JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

The only kiss not excised by censors is the one forced on Ambar by her nagging, middle-aged aunt who at the end of the film is revealed to be unmarried.

The graphically 60s/ leftist-inspired poster for Gie.

Riza and Saputra on the set of Gie.

Soe Hok Gie, 1942-1969. Riza’s film is based on Gie’s published diaries.

 

The young stars of Laskar Pelangi, amateurs from the island of Belitung where the film takes place, were chosen from hundreds of local children who auditioned for the film.

Shot on video and filled with jump cuts and other continuity-averse techniques, Eliana, Eliana is Riza’s most overtly experimental film to date. Thematically somewhat similar to Tiga Hari, it focuses on the experiences of a young woman who runs away to Jakarta to escape an arranged marriage.

Return to Belitung and familiar themes: The three main characters from Laskar Pelangi return as teenagers in Sang Pemimpi, where, among other things, they contemplate the emergent possibilities of inter-island travel and higher education in far-off Java.

Pasir Berbisik: Dian Sastrowardoyo as the curious, maternally repressed Daya, eager ear to the whispering sands.

Christine Hakim, who plays Berlian, Daya’s mother in Pasir Berbisik, also plays a gaze-returning, tough-love single mother in Riza’s Eliana, Eliana.

The Tayub Dancer’s practiced movements and looks establish her dominance within the rural, yet formally structured, gendered space of performance.

Polygamy, poverty, and childcare in Berbagai Suami.

Riza (middle) with longtime collaborator/ producer/ writer Mira Lesmana (seated directly above Riza) on set.

Nicholas Saputra as Soe Hok Gie attempts to theorize a way to extricate Indonesia from its continuing immersion in longstanding cycles of violence and corruption.

 

Reception: a language of our own?

While I was lucky enough to get access to an uncensored version of Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya through the generosity of a film festival, in Indonesia it is only available with its final, pointed act, the (rather unexplicit) sex scene between Suf and Ambar, excised. Thus, although the film’s message is basically unchanged, its decisive ending — and potential point of departure for real action — has been rendered somewhat impotent by a censorship body that continues to rely on a set of regulations and justifications implemented by the Dutch for the “protection” of the “uneducated natives” (Sen 1994 13, 67-71; 2006 103). Developments since the film’s release have not been encouraging: despite a great deal of lobbying from various filmmakers and political activists, in 2009, a new censorship bill was passed, based on the historically redundant 1992 regulations to which Sen refers (Jakarta Post 2-19-09).

It is precisely in this context of uncertainty in terms the status of politically charged expression, as well as that of the ever-fickle market for popular films, that I would locate the coded, opaque and allegorical intervention of Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya. Of the six other feature films directed by Riri Riza (he also co-produced Ada Apa Dengan Cinta), Gie (2005), a biopic about Soe Hok Gie, a dissident Chinese-Indonesian journalist who was openly and harshly critical of corruption and injustice under both the Sukarno and Suharto regimes, probably best demonstrates Riza’s interest in contested aspects of local history. The film also shows his cautious restraint in the presentation of certain details that might be flagged by censors as politically sensitive, or by audiences as too long-winded or didactic. But according to Riza himself, this is the potential strength of his populist-based style. Gie takes place during the violence of 1965 and the years leading up to and following it. While it raises many questions about what happened, and about the military and Suharto government, the film stops short of presenting the sequence of events with enough precision to seriously challenge official narratives. As Riza stated in a 2010 interview, this, along with the casting of a non-ethnically Chinese star (again, Nicolas Saputra) in the role of Soe Hok Gie, caused a backlash from intellectual and activist communities:

Gie is deserted by some because it’s too general, too generic in description… but what’s more crucial to me is to get those high school students — who are familiar with Nicholas Saputra — [to] come to the cinemas and watch Gie” (Journalfootage.net).

Riza’s strategy is to target the largest possible audience, in hopes of instilling a desire to ask questions that go beyond the limited scope of the film itself:

“I made this film… to infect our youth with Gie’s spirit. Hopefully they will see that here, in our country, a mass homicide aimed toward the communists which numbered to millions of lives once took place. Because they don’t know… maybe there were [certain audience members] who thought, ‘Damn, this guy is interesting’ then head to [the] bookstore to get a copy of his book” (Ibid).

While local audience turnout for both Gie, and, particularly Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya was disappointingly small,[17] [open endnotes in new window] Riza’s more recent films, Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warriors, 2008) and its sequel, Sang Pemimpi (The Dreamer, 2010), have both broken national box office records, cementing his position as the foremost contemporary director in Indonesia. Yet while these later works exude a far more “feel good” character than most of his previous films, Riza does not abandon the quest to foster a greater interest in local and national self-critique: both take place against the backdrop of the struggle to provide adequate education for the children of a poor, outlying island dominated by the presence of a large oil conglomerate.

In this context, a reading of Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya as aimed at surreptitiously pointing to historical and political problems, the potential solutions for which lie far beyond the scope of its own narrative, seems justified.[18] While that film is also, as Riza states, more literally about questioning “the accepted standard normalcy with regard to teen sexuality… and… casual usage of drugs” (Ibid), the symptomatic disconnection of youth in particular from troubling aspects of local memory and experience is intimately linked to those issues by the film. Indonesian critic Ekky Imanjaya concurs. He relates the film’s spatial explorations to those of Riza’s more overtly experimental 2002 film Eliana, Eliana (in which Riza also introduced the disco ball as symbol), while arguing that the spiritual dimension of Tiga Hari renders the “fluctuation of the souls of two teenagers visible and open like an aquarium” (Imanjaya, multiply.com). The film’s slow, deconstructive style, which leaves room for philosophically oriented readings and gave it caché at international festivals, however, may have failed to realize Riza’s primary goal of reaching out and truly connecting to the “(almost) lost generation” (Imanjaya) that the film portrays. Riza, who is well traveled and reads philosophy, obviously enjoys formal experimentation, but considers festival and art-cinema audiences to be somewhat peripheral to his filmmaking:

“If [a] film can only be viewed from afar, talked about in foreign fields far from the place it originates, I… think it has yet to become a “film” because it does not communicate with its society and its cultural environment… if [a] cultural statement is made to be heard in some faraway place, I don’t see it fit.” 

Riza continues,

“I want to tell unconventional stories. But with assurance that it will still excite Indonesian viewers [whom] I know very well. Most audiences come from young age-range, thirteen to twenty-five. Most of them listen to pop music. Don’t read newspapers. Averse themselves [translation/sic] from serious questions in life” (Journalfootage.net).

The ability to compete for local viewership with outside films — particularly those of Hollywood, which since the 1950s have frequently occupied a majority of Indonesian screens[19] — was an important factor in motivating the birth of the Indonesian New Wave. It continues to drive filmmakers like Riza in the cutthroat, monopolized marketplace of Indonesian theatrical exhibition:

“What we try to do is to filter that mainstream by making films that don’t follow the molds of the industry, standardized by America… Out of ten people, probably there are only five, or even two to three persons who can be satisfied upon watching the English-speaking Hollywood films... they surely want to see Indonesian films, don’t they? With a language of our own. With problems and stupidities of our own… What differs is that it has a story of Indonesia’s dark side there. There’s a story of how Indonesian people have castes” (Ibid).

Riza readily admits that the majority of contemporary Indonesian films, while geared to compete with foreign product at the box office, are far less concerned with issues of aesthetic form, or of a deeper exploration of local history or politics. Yet many of the small, but prominent group of filmmakers associated with the New Wave (arising from the core group that produced Kuldesak in 1998), have generally remained true to the goal of combining popular cinema and localized intellectual or activist concerns: the ideal of creating “a language of our own” that relies on a particular blending of form and content. In this context, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya can be seen as drawing on, and responding to, certain modes and themes established by previous New Wave texts.

The film Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sands, dir. Nan Achnas 2001) stages a more pedestrian version of a mapless Road Movie via the circular, neo-realist wanderings of an impoverished and politically outcast mother and daughter. While the historical setting is never given precise definition or actual dates, the details contained in its imagery — red X’s on doors, burning houses, “randomly” disappearing neighbors, mysterious bodies on the beach — will be read by certain viewers as unmistakable clues, positioning Pasir Berbisik in the context of Suharto’s rise in 1965. Like Tiga Hari, Pasir Berbisik is framed by the perspective of a teenager — Daya (played by superstar Dian Sastrowardoyo), a girl of perhaps fourteen — who represents the first generation of Suharto-era youth to become radically separated from an understanding of contemporary political history. Like many actual children during that period, Daya is kept in the dark by her mother (Christine Hakim) as to the meaning of the complex events unfolding around her, ostensibly for her own safety. The connection between landscape, memory, and experience is thus firmly established by Achnas, as Daya must satisfy her thirst for understanding by pressing her ear to the porous wall of the only available archive: the whispering sands of the earth itself.

Intan Paramaditha (2007) argues that Achnas’ female-centered movie also functions as an intervention into the male-dominated context of Indonesian film history. In this context, she reads Pasir Berbisik as a historical exploration and reformulation of the cinematic gaze, which, as famously figured by Laura Mulvey, is often assumed to be voyeuristic and masculine. Within the structure of the film, the status of Daya’s mother, Berlian, the main authority figure in her daughter’s life, is for Paramaditha formally connected to Berlian’s frequent practice of looking directly into the camera, thus outing the presence of its ostensibly hidden looks.  The camera itself is also frequently aligned with the curious, unrequitedly searching perspective of the young, female Daya, challenging the historical prevalence of male protagonists. Paramaditha argues that in Pasir Berbisik, (as I have done in a related way with Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya), the formal gaps or breaks imposed by the interruption of established masculine/voyeuristic aesthetics or spatial continuity do not necessarily signal a complete breakdown of narrative. Rather, they explicitly indicate the presence of internal, subjective processes of development at work within, intertwined with the more obvious space of action, movement and historical events:

“the marker of time here is not ‘real’ historical time (i.e., the resolution of the 1965 political conflict), but a phase of growing, part of a personal experience of the character” (Jump Cut 2007).

While Ambar’s pointed, structure-bending looks into the camera in Tiga Hari are far from the defensive, pleasure-denying glances of Berlian, her gaze, and the maturing awareness of her own position vis-à-vis male desire that it indicates, is perhaps akin to a more grown-up version of Daya. The prominent placement (and smoldering glances) of a Tayub dancer in both films is also instructive in this regard. Paramaditha relates Daya’s aunt, a folk artist whom she idolizes, to a re-visitation and refiguration of this historically prevalent female character type:

“As an erotic Tayub Dancer, Daya’s aunt… represents the prostitute figure that New Order cinema would condemn or save, yet the film provides her agency with her sexuality. Like Berlian, she is not afraid of the male gaze, but instead of looking at men with disgust, she seduces men with her eyes” (2007).

Thus, important elements of the aesthetic, gendered, and socio-historically-based blending of form and content in Pasir Berbisik have been taken up by Riza in Tiga Hari Untuk Selamnya and elsewhere, although both films clearly rely on more broadly recognized genres and styles as vehicles. Tiga Hari also more frequently deploys a “male” gaze (as Suf is normally indicated as the source of the camera’s looks), although it is often either overtly hiding itself, as in Suf’s use of his beach hat, or being exposed for what it “is,” as Ambar directly returns its stare. As Ekky Imanjaya (2009) suggests, in post New Order cinema there has frequently been a backlash against the pseudo-heroic, highly patriarchal bapakism (loosely “fatherism”) of the Suharto era. The effect is something of a role reversal, which can be seen in films such as Pasir Berbisik, Berbagai Suami (Love for Share, dir. Nia Dinata 2005), a comedic exposition of polygamy, and others. (This has also been related by Imanjaya and Paramaditha to the contemporary emergence of a far larger percentage of female directors like Achnas, Dinata, Hakim, and Upi among others). There, according to Imanjaya, “the female characters become stronger, and male characters weaken or are depicted as having negative attitudes” (Jump Cut 2009). Following both films, Tiga Hari might then be seen as pursuing a more even-handed approach, aiming to deconstruct and complicate historically established patterns for both female and male characters, along with their respective gazes.

Shaped and inspired as it is by the context of post-Suharto, Indonesian/ Jakarta-based aesthetics, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya is in some ways both a well thought out, highly critical, key historical text, and an example of the continuing failure of inter-class communication during Reformasi. Its slow pace and highly specific, yet symbolic and obscure set of references make it a challenging puzzle that is beyond the scope of historical understanding of most international festival audiences, and apparently beyond the attention-span limits of most local cinemagoers. As such, it could potentially be read as a reflexive allegory for the small group of New Wave filmmakers whose youthful rebelliousness and high level of education and mobility has led them to a politically progressive yet problematic self-positioning: one that in certain ways relies on the continuing “wholeness” of the very archaic structures of power at which their films take coded aim. Nonetheless, films like Tiga Hari and Pasir Berbisik, despite their poor domestic showings, will have long shelf lives on VCD and DVD (and, increasingly, on international streaming video sites[20]), enabling them, like other works of important filmmakers, to be re-read and re-explored over time.

The films’ purposeful rejection of a smooth “objective” and continuous view, while it may serve to alienate, also diminishes the familiar sense of transcendent separation between filmmakers, text and spectators, and thus leaves an opening for the audience to respond or “talk back” (as some of the blogs I have referenced above demonstrate); even “I’m bored” can be a potentially productive form of engagement. Hopefully this will allow for a continuing process of meaning-construction from the rich collections of historical fragments and clues embedded throughout the narratives of films like Tiga Hari.  Current and future directors, in Indonesia as elsewhere, will continue to re-think, re-formulate and hone the idealized “language of our own,” whether their aim is to connect a series of islands, classes, genders, ethnic groups, or nations.

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