In 1982 Australian focus was shifted toward Indonesia due to a joint project between the Australian Film Commission and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It was the film “The Year of Living Dangerously” which starred Australian actors Mel Gibson (as Guy Hamilton), and Noel Ferrier, set in Indonesia 1965, during the short lived overthrow of President Sukarno by the 30 September Movement. Hitting cinemas only seven years after the death of five australian journalists at the hands of Indonesian special forces, the film took Indonesian-Australian relations from political news to pop culture.
Left: Billy Kwan and Guy Hamilton (The Year of Living Dangerously 1982) Right: ‘The Balibo Five’ (Sydney Morning Herald 2014)
Although approached from a Western view, there are numerous aspects of Indonesian culture conveyed and explained, through both the plot and characters such as Billy Kwan, who implores the journalists to tell the real story, perhaps a criticism of the way the West reported and continues to report on Indonesia. Kwan highlights aspects that are all interesting for differing reasons, the Wayang, political puppetry, and Western attitude to Indonesians.
Shadow puppets, or Wayang are shown by Billy Kwan to Guy Hamilton, the Australian reporter, as a metaphor for politics, the balance of opposing forces. Shadow continues throughout the film with many scenes shrouded in chiaroscuro, rendering the characters as puppets themselves. This puppetry continues to be relevant due to ongoing negotiations around the Bali Nine, and the films roots in the murder of five Australian journalists during the East Timor conflict of 1975. A recent article by Nick Xenophon exploring the lack of action by Australian government features a quote from one of the deceased’s son’s “It seems that the Balibo Five have been traded off for boats, beef and the Bali Nine.” (Milkins 2014)
The attitude of the western reporters toward Indonesians in the film; indifferent or treating them as sexual objects, is strikingly similar to the current Western indifference, or even derision toward immigrants in a hugely similar position to those in the film, hungry and desparate.
The Year of Living Dangerously is an interesting and critical insight into the West’s interaction with Indonesian culture, featuring Australian links to contextualise and also criticise what we are seeing. Many issues brought to light in this 1982 film are still relevant today, 30 years later, and show that much needs to be done to strengthen and fix the relationship between both countries.
The Year of Living Dangerously 1982, Motion picture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Beverly Hills
Durham, C A. 1985, ‘The year of living dangerously, can vision be a model for knowledge’, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 30, pp. 6-8
Xenophon, N. 2014, ‘Balibo Five Cover-up: When will it end in Justice?’, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 October, viewed 25 April 2015,
Khan, S. ‘The Year of Living Dangerously ,viewed 23 April 2015,<http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:5GKKF7puLu4J:wwwmcc.murdoch.edu.au/readingroom/film/dbase/1998/yearof.htm+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=au&client=safari>