Feature

An enlightening movie

Lukman Sardi (center) plays Ahmad Dahlan in Sang Pencerah.: courtesy of Multivision Pictures
Lukman Sardi (center) plays Ahmad Dahlan in Sang Pencerah.: courtesy of Multivision Pictures

Director Hanung Bramantyo has returned to the silver screen with his latest movie, Sang Pencerah (The Enlightened One), which tells the story of Ahmad Dahlan and the foundation of the country’s second largest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah.


After cheap horror flicks and children’s adventure films, it seems that patriotic movies are a new trend for the country’s filmmakers.

This holiday season local theaters are showing several patriotic movies. After the success of Darah Garuda (Blood of Eagles), we are now offered with Sang Pencerah, a movie about Muhammadiyah founder Ahmad Dahlan.

Bringing the life of a national hero to the screen is an uphill battle, considering the fact that young people barely know some of Indonesia’s national heroes — let alone an insular figure such as Ahmad Dahlan, who pales in comparison to Prince Diponegoro or Gen. Sudirman.

The task of bringing Ahmad Dahlan’s story to life fell into the hands of Hanung Bramantyo, a young director known for blockbuster films such as Get Married and Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love).
Ahmad Dahlan is Hanung’s favorite national hero. “I really admire Ahmad Dahlan’s spirit. At the age of 21, for instance, he tried to change the direction of the kiblat,” Hanung said recently, referring to the direction in which Muslims must pray.

“He was only 21, but he already made a contribution to his community. A hundred years after the founding of Muhammadiyah, what have our young generation done?”

Given the insularity of Ahmad Dahlan’s character — lionized only by members of Muhammadiyah — some of actors hired for the project did not even know who he was.

Actor Lukman Sardi, who plays Ahmad Dahlan in the film, admitted he knew nothing about Ahmad’s life until he was hired to play the part and did some research.

Hanung has been accused of being on the payroll of Muhammadiyah to make the film. He denied the speculation, saying that he just wanted to raise awareness about the country’s national heroes.

Set in late 19th century Yogyakarta, the film begins with a depiction of the poverty that plagued Muslims in the region as they toiled under the oppression of the Dutch colonial government.

During the period, Javanese Muslims tended to mix Islamic teachings with Javanese mystic beliefs that required them to spend excessively on lavish rituals. Javanese, for instance, still made offerings under a banyan tree known as sesajen in the hope that God would hear their prayers, a holdover from Java’s animistic past.

Some, however, rejected these practices, questioning them and considered them a heretical deviation from true Islamic teachings. In the film, one of the naysayers is a boy named Muhammad Darwisy, who would later be known as Ahmad Dahlan.

Darwisy, portrayed by Indonesian Idol  Ihsan Tarore, comes from a highly respected family in Yogyakarta. His father is Kyai Abubakar, an imam, or preacher, at the Kauman Grand Mosque.

Dissatisfied with how Islam was practiced in his environs, Darwis makes a haj pilgrimage to Mecca with the aim of finding the true incarnation of Islam.

He returns to Yogyakarta and adopted a new name, Ahmad Dahlan.

After his return, Ahmad starts teaching about what he learned during the pilgrimage. He builds a small mosque where he teaches kids in the neighborhood about his new take on Islam.

Before long he meets resistance. He is accused of being an infidel after he uses a violin in his Koranic class.

The real battle begins when he starts to convince Muslims in the neighborhood that they are facing the wrong direction when they pray. Instead of facing Mecca, Ahmad Dahlan is convinced that his people bow towards Africa. He starts convincing the people who pray in the Grand Mosque to change direction.

Ahmad Dahlan’s campaign infuriates the old establishment, represented by traditional Muslim cleric Kyai Penghulu Kamaludiningrat (played by veteran actor Slamet Rahardjo), who will do just about anything to keep Javanese traditions alive.

Sang Pencerah starts slowly, with Hanung detailing the early life of Ahmad Dahlan. Hanung spends the first half of the movie introducing multiple characters, ranging from Ahmad Dahlan’s apprentices to local clerics.

The film comes to life with the outbreak of conflict between Kyai Penghulu and Ahmad Dahlan.

The film climaxes in a scene where mobs crowd Ahmad Dahlan’s mosque and threaten to burn it to the ground on the orders of Kyai Penghulu. It is be the most memorable, as well as touching, scene in the film.  

Hanung’s decision to cast Lukman Sardi as Ahmad Dahlan pays off with the actor giving a top-notch performance, digging deep into the protagonist’s psyche and character. Veteran actor Slamet Rahardjo  shows off his acting skills as the movie’s primary antagonist.

The movie’s production team deserves praise for reconstructing the old days of Yogyakarta, recreating some of its iconic buildings, such as the Kauman Grand Mosque, Tugu Railway Station, the Kweek School, Jl. Malioboro and the Beringharjo market.

A large part of the movie’s budget of Rp 12 billion (US$1.3 million) went to reconstructing late 19th century Yogyakarta, touching up old buildings and designing props.

“We couldn’t just buy Javanese traditional clothing from the period. We couldn’t find most of antiques that were used in the movie. Every costume had to be ordered,” Hanung said.

In spite of the difficulties, Hanung said that this won’t be his last project on national heroes. Currently he is working on a script about Kartini, the country’s first feminist figure.

So expect more history lesson on the big screen soon.

Verdict : Sang Pencerah feels like reading a history book, since story goes from A to Z. It’s a good film and a conduit for young people to learn about their national heroes.

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