The Young and The (Un)Heedless

Perhaps my friend (film critic) Hikmat Darmawan was right when he wrote that it takes 10 years before a trauma can be retold. Hikmat made this statement in his review of May (Viva Westi, director), a film about the May 1998 incident and its impact for the nation, in particular an inter-ethnic couple.   Given a time distance, May is able to take a good, long look at an incident that has left a yet to be fully healed scar for the nation.

9808, An Anthology on the 10 th anniversary of the Reform era , pretty much is having the same discussion as May. It may not be a coincidence that the two films are released in the same year. Ten young filmmakers each submitted their short films revolving around the significant incident that led the nation to a huge political turnaround, which are then compiled.

May 1998 is something that is not quite long past, and it is yet to have an “official” version of the story. Many people can still testify to what actually happened. People like (former Chief of Armed Forces) Wiranto, (former vice president turn president) BJ Habibie, (former Lieutenant-General of the Kopassus) Prabowo and (former Minister of Information) Harmoko wasted no time to write their own version to position themselves as the heroes (or at least, the good guys), while keeping an eye for an opportunity to climb back to power. If one of them gets in power again, his version might just become the designated official version of the incident; just as when Soeharto reigned and his became the official version of what happened in 1965.

The young fiilmmakers contributing to this anthology have their own versions, which may never be included in any of the aforementioned published material. In this context, what these people – who joined forces under the name of Proyek Payung (The Umbrella Project) – have done is a small but important document of perception, as an alternative version, or even a sub-version of what those “official” figures have written.

All the short films in the anthology are films that have (or are supposed to have) wholesome narratives and independent of thematic outline to support the narrative. However, uniting these works into one anthology has resulted in a different perspective from the short films’ initial narrative. Intentional or not, 9808 has offered one of the most wholesome perspectives on May 1998 to the public, from a generation that not only lived it, but generated it.

This perception comes in various dimensions. Some of the points of view feel very superficial, even sketchy. Some works try to approach May 1998 event as something personal, with honest perspectives. Some try to discuss one aspect of the incident’s background and impact, which leads to revealing a deep dimension about the making of a nation; a process that still remains as a big, unanswered question. The anthology also touches on the future, to give some sort of closure, cementing its optimistic nature.

Sketches

If the film, in the linear sense, is perceived as a book to be read from the front cover, then the front cover is a sketch. Anggun Priambodo starts the anthology by asking a question to people around him: where were you on 13 May 1998?

Anggun is presenting a collective memory. Who can forget the days when people emptied grocery stores (‘I was on my way to buy the new Hanson record… or was it Boyzone?’). Who doesn’t remember the sight of motorcycles casually rolling on toll roads, or the big, empty primary road in the M.H. Thamrin area (with only the armed forces around, let’s take a picture in front of the tank!). The collective experience even reached all the way to Seattle or Amsterdam.

However, what Anggun is showcasing resemble more of a sketch for a TV teaser, the one we see on talk shows about May 1998 than a thorough work. He doesn’t have a very wide range of sources, and from their answers, we can tell that they are onlookers, people outside the stores when the looting happened. This is an incomplete, if not lazy, representation. But Anggun is lucky because the collective experiences are something that audiences can relate to all too well. So the excerpts from his interview still resonate in the audience’s personal frame of reference.

Anggun serves his documentary by displaying a sequence of photographs to represent the story he is telling. There are no moving pictures. Anggun is lucky because his work is compiled as a part of the 9808 anthology. If detached, his work will not be able to come up with a wholesome narrative and will remain as a series of fragments.

Next is Yang Belum Usai ( The Unfinished) by Ucu Agustin. This documentary chronicles the struggle of Sumarsih in search of the person who shot her son, Wawan, in the Semanggi incident (November 1999). The story begins with an Easter celebration (the 10 th year without Wawan), and ends with the mother praying at her son’s grave. Ucu brings us steadfast determination that hopefully speaks for itself – and therefore become a drama in itself in the eyes of audiences.

Ucu is hoping that her subject would help her film. A mother’s struggle to put a peaceful end to her son’s death is no doubt an emotionally-charged ride, whether the subject is expressing it or not. Viewers will be emotionally engaged just by seeing the story as mere facts. But a good filmmaker will not rely entirely on that assumption. A richer perspective or a more profound take on the surface should always be sought after, rather than just an instant, impulsive urge.

Ucu’s work is a weak documentation both in terms of perspectives and depth. There is almost no additional value to be found in Ucu’s process of documenting what Sumarsih is undergoing. Even more, Sumarsih is captured as if in poses, in nearly all of her images. It seems like Ucu is presenting a window display of a “hero”, rather than a humane protrayal of a person with all her tribulations.

An open dimension

Ifa Isfansyah is an example of a filmmaker willing to plunge into the depth. In a piece almost unrecognizable as an Indonesian production, Ifa draws a fine connection between Indonesia – specifically the May 1998 incident – with a Chinese-speaking woman in Korea. Ifa connects this woman in Seoul with voice overs from the news about Indonesia and the conversation between the film’s protagonist ( Huan Guang) with an immigration officer asking about her background.

That is the only information on the young woman being one of those escaping Indonesia to forget their past. She goes to Korea, knowing practically no one there. Then, in a convenient store, another Chinese-speaking woman comes to her aid. So they become friends, and a whole new path of possibilities opens for Huan Guang.

This piece may not discuss the May 1998 incident directly, but Ifa is obviously insinuating that significant moment. The incident marks the loss of one of life’s essential elements: the feeling of safety. As history tells us, the absence of this very thing has become one of the reasons for diasporas. Ifa is illustrating a diaspora in the making. A past is being forgotten, and a dream (or escapism) is being built. Ifa is not talking about a reality about to be faced by Guang, because, as the film’s title suggests, he is talking about a time when the sun rises, a new-born hope.

Guang’s diaspora is a secondary one, because she comes from a generation that has experienced a previous diaspora. Then the concept of Indonesia becomes very fluid in those layers of diasporas and starts to blur. Ifa is observing the problem of one of the Asian races, which is constantly in transition, and Indonesia becomes an area in which that transition blooms. This film then becomes an entry point for a public discussion post-May 1998. Ifa succeeds in sensitively demonstrating how a national incident is implicating a much wider scope in terms of geographical identity.

From Guang’s dream, we are led to a personal fragment in Otty Widasari’s Kemarin(Yesterday). Otty, along with her couple friends Bambang and Bonita (nicknamed Bonet), reminisce what actually happened in May 1998. They were three in the student mob in the Parliament building. To topple Soeharto? Not according to Bonet. She was there on a romantic quest. And, since Otty went wherever Bonet went, she, too, was there indirectly for the same reason.

In this conversation (the camera cheekily exposes Bambang, who is holding the second camera), Otty goes bare by showing her note on daily expenses. This shows how life went on with such trivial stuff, when here she is telling about a “heroic” phase according to the formal observations about the 1998 students’ movement. Life is all about such cycles, and the conversation taking place at that table is an intimate and no-nonsense trip to the past.

The juxtaposing between their conversation and Otty’s family’s daily expenses notes makes for an acknowledgment to life cycles in all honesty. Whatever leads them to the incident, “there and then” – and whoever there during that time – they must still deal with the daily nitty-gritty such as expenses for cigarettes, transportation and groceries, “here and now”. Otty succeeds in making these two sides refer to each other, coldly yet powerfully.

However, Otty shifts to a baffling episode, in which she admits her special feelings for Bonet. It’s like Otty is exposing her deepest secret to an audience that doesn’t know her well enough. At this point, is she still sincere? If yes, why is such sincerity exposed in such a short span of time in a story, thus the audience does not have enough time and opportunity to understand Otty and her issues?

Otty sounds like she is making a joke, but her statement is made toward the end of the film, and not long after that, Otty’s husband, Hafiz, comes in while holding their child. With this kind of sequencing, it seems that Otty is trying to tell something tragic about her marriage, because Hafiz comes across as someone who falls under Bonet’s shadows. What does the personal tragedy have to do with the May 1998 incident? Does the audience need to know this, in their first “encounter” with Otty, in such a short period of time?

Otty is posing a big risk, with which she cannot win. If she’s being honest with her confession, the audience (and I) will not be ready, and we will not need any information about the personal domestic tragedy (caused by who knows what) during a film about the May 1998 incident. If she’s not being honest, it feels like she’s using the same technique as TV comedian/talk show host Tukul Arwana, in showcasing some sort of a personal tragedy as a joke material. Does Otty really need to do that? To me, her deepest secret could have been shared with the audience in a piece that gives more room for them to understand her as a person. I’m sure Otty still has other chances to discuss this topic.

From such a personal dimension of the May 1998 incident, the film shifts back to a sketch about identity – and back to the Ethnic-Chinese. With Sugiharti Halim, Arian i Darmawan discusses the identity problem in the most superficial sense of the word: a name. Ariani talks about the efficacy of the former regime’s bureaucracy machine, in stifling the development of identities and forcing a form of assimilation. What happened is some sort of social dislocation of the Ethnic-Chinese, even if it concerns the most exterior part of their identity.

For that purpose, Ariani invented the character Sugiharti Halim, and made her talk directly to the camera, as if asking the audience to level with her in discussing this subject. While in the story, Sugiharti is talking to the men she’s going on a date with (in separate occasions). This strategy works in cheekily picking on the audience, who wants to avoid discussions on the topic, and Ariani doesn’t give a darn about such attitude and continues talking anyway.

This is a film about the government going face to face with society through a very simple subject. This issue might very well be a problem not only for the Ethnic-Chinese, but probably other ethnic and belief groups. However, the May 1998 incident should start a momentum for such discussions, bearing in mind that the Ethnic-Chinese are constantly dealing with these identity-related problems. This project by Proyek Payung thus becomes very timely.

Other collective experiences

Another tale about a collective experience on the May 1998 incident is brought to the table by Hafiz in Bertemu Jen (Meeting Jen). Hafiz, though, is doing in a very different way than what Anggun did in the beginning. He unsettles the audience by introducing Jen Marais, a theater person. Jen is not a theater director, nor is he an actor or producer. He seems to be “nobody” in the theater business, and yet he claims to be a “theater person”. Hafiz interviews Jen, bringing with him a number of photographs on the May 1998 incident, and shows them one by one, asking for Jen’s comments.

Hafiz is making his film by posing a strategy to give meanings to May 1998. It is as if he wanted to show that ‘giving meaning’ to the incident is a verb whose definitions are as varied as the people trying to define it. Hafiz is using photography, theater and an intimate love affair with the audio visual medium for the purpose. Hafiz starts asking his questions with a role play associated with the theater. He then goes on to the actually self-explanatory pictures, and Jen comes up with his meanings: this is a theatrical thing. Then comes a point where Hafiz’s questions reach a higher level of abstraction (“are you in the picture, as a human being?”), which makes generating meaning a little more difficult.

Hafiz’s piece offers a subversive take on the official versions (which is yet to be existent) of the May 1998 incident. Instead of providing an alternative view, Hafiz poses a preposition that the incident is supposed to be seen as a negotiating process between the subjects in defining what really happened.

Do not forget that there is mediating media (some of which are dominant because of the massive media exposure), which makes the defining process impossible. Thus Hafiz seems to be proposing that the collective incident stays inside the mind of individuals as a personal experience that needs no authorization from anyone. A citing of a history as a very fluid and inconstant subject.

Hafiz’s postmodern world is challenged successfully by Lucky Kuswandi with A Letter to Unprotected Memories. He shows that the identity problem and its meaning is something solid. People who are detached from their past, history and language are miserable people because they lack a firm ground to stand on. True, Lucky is not referring specifically to May 1998, but his exposition on giving meaning to the incident is more than a subjective game. To Lucky, there is something missing from his grip.

Lucky dissects this issue through Chinese alphabets and a letter-style narrative, like he is having a one-way communication. With this strategy, Lucky seems to show that he is not sure the communication will reach its aim, so he chooses to communicate one way – like a soliloquy that send people indifferent to the issue into ignorant snooze.

Chinese people in Indonesia have grown roots beneath their feet in the ground called Indonesia, and they seem to be outside the official history records. With this film, Lucky is still playing “if” concerning the existence of the official history, because he feels that any strategy outside the notion will be daunting to them, like the barongsai dance that loses its stomps and transforms into slow-motion moves that might slowly dissolve.

With this kind of agenda of discussion, Lucky also delivers a very well-done visual strategy. He showcases Chinese alphabets being intercut with various Chinese cultural icons in Indonesia, to convince that what is considered a strategy to give inter-subjective meaning as demonstrated by Hafiz, means memories that have never been protected. Lucky tells that history is forged in a hard way, by isolating, silencing and forgetting.

By this part, the film has ventured into a deeper territory than the incident aspect of May 1998. Now, the anthology enters a discussion on the interpretation of a social constellation, which either directly or indirectly correlates with the incident ten years ago. This segment is a remarkable personal interpretation from Lucky.

Wound

The story continues even deeper than the identity roots issue brought by Lucky. Identity as the most important element in the shaping of Lucky’s constellation results in tragedy and a deep wound.

The next film, from Edwin, opens a Pandora’s box about Ethnic-Chinese, even when Edwin is speaking in murmurs, far from being firm. The people responsible for the sequencing of the anthology are boldly speculating by including Edwin’s piece, A Trip to the Wound. The film, which has been screened as an independent short, is actually about a personal and unique wound (there’s a story in every wound). However, in this anthology, the wound transforms into a collective wound.

Trip works in similar ways as Ifa’s Huan, in that it is insinuating one of the most controversial dimensions of the May 1998 incident: its impact on the Ethnic-Chinese. Trip is even more mysterious because Edwin is never referring to any facts related to the May incident. The wound then needs to be associated with that of the mass rape taking place in May 1998, by casting Ladya Cheryl, an actress more or less representative of the Ethnic-Chinese, and the grope under her skirt in the bus.

If Ifa’s protagonist shies away from discussing what really happened and goes straight to escapism as the base for the diaspora-in-the-making, Edwin is talking about the most sensitive subject: the intrusion to the most private part of the Ethnic-Chinese women during the riots – say, rapes. Trip is indicating two sides of the “raping incident”. The first one is a wound that they carry everywhere – as put in one of Chairil Anwar’s poems – but not by screaming it out, but a bitter and lonely silence.

The wound changes into a kind of obsessive search of its history, because the wound itself is invisible (because it is within the most private area?), intangible and cannot be proved. Does it mean that the wound is non-existent?

The Ethnic-Chinese often become scapegoats for Indonesia’s economic underachievement (including as the cause of the economic crisis that leads to the political crisis in 1998). The result is the destruction of stores and the rape of Ethnic-Chinese women on May 13-15, 1998. But did the raping really happen? This is the second side of the wound depicted in Trip. And Edwin effectively insinuates it. Does the wound really exist, and can it be seen without – once again – intruding the private areas of the victims?

When Trip is put in the context of 9808, that is what can be interpreted. A profound dimension of one of the nation’s unresolved problems.

The future

The wound that Edwin depicts is like a climax of the 9808 anthology. To reduce the tension, the film continues by staring into the future of the Reform. From a personal perspective, it materializes in Wisnu SP, nicknamed Wisnu Kucing, and his film Wisnu Kucing 9808A Note of a Demonstrator. Wisnu is a former field general in the 1998 students’ demonstration. He stood in podiums, made speeches, and shouted rhetorically, “Ready to fight the army?”

Even though just as personal, Wisnu stands on a different ground than Otty Widasari. If Otty sees history being shaped by trivial and personal (too personal, even) things, Wisnu starts from a goal for a political change, and then talks about something more personal and realistic. If in Kemarin, Otty seems to be someone who sits in the present and daydreams about the past, present time Wisnu is an image of Wisnu’s future 10 years ago.

Wisnu in May 1998 was drenched in sweat and shouted at the top of his lungs, getting ready to face off with the army, while Wisnu in the same month ten years later is changing his baby’s diapers in his old Volvo, going to a shooting location, where he works as a freelance producer in an audio visual institution. His wife is a member of the local Parliament, who just gave birth to their baby; and Wisnu feels that he still nurtures his spirit to make this country a better place for everyone, especially for his infant.

It is so interesting to see Wisnu passing by a group of demonstrating students. Holding his baby in his arms, he chit-chats with a policeman keeping watch at the demonstration, as if saying ‘ten years from now, you will end up like me.’ Wisnu, sporting a been-there-done-that attitude, stares at the students and says that they’d be better off in a classroom, studying. Because they will be faced with a much too real problems he is facing right now: money. Because his kid and wife need to eat, education fees are sky high, and so on.

Wisnu Kucing becomes the perfect image of the ‘revolution stops at 30’ cycle. But Wisnu is an honest man in looking at himself like that. Therefore, this piece becomes a small and simple note. This little note is not a showcase of defeat, but a modest and honest acknowledgment.

If Wisnu is a “future” of what happened 10 years ago, then there is a possibility to conclude that the Reform has been futile. Is this true? This anthology comes close to justifying that idea, until the final piece is brought to us by Steven Pillar Setiabudi.

Pillar documents a process of democracy in search of itself, in Our School, Our Life. A school in Solo, Central Java, is designing a demonstration to topple a corrupt headmaster. These high school students are so passionate about the data that they managed to collect. Suddenly, the Reform and political change – which Wisnu is a part of – seem to find its form in Pillar’s piece. With a simple narrative, Pillar is faithful to the subject he wants to convey. He is like a TV journalist investigating and reporting straight facts without intending to dramatize. But instead of finding mere facts about corruption in a lower level, Pillar discovers another dimension of what has been achieved by the Reform: a reinforcement of a political grail, and a determined and spirited democracy. Pillar is lucky with his documentation.

If there is a shortcoming in his documentation, it’s that he didn’t record any testimonials from the accused parties. But such journalistic glitch doesn’t make his film less powerful, in carrying a reflection on May 1998. Especially its implication, that a better life together is a process that we are shaping up together. Thus, a statement that the 1998 Reform is fruitless needs to be revisited. Because from what was sowed 10 years ago, we can see a growing seed that someday we will reap.

There is nothing rigid and to be accepted without questioning; a process is something that needs fighting for. 9808 has started that fight in a small scale. This is the strongest thing that comes out of Pillar’s documentation, once included in the anthology.

Conclusion

As a non-encyclopedic documentation, the 9808 anthology may feel profound in one dimension, and superficial in another. That is where its power lies. With such personal and limited notes, there emerge things that are unimaginable to emerge should this film intend to come up with encyclopedic notes. The risks of becoming too personal, sketchy and so on, may be inevitable, but that is the price for being honest and bringing up issues from perspectives that are accessible by the filmmakers and producers.

If the film ends up with more issues on Ethnic-Chinese, maybe because most of the filmmakers come from that background. But this is not a valid reason because Ifa, who is just a regular Yogyakartan kid, also makes a film about Ethnic-Chinese and their diaspora. Looking at the subjects brought up in this film, the history and identity of Ethnic-Chinese, and also its relation to the making of a nation and the country’s politics is a huge agenda that is far from finished. So the representation of Ethnic-Chinese in this anthology should be seen as a discourse on the agendas that constitute this nation.

Therefore, the notes taken by the people – and the generation – behind 9808, the anthology on the 10 th anniversary of the Reform, should be viewed as a path to restart a discussion on this nation: identity, history, and the incidents that shaped it. Just by not being heedless of the significant incident, we can already restart the discussion. ***

”9808” Antologi 10 Tahun Reformasi9808 An Anthology of 10 th Year Indonesian Reform . Di Mana Saya? /Where Was I ( Anggun Priambodo), Yang Belum Usai/An Unfinished One ( Ucu Agustin), Huan Chen Guang (Ifa Ifansyah), Kemarin/Yesterday ( Otty Widasari), Sugiharti Halim (Ariani Darmawan), Bertemu Jen/Meet Jen (Hafiz), A Letter of Unprotected Memories (Lucky Kuswandi), A Trip to The Wound (Edwin), Kucing 9808-Catatan Seorang Demonstran/ The Cat 9808 A Note of A Former Demonstrator ( Wisnu SP), Our School, Our Life (Steve Pillar Setiabudi).

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