Domestic tourists in front of the Imax Theater at Taman Mini, a massive, museum-like theme park outside Jakarta which was also the brainchild of Tien Suharto. It is promoted as a “miniaturized” version of Indonesia, complete with models of various islands, where costumed employees sell traditional crafts in mock-up villages. Employees in cartoonish animal suits, however, also abound throughout the park and appear to be most popular with children.
From the English language section of the official Taman Mini website: “The 'Keong Emas' (Golden Snail) IMAX Theater has the shape of a giant snail, where special films with high technology are shown… Watching films in this theater, the onlookers will feel as if they are in the midst and also participate as an actor. The IMAX film technology shows sophistication and ability to arouse a strong power of attraction, making the onlookers click out of admiration.”
Taman Mini features both a monorail and skyway that offer fly-over perspectives of the entire layout. The park features officially sanctioned representations of various Indonesian islands, ethnicities, and sites of cultural practice, such as this mock-up Balinese temple.
The promise of inter-island adventure.
The film consistently features damaged, dug-up, or exposed sections of landscape as inserts or cutaways during driving scenes.
A roadside image that appears to question established visual economies of filmed travel.
A man selling Islamic style gravestones as the cousins drive past.
A man and a group of supporters stop traffic to collect donations for the construction of a rural mosque. It's an increasingly common sight in Java and elsewhere in post-Suharto Indonesia.
At times it seems that the rural communities through which the cousins pass conspire to misdirect wealthy outsiders such as themselves. Stopping in a small town to buy bottled water, Ambar’s request for a map is met with uncertainty. The shopkeeper’s husband replies that they don’t sell them, but as she leaves, hands her one and refuses to take money in return. Unsurprisingly, the map affords little or no advantage in navigation.
The film Tamu Agung (Exalted Guest 1955) by Usmar Ismail, who is often known as the Father of Indonesian Cinema, is a fairly open satire of Sukarno’s nation-building slogans and policies. Here, in the style of an exuberant musical, instead of expressing joy, villagers complain that they are encouraged to “get to work” despite a total lack of state support for infrastructure in rural areas (the lyrics here are specifically aimed at road conditions).
In the dark, post-1965 world of Jakarta in Bernafas Dalam Lumpur, melodrama often feels closer to horror. Sumila (played by the actress Suzanna) is a villager whose luck has run out. Left to fend for herself after her husband vanishes, she is repeatedly raped and taken advantage of by a series of predatory men who gain her trust by pretending to be good Samaritans, but merely see her as an easy target that no one will dare to defend.
After arguing with Suf, Ambar calls her mother from a roadside phone, but finds little comfort there.
Ambar shows the first dim inklings of desire for Suf, glancing at him while he concentrates on rolling a joint early in the trip.
Ambar navigates the Jakarta club scene with pleasure and ease.
Ambar dances in the light reflected by the disco ball, one of the film’s most important symbolic elements.
Suf, an outsider to the club scene, dons his “party hat” before entering (this is repeatedly shown as he enters various situations in which he is uncomfortable or not quite sure how to act); it appears to perform a protective function, as if masking his presence, allowing him to peer out from beneath its brim without attracting unwanted attention to himself as an outside observer.
The disco ball lingers in the transition to Ambar’s home the following day
Ambar is momentarily framed by a dark image that strikes a contrast with the rest of the décor in her family home.
After the journey’s first wrong turn, Ambar brings out the miniature disco ball
Assuming the film is particularly concerned with digging through the landscape of local experience in relation to history, the question then arises (especially in the context of a relatively small island) as to the choice of tropes: using roads, mobility and travel as formal points of departure. An Indonesian reviewer (Kurniawan) referred to Tiga Hari as the country’s “first road movie” (and others acknowledged that the form, as such, was at least fairly novel and unexploited in the domestic context) (Mahendra). However, this is not exactly the case. In terms of its evocation of Road as a metaphor for mobility and Movie as a method of rendering that which is traveled over visible, Tiga Hari is eminently preceded by the work of President Suharto, or, more precisely, by “Madam Tien,” the former dictator’s influential wife. In the early 1980s, Tien Suharto commissioned a series of three IMAX travelogues, entitled Indonesia Indah, (Beautiful Indonesia), which became one of the cinematic centerpieces of domestic, Suharto-era nationalist display. Although produced by the joint U.S./Canadian IMAX team, the Indah trilogy was intended for an Indonesian — if primarily metropolitan — audience, and the films were regularly shown to large groups of schoolchildren on the “world’s biggest” IMAX screen in Jakarta, a venue that also contains a special VIP lounge for visiting foreign dignitaries.
Discussing the relation between politics and aesthetics in the Indah films, Martin Roberts (2000) places the series’ use of form within a set of longstanding global discourses around tourism and mobility. He argues that the IMAX series offers a vision of Indonesia that contains strong echoes of dated colonial and Western ethnographic representations. In the context of Indonesia’s nation building process following the end of Dutch colonial rule, the state’s construction and exhibition of its own images in many ways constituted an important and necessary act of resistance to Western hegemony, or as Roberts puts it, “a ritual claiming of modernity” and hard-won sovereignty over national territory (183). Yet Roberts also argues that the Indonesia Indah trilogy, like much of the mass-media output of the New Order regime that commissioned it, was basically designed to reproduce the patterns of dominance established by European imperialism, applying them on a local scale. (The Indah series also came about at a time when the demonstration of formal/political independence was no longer a pressing national issue). The films’ carefully selected subjects and extensive use of an aerial, “get above it” perspective transforms the nation, on screen, into an easily readable series of points. These touristic landmarks and sociocultural highlights connect a modern, metropolitan center to a disempowered but highly aestheticized periphery of surrounding islands, defined by their representation as “traditional.”
Foreign tourists, visiting heads of state, or other non-Indonesians, then, will likely read the IMAX films in a way that adheres to a familiar discourse of the Other, in which knowledge is produced by the construction of a rhetorical bird’s eye view. These films, like other media such as photography, mapping, demographics and museums, establish an “objective” image of difference that implicitly justifies the existing, uneven distribution of privilege, power and wealth (180). But in the context of the local Indonesian audiences for whom the films were primarily intended, such a reified, transcendent view of “themselves” sets up a rather alienating spectatorial position. The films address citizens as if they were tourists staring in at their own lives, which the state has “captured” and sold back to them as a guideline. In this context, Roberts argues the Indonesia Indah series functions as an ideological mechanism of control, much like a government-sponsored “national identity kit or repertoire of what it means to be Indonesian” (180).
In the contemporary context of Reformasi, the state continues to use such objectifying, touristic imagery (including the Indah series, which still plays daily at the Taman Mini IMAX theater in Jakarta) to present the nation as a packaged, centered, and utterly idealistic whole, reflecting the enduring, if tarnished presence of Suharto’s interpretation of the national motto: bhinekka tunggal ika, a 14th century Javanese concept that translates as “unity in diversity.” One might argue, then, that in its rather pointedly excessive use of certain, recognizable aesthetic and generic structures, a film like Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya engages important elements of the history of Javanese-cum-national display. What seems on the surface to be a teen road movie also uses that lingering, uncannily familiar discourse as a vehicle to address a larger problem of local representation: the disappearance of large swaths of recent history, due to the New Order’s policy of absolute control over national media production. In dealing with these issues, the film must at times retrace the nation-shaping steps made by the Suharto regime, apparently looking Westward in search of cultural or stylistic tropes. Yet Tiga Hari’s penetrating glance at the nation’s political and cultural centerpoint, which happens to be the ground upon which it, and most other Indonesian films are and were produced, is necessarily also a turn inward in search of the fragments of local memory and experience that previous aesthetic vehicles had been deployed to roll over and erase.
In this context, Tiga Hari’s view of the road, while necessarily invoking a sense of mobility, independence, and escape, is simultaneously enclosed and delimited by its own machinery, as the surrounding landscape is continually framed by the aforementioned metal bars and glass of the protagonists’ car, the windows forming a screen that replaces physical contact and potential interaction with flat representation. Despite the high frequency of insert shots of passing scenes, and the various carefree moments shared by Suf and Ambar in the car, there is obviously something quite different at play here: the film’s gaze is akin to that of a very cooped-up tourist. Suf’s fairly modest Peugeot contributes to the game: on its windshield the car sports a happy, iconic, rainbow sticker (shown twice in closeup) bearing the word Lamalera (the name of a remote village in the Eastern archipelago, famous among tourists and certain researchers as the home of “the stone-age whale hunters who kill with their bare hands”) (Bedeng 2007). According to the marks of its past travels, then, the Peugeot, already a symbol of mobility — and the product of international commerce and “Western” technology — should have no problem in smoothly and comfortably bridging the gap between modernity (Jakarta) and a distant site of packaged, fixed primitiveness or tradition (in this case the far more accessible — and less “primitive” in its opulent, royal take on tradition — Yogyakarta). [open endnotes in new window]
Yet as the voyage begins in earnest and the formally familiar views of Jakarta’s outskirts begin to slip past the side window, the objects that fill the frame — grey, concrete overpasses, boxy toll booths, even a nondescript section of burnt grass along the freeway — while edited according to the narrative flow, nonetheless appear slightly out of place within such a familiar view. The complete lack of officially promoted beauty, iconicity, or knowing humanistic vision of Third World poverty and squalor thus combines with the foregrounding of the car as limitation and enclosure, effectively flirting with the transcendence of touristic (and privileged, youthful/rebellious) mobility while simultaneously destabilizing its reassuring effects.
Accordingly, the zone that Suf and Ambar must cross — between the fixed points of reference that constitute the journey’s beginning and projected end — lacks a stable sense of visual or ideological definability. It appears alternately as an idyllic zone of lush, wide open rice fields and as a varied, seemingly random, and vaguely ominous no-man’s land. Perhaps most important, despite the fact of the characters’ class alliances, car, and cell phones (and the fact that they are placed in something of a “travelogue”), the most crucial and familiar elements of such a discourse of mobility — a compass, a map, or an objective, bird’s eye view of the path ahead — have been largely removed from the space of Tiga Hari’s narrative. Instead, these are replaced with the ever earthbound-angle of the film’s delimited tourist gaze. Occasionally the protagonists actively seek a more elevated, easily-read perspective, as if they were trying to invoke a more ideal aesthetics of travel to comfort them in moments of uncertainty. Yet such a viewpoint is always either unavailable or utterly fails to provide guidance that is actually useful from a position on the ground. In this way, the film’s implicit referencing of travelogue and a touristic gaze are points of departure meant not only to hold characters and viewers down in close proximity to the surface of local memory and experience, but potentially to offer glimpses of that which lies within, or below, the surface’s familiar facade.
Deeper cinematic ground:
As the Indonesia Indah films and countless other examples demonstrate, the New Order, with its critical need to control information, put vast amounts of energy and resources into shaping and instilling a national sense of culture, art and life through an intricately ordered series of representational guidelines. This of course had a profound influence reaching far beyond officially commissioned, government-funded productions like Indonesia Indah. According to Krishna Sen (1993, 1994, 2006), the effect on Indonesian cinema in general was great: its placement, with other mass media, under the direct control of Suharto’s new Department of Information further emphasized “the ideological and propaganda aspects of films rather than their artistic and creative dimension” (2006 98) and enabled the state apparatus to scrutinize the content and potential political significance of local films in particular. This defensive shift of the state’s gaze onto domestic artists and filmmakers reversed policies in place until 1965, during the reign of Indonesia’s first President, Sukarno. At that time, state censorship was heavily focused on the potential for foreign media to influence or corrupt the fledging process of nation building. While not in any sense free of state intervention, artists and filmmakers under Sukarno nonetheless operated in an environment of excitement and experimentation, generating work from a number of different ideological positions and perspectives with the goal of establishing a diverse and uniquely Indonesian aesthetic culture. Filmic and other narratives often reveled in the potential to foster change and societal transformation even while expressing frustration or poking fun at the shortcomings of certain political movements and their leaders. As the film Tamu Agung (Ismail 1955) suggests, Sukarno himself was not entirely off limits as a target for satire (1994 40).
But with the rise of Suharto, previous interest by authorities in economic resistance to Hollywood’s imperialist domination of international box offices and in the questioning of the content of foreign movies — showing explicit sex and “liberal” Western morality — declined markedly. By 1967, when Suharto had stabilized his chaotic ascent to power and officially occupied the post of President, the memories of Indonesian citizens and the contents of local history — and of the earth, particularly on the islands of Java, Bali, and Sumatra where hundreds of thousands of bodies were concealed in mass graves — became matters of far greater concern for the New Order state. Policies requiring meticulous scrutiny and censorship at all stages of film production were quickly implemented, aimed at discouraging filmmakers from digging into any sensitive, historical issues and explicitly forbidding them from inciting dissent or criticizing the state, military, police, or other apparatus of law and order (Sen 2006 99). According to Sen, many of the films produced following Suharto’s rise took on a narrative structure that de-emphasized the ideal of action as a method for realizing change. Rather, they employed circular plots in which the goal was to return to a past state of naturalized, harmonious order that had been temporarily disturbed by a malevolent force. In this sense, the movement of cinematic time frequently followed the state’s redirection of national time, which, as argued above, constantly returned the public to the day when an “evil enemy” had brought about a collective state of chaos, and, (according to state narratives) Suharto had restored order. [11a]
Indeed, as the New Order’s grip on power was weakened in the late 1970s and early 1980s by economic troubles, allegations of corruption, and widespread student protests, Suharto himself began to appear as a character (played by younger actors) in historically-themed, popular films that were indirectly commissioned by the state. In all of them, history is heavily revised; two in particular, Janur Kuning (Yellow Coconut Leaf, Surawijaya 1979), and Serangan Fajar (Attack at Dawn, Nur 1982), go so far as to inaccurately portray Suharto as a key figure in the struggle for independence against the Dutch. Yet despite these films’ seeming emphasis on action and change, here, too, the end of colonialism (and its direct association with the actions of Suharto, making Sukarno’s rule seem like a temporary transitional period) appears as the natural restoration of an eternal “order.” The ultimate legitimacy of Suharto’s power is thus located outside of historical time, instead issuing forth from an “inexplicable genealogy through which [Suharto] inherits the historic and mythical mantle of royal heroes of the past” (Sen, 1994 101).
Yet as Sen and others argue, Indonesians’ historical memories, whether spoken or silenced, were not so easily falsified or replaced: “after 1965, the greatest shared national memory was no longer the war of independence against the Dutch,” it was the violence of 1965-66. In this context, a rather innocuous-seeming genre gained an unprecedented amount of critical and popular acclaim soon after the rise of the New Order: melodrama (Sen, 1993 207). Unlike historical films and their general focus on colonial-era conflicts between a unified “Indonesia” and outside invaders, melodramas of the 70s and 80s followed the state’s increased scrutiny of local filmmakers with their own narrative turn inward. Importantly for Sen, the focus of melodrama on the intimate, domestic space of the family allowed certain films to dig deeper into the collective psyche, and “metaphorically acknowledge the political unconscious… of the war within”(212). To do so, filmmakers turned to allegory, eliding censors by “showing” the pervasive, collective sense of horror and injustice indirectly, by way of its melodramatic, heartrending effects on the lives of families.
Classic melodramas such as Ananda (Ismail 1970) and Bernafas Dalam Lumpur (“Breathing in Mud” Junaidy 1970) drew attention to the existence of a massive, new, political underclass made up of those considered tainted by association with the vanished left after 1965 (the political context of their status was of course implied rather than directly stated). Characters for whom the relative protection of family, household, and class associations had crumbled thus inevitably suffered the deadly ravages of the “inexplicably” cruel and unjust society into which they were thrust: due to the presence of a pervasive, internal logic of evil, they were virtually un-savable, even by the most righteous, well-intentioned heroes. Such films, however, in accordance with censorship guidelines, generally stopped short of presenting a clear target on which to place blame or attack in order to change the status quo. Rather, after the sacrifice of an unlucky victim or two, the dark, tangled worlds of Indonesian melodrama nearly always ended in a magical “resolution.” Like the historical films, this was accomplished via a return to an idealized state of harmony mirroring the one in which the film began: a “harmony” dependent on unquestioning adherence to the rigid boundaries of class, privilege and power established by the New Order (1993 212).
Following the fall of Suharto and nine years of halting, frustrating reformasi, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya returns not only to the cultural surface of filmed travel but to the melodramatic space of family conflict, which historically has served as a container and in some sense a hiding place for the most unspeakable aspects of local experience. The desire to get past appearances and to connect, to know on deeper level, is thus a constant, if initially unconscious, presence in the film. Underlying and propelling its narrative, the drive toward penetration (of various sorts) gradually transforms Tiga Hari into something of a romance, a generic twist that emerges within the slowing and gradual dissolution of the film’s other formal devices. As the initial goals set by the film (based on the schedule of the wedding and the safe arrival of Ambar and the dishes) begin to fade away, they are replaced by Suf and Ambar’s hesitant but increasingly open journey toward intimacy with each other. However, the protagonists’ imminent consummation of their growing mutual attraction is of course complicated by their status as first cousins. While such an affair would not rise to the level of extreme aberration in the context of contemporary Java, it is nonetheless frowned upon, particularly among wealthy, well-positioned families such that of Suf and Ambar. The film’s “subversive” take on romance could thus be read allegorically as pointing to the truly incestuous (and continuing) nature of the reproduction of power in the hands of the few that has held sway in various forms in Java for centuries. Yet the gradual emergence of the cousins’ desire to know each other more deeply, evoked amidst pervasive feelings of alienation from the decadence of their existence and everything that has come to be “theirs” (families, traditions, the very landscape on which they travel), simultaneously invokes the necessity for those who will “inherit the earth” (in this case Java) to closely re-examine the implications of how they came to occupy the position they are in.
FFollowing its protagonists, the film’s slow, spiraling turn inward on itself can thus be read as an attempt — however haunted by its own implication in the continuing domination of Indonesian popular media by a geographically concentrated, elite minority — to critically reflect on its immersion in a “local” aesthetic soaked in the blood of recent history. From there it searches for a new narrative, a way out which might begin to transcend the imposed, historically tainted commonalities of nation, culture, and language — the “national identity kit” — that has in some sense led to the present state of collective estrangement, a condition acutely represented by the two main characters’ experience. Viewed in this way, as the car, and the film itself, move ever more slowly, the resulting increase in the protagonists’ proximity to the source of both anxiety and desire – the “real” that surrounds them and is embedded in the landscape and in each other – rekindles the apparently missing narrative tension. What ensues is a struggle with the impulse to mediate, to place familiar grids of understanding over a deceptively simple, yet intricately detailed mise-en-scène. The process of “un-mediation,” however, is necessarily fraught: as layers of narcotics, ideology, tradition and taboo are stripped away from the sheltered, comfortably anesthetized outlook to which the cousins are accustomed, they are exposed to the potential for a deeper, more unsettling, and, one might say, cinematically “accented” engagement with both their surroundings and themselves.
The narrative journey of discovery, then, begins in earnest in the highly generic, and drug-and-techno infused, atmosphere of the Jakarta nightclub to which Ambar and Suf first make their escape from the confines of the family gathering. In contrast to the reserved, formal air of her home, here Ambar seems completely in her element, joyfully greeting (mostly male) friends, popping pills, and dancing suggestively to the throbbing downbeats. Suf, however, appears much less at ease and takes on the role of distanced observer, slowly nursing a pitcher of beer at the bar while peering out at his cousin’s gyrating movements. His gaze, simultaneously distant yet focused with a quiet intensity, brings the first hints of a deeper “transgression” into the scene, placing viewers in line with his as-of-yet unacknowledged desire for Ambar. Mediated via close-ups that bridge the spatial gap between the two cousins with a sense of magnified attention, the sequence establishes a recurring pattern throughout the film: the careful examination of difference and diversity as embedded in the genetically, culturally and geographically close to home.
In addition to setting up a recurring pattern of looking and desire, the club scene serves as a setting in which to introduce what is arguably the film’s primary symbolic element: the disco ball. Here, like Ambar seen in the eyes of the more outwardly conservative and reserved Suf, the flashing ball is utterly familiar and yet sparkles with something of the unknown. Appropriately, it enters the diegetic space of the film through a rather cliché “club-shot” that nonetheless succeeds in indicating the importance of the mirrored sphere beyond the space of the discotheque, as well as its connection to Ambar. As the field of view moves up from her dancing form, covered in the twitching points of light thrown around the room, the ball nearly fills the frame, establishing itself as the space’s radiant central core. As the scene returns to the aboveground world of family, tradition, and externally regularized time where Ambar and Suf will reemerge the following day, the ball follows, linked via dissolve. As if embedding itself, still spinning, under the film’s conscious, literal surface, it slowly disappears into the corner of a bright, yellow painting in Ambar’s spacious, modernist home. The camera dollies right, catching Amber as she exits her bedroom, hung-over and irritably calling for the maid. Here, the moving camera pauses, framing Ambar against the background of another painting, this one revealing a decidedly more murky and ominous scene, which has somehow made its way into the family’s otherwise idyllic-seeming, opulent abode. As the shot lingers for a moment on the painting, we catch a glimpse of misshapen, severed heads and body parts emerging from what appears to be a fiery, gaseous subterranean environment.
Like the Indonesia Indah films, in Tiga Hari, viewers become virtual passengers, looking through the same windows, and variously mediated glances, as Suf and Ambar. Following the club scene, however, the guiding role of the state’s vision of National Culture is slowly usurped by the film’s more irregular sense of direction. The disco ball, which resurfaces in miniature on the Peugeot’s rearview mirror (hung there by Ambar) as soon as the car clears the borders of Jakarta, is positioned as if it were a compass. Yet the fractured sphere merely flashes and throws off tiny intermittent signs, as if pointing to details in passing scenes that might flag audience and characters alike to slow down and eventually stop — investigate, engage, dig — and attempt to interpret. At this juncture, in order to give a sense of the film’s intricate intertwining of form, context, and certain key narrative themes, I will engage in a detailed exploration of several key scenes that constitute the film’s “slowest” part — its midsection.