The Jakarta Post
Coated with Glenn Fredly's songs of love and politics and a heap of emotional dialogue, Surat dari Praha (Letters from Prague) captures the tragedy of Indonesian students who were forced out of the country in the aftermath of the 1965 political turmoil.
As Indonesian artists and writers enjoy growing freedom to discuss the country's anticommunist movement, emerging director Angga Dwimas Sasongko seized the opportunity to turn his camera on the little-known story of Indonesian political exiles in Prague in what is today the Czech Republic.
Soeharto took power in the aftermath of an abortive coup in 1965, which was blamed on the now defunct Indonesia Communist Party (PKI). Indonesians who lived abroad at the time of the coup were given two options by the government: Sign a letter declaring their allegiance to Soeharto's government or lose their citizenship.
Some of them took the hard decision of not signing the letter, accepting their bitter fate of becoming stateless and not being able to return home.
While the life of Indonesian political exiles in Paris is well documented in the book Melawan dengan Restoran (Fight through restaurant) by Sobron Aidit and Budi Kurniawan and the acclaimed novel Pulang (Home) by Leila S. Chudori, the story of a dozen Indonesian students in Prague who shared the same fate is largely untold.
Angga, the director of award-winning Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku (Light from the east: I'm Maluku) and Filosofi Kopi (Coffee philosophy), sheds some light on their story with Surat dari Praha (Letters from Prague).
The film also marks the celebration of Glenn Fredly's 20 years in the music industry.
Larasati (Julie Estelle) receives a will from her deceased mother Sulastri (Widyawati), in which she is required to deliver a small wooden chest and a letter to a man in Prague before receiving the inheritance.
Half-heartedly, Larasati goes to Prague to hand the chest to Jaya (Tyo Pakusadewo), an old Indonesian man who works as a janitor at a theater.
Without any explanation, Jaya refuses the package and tells Larasati to go away. Larasati does not give up easily, as she needs the inheritance to pay a lawyer for her divorce.
A series of events lead Jaya and Larasati to learn about each other's past. Jaya was studying nuclear physics in Prague in the 1960s when he refused to sign a letter acknowledging his support for Soeharto's New Order. He is not a leftist. He simply distrusted the new government.
Jaya and fellow Indonesian students became stateless and struggled to make ends meet. As a political exile, Jaya could not go back to Indonesia and reunite with his then-girlfriend, Sulastri.
Jaya's story gets Larasati to understand about her family; why the relationship of her mother and father was problematic and why her mother always eagerly waited for the postman to come.
Jaya and Larasati relationship develops throughout the movie. It starts with anger, a kind of father-daughter connection, and ends with vaguely romantic moments. The emotional connection is hard to explain when Jaya and Larasati share a piano and sing together and when Jaya imagines Larasati as Sulastri.
One of the heartfelt, genuine moments comes when three former Indonesian political exiles in Prague, friends of Jaya's, recalls their past.
While it is labeled as a romantic movie, Surat dari Praha carries a significant amount of discussion on politics and idealism. Its messages are partly conveyed through the songs of Glenn, performed by Jaya and Larasati.
One particular song, Menanti Arah (Waiting for Direction), appropriately captures the tragedy. Negeriku gelap histori, kebencian jadi ideologi. Banyak nama yang hilang haknya. (My country has a dark history, hatred became an ideology. Many lost their rights).
Instead of adding Glenn's chart-topping numbers, Angga interestingly featured a couple of Glenn's lesser-known love songs in the movie.
Scriptwriter M. Irfan Ramli, who previously penned Cahaya dari Timur: Beta Maluku, wrote a series of long, emotional dialogues that require top-notch actors to make them works. Tio Pakusadewo has the prowess to portray the anger, loneliness and fragility of Jaya, while Julie Estelle seems to convey more through her dialogue than her facial expression.
By fusing history with a love story and Glenn's songs, Surat dari Praha stands a chance of drawing in teenage viewers.
'I hope the film can be a door for those who weren't born at the time to find out more and read books on the political exiles,' Angga said during the film's premiere on Jan. 15.
'The film censorship board is more open-minded now. The film got the green label, meaning it can be watched by teenagers,' he added.
' Photo courtesy of Visinema Pictures