The Story Behind White Herons of Petulu

The Story Behind White Herons of Petulu


In the previous weeks, we published articles about the beautiful nature as well as the rich culture of the Indonesian Island of Bali.

The Balinese village Petulu, located 2.5km north from the centre of Ubud, is one of the tourist attractions in Bali. It’s known for the white herons (Kocokan in the Balinese language) that make roosts in the fig trees along the roadside at dusk each day. During the day, the herons (mainly egrets) can be seen feeding in rice fields and rivers throughout the countryside.

But at the end of the day, thousands of them flock to the same location, cramming themselves noisily onto every available branch. It is curious to note that not only do the birds return to this specific village to roost, they also do not expand their territory beyond the limits of Petulu.

White herons of Petulu

The white herons first arrived at Petulu in early November 1965. In October 1965, the Indonesian army instigated a massacre of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 suspected PKI (The Indonesian Communist Party) followers throughout Indonesia over several months. Over 5% of the population was killed in Bali. Much of the details are being lost to history, as little records were kept of the events.

After the massacres began, priests of the Petulu village staged a cleansing ceremony to rid their community of the evil of the events. The ceremony was held in the final week of October. The herons began to come to Petulu just over a week later.

Herons flying over ricefields in Bali

Shortly after the Kokokan arrived, the villagers held another ceremony to welcome them. It is said that the head priest learned through trance that the birds were there to protect the villagers from bad spirits. They believe that the birds are the souls of the massacred victims lost without the proper rites.

According to the book Subversion as Foreign Policy, a CIA report classifies the massacres in Indonesia as one of the worst mass killings in the 20th century. However, despite the massive scale of the killing, no one was charged; no apology has ever been issued by the government and the killings are not mentioned in most of the Indonesian history textbooks.

After decades of silence, the documentaries The Act of Killing (nominated for Oscar 2013) and The Look of Silence (nominated for Oscar 2016)  take on this challenging subject. They are significant, thought-provoking reflections of the lives of Indonesians who have been affected by the events of 1965/66, depicting a harrowing time, one which still echoes deeply under the surface, but is rarely spoken about.

The films were created by Joshua Oppenheimer over the course of a decade. He is quoted as saying he “gave his youth” to this important subject.

The Act of Killing exposed the consequences for all of us when we build our everyday reality on terror and lies. The Look of Silence explores what it is like to be a survivor in such a reality.

~ Director Joshua Oppenheimer

The more recent film, The Look of Silence, tells the story of an optometrist (Adi Rukun) born after his mother was heartbroken having lost her oldest son during the massacre in the most violent and horrific way.

Adi decides to break the suffocating spell of submission and terror by doing something unimaginable in a society where the murderers remain in power: he confronts the men who killed his brother and, while testing their eyesight, asks them to accept responsibility for their actions.

The Look of Silence Synopsis

It is difficult to imagine how it would be like being the family of victims living in the same society as the perpetrators, many of whom are wealthy respected elders and in senior government positions in current times. Caught on camera, the Komando Aksi death squad leaders described the killing in great details showing no sign of remorse as they considered their actions to be completely justified. A number of them issued verbal threats to Adi. Adi’s mother and wife are deeply concerned about his safety. During the making of the documentary, assisted by the director and the film crew, Adi’s family had their bags packed at every confrontation, ready to flee to the airport.

The Look of Silence

The courage of the director to create such an unprecedented documentary that initiates the collapse of half a century of silence and of Adi to confront the perpetrators is deeply admirable.

The Oscar nomination (for The Act of Killing) prompted the Indonesian President’s office for the 1st time to say: “we know what happened in 1965 was a crime against humanity, we know we need truth and reconciliation.” Indeed, truth cannot be buried despite the passing of time and a problem cannot addressed if we are too afraid to acknowledge.

The Act of Killing

In these documentaries, the killers are exposed not as monsters but ordinary people caught up in a political power ideology in which the execution and torture of suspected communists was both supported and expected from their superiors.

I don’t see myself as an activist out of deference for activists, who have a much harder job than what I have. I see the role of the filmmaker, the role of the artist, as holding up a mirror to us – where we’re forced, or invited, or seduced, into seeing ourselves. What we see in that mirror shocks us, but it’s not the shock of the new, it’s the shock of the familiar.

~ Director Joshua Oppenheimer

In psychology, social conformity is defined as the tendency to align our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors with those around us. It’s a powerful force that can take the form of overt social pressure or subtler unconscious influence. Strong situational forces can easily override individual differences in our moral codes and personality. As much as we like to think of ourselves as individuals, the fact is that we’re driven to please our superiors and to fit in.

This is clearly demonstrated in the World War II. Many ordinary Germans and Japanese became killers, torturers and committed horrific crimes as they assumed the roles that were expected from them.

Similarly, in the Stanford Prison Experiment which was planned to run for 2 weeks but had to be terminated on the 6th day, the subjects assigned as guards who were normal healthy and respectful university students adopted the behavior of cruel, punishing and aggressive prison guards because that was behavioral norm in the simulated situation. Psychologist Dr Phil Zimbardo who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment study claimed that virtually anybody who was put into a situation where they had power over others would act in a tyrannical and abusive way. Stanford Prison Experiment

The political environment, Indonesian army and the government instigated the hysteria that surrounded the growing communist movement, the massacres and the subsequent lionization of the perpetrators (which allows them to speak with bravado about the role they played), through social conformity and careful mental reframing, some people came to believe that the widespread massacre was a necessary and even positive act.

Throughout the films, many people argue that, symbolically, the wounds have healed; that so much time has passed, it is not worth bringing up the subject. But what is evident to the viewer is that the wounds are still deep and the events unresolved.

True healing can only begin when the truth of the injustice from history is acknowledged and seen with clarity. This requires those involved to have the courage in facing the dark emotions of deep anger, fear, regret, desperation and heartbreaking grief.

While sitting in the comfort of the cinema or our own home watching the documentaries, it’s easy to simply consider the massacres to be some unbelievable tragic events that happened long ago in another country and have little relevance to our own life.

The intention of Joshua Oppenheimer for making these films is not only to tell the story but to hold a mirror to ourselves. We reflect that in our own society, is there no injustice considered as social norm that we might be unconsciously perpetuating or supporting? In everyday life, as we try to make decisions and observe others’ actions, do we take time to pause and question if the actions are rational and consistent with our own values before automatically and thoughtlessly conforming?

As a traveller in foreign lands, it is common to be ignorant of the social and political undercurrents around you. For many visitors to Bali, the story behind the Petulu herons is one of the first hints that there’s more to the people and culture than would appear in the smiling faces and brightly coloured ceremonial clothes. They deepen our appreciation of this special place. Perhaps this is one practical way in which the herons are protecting the people. By acting as a mnemonic for history that would otherwise be left unspoken, they shine light on the truth and introduce visitors to their origin story, inviting contemplation on how we might prevent such mistakes in the future.


Author: C & J Mawson


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