copyright 2011, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 53, summer 2011

Let’s get lost: unmapping history and Reformasi in the Indonesian film Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya

by Dag Yngvesson

From the first frames of the opening sequence of the film Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya (Three Days to Forever, dir. Riri Riza 2007) there is an immediate sense of familiarity that hovers somewhere between nostalgia and déjà vu. This will arguably function quite differently depending on the audience, but as Indonesian viewers and critics have asserted, as have those in the West and elsewhere, the film, particularly early on, presents itself as a, fun, formally typical coming of age adventure. [1] [open endnotes in new window] In it, the two protagonists – a pair of upper-class, cosmopolitan hipster cousins in their late teens – embark on a classic road movie-style journey across the island of Java. The trip, of course, promises to take them, however briefly, out of the formal strictures of family life so that they can stretch, rebel, “find their own path,” and have a little fun on the way before returning to the sanctity of their planned and privileged lives. The film opens by introducing a classic “deadline” structure: Ambar, the female cousin, has missed a plane to her older sister’s wedding in the city of Yogyakarta, and Yusuf, the male, has been charged with rescuing the now-endangered unity of the family, and of the tradition-laden event: he must deliver Ambar, and an important and fragile set of ceremonial dishes that belong to the family, to Yogyakarta before the wedding commences.

Just as the protagonists’ journey is about to begin, however, the film takes a pause, the first of a number of such instances that both emphasize, and establish, a growing tension with the seemingly universal genre conventions that the film deploys. On their way out of Jakarta, the capital city, Yusuf, who is played by Indonesian teen-idol Nicolas Saputra, grabs what has thus far appeared to be a map rolled up on the back seat, ducking into a small bungalow. The interior of the space is filled with late-adolescent, coming-of-age-flick references and symbols: rows of pot plants, reggae-inspired colors (in this case they are applied to a sign advertising Aceh, the area of Sumatra typically known as the heart of Indonesian marijuana production), and a stoner send-up of a Disney/Pixar film poster. The title, “A Bug’s Life” has been switched with “a bak’s lah,” Jakarta slang for “let's get high,” a deceptively complex phrase that is echoed in various moments throughout the film. The bug’s eyes have of course been rendered as droopy and blood-shot. It is moments such as these that appear to justify the complaints of many Indonesian viewers in particular[2] that the film, despite its censor-challenging drug references, presents an über-typical combination of cinematic characters, narrative genre, and cultural references. Western critics looking for alternatives to the dominant, global influence of Hollywood may cringe as well at the specter of a long history of Disney-fied cultural imperialism hovering in the background.

Yet it is precisely here that Tiga Hari’s complex self-positioning within a highly specific Indonesian, Javanese, aesthetic and political landscape begins to take shape. The altered Pixar poster, with all the banal familiarity it brings to the local, can also be read in terms of a literal coming of age for contemporary Indonesian films and their viewers: it brings to mind the prominent placement of the original A Bug's Life logo in the mise-en-scène of an earlier, formulaic-yet-politically-driven teen romance film – Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (“What’s Up With Love” Soedjarwo 2002)a smash hit that was crucial in re-establishing the popularity of Indonesian cinema with Hollywood-saturated local audiences. That film, produced by Riri Riza  and also starring Nicolas Saputra and co-starring Adiniya Wirasti (who plays Ambar in Tiga Hari), focused on the entanglement of group of clean cut, wholesome-seeming upper class teens in the lingering sociopolitical problems associated with the regime of the recently deposed dictator, Suharto (1967-1998). After showing its critical teeth, however, the film ends on an ostensibly happy note, in which the spunky, talented younger generation it depicts seems poised to overcome the nation’s dark history (about which more later), that had just begun to enter into the teens’ burgeoning self-awareness.

By placing two of the same iconic actors, now visibly older than fifteen, in roles with similar geographic (Jakarta) and class backgrounds, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya effects a local sense of continuity that is potentially troubling in its response to the passing of time: it presents a second, post-high school coming of age in which things have changed, but not necessarily progressed as planned. The modified poster, then, and the altered lifestyles and mind-states of the protagonists in Tiga Hari on one level announce the erosion of a previously-heady sense of confidence in the young to become true agents of political and social development. The comfort emanating from the film’s warm, familiar imagery appears to rely on the lingering, subsidized stability of upper-class privilege associated with the long dictatorship of the recent past: the active, enthusiastic filmic youngsters of 2002 have now retreated into a decadent, “generic” stasis, reflected in Tiga Hari’s employment of a stoney, slowed-down version of an established formula combining star-power with ever-popular themes. Despite its celebratory, quasi-rebellious teen spirit, then, as Indonesian film analyst Ekky Imanjaya argues, Tiga Hari’s leisurely, rambling journey is haunted by the possibility of permanent stillness: the constant proximity of death (Imanjaya, multiply.com).

Seen in this light, the film’s pointed glances at the eternally common details of its mise-en-scène reveal them to be sparkling with the uncanny, as if attached to a series of heretofore unrecognized memories that reach out through the film’s deceptively flat, generic representations of the present. The protagonists’ first stop at the pot-infused bungalow also signals a potential point of departure on a “bad trip,” in which the comforting meanings attached to the known, inseparable from the current status quo, are destabilized and left behind. Thus, what had appeared to be a map (it turns out to be a map of sorts: a blueprint) is quickly handed off to “Edwina,” the bungalow’s sole occupant and Yusuf’s dealer and fellow architecture student, played by omnipresent comedian Ringgo Agus Rahman. A typical stoner side-kick in a Rolling Stones t-shirt who sits picking his nose in front of the TV, he exchanges Yusuf’s neatly laid out plans and structural drawings for a lid of weed, closing the deal with what appears to be a self-consciously stiff and clichéd series of high-fives.

The moment, which officially kicks off the film’s departure for the Road, also inaugurates what is arguably its most important theme: the surreptitious linking of the alteration of everyday consciousness, with or without the aid of drugs, and the rejection of historically dominant forms of navigation and knowing – whether in the form of a map, a series of genre-conventions, or state policies that enforce historical amnesia. As I will elaborate further below, it is at this level that I locate the film’s subversive approach to popular form, and coded, yet pointed, intervention into a long, detailed, and fraught history of local and national expression in the twentieth century. To this end, I engage the mostly literal interpretations of Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya (road trip; teen romance; the transformative escapade of two, privileged, stoned, Javanese, Westernized, Muslim cousins who inevitably end up sleeping together) as a valid point of departure for a closer reading that excavates the symbolic and allegorical meanings which give the film its potential political force.

My reading of the film will entail placing it at the intersection of a number of sociocultural, economic, and historical currents, many of them reaching far beyond the geographical limits of island or nation. My goal, however, will be to highlight the ways in which such currents are seen and interpreted from a perspective that is, at least in part, oriented by a positioning on the ground of the “local.” My selection of this film in particular is based on a long-term interest in the history and politics of Indonesia, and in the prominent, often violently dominant role played by various Java-based discourses in the attempt imbue the troublesome, impossibly varied archipelago with a unified sense of political and cultural identity. (Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya and a majority of other “Indonesian” films are set in Java, and, more often than not, in the capital city, Jakarta, where most are also produced). As both a filmmaker and critic, I am inspired by the ability of Riza and certain other local directors (and production teams) to engage with sensitive, delicate, and controversial themes in films that toe the line, in provocative ways, between populism and high art, commercial success and political activism. To begin with, however, in light of the little-known status of Indonesian film history among most audiences outside of Indonesia, I will provide some contextual background.

As a contemporary cinematic text, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya is a product of the rapidly-expanding “Indonesian New Wave,” a movement which began roughly a decade ago with the release of the independent, collectively produced film Kuldesak (Achnas, Lesmana, Mantovani, Riza 1998) (Sen 2006). Fittingly, the New Wave was conceived amidst the decay of Indonesia’s 30-year dictatorship under President Suharto, whose authoritarian, Western-friendly regime was finally brought to a close by the Asian Financial Crisis, forcing him to step down amidst massive protests in 1998. The same year, the small group of young, wealthy, and idealistic film school graduates loosely based around the production of Kuldesak began turning out films that both sought to challenge the dominance of Hollywood imports at the local box office, and to inspire frank, populist discussion of the state of the nation after its much-heralded turn to more representative government. In the best cases, such as the afore-mentioned Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, the expanding New Wave has produced well-crafted, mainstream genre films that have won the attention of larger audiences while simultaneously offering glimpses into the darker legacies of the recent past. However, although they have exposed some of the ripples and depressions in the uneven veneer of democracy that has characterized Indonesia’s post-Suharto, “Reformasi, era, the national feeling expressed in many of the films is one of cautious optimism: progress and real change seem just around the corner.

Released in 2007, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya can thus be seen as a product of the current moment in Indonesia, a time particularly haunted by the continuing illusiveness of promised change and by the unfinished task of examining – and exorcising – the complex demons of national history and their myriad, ongoing links to the broader sphere of geopolitics. In the national context (the film’s main audience base is a national one), in light of Java’s longstanding self-imposition as the political and cultural centerpiece of the Indonesian archipelago, Tiga Hari can certainly be seen as continuing some of the problematic aspects of its predecessors: it engages both local and global discourses from a critical, but nonetheless narrowly proscribed, hegemonic position that has traditionally been aligned with the Indonesian state and those whom its policies empower. However, I will argue that the film, both in its visual style and narrative development, simultaneously attempts to undermine and destabilize the broadly understandable, and profitable, sense of Javanese, Indonesian, or cosmopolitan/ transnational “normality” that has characterized cinema in the reformasi period. Driven by the protagonists’ boredom and the sense of near-meaninglessness of narrative attempts at forward movement or alteration of the status quo, the film has a vastly different feel than most of its New Wave predecessors, despite its obvious similarities with earlier works.

Drawing on popular modes of expression, like romance and travelogue, that echo their ubiquitous deployment in the present – and in more overtly state-glorifying ways during the Suharto past – Tiga Hari ultimately works to unravel the naturalized authority of such mainstream genres. While it begins, as explained above, by offering what seems to be just such a recognizable structure and star-studded story, as the dismissal of the formal blueprint/map in the early stoner scene suggests, it quickly strays from its well-trodden path. Through a series of subsequent stumbles, hesitations, and apparently chance encounters, it finally comes to a stop in the middle of its own narrative trajectory, alienating itself from the expectations associated with its initial, promissory deployment of form. Mimicking contemporary political and aesthetic stasis in order to challenge it, director Riri Riza (with screenwriter Sinar Ayu Massie) essentially place their protagonists in a worn-out, re-hashed and stalled genre pic that they must find their way out of. In so doing, they create the impression of a search for a deeper level of meaning or experience beneath the film’s own sketchily rendered slickness. The terms of the search are not stated, however, but revealed by the protagonists’ apparent blunders, as Yusuf and Ambar collide with the formal, sociopolitical, and physical limitations on theirs and others’ movement within the film’s diegetic world. Although they occupy a traditionally privileged, transcendent position, here, this is precisely what blocks their ability to engage with the fullness of experience that resides outside their highly constructed, typical upper-class Javanese “movie-lives” (and just beyond the glass, metal and rubber structure of their car).

Despite Tiga Hari’s visible struggles with the enabling, limiting status of class and form, however, it offers little in the way of either literal resolutions or larger, concrete allegorical solutions. Rather, it works slowly, on an intricate, piece by piece basis to construct something like a methodological approach, revealing the present historical moment to be full of shifting, gleaming shards of a “vanished” past, and suggesting places to look for those who might become inclined to start digging. The meaning located by such a method could, depending on the stakes of the viewer, be microscopically subjective and read-larger at the level of village, city, island, or, of course, “nation.”

As I hope to show, this approach implicitly takes aim at a number of the lingering structural paradigms put in place by the Suharto regime. In its reference to mobility and travel in particular, it engages the state’s longstanding use of an idealized “tourist” aesthetic to transform the nation into a well-ordered, easily readable, series of points – a populist narrative – that has been broadly figured (and enforced) as constitutive of a kind of default National Character. Re-entering this discourse, or rather showing that Indonesia continues to be immersed in it, Tiga Hari gradually chips away at the ubiquitous, reified conceptions of tradition and modernity in which it initially appears to traffic. In order to engage with Tiga Hari’s static, contemporary narrative space, which I argue is heavily freighted with the events and policies of Suharto’s prolonged dictatorship, it is thus necessary to include a brief but pointed exposition of the recent past. As a number of critics and historians have demonstrated [3], many of the failures of reformasi are intimately, if for the most part unspokenly, tied to the historical events of the latter half of the twentieth century.

1965 and the rise of the New Order

The heavy-handed tone of Suharto’s authoritarian rule was set from its very beginnings, in particular by a scene of terror and bloodshed that in many ways constituted a second, far more deadly “re-birth” of the newly independent nation. After a decade of political and economic uncertainty under Sukarno (Indonesia’s first president 1945-1967), during which the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had rapidly expanded to become the third largest in the world, then-General Suharto, a staunch anti-communist, seized a chance opportunity to intervene: using the mass media, he accused the PKI of masterminding an attempted coup d'état that occurred on October first, 1965. (The accusation has since been shown to be a gross oversimplification: the action, ostensibly aimed at pre-empting an attack on Sukarno, was secretly planned by two members of the PKI in collaboration with a few Sukarnoist members of the military, unbeknownst to much of the PKI leadership) (Roosa 2006).  While the oddly disorganized movement was quickly foiled and caused relatively little damage or instability, it did claim the lives of several Army Generals. Based on this news, a story was rapidly concocted and disseminated in which the Indonesian communists figured as bloodthirsty radicals bent on mass murder.

In “response” to this perceived threat and the apparent national state of emergency, Suharto claimed special powers for the military, effectively sidelining Sukarno. Wasting no time, Suharto quickly ordered a “pre-emptive” strike, sending the army on a wave of killing across Java, Bali, and Sumatra, wiping out the unarmed and unprepared PKI, from leadership to rank and file. Amidst the atmosphere of suspicion, chaos, and terror this created, villagers and officials alike were hurriedly rounded up as lists of “subversives” were compiled by local, military-friendly contacts. “Communist” quickly became a blanket-term, deployed to justify the rapid elimination of not only the PKI, but much of the pro-Sukarno or pro-left opposition. As Suharto’s power grew (he officially became president in 1967, but had for all intents and purposes been running the country since early 1966), many village officials, neighbors, and sometimes even family members suddenly turned informant or joined militias, re-mapping local conflicts onto the rather arbitrary, Cold War-inspired line now drawn across the nation: by accusing a former rival of association with the “left,” one might position oneself safely on the “right,” causing one’s enemies to literally disappear into the ground.[4]

The result of the actions of Suharto and the military was the so-called New Order regime, essentially founded on the murders, over the course of a few months, of 500,000-1,000,000 of its own citizens. Victims of the killings were most often thrown into mass graves or riverbeds, where their bodies would be washed out to sea. In this context, if not for the extreme measures immediately taken by the military/emerging state to control and suppress information — particularly any accounts of recent history that might hint at the actual numbers of dead, or suggest the military’s actions to have been anything but necessary and heroic — the New Order would likely have found itself unable to justify its own assumption of power.

This left the government with a rather paradoxical problem of time. In order for the nation — the harmonious, unified and communist-free Indonesia envisioned by the New Order — to claim itself fully realized as such, the state would always have to return to its point of origin and obscure the violent nature of its break with the past, covering the steps it had taken to remove the purported communist “enemy within.” Thus, throughout Suharto’s reign, state narratives, national monuments and commemorations, and official histories continually revisited the events of 1965, hovering, dancing, or marching around the truth of the New Order’s ascent so as to ensure that it remained obscured by a veil of state rhetoric and otherwise off-limits to public discussion. This incessant zeroing out of national time, meant to remind citizens of their need for the state’s protection, was accompanied by official policies that effectively extended the originary myth of the threat of communism into eternity. As historian John Roosa argues, “the regime could not allow communism to die because it defined itself in dialectical relationship with it or, to put it more precisely, the simulacrum of it” (2006 13). Even now, over a decade after the fall of Suharto, large, official banners warning of the dangers of “latent communism” are a frequent sight in many cities.

In significant ways, then, the New Order government’s “prolific cultural terrorism” (Heryanto 1999 148) kept the nation in a state of temporal and ideological flux, always on high alert against the fabled return of a repressed“inner left” that could purportedly attack at any moment, re-immersing the country into the real chaos of the past. The state’s ongoing and ever-vigilant monitoring and control of the public was thus at some level always a veiled warning that if provoked, it could strike again with impunity and on a massive scale. The New Order’s manipulation of history, collective memory, and time, while never seamless or absolutely definitive of citizens’ experience, nonetheless constituted a massive, well-coordinated, and pervasive influence on behavior and experience. What Krishna Sen (1993, 1994, 2006) refers to as the state’s “turn inward” post-1965 in an important sense also constituted a turn to the media, attempting to police the “orderedness” of the nation as conceived through a series of representations. According to this plan, the ministries of information, culture and education offered citizens multiple exhibits of the past and of “themselves” — ideal, unrealizable models for history and citizenship, filmmaking and reporting, cultural identity and artistic practice — meant to be studied and mimicked, but never changed or exceeded.

As a cautiously self-conscious product of this history, Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya sets out to chronicle the experiences of two late/post-adolescents who could be thought of as among the most unscathed inheritors of the hushed legacy of violence and dictatorship: those whose families’ historical alignment with Suharto’s political and economic machinery has served them very well.  As mentioned earlier, within the spectrum of New Wave movie characters, the duo are anything but unique: Yusuf, or, simply “Suf,” is the thoughtful, reserved, responsible, yet curious nice-guy who studies architecture at the University of Indonesia (this does not, in the context of the film, preclude his possession and use of marijuana noted earlier).[5] Ambar is a “Westernized” young woman whose recreational use of various drugs and active social and sex life provide escape from the strictures of parents and family, which, particularly in regards to gender, she has long found unreasonable and confining. While they are first cousins from an elite, extended family, the film makes clear that Ambar has grown up accustomed to a far more opulent lifestyle than the more economically and socially cautious Suf.

As a road movie or indeed a kind of travelogue, Tiga Hari begins in Jakarta, the capital city and the site (since Dutch times) of the government’s centralized control of media and representation, as well as of most other matters. In the present it is a modern, sprawling megalopolis with a population of well over 10 million. The film also takes as a point of departure one of the idealized, structural models for Indonesian society: the extended, patriarchal Javanese family. After a deceptively sunny, warm, and touristy credit sequence that establishes both the rural landscape in which much of the film takes place and the vehicles, cinematic and actual, that will bear the protagonists into it, the first scene opens during a large family gathering in the capital. The occasion is a pre-celebration for Ambar’s older sister’s wedding, which will take place a few days later roughly 450 kilometers to the East in the Central Javanese city of Yogyakarta. The location chosen for the marriage (and thus for the final destination of the cousins’ trip), like much of the film’s structure and mise en scène, calls on an ultra-familiar element of Indonesian national identity and official discourse; one that is, like many others, based on the historical/political centrality of Java. Built around the ancient palace of the most powerful, pre-colonial Sultanate, Yogyakarta (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the neighboring kingdom of Surakarta) has long been considered the heartland of Javanese culture, the source of the once-imperial Javanese kings’ legendary power. Given the particular emphasis Suharto placed on the importance of Indonesia’s “living” (yet purportedly unaltered since time immemorial) traditions, the presence of an elaborate ceremony in Yogyakarta as the film’s projected conclusion calls to mind a figurative journey, typical in Indonesian public discourse, between the geographically, politically, and ethnically defined tropes of modernity and tradition.

Not surprisingly, then, this is just what the family aims to do: take the one hour flight from Jakarta to Yogya (dozens of which depart daily), during which the vast, and somewhat less fabled expanses of Western and Central Java are collapsed into a brief, cartographic view from the airplane window, punctuated by a few smoking volcanoes. The two protagonists, of course, have been given an alternate directive: Suf, the family’s hardworking, trustworthy young man, is charged by his Aunt (Ambar’s mother, played by Tutie Kirana, a well-known Indonesian actress from the 1970s) with safely delivering a delicate set of porcelain plates and cutlery, which, as she explains, has been passed down through multiple generations and is always used in the weddings of young women in the family. The dishes — as a central, symbolic component marking the family’s stature and privileged historical lineage and connecting them ceremonially to the family into which their daughter will marry — must be preserved at all cost. Suf’s aunt worries that the precious china might break if checked on the flight, and thus entrusts him with driving the plates, in their custom-made, protective travel case, and ensuring their arrival at the ceremony on time and in one piece. That night, Suf’s father gives him explicit instructions for the trip: stick to the most direct route along the relatively straight contours of the island’s coast. Suf is then ordered to bed early, and reminded sternly that he must not disappoint the family. The opening of the narrative thus sets up a social context that viewers, especially Indonesian ones, might find unremarkable, including a spouse from a good background, a supposedly quick, uneventful trip across Java, and a properly traditional wedding in Yogyakarta with the dishes on prominent display.

Despite his best intentions, however, Suf is immediately drawn off course, as if by a Siren song. While nodding dutifully at his father’s speech, he receives a text message from Ambar reading “Mabuk, Yuk,” a slang phrase that in Indonesian carries a double meaning: “Let’s get drunk,” and, perhaps more important, “Let’s get lost.” With an inviting smile, Ambar appears before Suf, apparently in need of a sympathetic companion with whom to make a quick escape from the family gathering. For her in particular, the pre-wedding party serves to mark the beginning of a process in which history must repeat itself: Ambar, like her older sister, will soon be expected to follow “orders” and get married. Resisting the apparent inevitability of a future so closely defined by the past, the cousins take a brief interlude into the space of a Jakarta club, which succeeds in altering perception and slowing time, stretching night into early morning. The result, predictably, is that both oversleep and Ambar misses her plane. Consequently, Suf acquires an additional responsibility: he must now deliver the bride’s errant younger sister, whose presence — along with the dishes — will serve to verify the enduring intactness of both tradition and of the family unit itself.

As the responses of viewers and critics suggest, the cinematic invocation of a ubiquitous mode of youth rebellion — a challenge to the strictures and structured time of family and society — may strike a variety of audiences as unremarkable (save for the Western reviewers who predictably comment on the apparent novelty of this discourse appearing in cinema from “the worlds most populous Muslim nation”). [6] Yet as it progresses, the film attempts to undermine and question both the social standards challenged by the cousins’ youthful hijinx, as well as the potentially decadent youthful standards of sex, drugs, techno, and generational conflict as a response to authority in itself. (This is not to say, however, that in presenting such activities as relatively commonplace, the film is not still pushing understandings of what constitutes acceptable behavior among young Indonesians, but rather that modes and contexts of such challenges are called into question). In this sense, the film does not truly get going until it can slow down and stretch a bit, having temporarily evaded the formalized boundaries of both time-honored rituals and “wild” parties.

This change is also signaled by the film’s shifting adherence to and adaptations of genre and style. As I will explain in greater detail below, there are four, fairly clearly delineated “holes” in the readable continuity of the film’s formal structure, each of which indicate the symptomatic emergence of unconscious desires that subvert the film’s pre-established goals and genre-based narrative economy. Its apparently smooth “surface,” then, could be viewed as having been set up precisely to be cracked: in both the initial family gathering and club scene, the mise-en-scène exudes a certain blandness, almost a mediocrity. It is not in the acting, which is consistently plausible and expressive, but rather in the settings themselves. They seem like mechanical overviews or collections of just what a viewer (in this case a posited, “glocal” viewer) might expect to find in each situation, from nostalgic aunts bearing old porcelain to sassy daughters to cigar-smoking, golf-playing uncles to a DJ excitedly pumping his fist in time to a monotonous techno track. Building a similar sense of hyper-normality, in the mise-en-scène directly preceding and following these scenes, the opening sequence and the cousins’ initial foray into the empty sprawl of West Java also employ a static, unexciting take on roads and travelogue, the former being accompanied by a happy, acoustic guitar-driven ditty with lyrics in accented English.

This extremely “generic” set up, however, appears to be a calculated strategy (albeit one that may have cost the film a certain amount of critical and audience acclaim), giving the film a formal starting point from which to subsequently distance itself. Thus, as Suf and Ambar leave the confines of Jakarta, the imagery soon becomes so bland as to appear oddly nondescript and as such begins subtly to draw attention to itself. As we briefly land in another youth-filled party in the city of Bandung, filled with a fluent combination of commercial and “countercultural” elements (hipsters, thick smoke, Iggy Pop posters and t-shirts on sales racks bearing the logo of The Clash – by day the space is used for retail), the film indicates the emergence of the first structural hole: here, it begins to softly stutter, as if surreptitiously trying to break with its own overly-practiced continuity. As extras walk through the frame, they direct their glances into the camera seemingly questioning its presence, foregrounding the technical apparatus. Later, as the camera takes on Suf’s perception of the scene, it mimics his inebriation, eventually finding itself lying sideways on a bench. The entrance of the first “hole” then comes just as the film itself seems to be passing out: the screen suddenly cuts to black and for a few seconds, the soundtrack is totally silent, as if there were simply a gap in the cinematic text’s material base. The first instance of this technique, instituting an obvious cut, signals something of a new beginning, or a least a more concerted pattern of attempts to break form with that which has come before.

After leaving behind the carefully mapped-out ideological, geographic, and countercultural points of reference indicating where its protagonists should belong (according to their class, age, and status as teen-idols) the film begins to open up. While still a bit stoned, it lazily yet steadily pulls at its own bland deployment of convention until its sense of direction unravels, and we end up in less familiar territory. Arguably, its themes and slow pacing, compared by some Indonesian bloggers to the Mexican film Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001 Cuarón),[7] would still seem to place Tiga Hari fairly comfortably within the global, festival-oriented discourse of independent counter-cinema, where, along with “slow” movies from other non-Western parts of the world, it has generally been treated to a warm reception.[8] Tiga Hari was indeed produced in part with festival-linked funding from Europe and elsewhere,[9] and the technique of slowing its pacing and stretching its narrative and genre conventions, presumably a big part of the film’s global indie credibility, must then be seen as one of the economic conditions of its existence.

Yet the resulting temporal and geographic space opened within the film’s diegesis nonetheless functions to foreground a wealth of smaller details whose meanings are far more resistant to universalization, and whose historical context is far less well-known internationally than that of many of the festival hits from places like China, India, Hong Kong, or Mexico. I will argue that these pointed, albeit often briefly flashing elements perform the crucial task of (re)attaching the film’s economies of narrative and desire to a set of local, national and personal discourses that are firmly rooted in the experience of contemporary, Javanese youth (and, by extension, various other groups of young Indonesians who watch the glut of local films made in and on Java and Jakarta). At stake in particular is a widespread hesitancy toward genuine engagement; not only with families, peers, and other classes, but, perhaps more important, with the actual “contents” of Indonesian history of the last half-century.[10]

Aesthetic and formal ground: the travelogue as vehicle

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).[11]

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:
the New Order, melodrama, and the “turn inward”

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 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.[12] 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.

Following 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”[13] 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.

At first, like the initial foray into the Jakarta nightclub, Tiga Hari’s narrative stalls and stops are motivated by Ambar’s conscious desire to undermine the steady pull of their destination: the wedding. The earlier diversions, then, function as a kind of deconstructive exposition of what constitutes her world, usually from Suf’s less experienced yet fascinated perspective. But the initial club and party scenes that provide a more literal unpacking of the decadent, status-dependent nature of the youth “underground” serve primarily as a gloss on the film’s cosmopolitan points of departure. While the scenes are arguably a serious element conveying part of the film’s message (as is Ambar’s rant against her parents’ double standards in regards to gender), more important still, they function as a gateway to the film’s brushes with the rural nether-regions of the landscape, and with that which appears, symptom-like, from the psychic depths of the outwardly normal protagonists. We are thus subtly made ready for a shift: as the cousins enter the second party space (known as a distro) in the city of Bandung, themes in the dialog roughly mirror the tension between the film’s previous formal adherence to established convention and the initial deconstructive looks into the camera that lead to the first, jarring cut to black/hole. Everyone in the distro seems either obsessed with the newest and hippest methods of mediating perception and experience (employing various types of drugs), or alternately regretful and nostalgic for the lost ideal of pure immediacy. “Elvis,” an indie-rock singer and Ambar’s local fling, plies her with extravagant sounding pills — “This one is better than Red Ferrari.” He simultaneously proffers access to an exoticized, yet typically Indonesian excursion, inviting her to come along on a trip he’s planning to the island of Bali, where they can lounge, naked and undisturbed, on the beach attached to a private, $400-per-night-and-up hotel.

Suf, on the other hand, left to his own devices, happens on a misty-eyed member of Elvis’ band who laments the lack of an immediate, “spontaneous effect” in his new, expensive, and highly sought-after guitar. Clearly the less-experienced odd-man-out in this situation, Suf’s trusted, eye-contact-mediating “party hat” (introduced in the previous club scene) seems insufficient protection here. Instead, he attempts to go native by indulging in a variety of smoke-spewing, mind-altering devices. (While drugs in general are of course not unfamiliar to him, those he is offered here seem to be of a different strain than the weed he regularly carries). Finally, after putting his lips to a massive bong of carved horn, he simply passes out, triggering the camera to do the same, resulting in the cut to black. Rising later, dream-like from his drug-induced slumber, he finds himself staring at Ambar through the half-open door to Elvis’ room. As if sensing the distant yet piercing look, she turns her head, and, looking directly into the camera, finally seems to read the presence of desire. As they lock eyes, a degree of separation is lost, and an actual step forward in the film’s “romantic” narrative is begun: Ambar wakes before dawn, suddenly restless with Elvis and his idyllic promises. She pulls Suf with her and makes a swift exit, this time apparently from the confines of her own beloved escapism.

Already a day late for their planned arrival, their departure into the still-dark city carries a certain urgency, yet as they wind through side streets past night markets and food sellers, eventually entering the vast sprawl of rural West Java, the landscape, its inhabitants, and its crisscrossing roads appear indifferent to the schedules of outside travelers. For example, as the two request the most direct route to Yogyakarta from an older couple at whose food stall they have stopped for breakfast, Suf and Ambar are instead party to a lengthy squabble between the man and his wife, who seem to have had little occasion to travel so far. The older couple’s loudly-aired marital issues, while providing a source of rather class-stereotyped amusement, ultimately leave the two travelers ignored and none the wiser in terms of directions: they are no longer in familiar territory. Lighting up a joint as they leave, Ambar retreats to the path she knows best, running above the fray and between isolated points of privilege and security. Deftly circumnavigating a police checkpoint, she lands them comfortably in front of a pool of hot, mineral water at an upscale, countryside spa. The setting, however, still places them in far closer contact with the surrounding landscape than the interior locations of club, distro, and car.

Peering at the semi-submerged, underwear-clad Ambar at the far side of the pool, Suf is suddenly wracked with an odd, insistent series of hiccups. It is almost as if, after immersing himself in hot water that has barely escaped the churning, invisible depths of the earth, something of his own, innermost, unconscious elements begin to make their way, spontaneous and symptom-like, to the surface of awareness. When Ambar approaches him, it only worsens matters, and Suf, caught without the protection of his hat, attempts to cover the emergence of the unexpected by invoking a tried and true form of knowing: he launches into a mini-lecture on the extreme population density of West Java. His words form something of a counter-narrative to the luxurious sparseness of the space in which they are sitting, shielding them from the intrusions of family, authorities and impoverished, misdirecting masses. Yet the attempted serious tone of Suf’s statistical analysis of Java quickly realizes itself as a joke, provoking only stoned laughter in both parties as it envelopes them, this time together, in another easy, protective layer.

At this point, the film takes on its closest approximation of an idyllic travelogue, inserting a lazy, extra-diegetic, reggae-inspired tune underneath the trip’s first real panoramas, finally giving in to a bird’s eye view, which reveals vast open spaces filled with sunny, green rice fields and few cars or people. In this context, being a bit lost seems inviting and desirable; anyhow, Ambar is soon given a map by a friendly shop owner, who oddly refuses to take her money. With it, Suf immediately sees where he went wrong, and the couple sets off again. These formal assurances, however, soon ring as false as Suf’s dope-infused statistical quips. Inside the car, the cracked specter of the disco ball continues to sparkle suggestively as if mimicking the passing landscape, which fills the windows with a fragmented outer reality ever more haunted by the presence of mortality, and of vanished, forgotten lives: half-finished structures, barren mosques and over-grown graveyards. Building on the thematic of the hot spring, the gaps and holes revealed in the earth’s surface now signal the ever-present threat of its unseen contents suddenly spewing forth and leveling everything in their path (not an uncommon occurrence in seismically hyper-active Indonesia). The car’s radio announces the impending eruption of Mt. Merapi, the notorious volcano that marks the geographic and spiritual center of Java as well as the final destination of the trip. As if in response, the film again veers away from its stated path — maps, destinations, and deadline structures be damned — coming to rest somewhere around its geographical halfway mark. Stylistically, it suddenly takes a turn toward something like magic realism, placing the protagonists in a series of increasingly dream-like scenes, bringing them into far closer proximity with the “oddities” of the local landscape and rural milieu. 

(Re)turn inward: the past within the present

Pulled to a stop at a beachside shack somewhere between Jakarta and Central Java, Suf and Ambar are struck by an uncanny feeling of familiarity. Fumbling for the right word, they simultaneously blurt out mystis, or mystical, a term that Ariel Heryanto has linked to New Order representations of certain traditional Javanese practices, particularly those involving folk dance (and thus not associated with the refined palace arts of Yogyakarta or Surakarta) which were officially viewed as “tainted by mysticism, backwardness, and sexual promiscuity” (2008 24).  As if on cue, a Javanese Tayub dancer appears on the beach with a small troupe of musicians and an appreciative group of dancing partners who place money in the folds of her clothing. (Tayub is a popular local dance form with pre-Islamic roots, usually featuring a female dancer who performs for a group of mostly-male onlookers whom she invites to join in the dance — in certain contexts it has been linked with prostitution) (Larasati forthcoming). Suf, who was shown urinating in an earlier scene, just as the film began to veer completely off course the first time, here relieves himself again in the sand. No sooner has he zipped his pants and turned around than he begins moving slowly toward the dancer, as if pulled by an unseen force. He appears totally entranced by her slow, confident movements and piercing gaze, which, like Ambar’s earlier, is aimed directly into the camera. Seeing his blankly staring face moving slowly across the beach, Ambar herself is moved to interfere, gently anchoring Suf at a safe distance from the other woman.

The experience, while intimately tied to familiar, “quaint” elements of local history, nonetheless exceeds the ability to discern what is really happening, and thus seems impossible to contain within the simple backwardness suggested by the concept of mystis. Instead, via Suf, the exchange of glances appears to touch a point somewhere deep inside the lived present, structurally mirroring his voyeuristic fascination with the power of Ambar’s modern, “Westernized” movements. The connection is made clearer still as Ambar falls asleep in the car, and Suf’s eyes linger on her own opportunely exposed legs. Still dazed and repeatedly looking away from the road, Suf unknowingly circles back to the site of his encounter with desire: after driving for what seems like hours, he looks out the window, only to see the very same Tayub troupe, as if just leaving the beach on foot. The film, following the dancer’s continuity-challenging glances, begins again to visually, stylistically stutter and formally decompose, this time with white camera flashes underlining a series of jump cuts that mirror Suf’s interrupted state of consciousness. With Ambar still sleeping beside him, he suddenly skids to a stop and receives something like a vision: in front of the car, a pig, an elephant, and then a tiger emerge in sequence from the bushes, and then disappear after crossing the road. Symbolically, the elephant could be associated with the might of Java’s pre-colonial (and pre-Indonesia) past, while the tiger appears to be a warning for the future. A Javanese filmmaker friend speculated that the pig was meant to symbolize the notoriously corrupt Suharto, as swine often stand for excessive greed.

The next scene appears to support this thesis, as it opens with a portrait of the former dictator, still hanging on the wall behind Pak Haji Satimo (played by the well-known comedian Tarzan), the owner of a small, “homestay” inn where Suf and Ambar — now sleepy, confused, and thoroughly lost — find themselves seeking a bed for the night. The title Haji is an honorific given to those who have completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and it is meant to signify piety, altruistic leadership and privileged status in the context of local Islam. Often enough, it also indicates a successful local businessman: even with government subsidies, the trip to Saudi Arabia is not cheap. Pak Satimo indeed appears to embody the “business-end” of religiosity (although on a rural, decidedly un-opulent scale), echoing that of Suharto, whose calculated bouts of piety have often been seen as driven by his need to shore up support from Islamic groups when his power or influence was flagging elsewhere (Heryanto 11-15). (Suharto is also originally from a small Javanese village). Pak Satimo’s good standing as a Haji is thus sharply, although perhaps not surprisingly, contrasted with a complete lack of generosity toward his guests. If he is in fact at some level a stand in for Suhartoist values, his open practice of polygamy, which he describes to a captive Suf with sleazy, breathless pleasure, would seem to point to one of the many unexpected side effects of the loosening of certain social and political strictures after Reformasi.[14]

The main point (particularly with local viewers in mind) in the inclusion of Pak Haji Satimo’s character, however, would seem to exceed a mere reference to the lingering influence of Suharto (nor is he played, like Elvis, the arguing couple, or certain other peripheral characters, as a one dimensional “straw man”). When taken together with his wives and apparently altruistic teenage son, Pak Satimo’s lack of any truly damning flaws with which to pin him down, lends him a potentially unsettling humanity. For Suf, Satimo’s “aberrant” staring at the sleeping Ambar’s exposed legs provides an obvious link to himself. Ambar as well, listening through the thin walls of the room to the loud, insatiable rhythm of Satimo’s late-night activities with his various wives, actually seems attracted by the audio spectacle, much to her own horror. Having stopped at Satimo’s for the night has also unexpectedly placed the cousins together in a single room. Along with eliciting a few more desire-ridden hiccups from Suf, the sleeping arrangement brings the revelation that Ambar has packed (and thus obviously kept for many years) the sarong that Suf wore during the healing process after his circumcision; “the silent witness to my suffering” as he calls it. (Circumcision is an important marker of adulthood that in Java normally takes place between the ages of 11-13).

The episode at Pak Satimo’s homestay has thus not only taken the two protagonists through another step “forward” in the realization and potential consummation of their desires for each other, but it has linked their arrival at this particular point in the present to a number of “uncomfortable,” and outright painful, elements of the past. The events, changes and tendencies evoked — both individual and collective — are linked to the psychic and material marks they have left on the cousins, on the surrounding landscape, and on its “peripheral” characters. The narrative step itself, like those preceding it, is once again marked by Ambar’s looking into the camera. The episode at Pak Satimo’s homestay has thus not only taken the two protagonists through another step “forward” in the realization and potential consummation of their desires for each other, but it has linked their arrival at this particular point in the present to a number of “uncomfortable,” and outright painful, elements of the past. The events, changes and tendencies evoked — both individual and collective — are linked to the psychic and material marks they have left on the cousins, on the surrounding landscape, and on its “peripheral” characters. The narrative step itself, like those preceding it, is once again marked by Ambar’s looking into the camera. Here, however, she faces away from Suf, who sleeps; the closeness of the entire scene — the small, dirty room, the lack of privacy or separation from either history or the “masses” it has produced — brings a sense of claustrophobia and, particularly in Ambar, open disgust.

Her extreme discomfort at the sudden proximity of things normally separated by rigid layers of class, mobility, and state-produced knowledge is thus turned onto the closest possible thing: Suf. Feeling put upon and immobilized (the car temporarily disappears at the hands of Pak Satimo, although the dishes remain) she blames Suf’s flagging sense of direction and unflagging, “un-manly” Javanese politeness in negotiating their exchanges with the locals for stranding them in what truly seems like the middle of nowhere. To Ambar, Suf has come to seem both overly flexible and rigidly overdetermined, a spineless traditionalist like the relatives waiting for them in Yogyakarta. Her intolerance and lengthy berating of him, however, finally provoke a rise in Suf, and the scene in the car becomes furiously polarized, as he in turn accuses Ambar of being spoiled, judgmental, and, in effect, dictatorial. If their trip so far has loosened up restraints on the desire to connect, know, and understand more deeply, it has now unearthed an unwanted layer of fraught historical baggage, sparking a crisis of understanding followed by a violent struggle for dominance.

As what had begun to seem like the film’s real narrative goal, romance, is now also subjected to deconstruction (here the white flashes produced by the disco ball in the sides of the frame mimic previous structural stutterings). The stakes of a clash between two opposed, yet powerful, ideological positions are projected, in allegorically expandable terms, in the windows of the car. The audience’s view, however, is temporarily separated from that of the protagonists as we are shown a member of the rakyat kecil (the poor or literally “small people”), unseen by Ambar or Suf, leaping out of the way so as to avoid being rundown by the arguing cousins’ speeding Peugeot. With Ambar at the wheel, the car blazes its own path through the landscape, weaving through trucks, people and horse-drawn carriages at high speed. Not until a scene of carnage suddenly opens in front of the two youths are they forced to rein in their velocity and compelled, once again, to look. Just outside the window, several bloody corpses are laid out at the feet of a crowd of shouting villagers, covered only in newspaper. The smashed vehicles that would indicate a traffic accident as the cause of their demise are absent, appearing only as an invisible counterweight to a rope, which stretches below the line of vision defined by the roadside. Finally shaken by the literal appearance of death just outside the car, the cousins’ anger turns to grief, the gory images inspiring a somber introspection, particularly in Ambar. Is she to blame for the inherited position of privilege she occupies? The moment produces from both protagonists a silent commitment to follow the journey’s inward spiral to its potentially uncomfortable, transgressive conclusion, away from imposed familial, cultural, and personal boundaries. Desire and romance, such as they are, are slowly put back on track.

Stopping to rest in a peaceful field after their fight, Ambar dons Suf’s shirt and embraces him as they exchange apologies. In a symbolic moment, they wander barefoot into the grass, finally allowing themselves to touch the landscape, the map left affixed to the hood of the car by the weight of their abandoned shoes. Yet despite the flowery imagery, the intimate space now re-opened between the cousins does not provide an easy road to peace and love but becomes something closer to a dialogical forum for the careful probing of sharp topographies of difference. In this regard, the importance Ambar places on her own, more contemporary take on sexuality leads her to question Suf, teasingly at first, about his standards of behavior. She assumes that his “polite, obedient” Javanese exterior precludes fluency in the shifting languages and practices of modernity: she affectionately suspects him of a level of inexperience that might prevent a successful physical engagement with her. While Suf remains guardedly ambiguous about his virginity, he gives something of an answer to the larger question of Javanese character by suggesting they visit Sedangsono, a large, carved-stone Javanese-Catholic temple.  

The Sedangsono complex, a striking monument to Java’s historical, syncretic ability to absorb and incorporate myriad, outside religious or cultural practices without losing its own collective sense of identity, seems to take the highly skeptical Ambar by surprise. Waiting outside, Suf also reveals an unexpected interest in astrology, psychology, and mysticism that is both wide-ranging and rooted in the importance of history from a local perspective. He compares the age — twenty seven — at which Kurt Kobain, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix either died of an overdose or decided to commit suicide, to the same moment in the life of Sukarno, who chose instead to start the fight that brought hundreds of years of Dutch domination to a close. He explains that at twenty nine, however, the planet Saturn, which he claims controls the unconscious, aligns itself with Earth in the same way as it does when a person is born. The result is the sudden outpouring of one’s innermost urges and instincts, which are momentarily rendered readable before returning to obscurity. Entering the temple at 5 a.m. after a night of listening to Suf and consuming the last of her pills, Ambar seems finally to let herself go and begins to speak candidly, weeping; first she addresses herself in English to a statue of Mary and then to a surprisingly thoughtful and understanding Suf.  Her feelings of emptiness and disconnection have filled her with worry about a blank, unfulfilling, and lonely future.

Leaving the temple, the two get back on the road, although the wedding seems entirely forgotten. But when they pause again and their eyes meet, as if finally ready to reach their romantic climax, they are pre-empted by another sudden cut to black, the gap this time almost giving the impression that a censor’s scissors had intervened. The resulting blank, silent space is finally filled with sounds on the audiotrack of rumbling and people’s screaming in a collective expression of terror.  It is somewhat unclear at first if the black screen is in fact a censor’s rejection of a kissing scene, an avant-garde filmmaking tactic, or something else, although with all the preceding structural stutters and shifts, it seems not entirely out of place. The structural “hole” it imposes, however, is far larger than previously, and the screen is black for approximately 30 seconds. The only cue as to what’s happening is the continuous noises of destruction on the soundtrack.

As it turns out, the landscape of Yogyakarta, rather than erupting as threatened, has suddenly opened up, turning on itself in a violent, self-destructive rage, shaking and cracking the surface of the island’s traditional center. (The event is based on the devastating 2006 Yogyakarta earthquake, which claimed the lives of 5000 people). When the two cousins finally reach Yogyakarta, they are just in time for the wedding vows, but two days late for the mitodareni, the ceremonial dinner requiring the set of plates around which their trip was originally conceived. However, the failure to deliver the cultural goods on schedule has ironically succeeded in safeguarding the dishes — the vessel whose wholeness symbolizes the family’s idealized unity through time[15] — from being reduced to a cracked relic by the forces of history and nature. But the family, their practice of tradition, and the landscape into which they trace their origins are all now visibly fragmented. The post-quake rubble of traditional opulence mirrors the present state of affairs in which the stability of position and privilege, dependent on the even surface of Suharto-ism, must inevitably become shaken in order for any sort of real change to occur.

In Tiga Hari the ruins of Yogyakarta, like the churning, semi-excavated earth revealed in the car windows, are not beautiful but rather hint at the presence of unacknowledged past malevolence that lies between the present and any access to an ideal unity. With her world so shaken, even Suf’s aunt, Ambar’s mother, appears to have loosened her nostalgic attachment to the dishes. She seems resigned to looking at her family through the cracked realism of the wedding as a somewhat fictive grouping of disparate elements. However, Tiga Hari ends on an ostensibly more positive note, with the hope of a rebirth, if not a “beautiful longing for unity,”[16] triggered by a journey whose hidden goal, the romance between two cousins, is in fact something of an aberration. Beyond its standing against generally accepted concepts of behavior within families, the impending act, and the critical, reflexive turn it represents, serves to disrupt the empty, timeless, and naturalized appearance of wholeness in which the present still cloaks itself.

The concluding, empirical union of Suf and Ambar takes place after the wedding is over, reinforcing a trajectory that transcends genre limitations or a script’s imposed completion. The act itself hardly represents a generic happily-ever-after. It seems to offer another type of ending, a fleeting moment of passion, which erupts magnetically through the weakened surface of caution after all other mediation has been removed. And it may never occur again. In allegorical terms, such an anti-romantic ending does not truncate hope that the work begun within the confines of the film might continue. That hope lies rather in the impression of a larger fragment — the hint of an ideal wholeness — born over the course of a journey toward each character’s central core and now firmly imprinted in both. In this context bodily interpenetration serves as a final glue, an action which brings the union to an objective point, ending the film with a place to begin.

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 motivations of 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] 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.


Acknowlegments: I am grateful to Julia Lesage, the Jump Cut editors, John Mowitt, and Barbara Yngvesson for their generous editorial suggestions. Thanks also to Shaden Tageldin, Rachmi Diyah Larasati, Koes Yuliadi, Christine Kwon, and Ratih Sukma for helping facilitate various aspects of this article.

1. See Hasan 2007
Udhee 2007
Mistymind 2007
Senowahyu 2007
Kurniawan 2007
Imanjaya 2007
New York Times online
and Edwards in Variety 10, 2007

[return to page 1]

2. See Hasan 2007
Udhee 2007
Mistymind 2007
Senowahyu 2007
Kurniawan 2007
and the interview with Riri Riza in Journalfootage.net, Apr. 2010

3. See Heryanto 1999, Larasati (forthcoming), Roosa and Nevins 2005, Sen 2006, Wieringa 2002, and others.

4. My understanding and analysis of the historical events of 1965-66 is based on a general knowledge formed through years of interest, research and discussion, as well as from several previously published accounts, which provide a larger grid of facts and figures (Larasati forthcoming; Dwyer and Santikarma forthcoming; Heryanto 1999; Wieringa 2002; Anderson 1990; Robinson 1995; and Roosa 2006; Santikarma 2008, interview; and Baskara 2008-interview, have formed the greatest part of my broader historical knowledge of the events). A key factor in the formation of my perspective was my intensive, 6-year participation in the making of the film 40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy (Lemelson 2008; I am credited as cinematographer) which allowed me to listen and speak to numerous survivors of 1965, as well as to current Indonesian activists, archivists, and historians working to bring more critical public attention to the killings. Discussions and collaboration with Degung Santikarma and Leslie Dwyer (who also have a forthcoming book on 1965 in Bali), and Diyah Larasati in the context of the filmmaking process were also incredibly important to expanding my understanding of, among other things, the ways in which the killings were carried out, and their lasting effect on the lives of both “perpetrators” and “victims.” My friends and colleagues at Taman 65, or “1965 park” in Denpasar have also provided years of teaching and inspiration.

5. The fact that Suf still buys and smokes marijuana constantly, despite its highly illegal status in Indonesia, however, suggests both the pervasive flaunting of certain state controls by citizens, particularly youth, in private, and the extension of the safe, “private” space of a broad swath of the upper class into quasi-public areas such as a car on the highway. [return to page 2]

6. See the review under “3 Hari Untuk Selamanya” in New York Times online
and Ewards in Variety 10, 2007

7. See Hasan 2007
Udhee 2007
Mistymind 2007
Senowahyu 2007
Kurniawan 2007
Imanjaya 2007

8. See the Miles Films website for an extensive list of festival screenings and awards, including ‘Best Director’ at the 35th Brussels International Independent Film Festival, 2008.
It was also awarded “Best Indonesian Film” at the Jakarta International Film Festival, 2007. See McGrath (2008) for an analysis of the immense importance (something of a contrast to the Indonesian New Wave) of international festivals, and the funding associated with them, in the production and reception of the early “independent” films of Chinese director Jia Zhangke.

9. The credits list as financial supporters the Göteborg Film Fund, the US-based Global Film Initiative, the Pusan Promotion Plan, and the Locarno International Film Festival’s Open Doors Project.

10. See Larasati (forthcoming) on the relationship between youth and historical knowledge from 1965 to the present.

11. One of the major strategies of the New Order regime was to hide the historical “real” under flattened tropes of homogenized tradition, for which Yogyakarta (Tiga Hari’s destination point) was always (and still is) the most important symbol. One of the reasons for this is the implicit connection formed by the New Order state between Suharto and the mythical status and historically inherited power of the King/Sultan of Central Java (there are still kings in both Yogyakarta and Surakarta, although the only real political power is held by the king of Yogyakarta who serves as regional governor). For this and other reasons the Yogyakarta palace and its refined arts were used as the main cultural emblem for the entire (extremely diverse) nation, and the city was given a reputation as something of a timeless museum where people’s traditional (aristocratic) values and ways of living never really change (and this stereotype has stuck — it rears its head in many of the post New Order films that are set there, like Jagad Kali Code (2009) and Mengejar Masmas (2007), among others). This was always counterposed to the massive modernity of Jakarta, the capital city and business/manufacturing center of Indonesia. However (as the film demonstrates) the modern was seen as somehow containing the frozen emblem of the traditional and passing it down as National Cultural Identity — thus the symbolic importance in Tiga Hari of the rigid/fragile set of dishes that must be so carefully guarded. It should be noted that Balinese culture has been taken up in a similar, and perhaps even more problematic way as a reductive emblem of national tradition. See Sen 1994, Larasati (forthcoming), Pollmann 1990, Robinson 1995, and Wieringa 2002 for additional analysis of New Order and related conceptualizations of tradition and national culture. [return to page 3]

11a. There are of course some notable exceptions to this rule, in particular the influential short/experimental filmmaker Gotot Prakoso, who produced critical, independent work from the 1970s on. Prakoso continues to make films, paint, and write, and is now the chair of the film department at the influential Arts Institute of Jakarta (IKJ), where Riza and many of the players in the New Wave studied and now teach filmmaking. The renowned choreographer Sardono (who teaches as IKJ as well) also produced influential experimental, independent films during the New Order and continues during reformasi. Garin Nugroho is probably the best-known contemporary independent/art filmmaker in Indonesia; Nugroho began his career in the early 1990s during the “death” of the Indonesian film industry at the hands of Suharto’s shifting economic priorities and policies. Nugroho established a paradigm of foreign funding and almost entirely foreign festival/museum/arthouse screening. While he has certainly influenced many of the New Wave filmmakers, he is not generally included in the category of Indonesian popular film, as his works are frequently difficult or impossible to see, rent, or purchase in Indonesia.

12. While I have thus far been unable to find a satisfactory published source on the matter of contemporary sexual attraction between cousins, my information comes via personal communications from a number of Javanese colleagues, primarily Koes Yuliadi, a professor of theater and cultural politics at the Institute of the Arts, Yogyakarta (ISI), and Rachmi Larasati, a professor of dance and cultural politics at the University of Minnesota.

13. I draw on two main sources in my understanding of the concept of cinematic accenting. One is John Mowitt’s (2005) formulation of Ousmane Sembene’s Xala (1974) as an “accented,” or localized, expression of a broader medium. The film’s “accent,” Mowitt argues, is conveyed through subtle adjustments of form, which engage the underlying universality of cinematic language, placing it in tension with a “grammar [that] is subject to cultural, indeed national, inflections” (101) Mowitt draws on a written exchange between himself, Sembene, and Hamid Naficy, as well as an interview with Haile Gerima in Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers (2002) by Frank Ukadike. He references Gerima’s formula of a movie accent as “the particular way the universality of a technological medium of communication is joined to ‘one’s identity culture, and language’” (qtd in Mowitt 102).
My other inspiration is Miriam Hansen’s (1999) brief, yet provocative reference to early Soviet cinema as deploying a form-based “American accent” – by which she means “a faster cutting rate, closer framing, and the breakdown of diegetic space”(61) – as a methodology for challenging the established, slowly paced, pre-Soviet Russian cinema. For Hansen, on the one hand this indicates the materially demonstrable, global power and influence of Hollywood: “hyperbolically speaking, one might say that Russian cinema became Soviet cinema by going through a process of Americanization” (61). Yet on the other hand, it also suggests, as do Mowitt and Gerima, that cinema, as a technological process with particular historical origins, nonetheless should not be thought of as possessing an “original” inflection or stylistic form. Rather, even Hollywood exudes a particular “accent,” which, like that of other cinemas, is based on specific political, economic, and historical stakes belonging to a certain milieu in which production is embedded. Such identifiable “accents,” of course, like the places that fostered them, can travel and exert influence on a local or geopolitical scale. But the Soviet example is apt in demonstrating that the motivation to knowingly use and adapt historically marked or “accented” styles, while likely indicating a certain level of desire for, or attraction to, their powerful source, should be far more firmly rooted in the political and economic stakes of aesthetics as they appear from a local, historical perspective.

14. During the New Order, polygamy, while not banned, was in many ways discouraged and limited by state policy. However, Sonya van Wichelen (2007 PhD dissertation) argues that contemporary public figures such as restauranteur and Islam-based polygamy advocate Puspo Wardoyo are in essence re-hashing a typically Suharto-esque sense of masculinity using different symbols: “The pro-polygamy discourse of Puspo Wardoyo [during reformasi] contributed to reaffirming an Indonesian hegemonic masculinity that had felt threatened by changes in society” (235). [return to page 4]

15. Here, of course, I refer to Benjamin’s conception of an ideal translation as an additive combination of language fragments that moves both sides closer to the realization of an underlying, universal language: “fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel” (78). Reading Benjamin has also influenced my analysis of the “additive method” of close reading and historical exploration, which I argue Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya is both demonstrating and promoting.

16. A quote from Nariman Skakov’s (2009 331) article on Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia, which Skakov reads via Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator.” The quote refers to the elegant ruins that appear in Nostalghia and much of Tarkovsky’s other work.

17. Gie was seen in theaters by a paltry 350,000 Indonesian viewers (journalfootage.net), and Tiga Hari played on a minimal number of screens in only four cities in Java (Imanjaya, 2007 multiply.com)

[return to page 5]

18. Note: My readings of Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya were formulated prior to the publication of Riza’s interview (as well as to my own access to it), which I have gladly included as contextual evidence in support of my arguments just prior to the publication of this piece.

19. See Sen, 1994

20. Tiga Hari, Pasir Berbisik, Gie, and a growing selection of other Indonesian films have finally become internationally available on the streaming-video subscription site.
Riza’s other films Eliana, Eliana and Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops) are also available on Netflix.

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