The old woman, dressed in a white kebaya, stood up. Her forehead furrowed a little, as if she were trying to remember something.
“That morning, I came early to the office,” she said very slowly. “Most of my colleagues had already arrived, discussing the latest news from the radio about the kidnapping and murder of the generals.”
Instrumental music was playing gently in the background.
“We were all very confused,” she said. “The roads were deserted, except for hordes of military trucks. Everything felt so eerie and silent.”
She then looked away. A pained expression came over her face.
The short movie on YouTube is a teaser for the upcoming play “Nyanyi Sunyi Kembang-Kembang Genjer ” (“Silent Songs of Yellow Velvetleaf”), which will be presented by Institut Ungu at the Goethe Haus in Jakarta from March 7-9.
Institut Ungu is a nongovernmental women’s organization that promotes gender equality and human rights, and the play was written and directed by the organization’s director and co-founder, Faiza Mardzoeki.
“The story feels so personal to me,” Faiza said. The first movie the 42-year-old saw in a cinema was the documentary “Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI” (“Treachery of the September 30th Movement of the Indonesian Communist Party”), which was compulsory for all Indonesian students around that time, with schools usually arranging for students and teachers to watch it together at a cinema.
Faiza still remembered how she and her classmates cringed in their seats as the four-hour movie detailed the official version of the kidnapping and killing of the army generals in 1965.
In one scene of the movie, members of Gerwani (Indonesian Women’s Movement), believed to be a subsidiary of the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party), danced as they sadistically tortured and mutilated the kidnapped generals.
“Gerwani members appeared to be so cruel and bloodthirsty,” she said. “But when I finally got a chance to meet them, they were totally different from what I had pictured in my mind.”
Faiza, who later became active in women’s movements, met a number of former Gerwani members in a nursing home in Jakarta in 2011. Through them, she learned the truth about what actually happened in 1965.
“It turned out that Gerwani at that time was not much different than PKK [Family Welfare Training, a women’s organization founded by the New Order regime],” Faiza said.
“They promoted literacy and organized art, dance and various health and training programs for women and children.”
However, as Gerwani shared similar leftist views with the PKI, they became scapegoats in the 1965 alleged torture and killing of the generals. All newspapers at that time detailed the tortures, allegedly carried out by Gerwani members, which included mutilation of the victims’ genitals and gouging of the eyes.
Some newspapers also reported that these women were drunk and dancing naked as they tortured the generals, forever labeling Gerwani members as “sadistic whores” in many publications.
“The public was, of course, inflamed by reading the ‘facts,’” Faiza said. “As a result, Gerwani members were hunted down, tortured, killed or handed to the police and military.”
At the hands of the police and military, these women faced a fate worse than death; many were raped and tortured repeatedly to get them to sign confessions to murder.
“These women were never given any fair trials,” Faiza said.
Many died or went insane in prison due to incessant torture. A few hundred of the survivors were then exiled to a women’s camp in Plantungan, deep in the rainforest near Kendal, Central Java.
“Just imagine,” Faiza said. “These women were students, housewives, mothers, intellectuals and professionals at that time. They were totally uprooted from their lives and robbed off their homes, families, careers and dignity. I believe that this was a terrible crime of humanity.”
In recent years, the original autopsies of the generals was revealed to the public. There were never any signs of genital mutilations or gouged eyes among the murdered generals.
“It was very successful as a form of propaganda, wasn’t it?” Faiza said.
Most of these former Gerwani members were imprisoned for more than a decade for something that many of them did not even understand. But the survivors emerged from their ordeals as stronger persons.
Faiza, who visited some of them at their nursing home in Jakarta, was perplexed by the high spirits and optimism exhibited by these women now in their 70s and 80s.
“Many of them were physically very frail, but they were still cheerful,” she said. “They even remained composed and smiling, even as they narrated their tragic past to me.”
This encounter inspired Faiza to write a play based on their stories. She traced their stories back to their hometowns in Yogyakarta, Klaten, Solo, Sragen and Semarang, from where they were taken and incarcerated without trial.
She also visited the former Plantungan camp in Central Java and the Lubang Buaya Monument in East Jakarta, where the generals were said to have been tortured and murdered. Faiza also visited libraries in the Netherlands and Sweden to study the newspaper clippings on Indonesia from that era. In spite of her comprehensive research and interviews, or maybe because of them, she found it hard to write the story.
“Many times I was so overcome I broke down crying,” she said.
The story was finally completed in August 2013 and Faiza invited 20 veteran actresses to the auditions.
“Some of them refused when they knew what the play was about,” she said. “It proved that many of us still have misconceptions about Gerwani.”
The play tells the story of Eyang Nini, an 83-year-old woman and member of the Gerwani.
“She had a bitter past,” said Pipien Putri, who plays Eyang Nini . She was incarcerated by the police due to her active involvement in the Gerwani organization. In prison, Eyang Nini endured repeated rape and torture and eventually became pregnant before giving her baby daughter up for adoption to a distant relative.
“The relative forbad her from contacting her child for fear of tarnishing her future,” said the 50-year-old Pipien.
Two decades later, Eyang Nini’s child is happily married and pregnant. But her husband, who inadvertently learns of her past, decides to leave her.
She gives birth to a daughter and dies soon afterward.
Eyang Nini’s granddaughter, played by Bandung actress Heliana Sinaga, traces her roots when she grows up. She then meets her grandmother, Eyang Nini, and demands to know the truth.
Eyang Nini, unsure whether her young granddaughter is ready for such a horrific story, calls up her former cellmates in prison to discuss the past with them.
For the play, the stage of the auditorium at the Goethe Haus will be partitioned into three chambers.
“I call them the ‘Present,’ ‘Past’ and ‘Soliloquy’ chambers,” Faiza said. “That way, the audience can see what’s going on in the past, present and the actresses’ minds simultaneously.”
The music, which was created by New York pianist and composer Marcello Pellitteri, mostly consists of soft and haunting instrumentals.
“This is not a happy story at all,” Faiza said.
Veteran actress Niniek L. Karim will also play a role in the play. The 65-year-old is a living witness of the 1965 era. She was 16 years old and still living in her hometown in Kediri at the time.
“I saw hundreds of headless bodies piling up in the river,” she said. “Men and women killed by their own neighbors for their alleged involvement in the 1965 movement.”
Nobody dared to bury them properly for fear of also being labeled as PKI or Gerwani. “People became so afraid of one another,” she said.
Many of her classmates lost their parents as they were captured and then never heard from again.
Children whose parents were labeled as PKI and Gerwani were also separated from their classmates and had to study in special classes in schools.
“I never understood why it happened,” Niniek said. “But since then, life was never the same again for any of us.”
In the play, Niniek will portray Sulahana, a former Gerwani member and Eyang Nini’s cellmate in prison.
“The story is very interesting,” Niniek said. “The characters are torn with ambivalence. As old people, they naturally love to tell their life stories, especially to the young. But on the other hand, their past was so painful that they don’t want to remember it again. It’s a very emotionally stirring story.”
Although the stories of former Gerwani members are mainly filled with pain and sadness, the play will not elaborate solely on that.
“Face life with a smile,” said Pipien, the lead actress. “I think that’s the message of the story. If these old ladies, who have been through a lot, can still smile and maintain strong hope and optimism for the future, I believe, so can we.”
Faiza has a bigger expectation for the audience watching the play.
“I hope the play will encourage more people to seek the truth of what happened in 1965,” she said. “And hopefully, it will eventually prompt the government to vindicate the former Gerwani members, so they can pass away in peace.”Nyanyi Sunyi Kembang-Kembang Genjer March 7-9Goethe Haus Jalan Sam Ratulangi No. 9-15 Central JakartaTickets: Rp 50,000 per person (the proceeds will be donated to the surviving former Gerwani members) For more information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0815 894 6404 (Vivi)