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Aceh Anthropology Book Club Indonesia Reflexive

Book Club: A Certain Age

Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek
Book Cover for "A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals" by Rudolf Mrázek

I have been struggling with the strange kind of fieldwork I did in Aceh for the past few years and how to both acknowledge that strangeness and write about it. Rudolf Mrázek’s new book, A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta Through the Memories of Its Intellectuals, doesn’t solve the problem, but it gives me a toolkit of methodological and theoretical possibilities for the task. “Speed and lightness over the mud and dust define the city and this observer of the city as well,” Mrázek writes in the book’s preface, and in the role of the observer he conjures up Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, but with a rushing twist. He is not just an idle passerby, doing a series of household interviews in Jakarta, sampling his informants like one might browse paintings in a gallery before moving on to the next. There is also an element of compulsive flight, as if Mrázek was never too comfortable getting into the lives of his informants (“keeping my distance from my subjects, my passing by, the burden of my method”); in fact one might find comfort in the moving on, and Mrázek quotes Sartre: “he knew that it was possible for him to make his escape at any moment with the flap of the wings.”

In spite of, or rather because of his methodological burdens (which inspired in me an awesome sense of déjà vu), Mrázek’s data still generates “cognitive sparks” all through the book. With their words, solicited by gentle prompts from Mrázek, his informants produce historical landscapes located in the noisy present of the interview. Fragments from the interview transcripts that recall memories of youth during the colonial and revolutionary era are recomposed, in vivid collage. Rescuing these fragments from the “dustbin of history” (these are, at heart, informants that the vast majority of Indonesians today have no knowledge of) is intended to disrupt the logics of modernity, nationalism, and progress. And it’s a delicate effort, because if you get into these fragments, if you touch them, the fragments either crumble apart or crumble you, leaving us with only a momentary rupture, just a fleeting glimpse, of what modernity looked and felt like in another age, exposing its illusory effects in the present.

But there are redemptions to be found in the refuse. The trick is to find the unexpected tangential points where your fragments meet your informant’s serendipitously. During my work in Aceh, I had several moments like these that resulted in productive and complicit engagements. (A-ha! I could write about this!) And here Mrázek introduced me to a French anthropologist I had never heard of before named Marc Augé, who writes about “non-places” and the anthropology of “supermodernity.” A non-place lends itself to generic memories at best; they are typically spaces of motion and travel, such as airports, stations, vehicles, hotels, mobile offices, and refugee camps. These are the spaces in which humanitarians work, and this resonates strongly with my experience working in Aceh. Like the flaneur, we are always passing by, checking in and then out of non-places. That makes the serendipitous and tangential touch with the Other much more difficult, but, when it does happen, so much more memorable too.

Mrázek likes those meetings even more when they are fraught with tone deaf misunderstandings: “Misunderstanding is another word for the rhythm with which the only true reality forces its way into the conversation. The more effectively a man is able to speak, the more successfully he is misunderstood.” In so many ways, I think my fieldwork was characterized by misunderstanding, sometimes willful, and other times, for lack of trying. A memorable encounter does not translate into an effective one. What would it be like if we thought of humanitarianism not as “supracolonial” but as “supramodern” or maybe just “supermodern”? That brings the industry down to earth without losing that awesome sense of mobility that so strongly characterizes humanitarians and their work. We could set aside debates on “mobile sovereignty” and focus instead on just the “mobile,” the blasé sense of just “passing through,” where perceptions are blunted to the point where we no longer see the “meaning and differing values of things…in the constantly moving stream of money.” In order to be noticed (Mrázek quoting Georg Simmel), “people have to exaggerate their personal element in order to remain audible, even to themselves.” We may be touched by our informants in unexpected ways, but the filters that mediate those encounters inevitably leave us “touched away” from them, and more than likely leave them misunderstood.

More than likely... a misunderstanding.
More than likely... a misunderstanding.

And so as I try to collate and make sense of my overwhelming piles of data, I have to figure out who and what remains audible through all that noise. I have to identify the tangential meeting points of productive engagement and misunderstanding. Upon retrieving a memorable voice, or recalling a tangential meeting point, I need to acknowledge the mediating distortions (exaggerations or otherwise) in my data that made retrieval and recall possible at all.  To bring this all to life and render it sensible, I have to describe ethnographically the “non-places” in Aceh where I spent the majority of my time that prevented me in specific ways from ever really getting to know Aceh as a memorable place.

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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..."