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‘A Man Called Ahok’: Journey from childhood to prominence

Josa Lukman

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Sat, November 10, 2018  /  10:05 am
‘A Man Called Ahok’: Journey from childhood to prominence

People change: A Man Called Ahok tells the journey of Ahok from his childhood days to becoming a fiery, no-nonsense politician. (Courtesy of The United Team of Art/-)

A biopic about one of Indonesia’s most divisive, loved and hated political figures chooses to play it safe through a family friendly narrative and storytelling.

Few people in the sprawling metropolitan capital of Jakarta could claim to be unaware of the man named Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.

Regardless of one’s feelings toward the former Jakarta governor, Ahok’s influence in Indonesia’s political system is undisputable, for better or for worse.

While Ahok is mostly remembered for his hard-hitting, no-nonsense approach to politics — as well as his controversial prison sentence on the charge of blasphemy — it is almost certain that this is not all there is to the Belitung native.

The biopic A Man Called Ahok sets out to portray the individual behind the smoke and mirrors that cloud his foray into politics; the origins, the genesis of one who would be so integral, yet divisive.

Adapted from the book of the same name by Rudi Valinka, A Man Called Ahok flashes back to 1976, to the early days of Ahok’s childhood in the village of Gantong, East Belitung, and continues until his inauguration as the regent of East Belitung in 2005.

The movie opens with a recording of the real-life Ahok as he sits in the detention center at the National Police’s Mobile Brigade headquarters (Mako Brimob), thanking his supporters and urging them to return home peacefully instead of holding a candlelight vigil in his name.

Even audiences not familiar with Indonesian politics will clearly understand from the opening narration that this story is not destined for a happy ending; or at least will have a delayed one.

The story opens proper in 1976, with the then-10-year-old Ahok (Eric Febrian) sitting in the back seat of a Land Cruiser belonging to his father, Indra Tjahaja Purnama aka Tjoeng Kiem Nam (Deny Sumargo), while his mother Buniarti Ningsing, aka Boen Nen Tjauw (Eriska Rein), sits up front.

Straight away, one gets the sense that Ahok will have a strained relationship with his father, as Ahok’s narration questions what Kiem Nam hopes his son will be when he grows up.

Kiem Nam, who is the tauke (big boss) in the village thanks to his mining business, is known to be generous to a fault, always helping the needy at the expense of his own family.

Scenes of Kiem Nam’s generosity are interspersed throughout the first half of the movie; hammering the point home that young Ahok almost certainly inherited his values from his father’s tough love approach to parenting.

While approximately half of the movie is devoted to establishing Ahok’s family dynamics, the film also skips forward to show the increasingly strained father-son relationship when Ahok returns to Belitung in 1992.

A nice touch during this flash forward is that everything remains the same despite everyone being older; Ahok (Daniel Mananta) still sits in the back of Kiem Nam’s (Chew Kin Wah) Land Cruiser arguing over his decision to return with his father with Buniarti (Sita Nursanti) intervening, all the while the same song from the beginning cheekily reminds the listeners to listen to their parents. 

Family really is forever.

Even though Kiem Nam’s disappointment in Ahok’s decisions is still palpable throughout the scenes, the audience might understand the position he is coming from, having dealt with entrenched corruption in Belitung while Ahok pursues his degrees in Jakarta.

If you are familiar with Ahok’s life, you might not be surprised at the tragedies that befall his family, such as the passing of youngest brother Frans in a traffic accident and Kiem Nam’s eventual passing from cancer.

Still, the scenes are not any less sad, thanks to the sheer emotion exuded by the actors.

Ahok’s eventual foray into politics comes in the latter half of the movie, with his younger siblings stating their support with a callback to a tiger hunting analogy for family that Kiem Nam told them over lunch in 1976.

Viewers are treated to shots of Ahok’s campaign efforts in different communities, along with his opposition to corruption during his time as a member of the regional legislative council (DPRD).

His campaign efforts are not without detractors, however, as a corrupt government official who has been a thorn in Ahok’s side since childhood tries to undermine Ahok’s run for regent by demeaning his ethnic background in a way eerily familiar to the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election.

A flashback to 1976 even reiterates the racial tensions that still pervade Indonesia to this day, with a young Ahok asking Kiem Nam whether they are Chinese or Indonesian.

As political as the latter half of A Man Called Ahok is, it is still largely a film about family and values, of a father’s hopes and dreams for the dutiful son, and how, despite their differences and flaws, they still understand each other well.

Perhaps it was a pragmatic decision not to take part in Indonesia’s tumultuous political situation, nevertheless A Man Called Ahok certainly makes for an interesting flick, provided that you are open-minded enough to consider it in the first place.