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Filming ambiguity

Young Chinese Indonesian filmmakers examine questions of Chineseness

by Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn|Inside Indonesia

After more than three decades of suppression under the New Order, many Chinese Indonesians still find it difficult to let go of past fears and long-held beliefs about how one should ‘behave’ as a Chinese person in Indonesia. Signs are, however, that these attitudes may be starting to change. Especially among the younger generation; some Chinese Indonesians are now actively asking uncomfortable and often controversial questions about past injustices and what it means to be Chinese. One of the channels they are using to raise these questions is film.

Post-Suharto Indonesia cinema as a whole has enjoyed a revival since it became possible to address previously taboo topics. Beginning with Nia di Nata’s Ca-Bau-Kan (2002) and Riri Riza’s Gie (2005), film has increasingly become a medium where concerns about the position of Chinese Indonesians are being aired. In contrast to the New Order years, when Chinese Indonesians were almost completely absent from Indonesian cinema screens, in 2008 there were at least eight films of varying lengths that featured Chinese Indonesian characters or dealt with issues related to their community.

Defining ‘Chineseness’ through film
In this changing creative environment, a new breed of young Chinese Indonesian film directors, such as Edwin, Ariani Darmawan and Lucky Kuswandi, are using their filmmaking skills to explore issues of identity, past discrimination and other questions about being Chinese. For example, in May 2008 there was a Jakarta screening of short films from Proyek Payung (Umbrella Project), a project designed to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the May 1998 reform movement. Four of the ten films screened raised Chinese Indonesian issues.

Ariani Darmawan’s Sugiharti Halim (2008), Lucky Kuswandi’s Letter of Unprotected Memories (2008), Edwin’s Trip to the Wound (2008) and Ifa Isfansyah’s Huang Chen Guang (2008) all used the film project to re-visit some unanswered questions. For example, in Sugiharti Halim, Ariani Darmawan told the story of a young Chinese Indonesian woman (Sugiharti) who complains about the problems she has had over the years with her name. She insisted that her ‘Indonesian–sounding’ name given by her Chinese Indonesian parents does not suit her. The main theme of the story is of course inspired by the experiences of millions of Chinese who in 1966 were forced to change their Chinese names to ‘Indonesian-sounding’ ones in accordance with the same Cabinet Presidium No. 127/1966 that enforced assimilation. Other recent Chinese Indonesian-themed films include Steve Purba’s Kita Punya Bendera (2008), a children’s movie documenting a young boy’s journey to find out about his Chinese heritage, Viva Westi’s May (2008) that deals with the issues of the May 1998 rapes of Chinese women, and Allan Lunardi’s Karma (2008), a horror film centred around a Chinese Indonesian family’s traditions.

Lucky Kuswandi has said that directing Letter of Unprotected Memories gave him the opportunity to explore some personal questions regarding the significance of public recognition of Chineseness in recent years. The film, which explores the director’s own feelings of confusion and ambiguity every time Chinese New Year celebration comes around, talks about not being able to relate to his Chinese heritage. It is as though now that the Chinese are ‘free’ to ‘be Chinese’, he is expected to be able to connect with a Chinese culture that he knew very little about to begin with. He is certain many other Chinese also feel the same way. ‘It is weird for me that when Imlek comes along every year, all the memories of growing up in a time when Imlek was still forbidden come flooding back to me,’ Kuswandi said. ‘I don’t know all that much about my Chinese heritage and in a way, I don’t quite know how to feel about Imlek, nor do I understand how to act.’ Kuswandi added that he is certain that many other Chinese feel the same sense of ambiguity. He hopes that films such as his will encourage people to engage in further discussion about some of these rarely-explored subjects.

Edwin believes that films like his and Kuswandi’s are important because they are intended to help people ‘remember that these issues still exist, just like scars’Trip to the Wound, a short film about a young woman’s ‘invisible’ scars and her encounter with a stranger who sits across the aisle from her on an overnight bus journey, also explores sensitive topics about trauma and unspoken pain. The young woman’s revelation to the stranger that she has an invisible scar that cannot be seen but can be felt, invites the audience to reflect upon traumatic events like May 1998 that are yet to be resolved. The director, Edwin, believes that films like his and Kuswandi’s are important because they are intended to help people ‘remember that these issues still exist, just like scars’. With this film and his new independent feature film titled Babi Buta Yang Ingin Terbang (The Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, 2008) about the problematic lives of several intersecting Chinese Indonesian characters dealing with the stigmas associated with being Chinese, Edwin hopes not only to enrich the Indonesian film industry but also to contribute to the public discourse of Chineseness in Indonesia. 
Ambiguity, the desire to belong, and the ‘revisiting’ of old wounds raised in these films are issues that are often neglected in discussions regarding the Chinese in Indonesia. Nevertheless they continue to affect people’s lives, especially those of the younger generation, as they negotiate and construct their identities.

Alternative narratives of being Chinese
Some may be sceptical about the ability of cinema to make any ‘real’ impact on the lives of Chinese Indonesians. But at the very least films present alternative viewpoints on what it means to be Chinese – viewpoints that rarely surface in Chinese identity politics and public displays of multicultural harmony.

Films present alternative viewpoints on what it means to be Chinese
 At a time when it is no longer taboo to speak of Chinese issues, these young directors are speaking up about their life experiences through their films. Their stories stand for those of so many other young Chinese whose voices are yet to be heard. If we want to better understand the complex issues of Chinese Indonesian identities and socio-political space in post-Suharto Indonesia, then listening to what these films have to say is a good place to start.    

Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn ( is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology from La Trobe University. Her dissertation looks at historical memory and identity construction among young Chinese Indonesians in post-Suharto Indonesia|Inside Indonesia 95: Jan-Mar 2009


The Young and the (Un)Heedless| Rumah| October 2008

by Eric Sasono-film critic

Eric Sasono is a prominent film critic and is also editor in chief  for Eric Sasono resides in Jakarta. This review had been published by Rumah Film (September 2008, “Yang Muda, Yang Melawan Lupa”), and was translated for this website by Rizal Iwan.  

Perhaps my friend (film critic) Hikmat Darmawan was right when he wrote that it takes 10 years before a trauma can be retold. Hikmat made this statement in his review of May (Viva Westi, director), a film about the May 1998 incident and its impact for the nation, in particular an inter-ethnic couple.  Given a time distance, May is able to take a good, long look at an incident that has left a yet to be fully healed scar for the nation.

9808, an anthology on the 10th anniversary of the Reform era, pretty much is having the same discussion as May. It may not be a coincidence that the two films are released in the same year. Ten young filmmakers each submitted their short films revolving around the significant incident that led the nation to a huge political turnaround, which are then compiled.

May 1998 is something that is not quite long past, and it is yet to have an “official” version of the story. Many people can still testify to what actually happened. People like (former Chief of Armed Forces) Wiranto, (former vice president turn president) BJ Habibie, (former Lieutenant-General of the Kopassus) Prabowo and (former Minister of Information) Harmoko wasted no time to write their own version to position themselves as the heroes (or at least, the good guys), while keeping an eye for an opportunity to climb back to power. If one of them gets in power again, his version might just become the designated official version of the incident; just as when Soeharto reigned and his became the official version of what happened in 1965.

The young fiilmmakers contributing to this anthology have their own versions, which may never be included in any of the aforementioned published material. In this context, what these people – who joined forces under the name of Proyek Payung (The Umbrella Project) – have done is a small but important document of perception, as an alternative version, or even a sub-version of what those “official” figures have written.

All the short films in the anthology are films that have (or are supposed to have) wholesome narratives and independent of thematic outline to support the narrative. However, uniting these works into one anthology has resulted in a different perspective from the short films’ initial narrative. Intentional or not, 9808 has offered one of the most wholesome perspectives on May 1998 to the public, from a generation that not only lived it, but generated it.

This perception comes in various dimensions. Some of the points of view feel very superficial, even sketchy. Some works try to approach May 1998 as something personal, with honest perspectives. Some try to discuss one aspect of the incident’s background and impact, which leads to revealing a deep dimension about the making of a nation; a process that still remains as a big, unanswered question. The anthology also touches on the future, to give some sort of closure, cementing its optimistic nature.


If the film, in the linear sense, is perceived as a book to be read from the front cover, then the front cover is a sketch. Anggun Priambodo (Where Was I?)  starts the anthology by asking a question to people around him: where were you on 13 May 1998?

Anggun is presenting a collective memory. Who can forget the days when people emptied grocery stores (‘I was on my way to buy the new Hanson record… or was it Boyzone?’). Who doesn’t remember the sight of motorcycles casually rolling on toll roads, or the big, empty primary road in the M.H. Thamrin area (with only the armed forces around, let’s take a picture in front of the tank!). The collective experience even reached all the way to Seattle or Amsterdam.

However, what Anggun is showcasing resemble more of a sketch for a TV teaser, the one we see on talk shows about May 1998 than a thorough work. He doesn’t have a very wide range of sources, and from their answers, we can tell that they are onlookers, people outside the stores when the looting happened. This is an incomplete, if not lazy, representation. But Anggun is lucky because the collective experiences are something that audiences can relate to all too well. So the excerpts from his interview still resonate in the audience’s personal frame of reference. 

Anggun serves his documentary by displaying a sequence of photographs to represent the story he is telling. There are no moving pictures. Anggun is lucky because his work is compiled as a part of the 9808 anthology. If detached, his work will not be able to come up with a wholesome narrative and will remain as a series of fragments.

Next is Yang Belum Usai (The Unfinished One) by Ucu Agustin. This documentary chronicles the struggle of Sumarsih in search of the person who shot her son, Wawan, in the Semanggi incident (November 1999). The story begins with an Easter celebration (the 10th year without Wawan), and ends with the mother praying at her son’s grave. Ucu brings us steadfast determination that hopefully speaks for itself – and therefore become a drama in itself in the eyes of audiences.

Ucu is hoping that her subject would help her film. A mother’s struggle to put a peaceful end to her son’s death is no doubt an emotionally-charged ride, whether the subject is expressing it or not. Viewers will be emotionally engaged just by seeing the story as mere facts. But a good filmmaker will not rely entirely on that assumption. A richer perspective or a more profound take on the surface should always be sought after, rather than just an instant, impulsive urge.

Ucu’s work is a weak documentation both in terms of perspectives and depth. There is almost no additional values to be found in Ucu’s process of documenting what Sumarsih is undergoing. Even more, Sumarsih is captured as if in poses, in nearly all of her images. It seems like Ucu is presenting a window display of a “hero”, rather than a humane protrayal of a person with all her tribulations.

An open dimension

Ifa Isfansyah (Huan Chen Guang) is an example of a filmmaker willing to plunge into the depth. In a piece almost unrecognizable as an Indonesian production, Ifa draws a fine connection between Indonesia – specifically the May 1998 incident – with a Chinese-speaking woman in Korea. Ifa connects this woman in Seoul with voice overs from the news about Indonesia and the conversation between the film’s antagonist (Huan Guang) with an immigration officer asking about her background.

That is the only information on the young woman being one of those escaping Indonesia to forget their past. She goes to Korea, knowing practically no one there. Then, in a convenient store, another Chinese-speaking woman comes to her aid. So they become friends, and a whole new path of possibilities opens for Huan Guang.

This piece may not discuss the May 1998 incident directly, but Ifa is obviously insinuating that significant moment. The incident marks the loss of one of life’s essential elements: the feeling of safety. As history tells us, the absence of this very thing has become one of the reasons for diasporas. Ifa is illustrating a diaspora in the making. A past is being forgotten, and a dream (or escapism) is being built. Ifa is not talking about a reality about to be faced by Guang, because, as the film’s title suggests, he is talking about a time when the sun rises, a new-born hope.

Guang’s diaspora is a secondary one, because she comes from a generation that has experienced a previous diaspora. Then the concept of Indonesia becomes very fluid in those layers of diaspora and starts to blur. Ifa is observing the problem of one of the Asian races, which is constantly in transition, and Indonesia becomes an area in which that transition blooms. This film then becomes an entry point for a public discussion post-May 1998. Ifa succeeds in sensitively demonstrating how a national incident is implicating a much wider scope in terms of geographical identity.

From Guang’s dream, we are led to a personal fragment in Otty Widasari’s Kemarin (Yesterday). Otty, along with her couple friends Bambang and Bonita (nicknamed Bonet), reminisce what actually happened in May 1998. They were three in the students mob in the Parliament building. To topple Soeharto? Not according to Bonet. She was there on a romantic quest. And, since Otty went wherever Bonet went, she, too, was there indirectly for the same reason.

In this conversation (the camera cheekily exposes Bambang, who is holding the second camera), Otty goes bare by showing her note on daily expenses. This shows how life went on with such trivial stuff, when here she is telling about a “heroic” phase according to the formal observations about the 1998 students movement. Life is all about such cycles, and the conversation taking place at that table is an intimate and no-nonsense tri[ to the past.

The juxtaposing between their conversation and Otty’s family’s daily expenses notes makes for an acknowledgment to life cycles in all honesty. Whatever leads them to the incident, “there and then” – and whoever there during that time – they must still deal with the daily nitty-gritty such as expenses for cigarettes, transportation and groceries, “here and now”. Otty succeeds in making these two sides refer to each other, coldly yet powerfully. 

However, Otty shifts to a baffling episode, in which she admits her special feelings for Bonet. It’s like Otty is exposing her deepest secret to an audience that doesn’t know her well enough. At this point, is she still sincere? If yes, why is such sincerity exposed in such a short span of time in a story, thus the audience does not have enough time and opportunity to understand Otty and her issues?

Otty sounds like she is making a joke, but her statement is made toward the end of the film, and not long after that, Otty’s husband, Hafiz, comes in while holding their child. With this kind of sequencing, it seems that Otty is trying to tell something tragic about her marriage, because Hafiz comes across as someone who falls under Bonet’s shadows. What does the personal tragedy have to do with the May 1998 incident? Does the audience need to know this, in their first “encounter” with Otty, in such a short period of time?

Otty is posing a big risk, with which she cannot win. If she’s being honest with her confession, the audience (and I) will not be ready, and we will not need any information about the personal domestic tragedy (caused by who knows what) during a film about the May 1998 incident. If she’s not being honest, it feels like she’s using the same technique as TV comedian/talk show host Tukul Arwana, in showcasing some sort of a personal tragedy as a joke material. Does Otty really need to do that? To me, her deepest secret could have been shared with the audience in a piece that gives more room for them ti understand her as a person. I’m sure Otty still has other chances to discuss this topic.

From such a personal dimension of the May 1998 incident, the film shifts back to a sketch about identity – and back to the Ethnic-Chinese. With Sugiharti Halim, Arian Darmawan discusses the identity problem in the most superficial sense of the word: a name. Ariani talks about the efficacy of the former regime’s bureaucracy machine, in stifling the development of identities and forcing an form of assimilation. What happened is some sort of social dislocation of the Ethnic-Chinese, even if it concerns the most exterior part of their identity.

For that purpose, Ariani invented the character Sugiharti Halim, and made her talk directly to the camera, as if asking the audience to level with her in discussing this subject. While in the story, Sugiharti is talking to the men she’s going on a date with (in separate occasions). This strategy works in cheekily picking on the audience, who wants to avoid discussions on the topic, and Ariani doesn’t give a darn about such attitude and continues talking anyway.

This is a film about the government going face to face with society through a very simple subject. This issue might very well be a problem not only for the Ethnic-Chinese, but probably other ethnic and belief groups. However, the May 1998 incident should start a momentum for such discussions, bearing in mind that the Ethnic-Chinese are constantly dealing with these identity-related problems. This project by Proyek Payung thus becomes very timely.

Other collective experiences

Another tale about a collective experience on the May 1998 incident is brought to the table by Hafiz in Bertemu Jen (Meet Jen). Hafiz, though, is doing in a very different way than what Anggun did in the beginning. He unsettles the audience by introducing Jen Marais, a theater person. Jen is not a theater director, nor is he an actor or producer. He seems to be “nobody” in the theater business, and yet he claims to be a “theater person”. Hafiz interviews Jen, bringing with him a number of photographs on the May 1998 incident, and shows them one by one, asking for Jen’s comments.

Hafiz is making his film by posing a strategy to give meanings to May 1998. It is as if he wanted to show that giving meaning to the incident is a verb whose definitions are as varied as the people trying to define it. Hafiz is using photography, theater and an intimate love affair with the audio visual medium for the purpose. Hafiz starts asking his questions with a role play associated with the theater. He then goes on to the actually self-explanatory pictures, and Jen comes up with his meanings: this is a theatrical thing. Then comes a point where Hafiz’s questions reach a higher level of abstraction (“are you in the picture, as a human being?”), which makes generating meaning a little more difficult.

Hafiz’s piece offers a subversive take on the official versions (which is yet to be existent) of the May 1998 incident. Instead of providing an alternative view, Hafiz poses a preposition that the incident is supposed to be seen as a negotiating process between the subjects in defining what really happened.

Do not forget that there is mediating media (some of which are dominant because of the massive media exposure), which makes the defining process impossible. Thus Hafiz seems to be proposing that the collective incident stays inside the mind of individuals as a personal experience that needs no authorization from anyone. A citing of a history as a very fluid and inconstant subject.

Hafiz’s postmodern world is challenged successfully by Lucky Kuswandi with A Letter to Unprotected Memories. He shows that the identity problem and its meaning is something solid. People who are detached from their past, history and language are miserable people because they lack a firm ground to stand on. True, Lucky is not referring specifically to May 1998, but his exposition on giving meaning to the incident is more than a subjective game. To Lucky, there is something missing from his grip.

Lucky dissects this issue through Chinese alphabets and a letter-style narrative, like he is having a one-way communication. With this strategy, Lucky seems to show that he is not sure the communication will reach its aim, so he chooses to communicate one way – like a soliloquy that send people indifferent to the issue into ignorant snooze.

Chinese people in Indonesia has grown roots beneath their feet in the ground called Indonesia, and they seem to be outside the official history records. With this film, Lucky is still playing “if” concerning the existence of the official history, because he feels that any strategy outside the notion will be daunting to them, like the barongsai dance that loses its stomps and transforms into slow-motion moves that might slowly dissolve.

With this kind of agenda of discussion, Lucky also delivers a very well-done visual strategy. He showcases Chinese alphabets being intercut with various Chinese cultural icons in Indonesia, to convince that what is considered a strategy to give inter-subjective meaning as demonstrated by Hafiz, means memories that have never been protected. Lucky tells that history is forged in a hard way, by isolating, silencing and forgetting.

By this part, the film has ventured into a deeper territory than the incident aspect of May 1998. Now, the anthology enters a discussion on the interpretation of a social constellation, which either directly or indirectly correlates with the incident ten years ago. A remarkable personal interpretation from Lucky.


The story continues even deeper than the identity roots issue brought by Lucky. Identity as the most important element in the shaping of Lucky’s constellation results in tragedy and a deep wound.

The next film, from Edwin, opens a Pandora’s box about Ethnic-Chinese, even when Edwin is speaking in murmurs, far from being firm. The people responsible for the sequencing of the anthology are boldly speculating by including Edwin’s piece, A Trip to the Wound. The film, which has been screened as an independent short, is actually about a personal and unique wound (there’s a story in every wound). However, in this anthology, the wound transforms into a collective wound.

Trip works in similar ways as Ifa’s Huan, in that it is insinuating one of the most controversial dimensions of the May 1998 incident: its impact on the Ethnic-Chinese. Trip is even more mysterious because Edwin is never referring to any facts related to the May incident. The wound then needs to be associated with that of the mass rape taking place in May 1998, by casting Ladya Cheryl, an actress more or less representative of the Ethnic-Chinese, and the grope under her skirt in the bus.

If Ifa’s protagonist shies away from discussing what really happened and goes straight to escapism as the base for the diaspora-in-the-making, Edwin is talking about the most sensitive subject: the intrusion to the most private part of the Ethnic-Chinese women during the riots – say, rapes. Trip is indicating two sides of the “raping incident”. The first one is a wound that they carry everywhere – as put in one of Chairil Anwar’s poems – but not by screaming it out, but a bitter and lonely silence.

The wound changes into a kind of obsessive search of its history, because the wound itself is invisible (because it is within the most private area?), intangible and cannot be proved. Does it mean that the wound is non-existent?

The Ethnic-Chinese often become scapegoats for Indonesia’s economic underachievement (including as the cause of the economic crisis that leads to the political crisis in 1998). The result is the destruction of stores and the rape of Ethnic-Chinese women on May 13-15, 1998. But did the raping really happen? This is the second side of the wound depicted in Trip. And Edwin effectively insinuates it. Does the wound really exist, and can it be seen without – once again – intruding the private areas of the victims?

When Trip is put in the context of 9808, that is what can be interpreted. A profound dimension of one of the nation’s unresolved problems.

The future

The wound that Edwin depicts is like a climax of the 9808 anthology. To reduce the tension, the film continues by staring into the future of the Reform. From a personal perspective, it materializes in Wisnu SP, nicknamed Wisnu Kucing, and his film Wisnu Kucing 9808, A Note of a  former Demonstrator. Wisnu is a former field general in the 1998 students demonstration. He stood in podiums, made speeches, and shouted rhetorically, “Ready to fight the army?”

Even though just as personal, Wisnu stands on a different ground than Otty Widasari. If Otty sees history being shaped by trivial and personal (too personal, even) things, Wisnu starts from a goal for a political change, and then talks about something more personal and realistic. If in Kemarin, Otty seems to be someone who sits in the present and daydreams about the past, present time Wisnu is an image of Wisnu’s future 10 years ago.

Wisnu in May 1998 was drenched in sweat and shouted at the top of his lungs, getting ready to face off with the army, while Wisnu in the same month ten years later is changing his baby’s diapers in his old Volvo, going to a shooting location, where he works as a freelance producer in an audio visual institution. His wife is a member of the local Parliament, who just gave birth to their baby; and Wisnu feels that he still nurtures his spirit to make this country a better place for everyone, especially for his infant.

It is so interesting to see Wisnu passing by a group of demonstrating students. Holding his baby in his arms, he chit-chats with a policeman keeping watch at the demonstration, as if saying ‘ten years from now, you will end up like me.’ Wisnu, sporting a been-there-done-that attitude, stares at the students and says that they’d be better off in a classroom, studying. Because they will be faced with a much too real problems he is facing right now: money. Because his kid and wife need to eat, education fees are sky high, and so on.

Wisnu Kucing becomes the perfect image of the ‘revolution stops at 30’ cycle. But Wisnu is an honest man in looking at himself like that. Therefore, this piece becomes a small and simple note. This little note is not a showcase of defeat, but a modest and honest acknowledgment.

If Wisnu is a “future” of what happened 10 years ago, then there is a possibility to conclude that the Reform has been futile. Is this true? This anthology comes close to justifying that idea, until the final piece is brought to us by Steven Pillar Setiabudi.

Pillar documents a process of democracy in search of itself, in Our School, Our Life. A school in Solo, Central Java, is designing a demonstration to topple a corrupt headmaster. These high school students are so passionate about the data that they managed to collect. Suddenly, the Reform and political change – which Wisnu is a part of – seem to find its form in Pillar’s piece. With a simple narrative, Pillar is faithful to the subject he wants to convey. He is like a TV journalist investigating and reporting straight facts without intending to dramatize. But instead of finding mere facts about corruption in a lower level, Pillar discovers another dimension of what has been achieved by the Reform: a reinforcement of a political grail, and a determined and spirited democracy. Pillar is lucky with his documentation.

If there is a shortcoming in his documentation, it’s that he didn’t record any testimonials from the accused parties. But such journalistic glitch doesn’t make his film less powerful, in carrying a reflection on May 1998. Especially its implication, that a better life together is a process that we are shaping up together. Thus, a statement that the 1998 Reform is fruitless needs to be revisited. Because from what was sowed 10 years ago, we can see a growing seed that someday we will reap.

There is nothing rigid and to be accepted without questioning; a process is something that needs fighting for. 9808 has started that fight in a small scale. This is the strongest thing that comes out of Pillar’s documentation, once included in the anthology.

As a non-encyclopedic documentation, the 9808 anthology may feel profound in one dimension, and superficial in another. That is where its power lies. With such personal and limited notes, there emerge things that are unimaginable to emerge should this film intend to come up with encyclopedic notes. The risks of becoming too personal, sketchy and so on, may be inevitable, but that is the price for being honest and bringing up issues from perspectives that are accessible by the filmmakers and producers.

If the film ends up with more issues on Ethnic-Chinese, maybe because most of the filmmakers come from that background. But this is not a valid reason because Ifa, who is just a regular Yogyakartan kid, also makes a film about Ethnic-Chinese and their diaspora. Looking at the subjects brought up in this film, the history and identity of Ethnic-Chinese, and also its relation to the making of a nation and the country’s politics is a huge agenda that is far from finished. So the representation of Ethnic-Chinese in this anthology should be seen as a discourse on the agendas that constitute this nation.

Therefore, the notes taken by the people – and the generation – behind 9808, the anthology on the 10th anniversary of the Reform, should be viewed as a path to restart a discussion on this nation: identity, history, and the incidents that shaped it. Just by not being heedless of the significant incident, we can already restart the discussion. ***

”9808” Antologi 10 Tahun Reformasi / 9808 An Anthology of 10th Year Indonesian Reform . Di Mana Saya? /Where Was I (Anggun Priambodo), Yang Belum Usai/An Unfinished One (Ucu Agustin), Huan Chen Guang (Ifa Ifansyah), Kemarin/Yesterday (Otty Widasari), Sugiharti Halim (Ariani Darmawan), Bertemu Jen/Meet Jen (Hafiz), A Letter of Unprotected Memories (Lucky Kuswandi), A Trip to The Wound (Edwin), Kucing 9808-Catatan Seorang Demonstran/ The Cat 9808 A Note of A Former Demonstrator  (Wisnu SP), Our School, Our Life (Steve Pillar Setiabudi).   

‘17,000’ – notes on the arts and popular culture in Indonesia|Off the Edge Magazine| September 2008|Malaysia

By Ann Lee

Ann Lee is an award winning Malaysian playwright, writer and director. Educated in Sandakan, Penang, Colwyn Bay and Oxford, she has been writing on the arts, off and on, for the last 20 years. She has a degree in Film and another in the History of Science, Medicine and Technology. This article was published in a magazine called “Off the Edge”. 

Merdeka of the mind|From ancient hikayat to the Q Film Festival

Last year, while trying to see where merdeka lies, I touched on the long, strong heritage of sexual texts in Malay – various hikayat, kitab, kamus, and Arab texts on adab al-jimak (the art of coitus). Way before durian-flavoured Durex and dental dams with ‘how to’ diagrams, Malaysians of yore have turned to local resources and foreigners to free their minds and loosen their tongues.
This year, I’ve discovered more recent instructive sexual ‘texts’ in local languages at Indonesia’s ‘Q’ Film Festival.

‘Q’ stands for Queer, a kind of ‘variety’ or a ‘various attitude’ more often at odds with the norm, usually but not necessarily in sexual terms. Sorry if that was obscure. In the beautifully tight-assed but politically-correct world of sexuality in the english language, ‘Queer’ offers a quirky but liquid brevity to the clumsy, dry acronym of LGBTIQ – ¬Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Inter and Queer/Questioning.
The Q festival, directed by John Badalu, shows again that the old treasure chests of ‘lesbian’ (white, ugly, Virgina Woolf) and ‘gay’ (blonde, muscular, San Fransisco) aren’t our only wealth and stealth of 21st century globalised sexuality. Now, apparently, there is wider social, political and economic understanding of what makes our tempat kemaluan twitch and how clit is in fact much better known by other words in Asian and African languages.

This year’s Q showed over 40 films from Asia. In the Indonesian ‘Home Made’ section, two films are about waria – Opera Tikus Got by Santosa Amin and Dua Sisi by Mochamed Faisal and Retiara Haswidya Nasution. The Festival closed with Dimas Djayadiningrat’s Quickie Express about Jojo who is forever losing jobs until one fine day, employment rears its lovely head at a male escort service company. Jojo becomes a gigolo to satisfy the needs of rich but lonely wives. For more info, please go to

Curiously enough, for the first time, this Q has a section called Human Rights. In a festival already about LGBTIQ rights, this section is like saying ‘a bedroom has a bed’; surely, stating the obvious. But it has to be said that some come late to the party that ‘gay rights’ are also human rights (including no less than Amnesty International). We all need reminding, it seems, that queer people are just like other people. Or perhaps a Q festival is just the right opportunity to queer up both the big, grey gravitas of human rights and frilly, pink gayness.

Within the Human Rights selection then, one film deserves special mention: 9808 looks back at a decade of Indonesian reforms since the 1998 powerful student demos (and public riots) that prompted the collapse of the Soeharto regime. The film – actually ten short films in one anthology – ¬ are surprisingly inclusive, mostly personal stories made (for free) by ten film-makers aged between 25 and 35 years old. The films are not a comprehensive look at reforms. They do not include anyone from the military, police or government. Out of ten films, two may be said to post different poles of pink and grey with other films providing many shades of cover. And then there is a surprising finale that delights and challenges.

The pinkest film with reliable codes of the affirmative pleasure of same sex love (or at least a strong hint of it) is Ifa Isfansyah’s Huan Chen Guang (Happiness Morning Light). This adept and charming little manja of a ten minute feature was shot in Korea. It begins with a young girl who has left Indonesia where her mother was killed during the riots. The girl arrives in Pusan, lost and unsure. When trying to ask for a ‘sanitary towel’ to a cashier who only speaks Korean, a young pengkik (baby-butch) helps the young girl out. Together the girls spend a day’s adventure getting to know one another. In shy but telling gestures, they end up in bed playing with condoms and lollipops.

The greyest tale is Yang Belum Usai (The Unfinished), a documentary by Ucu Agustin about the mother of Wawan, a student at the Catholic Atmajaya University who was shot and killed in Jakarta by the military on 13 November, 1998. The film begins with the family having dinner with one place left for Wawan so that in case he shows up – his mother says, smiling – it will be easy to feed him. She believes that God meant for her son to help others. She prays that the leaders of the country such as the Attorney General will do the right thing. Even when she weeps for her son, there is reason to be cheerful. Among other mothers standing outside the Presidential Palace, protesting to ensure that justice is done to find the killers of her son, they even find time to joke.

According to award-winning screenwriter Prima Rusdi (part of the Proyek Payung collective that produced the films), ‘we must not forget’. She adds ‘especially as it’s cool among young students nowadays to say ‘I’m not into politics’; what an achievement for the Suharto regime.’ The initiative behind the films is part of the ongoing drive by various Southeast Asian film-makers to investigate official histories and narratives more critically – yet with confidence and pleasure. (In the credits can be seen that insidious Amir Muhammad.)

All the films are thought-provoking and impressive; several use humour to lighten the load though Edwin’s Trip to the Wound is rather heavy handed and Kemarin by Otty Widasari gets a bit too self-absorbed in its discussion between three former students who enjoy flirting with one another more than making sense.

The inspiring finale is Sekolah Kami, Hidup Kami (Our School, Our Lives) by Steve Pillar Setiabudi. Here we see a group of high school boys who set about to expose corruption in their school. Watching the school’s vice (indeed) headmaster and teachers look dumbfounded at their students who take hold of microphones to show the evidence they have carefully compiled, is a sight to behold. It upturns our familiar notions of who is supposed to be on top and who bottom. And in so doing, the pleasure is very satisfying.

Too Much, Too Little, Too Late (Tempo No.39/VIII/May 27- June 2, 2008)

By: Julia Suryakusuma -the author of Sex, Power and Nation

A FEW days ago, I relived the past in celluloid form: 10 films from Proyek Payung (Umbrella Project) about the May riots and rapes of 1998. To what aim? To ‘commemorate’ the atrocities that were part of the unexplained backdrop to the rise of the Reform movement, jogging our memories of the price some among us had to pay for change. Of course, those who were raped, attacked or abused don’t need be reminded. The tragedy and pain they experienced is etched so deeply in their memories that the last thing they need is a bookmark. For some, the trauma is so deep that May 1998 is a nightmare relived on a daily basis. So these films are for the rest of us, most of whom would like to simply forget those black scorched pages in our history. The films themselves vary in focus and treatment, ranging from the reminiscing of “Where was I?” (interviewees speaking about where they were during the May riots), to the humour of “Sugiharti Halim” (about the New Order government regulation that forced ethnic Chinese to ‘Indonesianise’ their names), the escapism of “Huang Chen Guang” (about a young woman whose ethnic Javanese mother was killed during the May riots, causing her to flee to Korea to escape the awful memories), the self-mocking of “Kucing 9808, Catatan Seorang (Mantan) Demonstran” (Cat 9808, Diary of a Former Activist who scoffs at himself with chagrin, as his reality now is more about his wife and baby daughter than any big, idealistic cause), to the piercing grief of “Yang Belum Usai” (That Which is Unfinished—about a mother whose son was one of the four students shot at the Semanggi flyover and who every year, without fail, demonstrates in front of the Presidential palace to demand justice).

During discussions in Jakarta on May 20 one director said he and his fellow film-makers had been accused of focusing too much on the Chinese in four out of the ten films. Besides “Sugiharti Halim” and “Huan Chen Guang”, there was also the erotic “A Trip to the Wound”, about how bodily wounds tell the story of our lives, and how our psychic wounds tell even more about ourselves and our humanity, a film which distracts in its erotic atmosphere, but attracts us to reflect on symbolic meanings. There was also the nostalgic “A Letter of Unprotected Memories”, about the post-1998 ‘nationalisation’ of Imlek—Chinese New Year. I expect that I too will run the risk of being accused of defending the ethnic Chinese by focusing on these films. So why do I do it?

Because the way we treat our minorities reveals much about what we are as a people and as a nation. Our minorities are us, so our intolerance—let alone overt discrimination—exposes our injustices, and in the case of the May riots and rapes, our inability to acknowledge our wrongs. Playing ostrich is ultimately self-destructive. It prevents us from moving forward into the future and fulfilling our destiny because it dooms us to repeat our mistakes over and over again.

Each of the four ‘Chinese’ films are told from a subjective, personal point of view, but collectively they speak volumes about our persistent abuse of this minority. The witty approach of Sugiharti Halim is fraught with irony, and belies the pain and humiliation that the Chinese had to go through as a result of the New Order’s misguided attempt to obliterate Chinese names. Shakespeare famously asked “what’s in a name?” and the answer was obviously ‘a lot’ for Indonesian Chinese before 1998. It could subject you to discrimination, exploitation and in May 1998, it could even make you a target for rape, pillage, arson and murder.

Ten years into Reformasi, what have we done to fix all this? Our national position seems to be a vague, insincere (and usually unstated) apology: Uhh, sorry that we raped you, failed to acknowledge your contributions to the nation; sorry that we drove you away and murdered your families. But, hey, look, everything’s alright now: you can celebrate Imlek, with shop attendants and TV newscasters wearing ersatz Chinese costumes, your dragon dances, and your Chinese newspapers and TV news broadcasts. You’ve even got Imlek nationalized as a public holiday. What more could you want? Surely it’s a reasonable swap for the continuing denial of your human rights, denial of access to justice, and denial of your right to be accepted as Indonesians? Not such a great loss is it really? What, you’re not complaining again, are you? Typical.

That’s how it usually goes, huh? Well, I’ve got news for you my fellow non-ethnic Chinese Indonesians: the real losers are us! Forget about being philosophical and losing-our-collective-humanity-as-a-nation, or even our diminished international reputation. No, let’s get really practical. How about losing much-needed capital, or human resources?

Let me tell you about a Chinese family I know. Living in Glodok, Jakarta’s Chinatown, they pooled their entire family’s resources to send their young daughter out to Australia when things started getting hot in 1998, to save her from violence and abuse. A stranger in an alien country, she struggled though high school there, found her way to university, earned herself a law degree, and now works for government there in a well-paid legal role. And she is just one of thousands who fled when we attacked and abused them and burned down their homes and shops. Yes, the Chinese are often accused of not being nationalistic and abandoning Indonesia but, sorry my brothers and sisters, it was we who drove them away!

Seems to me that way we treat our ethnic Chinese minority is a case of ‘too much, too little, too late,’ to quote Denise Williams and Johnny Mathis’ classic ‘seventies hit. Too much discrimination and abuse and too little justice and respect, until it becomes too late fix the damage done.

And who are the losers? In the end, it’s the rest of us, loosing in all the ways we can lose. Again.

1998 – 2008

by Achmad Baihaqi and Nadissa Fadhila, class XII IPS 1, SMA 28 Jakarta

We were young. Barely eight years old. Still young, like a newborn bird, runny-nosed and innocent of everything. What is reformation? We did not understand. At that time, what we understood about reformation was school being disbanded, news of student demonstrations on television, lootings occurring everywhere (and it did cross our minds to join the pillaging seeing how fun it was for people grabbing so many things from stores without paying for them), the empty streets of Jakarta and entering the highway for free because no one was guarding the ticket stand.

We were really blind about reformation. As a primary school student, we could only be amazed by how vicious people are with the savage pillaging of stores. Starting from the large shops to the smaller ones that were near Haqi’s house, nothing was left untouched. 

The students were truly in high spirits then. They shouted for attention by filling the streets of Jakarta. Seen from above, it looked as if they were having a carnival with their brightly coloured university jackets.

A fragment of a story from Nadissa:
My father happened to be involved behind the scenes and seemed as enthused as the students. Indirectly, Father’s fervour was passed onto me. Then I did not really understand what their purpose was. What I knew was that I was able to feel their fire that was about to explode.
And when President Soeharto resigned from his position, the students were so buoyant, happy because they achieved what they had struggled for. At the time, I still did not understand their motives. I only knew they were demonstrating their dislike for President Soeharto. Like the joyful students, I was also in good spitirs, not because I understood, but because I saw my Father happy. I still remember very well the expression on my father’s face and the faces of thousands of students who succeeded in occupying the DPR/MPR building. That expression was so mysterious because I did not know what it meant.

Now we know what reformation is. Now we know the meaning of the expression on Nadissa’s father’s face and the faces of the thousands of students. Now we know and understand why those students wanted to suffer like that, wanted to wearily shout and endure the heat of the streets.
They wanted change. They wanted a change for the better. Their boiling rage from being imprisoned for so long, their helplessness to show who they really made them put up a good fight. They united, sacrificed, suffered, fought and willing to offer anything, even if it was their own lives at stake.

That jolted us awake. It made us realize how noble they are because their struggles and achievements meant so much. They who fought now demand that we take responsibility to continue the fight. They had only started it. Now WE are the ones who have to care for and carry on their dream to create a better Indonesia (translated by Titania Veda).

May 1998 Never Happened

by Gustaff H. Iskandar*

What can I really remember about May 1998? It does not feel like a lot. There is a part of me that would like to erase pieces of those events from memory. When people ask why, I myself am hesitant to answer. Maybe this is the picture of rage, of disappointment, of trauma or maybe a form of bewilderment when faced with such a sad and ridiculous reality. Right now, I feel within me what happened ten years ago is not much different from a film or a theatrical performance showing on a gigantic stage. A celebration similar to an orgy.

In this matter, the democratic texts, the change and reformation that was present amidst the throngs of demonstrators, the rioting and deaths of thousands are only a fragment of a drama that tells a tale of the collapse of a country that was built on myths of romance and glory. The incident of May 1998 was an impressive event drowned in the midst of a million sequels of truth that occurs within an epileptic chamber.  Present for a moment only to disappear, replaced by a million events fighting each other to become a spectacle, even only for a mere second. It seems as if the truth never really happened inside a simulation room.

But is it true that the incident of May 1998 only paints a picture of a piece of truth that mutated into a nightmare? My friends and I were still students then.  Concerned with the movement of May 1998, I still recall my friend saying that history has chosen to appear without prior warning. “We never really created history that day. It was history that came upon us and forced us to accept the fact without giving us a chance to refuse.” So chattered my friend, softly haunted still by the atmosphere of the student demonstrations that were so vehement.

Before the occurrence of May 1998, many people believed that the momentum of change would truly arrive then. Perhaps I was one of those people. However, there were many who were later disappointed when they realized that the hope they held slowly changed into a piece of fiction that may not have any relation to the reality of today. After ten years have passed, the hopes for that change have been crushed by the situation of a country threatening to topple over due to corruption, acute social autism and conflict of interests unable to be controlled.

Now, before us we have ten short films based on May 1998. This project is an effort to open a dialogue as well as an attitude to counter forgetting, so that the events of May 1998 can signify a monumental affair.  A friend wrote that history is humanity’s attempt to draw meaning from life while being a method of preserving their habitat as a creature blessed with the ability to think. Due to that, the idea of counteracting forgetting is perhaps the only way to fight hegemony and the process of dehumanisation, so that we can keep pushing for (dreaming) about a change for the better. Besides that, perhaps May 1998 never really happened (translated by Titania Veda).

Kyai Gede Utama, 14 June 2008

*The writer is an artist, working for the Common Room Networks Foundation.

Why We Need A Movement Against Forgetting?

by Rade Eva Febrina Panjaitan

History is an important aspect of life. Because there is a past, therefore there is a present and a future. “To remember” does not always mean “outdated“ and “melancholic, otherwise meaning “respectful”, “evaluation” and even “on guard”.

Thus, the matter of remembering the May ’98 riots or what is usually called May ’98, the occurrence then has become an event that will always be a dark portrait of this nation. For a few parties, the incident meant anarchy, brutality and the loss of hope. Nevertheless, for certain parties at the time, it meant a triumph over tyranny and the sweet smell of victory.

With all due respect and deepest condolences for those who have lost – whoever or whatever – they loved, May ’98 needs to be committed to memory. Not to be transfixed on gloomy memories, but instead to show respect for those who have paid dearly – with blood, with life, with treasures and even with honour – for the sake of overthrowing a regime. More than that, remembering May ’98 also functioned to regain our awareness in seeing the signs of the times, like the right moment topple over tyranny, igniting mass riots veering on the barbaric until the first helping hand in social chaos.

Together, let us remember and commemorate May ’98 with a sincere heart.  Let us also oppose all things and attempts to ignore or even erase the traces of blood from that event. And so, we can pride ourselves as a nation that refuses to forget (history)! (translated by Titania Veda).

Fortunate Are Those Who Worry

by Yuli Andari, Yogyakarta

Seeing the anthology “9808” was like turning back the clock to ten years back although no longer with the romantic passion. A few films, which raised the issue of the ethnic Chinese, were extremely personal. They were small stories about big issues that are not clear until now.

The ones that made an impression on me were Kucing 9808 and the film about a student who traced the corruption in his school. I saw Kucing’s character as a former ’98 activist as a real character of someone who had been involved in the transformation. Good footage showed him ten years ago when addressing an act. Then, compared to himself ten years later: a husband, and a father. He made a statement when he agitatedly appealed to the masses for change, yet ten years later he stated that the point of demonstrations are no longer relevant so it is best that students return to their studies. Madness! At first I was impressed that this former activist thinks so realistically about the life he is leading and trying to make peace with his ego to no longer be heroic. Nevertheless, I began thinking about other matters after watching this film: that the span of ten years has so rapidly altered the state of this country.

We tried hard to fend off forgetting that we were ever troubled by the state of order, then at one point when we already “felt order” we read that the upheaval caused by the generation after us or the current student movement seems irrelevant. 

Personally, I am very fearful of experiencing this, fearful of forgetting the distress that I had once faced. Anxiety is the catalyst of change. How fortunate are those who possess enough anxiety to initiate even the smallest change in their community.

Next, I watched the film about a student who attempted to investigate the corruption at his school. That the Reformation of 1998 has had a positive effect on the critical enthusiasm (semangat kritis) of these SMA students cannot be denied.  I really could not imagine this happening during my time in school. Perhaps we would have been dismissed from school. A friend once told me that he is pessimistic about the youth movement from seeing the attitude of the youth of today. However, after watching this film, I feel optimistic about the passion of our younger generation (translated by Titania Veda).

9808: The Irony of Nationalism (Paper on 9808 Film Discussion at RSY)

27 May 2008
by Donny Danardono

This paper was presented during the discussion following the screening of a compilation of ten short films ‘9808’ (Proyek Payung production) at Rumah Seni Yaitu, 27 May 2008, 21:00 WIB. The writer is a lecturer of philosophy at FH and Program Master of Environment and City of Unika Soegijapranata.

The month of May was an ironic one in Indonesia. A hundred years ago, 20 May 1908, when a handful of Javanese doctors in STOVIA founded the national organization “Boedi Oetomo”, it was the month that sparked a national awakening. However, May 1998 – when the monetary crisis of Indonesia had reached its peak, when the military crushed the university students, labourers and the middle class who demanded economic and political reformation, when buildings and shops owned by ethnic Chinese were looted and set ablaze, and when thousands (?) of ethnic Chinese women or those who presumed to have been abused sexually, raped and killed, and the time when it was not clear who was the perpetrator behind it all – was regarded as a month of bleakness or blackness, but to call it darkness is more appropriate.

The nationalism that spread across Asia and Africa during the beginning of the 20th century stemmed from the fire to fight off the colonizers. Nationalism not only gave a sense of solidarity amongst those who were subjugated, but also portrayed the colonial countries as the other who for centuries have caused suffering. Finally, nationalism was able to drive out the Dutch from the archipelago.

However, the term “mutual sentiment” and “colonials as the other” are utter caricatures. The country and nation of Indonesia who gained full independence in 1949 are not able to eliminate several colonial institutions when they began their new “household”. It even – like what was noted in the Aturan Peralihan Pasal II UUD 1945 before it was amended – to live based on the rule of the law and/or the country’s colonial institutions until there is a replacement.

Therefore, the modern Indonesia, especially Suharto’s New Order, is a country that often repeats the policies and violence of the colonials. In Ben Anderson’s “Old State, New Society: Indonesia’s New Order in Comparative Historical Perspective” calls it a curious amalgam of legitimate fictions and concrete illegitimacies” (Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, 1990, Language and Power: Exploring Political Cultures in Indonesia, Ithaka, Cornell University Press, hal. 95).

Here is the irony: an independent Indonesia, specifically a New Order nation, is a merger of legitimate fiction and filled with violence (illegitimacies) in the creation of a nation.

So, when “all” the citizens of Indonesia dreamt of a new nation that is able to provide protection and prosperity, what occurred instead was devide-et-impera. For if Hindia Dutch is filled by Dutch officials, the country occupied by the Indonesian elite and the New Order by the military Armed Forces, if the era of colonial ethnic Chinese were granted an economic role, because as an immigrant they are easier to control that the “natives”, then the situation is repeated and established by the New Order (except in the 1950s when Sukarno with his “political fortress” failed to develop “native” entrepreneurs, like Ahmad Bakri, by providing import licenses); then by 1963, particularly in the New Order, the ethnic Chinese were once again controlled and only given roles in the economic sector. Chinese writings and the Konghucu religion were forbidden. Instead, while still holding the WNI (Indonesian citizenship) status, they were required to own an SKBRI (proof of citizenship).

So this is one of the ironies of nationalism: the violence against the ethnic Chinese not only caused an impact but was also a tool to control this post-colonial nation. So nationalism was not only build with the anti-aliens/anti-foreigners (representing the colonizers), but also those who alienate a number of its citizens. This situation truly differs from what Ernest Renan imagined when he said a nation or the national enthusiasm is only present when the parties who created that nation can “forget” themselves – Indonesianness appears when we “forget” we are “Madurese”, “Sundanese”, “Javanese” or “Balinese”. In a postcolonial Indonesian community the process of “forgetting” oneself occurred at the same time as the process of alienating the ethnic Chinese.  It seems Indonesian nationalism can only be rebuilt, if the irony can be understood and taken apart. The other irony that also requires comprehension is that the economic success of a large percentage of ethnic Chinese Indonesians are not simply the result of their hard work but also the product of racist Dutch colonials. The Dutch chose ethnic Chinese as entrepreneurs by first excluding them from the “natives”. Until they felt that as an immigrant they did not have a ground to stand on and needed the protection of the Dutch, making them easy to control. This was not the case with the “natives” who had to create a political party to control the government in order to become entrepreneurs. So could it be that we left several of those ironies of nationalism without reproducing them?

It is not easy to answer that question. But watch 9808 “Anthology of 10 years of Reformation in Indonesia”, a compilation of seven documentaries and three narratives on the ironies of nationalism.

The first film is called “Where am I?” which interviewed documenting several youths during May 1998. There is irony here. For instance, when a character (a teenage girl), a fan of the Hansons and Boyzone, cannot grasp the situation of 12 – 13 May 1998, and hoped to be able to obtain cassettes from the newest albums from the two American music groups. The irony increases when the continuing interview also showed her intimate pictures with her mother and grandmother. A mother and grandmother are life-bearing symbols. But how can someone raised by a mother think in such a way that they would “take” from others? The third film “Happiness Morning Light” is a narrative film that ironically tells of a woman living in Beijing and of the thousands of Suhartini (apparently ethnic Chinse women) who died in the May 1998 riots. She was so sad to find out about the death of her mother. She befriended Huan, a Chinese woman living in South Korea, and this made her happy. Afterwards, she decided to return to Beijing. Again, this is an irony from postcolonial nationalism. Her child, who is a Chinese citizen, can feel the suffering of the mother, an Indonesian. Postcolonial nationalism cannot end within the country but has to leave it.

The ironies of nationalism made me think maybe nationalism is useless project. Globalization – in the form of information technology – is already knocking down boundaries. If nationalism is useless, how can a citizen of Indonesian understand their Indonesianness? How can they understand their ethnic identity? Is Indonesianness something obvious and certain like the first time it was proclaimed in the youth oath of October 1928?  Or is it ever changing? It is the ability to answer these questions that may help us escape the ironic nationalism of postcolonial Indonesia.

Watching ‘9808’

25 May 2008
Tubagus Svarajati, Rumah Seni Yaitu

The compilation of ten short films ‘9808’ shows a variety of stories. Those that made an impression on me were the films “A Letter of Unprotected Memories” [Lucky Kuswandi, 2008, 09.37] and “Meet Jen” [Hafiz, 2008, 16.39].

“A Letter of Unprotected Memories” demonstrated an interesting way of communicating. That the film is a ‘moving image’ created not with the sequential flow of pictures but presents images, namely text or writing.

The pinyin text (also including the Indonesian and English translations) could be perceived as a representation of pictures.  There is an understanding that this sequence or series of pictures are shaped from the changing of one text to another.

The film “A Letter of Unprotected Memories” forces the audience to draw their own conclusion of what the text means and contains.  The audience is respectfully forced to read every single text that appears which may not even form a complete sentence but only pieces of emotions. No music or auditory imagery appears to accompany the presence of each text. Silence. The red texts (pinyin) are written against a black background, present amidst the darkness. Eventually, the director Lucky Kuswandi broke through the common way of film speech in the middle of global filming technology.
He provided a simple film production technique. The director did not spoil the audience with a series of beautiful images. Imagine the menacing effect that appears from this film that is almost devoid of sound or audio.

In the gaps of the texts present the director would occasionally slip in a motion picture sequence. Some of the images have sound while others are silent. One of those motion pictures showed a barongsai in action in the middle of a mass crowd. It was in slow motion, with no thundering of a beating drum, no sound of a noisy crowd. This was a very powerful sequence. Was the Chinese race – represented by the art of the barongsai – present as a giant force, though as if in between appearing or disappearing, in the silence?

The film opened with the impression of a person answering the telephone. Then the dialog came hurtling along – or the monolog, to be precise – that was embodied in the row of pinyin texts. Could that silent dialogue mean an existentialism that was smothered? Did that monologue show the soul splitting of the nota bene Chinese narrator?

How to explain the presence of time in each of those texts? When the texts appear – and it is always in an uncomfortable silence – is there perhaps the passing of time there? The questions assume that the presence – or let us say the impression of – time is very important, even one of the important elements of a film. Time in film runs from one point to the next, even though it is not always linear. This is different with a photograph where a moment is frozen and time stopped.

In my observation, the changing from one text to the next indicated the passing of time. The interval that was felt by the audience strengthened the presence of that element of time. The same thing occurred every time a text appeared on screen. Even though the text is still, the passing of time was felt when the audience spelt it out. So the element of time had an associative presence in the mind of the viewer. Reading in this fashion is usually applied when we are looking at a photograph.
The use of textual imagery that was used as images or still photos showed Lucky’s achievement that exceeded the work of Anggun Priambodo (“Where was I”, Anggun Priambodo, 2008, 10:39). In the film, Anggun uses still photos in him narration the other way around. The photos are used as a narrative tool, where the story rules. The photographs in Anggun’s work could not remain in the “moving pictures” field. With Lucky’s texts, I observed, there as association as well as narration.
A few of the moving images of “A Letter…” shows strong visual semiotics. There were images of imported fruit that, they say, came from that imperialist nation. The narrator said that he (or us: Chinese; associated in the film) did not like local fruits. Then appeared the text “We do not believe the ‘locals’”. A moment later appeared the image of a storeowner, a native – holding a box of imported strawberries. Other images showed a sequence of Chinese girls – giving the impression of the middle class – in comparison to the storeowner. One image showed: a girl in jeans, visible from the back from around her waist until her knee and to the lower right hand corner the storeowner was kneeling, cornered. Is it not loud and clear what Lucky is saying?

I felt that the film “A Letter…’ was very strong visually and the message that wished to be said was communicated even though it was not told in a conventional fashion. He exhibited a simple binary opposition system. Obscurely, if I am not mistaken, this film is inclined to brood. Is the director provoking us? Who knows.

I did not write in length about Hafiz’s creation “Meet Jen”. What should be noted it that in the production of the film, Hafiz showed his class as a director, videographer and scriptwriter.
Hafiz directed – or more precisely, directed – the film’s characters by throwing directed questions. Those questions were answered, responded to and the character at times repeated some questions. The film’s script originated from a few images that had been prepared. In the end, it was a film that was made on the spot. A conceptual film. Interesting.

Even though a large part of the film told the story or the problem around the Reformation of May 1998, I felt that it was in reality a film about existentialism. How a human being – in the Cartesian view of invulnerability – who rationally handled, convinced secularism (remember his experience of not being impressed at all when the call to prayer echoed?) and who was in fact not more than one of the alienated characters. Humans are lonely in the middle of the hubbub of flyovers. Humans are imprisoned and lonely in their own thoughts. In great heights he shrinks. Within himself he continues to search.

Does experience have to mean bodily experience? Is empirical reality not more than a theatrical play? Does empirical reality really exist? Is empirical reality only a representation of language? Is the reality on television simulation? (translated by Titania Veda).


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