By Chuah Siew Eng
“If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”
The significance of history, succinctly explained by Aristotle, comes too late for me and generations of schoolchildren for whom history is a jumble of meaningless dates and past happenings with little impact on our everyday lives. Little did we know then that the knowledge therein lays the foundation to political intelligence and empowerment. Lord Acton – he of the famous quote on absolute power corrupting absolutely – had another great quote: “If the past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and the surest emancipation.
Amir Muhammad’s new film, Ada Apa Dengan Indonesia?, or The Year of Living Vicariously, affords us such a peek, not just into neighbouring Indonesia’s history, but also ours. With our shared Nusantara roots and even the vision of being one country just seven decades ago (Indonesia Raya or Greater Indonesia – Suharto’s post-war dream of uniting all the Malay lands, dispelled forever by Malaysia’s formation in 1963, leading to Indonesia’s four-year Konfrontasi war on us), it bears reflecting, Malaysia’s past as a nation, the what-ifs, the present and future. Amir’s film also revokes the myth of history being cast in stone while persuading us of the need to subject it to analysis and interpretation.
Very noticeably, the film’s Malay and English titles do not translate into each other and seem unrelated. Instead, they speak to different worlds, plumbing extra depths, reflecting also the film’s slightly schizophrenic presentation – a neat split-screen that performs multiple functions and shows parallel worlds, of the real against the makebelief; present against contextual; stated and alluded; past and present; public and private. Sometimes, though, the dual images can be overwhelming and you don’t know which screen to focus on. At a post-screening Q&A at the Help Institute in KL recently (18 – 20 Nov 2005), Amir offered another reason for using this effect: it mirrored the sensory assault he got when he was in Indonesia.
If the strategy of the film seems too easy – a matter of getting embedded in a film production and bugging the crew and cast in between takes to find out what makes their country tick – the resulting symbiosis of a behind-the-scenes-of-a-film-within-a-film creates a ripple of connections. Amir had picked a most distinguished host to hook on: Riri Riza’s Gie, a mesti-tonton biopic of student leader and intellectual, Soe Hok Gie, whose world straddled the fall of Sukarno and the rise of General Suharto, and whose journal provided an insightful account of that extraordinary time.
While Gie wasn’t some heroic opposition leader – and he certainly didn’t change history – he was no mere eyewitness to unfolding events either. A realistic idealist who recognised politics as a necessary evil, he galvanised the masses to get involved. He demonstrated the proverbial might of the pen, criticising and exposing the administration through his writings in newspapers. He not only talked the talk, but walked it, literally, by leading student demonstrations, demanding for accountability. Ben Anderson, friend and world expert on Indonesia, wrote, “More than most of his generation, he was outraged by the ruthless exploitation of the poor and defenceless in his society: the arbitrary, illegal taxes, the land-grabbing, the extortionate usury, the casual armed brutality and the ‘insolence of office’.” Gie died just short of his 27th year during a mountain climbing trip, perhaps destined, for he thought living ’til old age to be a worse fate than dying young.
Amir’s documentary, however, dwelling little on Gie, chose instead to probe the minds of other everyday Indonesian heroes and capture their present reality. Therefore, there’s resonance in the fact that Gie was filmed in the middle of Indonesia’s first direct presidential elections (you could vote directly for the president of your choice). It’s “People Power” come to fruition, after three decades of Suharto’s dictatorship and two decades of Sukarno’s pseudo-dictatorship that culminated in “guided democracy”.
So, flipping back and forth in time, the cast and crew of Gie talk about the roles of intellectuals, politicians and the military; free speech and censorship; politics and corruption; nationalist pride and demonstrations; the cycle of violence and vengeance; Hindu and Christian Malays; discrimination and ethnic minority rights; old films and folklores; and Gie himself.
But too much yakety yak in Ada Apa Dengan Indonesia?, especially the many legends related by the characters, can get monotonous. This is not helped by poor identification of the interviewees, although the split screen sometimes gives a clue to their contextual roles in Gie. But John Maxwell – the only Mat Salleh featured, who spoke fluent Indonesia and yet was not Indonesian – stumped me until a Google search later at home. Perhaps the reel and real identities are intentionally kept separate, to jolt people like me whose idea of reality has been screwed up by too much Astro.
However, Amir does a good job of including varying views, from the idealistic “equal distribution of wealth and conscientious politicians” to the pragmatic “enough work and food for me – that’s all I want.” There are illuminative ones, such as that of executive producer Mira Lesmana, who points out the interdependence and inevitability of corruption, nepotism and collusion, and then there are the incredibly forgiving ones, such as the fella who believes leaders never intend to create chaos, so we should look at the good they have done and let go of the bad parts. And for all that Indonesian rebellion has achieved (hey, their reformasi deposed a dictator!), the legacy of decades of authoritarianism is there, in a young photographer who says he deserves the 30 stitches on his head, which the authorities gave him, because he shot a demonstration without their permission.
The similarities to Malaysia hit you with the subtlety of an FRU rotan: discrimination; Reformasi; censorship; vilification of the communists; stereotyping the Chinese; the problem of national identity. Ironically, the differences between our two countries are the very same points, for where Malaysia appears to have stagnated, Indonesia is evolving. The censors have packed up their scissors, the opposition is no longer seen as a threat but part of a healthy political culture, and the Chinese Indonesians are now acknowledged as citizens of equal rights and standing with the Malay Indonesians, though the assimilation comes at the cost of minority cultural rights (which the lead actor in Gie, Nicholas Saputra, seems to accept. This problematic and controversial view on minority rights was not challenged or balanced by Amir, from whom one would expect such a response as the maker of The Big Durian, Kamunting and Lost, which explored such related issues).
When one draws parallels, more comparisons are inevitably made by the audience: Who is our Gie? When will we get our reform? And, if the producer had chosen a Malaysian film production company, would our cast and crew be as intelligent and articulate?
Amir, who is both producer and director, also interviews, narrates and comments, sometimes self-mockingly in that “haha” facetious manner of his. His wry sense of humour appears sporadically, in his reflection on what constitutes independence today, a semi-thankful look at our military in comparison with Indonesia’s (quick quiz: When did our army last hit the news and what was it about?) and his puzzlement over similar words that can carry vastly different meanings (you can say “butoh” in Indonesia without generating disgusted looks).
He offers a new and radical definition of globalisation. It’s when the ghosts of our nations start talking to each other, changing our perceptions of who’s vilified and who’s the villain. For Indonesia, the disposal of a 32-year-dicatorship has released many ghosts, including that of Suharto’s propaganda against Sukarno and the role US played (yes, even there and then) in propping up his dictatorship. Though the people are now in possession of a confused history, this is a necessary process for, as George Santayana said, “history is always written wrong, and so always needs to be rewritten.”
Chuah Siew Eng volunteers for the Centre of Independent Journalism, hoping that someday her Gie will come.
First Published: 09.12.2005 on Kakiseni