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Anthropology Film Club Indonesia Ruins

Puncak in Ruins, Part 3: The Year of Living Dangerously

This post is the third of five in a series.
The first is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 1: Arrival Scene”
The second is: “Puncak in Ruins, Part 2: Lost Detour”

The Year of Living Dangerously (movie poster)
Movie Poster

In the middle of Peter Weir’s 1982 film The Year of Living Dangerously, a war romance set in 1965 Indonesia, there is a five minute scene set in Puncak, the mountain resort area just a few hours outside of Jakarta. A young pre-asshole Mel Gibson portrays a naive but ambitious Australian journalist named Guy Hamilton. After he has ruffled feathers in the diplomatic community, pissed off his girlfriend and his photographer, and put himself into danger all for the sake of an espionage scoop, Guy’s only reliable ally left in Indonesia is his driver-assistant Kumar (Filipino actor Bembol Roco). While driving through Puncak Pass, Kumar insists they stop for a late afternoon rest at an old Dutch villa. (Scroll to the bottom of this post to watch the scene in its entirety on youtube)

Tiger Lily stands in the door of the old Dutch villa (screenshot from The Year of Living Dangerously)
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily is a Friend
Screen Shot:  Old Java Now
Screen Shot: Old Java Now
Screen Shot:  Verboden
Screen Shot: Verboden
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily Dives In
Screen Shot: Tiger Lily Dives In

Set against magnificent mountain scenery, the villa itself is dusty and dilapidated, surrounded by dry overgrown weeds. The paint has peeled from the shutters and doors, and the walls are faded and blotchy with cracked plaster patches. Kumar keeps his eyes on Guy who, suddenly suspicious, takes a cautious sip of the cold drink that has just been served. Kumar then leaves him on the terrace: “I’ll see you after siesta… You’re in Old Java now, boss.” Guy looks over to the derelict swimming pool, and Tiger Lily, Kumar’s gorgeous colleague (played by Filipina pop diva Kuh Ledesma), is wearing a bathing suit and standing at the pool’s edge, using an old Dutch sign with the word “Verboden” (forbidden, prohibition, taboo) written on it to gently skim dead leaves off the water. The camera pans out, revealing the entire pool and a backdrop of mountains… Tiger Lily has cleared just enough space from the pool’s littered surface to dive in to what otherwise appears to be filthy water. The contrast between natural and feminine beauty on the one hand, faded and filthy disrepair on the other, is unsettling. When Tiger Lily dives into the pool, we have entered Mary Douglas territory, mixing symbols of purity and danger, pollution and taboo. Guy’s ordinarily helpful assistants in Jakarta, Kumar and Tiger Lily, are suddenly suspect and mysterious, maybe not so trustworthy, in the lonely isolation (for Guy) of “Old Java Now.”

Guy takes his siesta in a guest room so dark and stuffy we can almost smell the rank musty air trapped in the room with him while his body perspires completely. In a potentially erotic dream that turns into a terrifying nightmare, Tiger Lily drowns Guy in the dirty water of the old swimming pool. He wakes up seized with horror, and understands that Kumar and Tiger Lily are actually undercover members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), perhaps collecting intelligence on Guy for the party, which may (or may not) be plotting a coup against the Indonesian army in order to take over Soekarno’s government. When Guy confronts him, Kumar does not deny it, but it turns out that he brought Guy up to Puncak in order to safely warn him to stop investigating rumors about an incoming arms shipment, because Guy’s name is already on the PKI’s hit list.

What a terrific idea it was for the screenwriters to stage this revelation amidst colonial ruins, where traces of “Old Java now” create an uncanny atmosphere of creepy horror for the likes of Guy Hamilton. Removed from his familiar clique of expatriate journalists and diplomats in Jakarta, where they socialize in the safe spaces of five-star hotel bars, embassy formals, and social clubs, Guy is suddenly vulnerable up in Puncak, in an old Dutch villa that ironically now serves as a safe space for PKI operatives. The broken remains of Dutch empire, at least 25 years old in 1965 Indonesia, ought to remind Guy and his expatriate friends in Jakarta of what’s at stake if war breaks out. If PKI were to stage a successful coup, their lavish modern lifestyles in Jakarta would surely meet the same fate as this formerly grand old villa at the top of a mountain. [To clarify, the depiction of 1965 Indonesia historical events in The Year of Living Dangerously is generously revised at best, but I’m writing here within parameters set by the story.]

The original novel and the subsequent film were written, directed and produced by Australians. Their story focuses on expatriate journalists and diplomats (mostly Australian and British) in Jakarta; Kumar and Tiger Lily are minor characters. As such, our view of Indonesia in this story is from the privileged expatriate perspective, and that includes our view of the spooky old Dutch villa up in the enchanted Puncak highlands. We’re spooked because the villa in disrepair reminds postcolonial expatriates about what they have lost. From their perspective, postcolonial Indonesians have mismanaged their inheritance, letting a magnificent house fall into such ugly (and, by way of Guy’s nightmare, potentially deadly) disrepair.

Apart from some stylized wayang metaphors, an artifice used only to elevate the expatriate heroes and their epic dilemmas, we don’t get much Indonesian perspective in The Year of Living Dangerously. The best we get is from Kumar, still at the villa, when he explains his involvement in the PKI to Guy:  “My country suffers under a great weight of poverty and corruption. Is it wrong to want to change that?” We also learn from Tiger Lily that Kumar’s family business suffers under extortion pressure from the military. And yet there are thousands of “Indonesians” (it was filmed in the Philippines) portrayed throughout the film:  in markets, riots, slums, airports, bars, red light districts, and even at the old Dutch villa where there appears to be a complete household staff. But just as historical events are merely a backdrop, so too are these Indonesian extras in the film. They’re just part of the chaotic postcolonial scenery.

Screen Shot:  Part of the Scenery
Screen Shot: Part of the Scenery

The sublime and ominous qualities of the old Dutch villa depend on keeping the Indonesian people that live and work there silent and in the background. If we learn any details about how Tiger Lily, Kumar and Tiger Lily’s “friend” (the owner) use the villa and support the household staff who maintain it, much less about the staff themselves and the neighbors who pass their days there, then the enchanting spell that surrounds the villa ends because it is no longer a ruin of the past. Instead it becomes a living testament to the present, almost certainly with another kind of history that Guy and his gang would prefer not to acknowledge. Guy’s eerie discomfort rests upon this lack of acknowledgement, the suppression of history, sedimented as remnant traces in the crumbling architecture.

The Puncak scene from The Year of Living Dangerously in its entirety begins at 1:13:


.

To be continued:

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 4: Return to Villa Kota Gardenia”

“Puncak in Ruins, Part 5: The AnthroLOLogist in Ruins”

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Conflict Film Club Indonesia

Confucianism Gets the Short End of the Joss Stick in Hanung Bramantyo’s “?”

In one of the opening scenes in Hanung Bramantyo’s new film “?” (“Tanda Tanya,” or “Question Mark”) we meet one of the main characters, Rika, who is busy cleaning up and organizing the shelves in her bookstore. I don’t remember her exact words, but she says with exasperation to her friend Suryo who stops by at closing time, something to the effect of: “The novels are in the self-help section, the school books are in the business section, and worst of all… these pulp romance novels [Rika holds up a paperback with a sexy scene on the cover] are in the children’s section!”

With these few lines Rika has summed up the whole movie for us with a cute metaphor. The multi-faith, multi-ethnic characters in “?” live in an old tempo doeloe nostalgia-inducing downtown neighborhood of Semarang called “Pasar Baru” (“New Market”). Pasar Baru is like Rika’s disorganized bookstore, and the characters are the books, who try relentlessly to classify and organize each other onto their respective book shelves (by religion, ethnicity, gender and family roles), but always come up against the messy realities of everyday life that refuse simple classification. Ironic that Rika complains about her disorganized books because her story poses the most confounding and stigmatizing situation of all (like pulp romance in the children’s section) for her neighbors and family: Rika is a recently divorced single mother who is unapologetically yet haltingly in the process of converting from Islam to Catholicism. Janda murtad! Apostasy!

The characters’ melodramatic stories of faith and family, love and death, take place in present-day Indonesia, specifically throughout the year 2010, which is to say their mixed-up lives are set against the backdrop of increasingly intolerant black-or-white religious discourses. The film begins, climaxes, and ends with scenes of headline-grabbing religious violence—all in Pasar Baru no less—that sadly and too easily overshadow the small acts of tolerance, consideration and accommodation that nearly all of the characters make, with plenty of personal struggle, for one another. Here is the promotional preview clip:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L1rBl4KJc4U&w=560&h=349&rel=0]

Hanung Bramantyo has produced this film as a statement in favor of tolerance in a diverse society, and the film is sparking a lot of debate on social media that generally embraces the film’s message, at least on the surface. A quick search for #TandaTanya on Twitter yields a lot more favorable than negative comments. But of course, a small number of religious purists are able to hijack the debate and denounce the film making absurd statements and fatwas peppered generously with shallow understandings of words like haram, sesat, murtad, pluralism, and kafir to describe it. They say it’s a hate piece against Islam, as if there were no crass depictions of intolerance among the Catholics and Confucians, as if there were no positive images of Islamic faith and practice, as if we can safely assume that the depictions of violence were committed by Islamic extremists. Hanung addresses these silly one-track diatribes point by point here, so I’m not interested in addressing further the strange and disruptive influence of just a few adherents to Indonesia’s majority religion so dangerously insecure and uncomfortable with everyone else around them.

Although I should probably question my methods, I tried to do a little score-keeping throughout the film to see who gets the short end of the metaphorical joss stick. The main groups depicted are Javanese Muslims, Javanese Catholics, and Chinese Confucians. One character from each group dies violently in the film. We witness one conversion from Islam to Catholicism, and another from Confucianism to Islam. If we want to zealously police the boundaries of organized faith—keeping our bookshelves in order so to speak—then we might consider conversion into a faith as a net gain, and conversion out of a faith as a net loss, or a metaphorical death, for each faith community. By my count, the Confucians in the film lose two characters, the Muslims lose one, and the Catholics come out even.

Ironically, it’s the Chinese-Indonesian family in the film that makes the extra effort to accommodate the Muslim majority in Pasar Baru. They keep a separate set of dishware and cooking utensils at their restaurant for the customers who don’t eat pork; they gently remind their Muslim staff that it’s time for prayers; they cover the windows and do not serve any pork during Ramadan and then stay closed for the major feasting holiday at Ramadan’s end. It is the elderly Chinese couple who own this restaurant that stand out as compelling moral anchors of accumulated day-to-day wisdom and tolerance in the film, no doubt born from necessity living as a persecuted minority for generations in Java. They remind me of the wise old black women and men that show up in so many Hollywood films. (to be fair, there is also a wonderful young ustad and an elderly priest who each give wise counsel to their congregations throughout the film) For all that wisdom, in service of some greater communal good in Pasar Baru, the Chinese characters are rewarded with an unequal share (per capita, let’s say, for emphasis) of death and departure from faith. The film ends with a secular celebration of the New Year (2011) for everyone in Pasar Baru—its community reconstituted and at peace once again—plus an affirmation of the human capacity for change, to continuously struggle for what’s right for oneself and one’s community based on heart and faith… but there is little evidence to suggest that any deeper change has occurred. The categories that organize the people in Pasar Baru remain in tact, and the religious and ethnic minorities have made disproportionate and requisite sacrifices in order to keep it that way. Rika’s book store? Still in business!

Categories
Film Club Indonesia

“Obama the Menteng Kid” Hits the Big Screen at Lightning Speed

Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"
Book Cover for "Obama Anak Menteng"

This week the Multivision Plus Pictures production house began filming Obama Anak Menteng (“Obama the Menteng Kid”), a children’s film about President Barack Obama’s childhood years in Indonesia, based on a book with the same title by Damien Dematra. A press conference and selamatan was held at Plaza Senayan in Jakarta on Tuesday 11 May to announce the start of production and introduce the cast. Dematra, who also wrote the screenplay and will co-direct the film, spent five days interviewing 30 people, mostly former classmates, who knew “Little Barry” when he lived in Menteng, a residential neighborhood of Jakarta, between the years 1967 and 1971. He spent another five days writing the book. Multivision plans to complete the shooting within two weeks and release the film in mid-June, to coincide not just with Obama’s (re)scheduled visit to Indonesia, but also with public school recess.

In the space of a few months, the Obama Anak Menteng project—both the book and the feature film—will be complete, perfectly exemplifying the Indonesian phrases asal jadi or asal kelar, a slapdash effort. This is Multivision’s specialty. They are known more for television sinetron, Indonesia’s formulaic soap operas, shooting and editing scenes until moments before broadcast, with insufferable production values. On the big screen Multivision produces low budget horror franchises such as the Kuntilanak and Pulau Hantu films. As an American who has spent years living in Indonesia and (full disclosure) voted for Obama, I am worried this project has the potential to be an irresponsible disservice, if not an insult, to its subject.

Obama’s childhood in Jakarta is an irresistibly compelling subject for Indonesians and Americans alike; so let’s start by giving Damien Dematra and Multivision the benefit of the doubt. In Dematra’s own words:

The point of view in this film is from Obama’s friends. It’s not a true story but based on true events (bukan kisah nyata tapi berdasar kejadian nyata). There are so many perspectives on Obama’s childhood when he lived in Menteng. His friends such as Slamet, Yuniardi, and others have unique stories based on their point of view.

I will grant Dematra some baseline credit for having a terrific idea. Since we probably won’t get anything more from Obama than what he already wrote in Dreams from my Father about his years in Indonesia, then the obvious next step is to talk to the people who knew Obama and his parents. Although Dematra hasn’t fully convinced me on the distinction between true story (kisah nyata) and true events (kejadian nyata), I’m going to generously assume that he’s privileging personal vignettes from the people who knew Obama over a singular biographical narrative. From there one could piece together some episodic memories into an evocative narrative mosaic. Anthropologists love the “partial narrative” and “memory politics.” In the right hands, this could work.

Obama's 3rd Grade Class, 1970 Former Classmates With Obama Good Luck

Dematra’s personal website reveals him to be a champion of Indonesian pluralism in the tradition of Gus Dur, and this is the angle that Dematra wants to take with Obama Anak Menteng: “Obama is an icon of pluralism who proved to the world that although he was different, and from the minority, he could aim for the top and beat the majority.” They are calling this a children’s film, and Obama’s childhood, as recalled through the memories of his Indonesian friends, broadly lends itself to an inspirational “yes we can” narrative of greatness born out of humble and decidedly pluralistic beginnings. Obama himself loves “teachable moments.” His years in Jakarta certainly qualify as instructive material about diversity, pluralism, achievement, and leadership. Again, in the right hands, this could work.

Obama Childhood Photo from Menteng, Jakarta Obama Childhood Photo from Menteng, Jakarta

Little Barry Statue in Menteng, Jakarta

This same sentiment underlies the effort that brought a group of Menteng residents, other Indonesians and ex-pats together to raise money for a statue of Obama as a child that appeared for a few weeks in a public park in the neighborhood. The idea was not to honor “President Obama of the USA” but to celebrate the childhood of “Little Barry” in their own community as an inspirational example of every child’s potential for greatness. And while I believe that a majority of Indonesians are proud of Obama’s connection to their country, the statue was too much for a disproportionately loud minority of ultra-nationalists who argued that public space should not be given over to statues of foreigners, that Obama hasn’t yet proven any tangible contributions to Indonesia to deserve a statue, that there are plenty of Indonesian national heroes who deserve recognition over Obama. A facebook group (TURUNKAN PATUNG BARACK OBAMA di TAMAN MENTENG) opposing the statue garnered more than 57,000 members, and the organizer of the movement filed a lawsuit against the Jakarta municipal government. Within a few weeks the statue was relocated to Obama’s former elementary school. The film will surely inspire a similar reaction. Trash tabloids are already posting headlines like Mengapa ‘Obama Anak Menteng’ Pakai Pemain Asing? (Why is ‘Obama the Menteng Kid’ Using Foreign Actors?) that invite ugly sentiments in the comments section.

The film may also provide fodder for a similar group of disproportionately loud conservative xenophobes in the USA. Dematra claims to have “proof” that Obama prayed to Mecca and practiced Islamic chanting, and he reserves the right to depict that in his film because it is part of the inspirational message he wants to pass along to Indonesian children. As of last week’s press conference, Multivision has not made a decision yet whether to include this in the film, and they recognize the sensitivity of the matter in the contexts of American politics and bilateral relations between the USA and Indonesia.

The Right Hands...
The Right Hands...

I have not read the book yet, so I will not judge the quality of Dematra’s five days research into Obama’s childhood in Menteng. Having looked at his website and the promotional material for the film, Dematra clearly has good intentions. The project is worthy and fascinating. But I keep coming back to the facts: five days of interviews, five days to write a book, two weeks of filming, two weeks of editing. Dematra’s goals may be noble, but I can’t say the same for his workflow, and there’s nothing to recommend Multivision’s own track record of crapass production values. Asal jadi. Asal kelar. These are not the right hands for producing what might have been an interesting and poignant account of one of America’s and Indonesia’s only joint historical figures.

"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."
"Mohon Tidak Disentuh..."