Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Act of Killing

I went last night to the ICA in London to see The Act of Killing, the much-celebrated documentary film that centres on a group of Pemuda Pancasila thugs who were responsible for killing communists in 1965-1966 in Medan and the surrounding plantation belt. This was the director's cut, which clocks in at 2 hours 40 minutes, and the film-maker Joshua Oppenheimer was present after for a q&a. Tapol and other human rights organisations were also around to solicit signatures, specifically for a minta maaf campaign which calls upon SBY to apologise officially for the 1965-1966 killings in Indonesia, which left between 500,000 and 1.5 million PKI and suspected communists dead, and many more imprisoned without trial.

Oppenheimer said before the film that he was not going to say 'enjoy the film.' Indeed, he said this twice. He did add though that it was okay to laugh, and that audiences in Indonesia laugh at moments too. I didn't enjoy the film, though I did laugh out loud a few times, and smiled many more times, as Anwar Congo and his friends Herman and Ari made their film which re-presents their roles in the 65-66 killings. The experience was chilling, brutal, deeply moving.

The director has a bio not too dissimilar from my own - he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard, got a PhD from Central St Martins with a thesis which comprises an earlier documentary about trade union activists in North Sumatra called The Globalization Tapes (available on youtube), some early material collected towards The Act of Killing and a long written thesis (Show of Force, available to download free of charge at The film itself was funded in part by an AHRC grant -- the largest grant the AHRC has given to an Indonesian research project- and Oppenheimer continued to be based in London after his PhD until very recently as a senior research fellow at the University of Westminster. We share a common set of theoretical and areal references -- and in his after-show q&a he cited Indonesian cultural theorists Ariel Heryanto. He was highly loquacious and articulate in his comments, and showed deep respect for his Indonesian collaborators. (Most of whom who could not be credited for safety reasons and are listed as anonymous.) Oppenheimer said it was not safe for him now to go to Indonesia - and when Anwar saw the film for the first time he could only watch it with him via Skype. I felt for Oppenheimer as clearly he remains drawn to the country, and wishes to contribute to Indonesia (indeed, he considers the film to be an Indonesian film due to the huge amount of participation of Indonesians in it).

So it was hard for me not empathize with the film-maker and imagine what it would have been like for me to be in the company of these brutal and largely unrepentant killers for the long time it took to make the film (nearly 10 years, with over 1200 hours of footage collected). I shared also a set of cultural references with the killers themselves, as well. These were thugs who worked as preman bioskop in Medan in the early 1960s, scalping tickets-- and the major reason they cited for their dislike of the PKI was that the PKI lobbied successfully in getting the flow of Hollywood films reduced, which cut into their income as ticket scalpers. They sung popular songs of their youth like Halo, Halo Bandung and Malam Minggu Nonton Bioskop; talked about their admiration for American film stars; and did an absolutely chilling re-enactment of the murder of a victim in film noire style in a Medan office that had indeed been used for killing. (Oppenheimer said that for him the murder by stabbing of a teddy bear, representing the child of a Chinese man, was the most disturbing moment in the whole film.) One of the main characters, a cross-dresser named Herman, was a leading actor in an all-male Pemuda Pancasila theatre group that had disbanded some time before Oppenheimer began filming. (The director said that if it was still around he certainly would have wanted to film it.)

I could go on about this film at some length as it touches on so many things I am interested in -- Indonesia, performance, re-enactment, fantasy, cross-cultural communication, transnationalism. It is something I will need to see again, I think, and would like to teach as well. The DVD is due to come out in November 2013.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sang Penari (The Dancer)

Last night I attended the opening night of an Indonesian film series Spotlight on: Indonesia, part of the 5th Terracotta Far East Film Festival , at the ICA in London.

The film was Sang Penari (The Dancer), released in Indonesia in 2011 and Indonesia's official Academy Award entry for 2012. The film is set in Banyumas (and actually shot on location in Purwokerto and Tegal) and is a romance set against the backdrop of the traditional art of ronggeng and the political upheaval and mass killings of 1963-1966, inspired by Ahmad Tohari's celebrated trilogy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, which has been translated into English by Rene Lysloff and published by the Lontar Foundation.

The director Ifa Ifansyah, who I met at the Rotterdam Film Festival, was present and answered questions during a Q&A after the film led by my colleague Ben Murtagh of SOAS.

He explained that what we saw what was the director's cut, which included scenes cut in Indonesia, one where the dancer's stomach is massaged to prevent pregnancy and her breasts are briefly visible, the cutting of throats by Indonesian army officers, her vagina being 'smoked' before her ritual deflowering. The censors also stood in the way of including PKI emblems - though there is a brief flash of sickles in a market place. When the film was shown on Indonesian TV and as in flight enter

Ifa spoke about how it was hard to finance the film - the novels are very well known but the Indonesian film market is dominated by horror and teen romance - and it took him 3 years in all to produce the film. It garnered critical acclaim in Indonesia but attracted only 100,000 viewers. (His previous film Garuda di Dadaku or 'Garuda on My Chest' about teenage soccer players had 1.3 viewers.)

I found the film to be somewhat predictable and overly melodramatic. While other dance films such as Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa and Riantiarno's Cemeng 2005 (The Last Primadona) cast actual dancers in lead roles, Ifa cast a Jakarta actress in the ronggeng part, which meant that dance scenes were rather brief and not very exciting on the whole. The best ronggeng from Banyumas are truly amazing to behold. He did, however, work with the Banyumas-based multi-arts group Banyu Biru for the music (all the on-screen musicians with the exception of the drummer were part of this group), and many of the villagers were played by people from Banyumas.

Admirably, the film script was translated from Indonesian into the Banyumas dialect of Javanese, which I enjoyed hearing very much, due in part to its similarity to the Cirebon dialect which I speak. Although the Jakarta lead actors struggled a bit with this (they had only 1 month of vocal training), the extras and minor actors added much authenticity in their dialogue.

Ifa spoke also about who the Tohari novels focused mostly on cultural background and politics, and that he wished to make a romance film about the love affair between the ronggeng and a soldier. I wish there had been a more systematic exposition of the way that the Communist party utilized the folk arts for propaganda purposes. There is a token Communist agitator in the film who gives villagers a radio to keep them abreast of news, has them paint slogans on their roofs, sponsors the ronggeng troupe, and occasionally talks about the bourgeoisie and 'tanah oentoek rakjat' (land for the people). But the ronggeng and other troupe members appear totally ignorant of the politics (and are enticed to perform under the PKI banner only because the agitator promises they will 'panen' or harvest gigs from this), there is not a single mention made of LEKRA, and there are no songs or jokes in the performances referencing Communist ideas or ideals. The Tohari novels have much more in them about the politicisation of the arts that could have been fruitfully mined, and there are people out there who remember this period well and are willing to talk. Something perhaps for another film to explore. Or a monograph.