One of my favorite writers, William Faulkner, famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I’ve been thinking about how societies wrestle with the profound historical trauma resulting from human rights violations on a massive scale since I saw the powerful new film “The Act of Killing.” It takes on the mass killings of hundreds of thousands of supposed “Communists” in Indonesia after an attempted coup in 1965, but not by using typical documentary devices of archival footage and talking heads.
Instead, the director Joshua Oppenheimer opted for a unique and unsettling approach – asking some of the perpetrators of the killings, who have never been held accountable for their abuses, to recreate their crimes, often in staged genre settings inspired by their favorite classic gangster films and fluffy musicals.
As the Iran country specialist, I could not help but connect the film to questions of accountability and memorializing historical atrocities raised in this year of anniversaries of significant events in Iranian history.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the coup that overthrew the government of Mohammad Mossadegh (and which inaugurated a quarter-century period in which dissent was brutally suppressed by the government of Mohammad Reza Shah), as well as the 25th anniversary of the so-called “prison massacres.” Both of those events cast long shadows over present day Iran and Iranians largely, I would argue, because those responsible for these incidents have not acknowledged their guilt for the atrocities that were unleashed, or have used unacceptable expedients to “justify” what can simply never be justified.
The same lack of will to provide some measure of justice to the survivors of Indonesia's historical tragedy after so many decades sadly afflicts many other countries; the Iran of today is indelibly scarred by the unresolved events of 60 and of 25 years ago.
In one uncomfortable scene, a man who is recruited to act in the recreation of the executions recalls how his stepfather was murdered; he can only smirk and giggle incongruously, as if he were not sure he even had a right to feel sadness for his loss.
The exact number of people subjected to summary executions in Iran’s prisons in the months starting in summer 1988 is not known, but estimates run as high as 10,000. The victims, many of whom had been imprisoned for several years because of their alleged involvement with groups and factions ranging from Communists or other “leftists” to the Mojahedin-e Khalgh which engaged in armed resistance against the Islamic Republic, had not even been sentenced to death and had no expectation they were to be killed; in many cases, new “trials” were swiftly held in the middle of the night in the prisons, followed immediately by group executions.
The Iran prison massacre victims’ families were not informed that their loved ones would be executed and many were never told the truth about what happened. A large number of the bodies were buried in mass unmarked graves such as those in Khavaran Cemetery. To this day, the Iranian authorities treat any attempt to commemorate the prison massacres or honor the victims as a criminal act. Many of the graves have been destroyed or damaged to obliterate the traces of the atrocities. No Iranian official has been held accountable for the mass executions, which were reportedly carried out as the result of a fatwa issued by then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini.
The other historical trauma which continues to fester in the consciousness of Iranians after 60 years is the August 1953 coup against President Mohammad Mossadegh, which was abetted, if not orchestrated, by the CIA and the British intelligence service. The anniversary was marked by the recent release of numbers of documents revealing the CIA’s involvement in the coup.
The support for the coup and the subsequent harsh rule of the Shah and his secret police, the SAVAK, by the U.S. government enraged Iranians, who felt that their rights and aspirations were being callously sacrificed and that they were mere pawns as the U.S. government justified their involvement in human rights violations under the Shah by invoking the need to combat perceived Communist influence in the Cold War era.
Perhaps a film with a confounding – even grotesque – premise is the appropriate artistic response to an incomprehensible atrocity of such magnitude. The same lack of will to provide some measure of justice to the survivors of Indonesia’s historical tragedy after so many decades sadly afflicts many other countries; the Iran of today is indelibly scarred by the unresolved events of 60 and of 25 years ago.
Survivors of massive human rights violations and relatives of those who did not survive have a difficult enough time coming to terms with their grief and anger. But impunity, lack of accountability, excuses, and specious “justifications” further insure that societies will never overcome their collective trauma.