don't even get me started on the fashion. I couldn't help but appreciate the crisp light blue turtleneck worn by one of the men in the PKI.

I knew from the start that this was a propaganda film meant to provoke fear of the communists, but even knowing that couldn't stop me from getting carried away by the film. The orchestra that was playing throughout the movie, the tight zoom-ins of tense-looking men, and the fly-in-the-wall shots—I could feel all those cinematic tactics working, making me feel a sense of protectiveness over the targeted generals, if not sympathy for the families who would see them murdered or dragged out to PKI's HQ.

But when the movie suddenly paused because of a bad internet connection, the spell was over. It gave me a moment to think about the way women were presented in GS30/PKI. The general's wives are soft-spoken, neatly dressed women with great hair and good-looking children. They even remained calm when their husbands and children were kidnapped or shot by the communists. Now that's the kind of grace I hope to achieve someday.


Meanwhile, in the jungle, the PKI's female members are loud and abrasive, and basically an embodiment of how threatening the filmmakers wanted these women to seem to the nation's traditional family values.

The PKI women were the wild ones, but it was the daughter of a general who stole the show with the most-memorable scene. The daughter of Gen. Donald Isaac Panjaitan ran downstairs crying after her father was killed outside of their home. " Papi! Papi!" she screamed as she smeared his blood all over her face. At this point in the movie I was literally cringing. How did they expect fourth-graders to stomach this?

Then came the notorious torture scenes at Lubang Buaya, or literally "the crocodiles' pit." A woman cuts open a general's face with a razor blade. Then a montage of the rest of the torture starts. The generals are beaten, stabbed, cut, and burned. When they finally die, their bodies are tossed head-first into a well.

One of my colleagues told me that this scene was the most-famous one in Indonesian schools. The teachers would actually fast-forward the movie to this part and then let it play.

I kept watching, but somewhere past the two-hour mark I found it impossible to pay attention anymore. I sat there instead and reflected on what I just saw until the plot shifted and grabbed my attention again. The military were retrieving the bodies of the generals from the well. The camera zoomed in on each dead body from multiple angles, framing the decay, wounds, and flies. Yuck.


Then a teary radio broadcast plays over a montage of a funeral ceremony for the fallen generals as the movie drew to a close. The movie, of course, left out the violence that followed in the years to come. It instead ended on a monologue about the generals' deaths.

So what did I think? GS30/PKI is a violent film broken up by dull stretches of men smoking cigarettes and discussing things. But it was an interesting way to spend more than three hours of my time. I wasn't looking for historical accuracy here. It was more about trying to understand my parents' generation and what it was like for my peers who had to watch this movie every year.

I'm a millennial Indonesian, a woman who came of age during the post- Reformasi years, in a world where we have The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence to show us what happened after 30 Sept. 1965. I also had the privilege of studying abroad and learning about communism without the fear of being attacked by an angry mob. My point is that maybe I'm not the target audience for this movie. But that doesn't mean it didn't also teach me about the country's history and the things we're still struggling with today.

My overall review:

Plot: 7/10
Set Design: 9/10
Music Score: 10/10
Would Watch Again: 8/10 (But only if we could skip boring parts and for educational purposes, have a historical discussion afterwards)
Need A Remake: 0/10