A young Indonesian writer currently studying in New York
A scene from Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan. (YouTube/Falcon)
Editor’s note: This post may contain spoilers of the recently released film Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan.
There is a trail of unmoving taillights on the road ahead of you that goes on ceaselessly, a modern maze found within the evening traffic. You hear a soft knock on your window and find a little girl begging for spare change; dusty palms stretched out toward tinted glass, eyes pleading. You wave her away.
This scene isn’t an uncommon one in a city like Jakarta. In a city bustling with life, we tend to pay attention to the flickering lights, the tall buildings that hover over us. We don’t recognize the juxtaposition present within our surroundings, the rising skyline against the derelict homes with a roof that leaks whenever it rains. Or perhaps we do. But everything has fallen into such a comfortable rhythm, the way that each car or beggar on the street moves with its own destination and purpose, that we find ourselves growing more and more apathetic.
Fajar Bustomi’s Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan (A Note to God), breaks this comfortable rhythm and asks us the questions that we’ve avoided for far too long.
The movie tells of two orphans struggling to keep up with the hustle on the streets of Jakarta. With no one to turn to and nowhere else to go, the boy and his younger sister are taken into a home run by a syndicate that exploits abandoned and vulnerable children, forcing them to roam the streets as beggars. In the present day, the little girl is now a lawyer fighting for social justice in Australia. While she had been adopted as a child, the whereabouts of her brother has been unknown to her all these years. Restless and haunted by her past, she decides to return to Indonesia to search for him, after being away for 15 years.
Watching as strange men physically abuse children throughout the first half of the movie was saddening, but watching her reunite with her brother was heartbreaking. Because he wasn’t there, not really. All she could reunite with were bones and dust, the remnants of a victim of organ trafficking. It is only then that we realize what really went on in that house, and how the men earned money: by promising these orphans adoption into a new family, only to drive them to a slaughterhouse and stand there watching as the hope that was briefly found in their eyes just as quickly dissipates.
The screen goes dark, and the credits roll. People begin to shuffle in their seats, getting up. I stayed there for a moment, silent. Thinking. Contemplating. A hundred different questions were asked in my head. A hundred other thoughts formed.
Because yes, this was a movie. The scenario, while deeply moving for the most part, was melodramatic and a stretch at times, taking away its sense of realism and urgency. But then you remember that this really is a reality for some people, or at least a version of it. Not some vague idea of people somewhere at some time either, but perhaps this story belongs to one or two of the people who walk alongside you on your drive down the street. The little boys and girls who approach your car; arms outstretched, eyes hollow. The little boys and girls who we turn away because giving them money would be counterproductive, or whatever else it is that we tell ourselves.
It’s easy to put the blame on bad people. That the world’s tragedies are caused by bad people, those with an absence of a moral compass. However, Bustomi challenges this notion through Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan.
How do we define bad people? If the world was beautifully black and white, we would say that the old man who ran the syndicate is to blame for this tragedy, that he is the bad guy. But the world isn’t a children’s cartoon; where the bad guy is easily identified, a pair of horns on his head. Things aren’t so simple.
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Bustomi challenges us to consider all of the players within this social issue. He asks us to consider the role of the syndicate; whose actions, while inexcusable, provided the hungry, abandoned children with food and shelter before they could be returned to heaven at the end of their suffering, something that no one else was able to offer these children. He pushes us to wonder whether this could be a silver lining, and if so, to what extent. Bustomi also asks us to consider the role of those on the verge of dying on their hospital beds, their families desperate for an organ donor. They might not have known where the organ came from, relieving them of some guilt, but they never seemed to ask questions either.
At this point, it is difficult for us to decide who to hold accountable. Is it perhaps all of the people in between: the educated doctors who did not ask questions about where the organs were procured before operating? The Indonesian justice system who overlooks these tragedies? Our government for the lack of policies to protect the most vulnerable elements of society? This is the reality of our country, as well as many others. Oftentimes, one individual’s desperation for life corresponds with desperation that arises from dire poverty.
Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan is not merely a letter to God, it is a letter crafted for us as well. Fajar Bustomi attempts to help us understand that the causes of some of our country’s most pressing issues are not as simple as we may assume, and neither are their solutions.
I am only one of the many recent high school graduates of the emerging Indonesia. As soon as we walked off the stage with our diplomas earlier this year, something changed, and it wasn’t until recently that this realization came upon me; softly, quietly. It was all fun and games when these ideas were just case studies or discussions in the classroom - but what now? Now that the four walls of the classroom no longer contain us? How do we begin to attempt to join the rest of the world as global citizens, and what kind of attitudes should we bring along with us?
I continue to wonder if anyone has ever found the answers to these questions, and if anyone ever will, but for now, perhaps we should start by paying close attention to those around us; to every noise and every painful echo. (asw)
Currently studying in New York, Christhalia Wiloto enjoys watching the skyline flicker at night and getting lost in art galleries. A writer and artist, you can find more of her work on christhalia.wordpress.com, or see what she’s up to on Instagram, @christhaliaa.
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