Peter Weir’s film about a reporter caught up in the social unrest and violence of Indonesia in the fall of 1965 was released 30 years ago. With all eyes turned to this period by Joshua Oppenheimer’s remarkable documentary The Act of Killing, watching The Year of Living Dangerously makes a fine counterpoint. Through the eyes of Billy Kwan (played by the remarkable Linda Hunt), who is both the film’s narrator and chief supporting actor, we follow a young and naïve Mel Gibson playing a young and naïve Australian reporter, Guy Hamilton, dropped into his first overseas posting. He becomes involved with a British attaché (Sigourney Weaver), stumbles around being manipulated by Kwan, and eventually gets caught in a riot and almost killed as the violence began to erupt.
Weir’s Indonesia is suitably dark, mysterious, and troubled. If his goal was to capture the mood of a place and time that was difficult to grasp, Weir did superbly. By 1965 President Sukarno – hero of the national revolution for independence – had parlayed his remarkable charisma and dynamism into a position of international leadership. But Indonesia was a society riven by faltering efforts to democratize, develop economically, fight poverty, and contain radically different solutions to the nation’s many problems. Sukarno tried to balance and play off against each other the powerful Indonesian army, large Islamic groups, and the communists. The Indonesian Communist Party, or PKI, was the 3rd largest communist party in the world, and the most impatient at the pace of social change. Hamilton’s break in the film is an exclusive interview with Aidit, the leader of the PKI, courtesy of Kwan’s communist contacts. Hamilton is witness to the collapse of this fragile balancing act, though he understands none of it. An attempted coup on September 30th coup blaming the communists led to the orgy of murder which Oppenheimer exposes and which claimed over 500,000 lives and eradicated communism in Indonesia. None of it made much sense to observers at the time, and it took years to unravel the trail of events – from this perspective Hamilton is a perfect surrogate for our ignorance.
Beyond the political drama, however, Weir offers us an interesting tale about the photographic gaze. The film is filled with references to the act of seeing: rear-view mirrors, reflective sunglasses, cameras. The camera frequently gazes up from Kwan’s point of view, and in fact Hamilton – not much more than a country bumpkin – is just a foil for the culturally sophisticated and intellectually refined Kwan. Photographer, keeper of dossiers, secret caretaker of the poor, communist sympathizer, Kwan views himself as the one who is able to see all. He is the puppetmaster who uses what he sees to manipulate and maneuver others. But in the end his gaze fails, just as cameras cannot truly capture realty. Kwan gazes and records, but ultimately is impotent, a prisoner of his own fantasy world of secret photographs, hidden files, mistaken characterizations. The ability to see, and to think that by seeing we can control, or even learn, is revealed as powerlessness in the face of terrible poverty, ignorant violence, and corrupted revolution.
Lest we miss the point, Kwan is killed for revealing an anti-Sukarno banner for others to see and Hamilton is clubbed by a soldier and nearly loses his sight. Fleeing one-eyed to the airport, Hamilton makes it to the plane and his lover’s arms as martial law is declared. But there is no happy ending here. For a melodrama, The Year of Living Dangerously becomes a meditation on the death of romance, 1965 followed by the Army’s counter idealism, youth, and hope. Words and eyes fail. It is an engaging if despairing film about a country that is all too often off our global radar, and one which sets the stage for the bloodshed to come in The Act of Killing.