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Jakarta Post

Cinema, candidates & would-be presidents

  • Windu W. Jusuf

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Sun, July 13, 2014   /  12:02 pm
Cinema, candidates & would-be presidents (JP/AWO, JP/Arya Dipa)

(JP/AWO, JP/Arya Dipa)

Around the time of Jakarta'€™s last gubernatorial election, Basuki '€œAhok'€ Tjahaja Purnama, then running for the No. 2 spot under Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo, became the subject of Jadi Jagoan Ala Ahok (Fight like Ahok), a short documentary that followed him during his run for the House of Representatives in 2009.

Like Jokowi, the biopic about the man who became governor, the film was not made by a political party. However, quite dissimilarly, Jadi Jagoan was an independent production made by supporters, funded by a documentary project and was not exhibited in theaters, but rather in small local screenings and on the festival circuit.

Interviewed about Jadi Jagoan, director Amelia Hapsari says that technical issues were behind the timing of the film'€™s release in late 2012, when Ahok was in the heat of the gubernatorial election.

'€œThe purpose of Jadi Jagoan was not to promote Ahok'€™s candidacy in the 2012 election, but to serve as material for political education with Ahok as the role model,'€ Amelia said in an interview.

Prabowo Subianto'€™s associates have been the most prolific filmmakers, producing the Merah Putih trilogy: Merah Putih (Red and White, 2009), Darah Garuda (Blood of Eagles, 2010) and Hati Merdeka (Heart of Freedom, 2011).

The slick war films, directed by senior Indonesian cinematographer Yadi Sugandi, featured a team including top Hollywood special effects artists.

The films were also produced by Rob Allyn, a famous political consultant who played a key role in elections for George W. Bush (as governor) in the US and Vicente Fox (as president) in Mexico and end with a short message commemorating two of Prabowo'€™s uncles who died in the Independence War.

The political use of cinema in Indonesia is hardly a novelty.

While Sukarno, the nation'€™s first president, was often accused of amassing his own cult of personality, he never commissioned a film about himself.

The only film from the era that partly portrays Sukarno is Usmar Ismail'€™s Tamu Agung (1955), which offered a bitter satirical critique of the president that Sukarno reportedly found hilarious.

Under the New Order, cultural life was built on films championing Gen. Soeharto as a heroic military figure while rendering left-wing ideologies as an imminent, diabolical threat to the nation.

The films, made in the 1970s and 1980s, glaze over Soeharto'€™s ambiguous role during the national revolution, instead focusing on war and armed conflict to boost the general'€™s stature.

Alam Surawidjaja'€™s Janur Kuning (Yellow Coconut Leaves), for example, is a 1980 film that tells of the famous guerrilla assault that captured Yogyakarta for six critical hours in 1949 during the Independence War.

The director gives place emphasis on Soeharto, who was then an Army colonel '€” as opposed to Enam Jam di Jogja (Six Hours in Yogyakarta), Usmar Ismail'€™s well-regarded 1951 film on the same incident, which did not even include him.

The quintessential New Order propaganda film, however, remains the graphic docudrama Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Treachery of G30S/PKI), directed by Arifin C. Noer in 1984.

Vilifying the murderers of six Army generals in 1965, the film offered a rationale for the New Order'€™s massacre of communists and, implicitly, for the 32 years of repression that would follow.

Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI was mandatory viewing in Indonesian schools for years '€” as well as being broadcast annually on national television on Independence Day.

In an email interview, award-winning film critic and author Eric Sasono of Rumah Film said that mixing history and myth was inevitable in political biopics.

'€œThese films are made precisely to perpetuate myths,'€ Eric says, adding that New Order films such as Janur Kuning aimed to '€œdescribe the position of military superiority over civilians in Indonesian history'€.

Eric notes that the Reform era saw the decline of strongmen and the advent of a new kind of kingpin in political films.

'€œDuring the New Order, many characters were militarized or semi-militarized. Now, the subjects who are chosen are popular characters from strong organizations, whether in the sense of having many supporters or being able to raise the funds needed to make a movie.'€

Contemporary political films such as Jokowi and Sepatu Dahlan have thus become part of the business of presenting a powerful and omnipresent leader.

The films portray candidates as merakyat (populists) through carefully constructed cinematic biographies and are made by private companies, campaign or motivated volunteers '€” and not by institutions such as state film company PFN.

Despite their poor showing at the box office, Jokowi and Sepatu Dahlan made Herculean efforts to capture the bootstrapping ethos and pap self-help themes commonly touted by local motivational speakers.

This populist treatment has leached into non-political biopics such as Hanung Bramyanto'€™s Sang Pencerah (The Enlightener), which tells the tale of Muhammadiyah founder Ahmad Dahlan; and the gauzy Habibie dan Ainun (Habibie and Ainun), a film about the romance of former president BJ Habibie and his late wife.

More direct political engagement is demonstrated by Jadi Jagoan, which offers no sentimental treatment of its subject. Ahok is shown as a lone ranger, struggling for a seat in the House of Representatives without succumbing to money politics.

Ahok is depicted as having built effective door-to-door relationships with his constituents back in Belitung. Although with limited financial support '€” the film shows his campaign struggling to buy banners and giveaway t-shirts '€” Ahok wins a seat in Senayan, which he left for Jakarta three years later.

The message is clear: this is how an ideal candidate should strive for popular support in a democracy '€” something that is missing from the generic melodrama of mainstream election films.

Meanwhile, the Prabowo campaign documentary Sang Patriot, distributed on Gerinda'€™s YouTube channel, still reveals much of the militarist New Order cult of personality.

Sang Patriot places Prabowo as part of mythical lineage of heroic '€œanticolonial fighters'€, '€œindependence warriors'€ and '€œeconomic thinkers'€.

In so doing, the film argues for Prabowo'€™s presidential candidacy by rendering him as '€œthe right man in the right place'€, detailing his past achievements both military and civilian, but speaking very little about his political programs.

A typical hagiography, Sang Patriot'€™s all-too-selective treatment of its subject fails to confront unfavorable questions on issues related to Prabowo'€™s controversial past.

On the allegations of human rights violations in and prior to 1998 attributed to the former general, Sang Patriot simply dismisses them as a regular slander.

Instead, the film focuses on a ridiculous rumor that attributes the cause of the 1997 economic crisis to a sort of political conspiracy involving Western countries to oust then-president Soeharto, Prabowo'€™s ex-father-in-law.

Notably, Sang Patriot was produced by Media Desa Indonesia, a company owned by Prabowo'€™s brother Hashim Djojohadikusumo, which previously made its name with the Merah Putih trilogy.

Sasono notes that the content of political biopics has changed in the Reform era due to the need to make a profit, with the addition of love stories and religion.

'€œReligion used to be relatively non-obtrusive and appeared naturally [for example] in a sholat scene during the course of a regular day,'€ Eric says. '€œLately, it'€™s become part of the identity-assertation effort ['€¦.] It'€™s connected closely connected to the greater changes in our political identity.'€

In the last 16 years of reform, making political films in Indonesia has been synonymous with advancing certain political causes, from the rights of workers to advancing the concerns of the LGBT community '€” as well as presenting alternative versions of a national past laden with human rights abuses unacknowledged by the state.

The presidential election of 2014 may only augur the start of the deeper engagement of Indonesian filmmakers with national politics.

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