Oldies but Goodies: Five of the Best Classic Indonesian Movies

National Film Day on March 30 is just around the corner and the best way to celebrate it is to watch local films. The local film industry is thriving and great new movies – comedy, action, drama – are being released every week, but this time let’s look back at Indonesia’s long film history and revisit the best of our classic films.

The Jakarta Globe talked to Cinema Poetica co-founder and the head of film appreciation, literacy and archive at Indonesian Film Council (BPI) Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu to find out which Indonesian classic films you’ve got to see if you want to call yourself a film buff.

The list of five classic movies below is by no means exhaustive. As Adrian pointed out, in Indonesia so-called “classic films” generally only refer to movies released during the New Order era from 1966 to 1998.

Films released before the authoritarian regime came to power are unfortunately rarely discussed, save for a few by the great director Usmar Ismail. In fact, National Film Day on March 30 commemorates the first day of shooting for his revolutionary war epic “Darah dan Doa” (The Long March).

Full versions of some the films below are available on YouTube or from streaming services like HOOQ. Micro cinema Kineforum in Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta, run by the Jakarta Arts Council, also screens old movies as part of their monthly programs.

1. Gadis Penakluk (1980)

“Gadis Penakluk” (Girl Conqueror) is a teen drama about a girl called Agnes (Merlyna Husein) who falls in love with her school teacher, Wing Ganda (Adi Kurdi).

“This is a simple, happy film, about a girl who falls in love with her teacher. The first thing you’ll notice is that there’s no father figure in her life,” Adrian said.

According to Adrian, the film is a great bildungsroman that accurately captures the social and psychological background of a teenager dealing with her first real love – something that’s sadly missing from many contemporary teen movies.

Adrian said most current teen movies offer no psychological back story for their characters.

For example, in “Dilan 1990,” this year’s biggest box office hit with more than 6 million viewers, the main characters all speak very formally in everyday conversations, but it’s never explained why.

Agnes in Gadis Penakluk also speaks very formally but it is shown in the movie that she does it because everyone around her does the same.

“Social psychology is what today’s films don’t dare go into. If you say film is just entertainment, then aren’t we best entertained by something we can relate to?” Adrian said.

2. Si Mamad (1973)
Under New Order dictatorship, criticizing the government often carried dire consequences. Adrian said it took a brave director like Sjumandjaja to make “Si Mamad” (Mamad), a drama about an honest low-rank civil servant called Mamad (Mang Udel) who works in an office where corruption runs deep.

Mamad’s colleagues regularly steal money from the office but he is never tempted to follow suit, until he needs money to pay for the delivery of his seventh child and is forced to steal some office stationery.

“Mamad is wracked with guilt even though he knows his colleagues have done a lot worse,” Adrian said.

Sjumandjaja adapted the story from Anton Chekov’s “The Death of a Government Clerk.”

“The film is actually a harsh critique of rampant corruption in the New Order era. It presents a simple moral ideal, that one should feel guilty for stealing, in the character of a simple public servant. But that character is surrounded by corrupt civil servants that represent the state,” Adrian said.

According to Beritagar, Indonesia’s Film Censorship Board (BSF) demanded that the original title of the film, “Matinya Seorang Pegawai Negeri,” a literal translation of Chekov’s title, be changed to the less offensive Si Mamad.

The censorship didn’t stop the film from winning two Citra Awards – Indonesia’s Oscars – for Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role in the 1974 Indonesian Film Festival.

3. Di Balik Kelambu (1983)

“Di Balik Kelambu” (Behind the Drapes) on the surface looks like a normal family drama. Nurlela and Hasan are newlyweds who can’t afford to buy a place of their own, so they stay in a room in Nurlela’s parents’ house. Predictably, everyday Hasan has to listen to snide remarks from his in-laws about not having a job. In the end, this causes a rift between the couple themselves.

Though many Indonesian films and soap operas now expose and make fun of family drama, this wasn’t the case in the authoritarian New Order era. Adrian said under the military dictator General Suharto, the family became the number one symbol or a miniature of the state. Families were inherently noble. Anything bad that happened had to come from outside the family structure.

“The New Order saw itself as a fundamentally good family. If there’s something wrong, it’s never their fault, but the result of sabotage by ‘foreigners.’ That’s one of the reasons why Chinese-Indonesians kept being blamed and persecuted,” Adrian said.

Since speaking ill about families was tantamount to criticizing the state, Adrian praised Di Balik Kelambu as another gutsy work daring to speak the harsh truths about familial relationships when no one else did.

The film showed that family is not as sacred or pure as the New Order imagined it to be. There’s a lot of ego and money involved in it, just like in running a country.

4. Para Perintis Kemerdekaan (1977)

“Para Perintis Kemerdekaan” (Pioneers of Freedom) is an adaptation by Asrul Sani of a famous novel, “Di Bawah Lindungan Ka’Bah” (Under the Protection of the Ka’Bah), by the great Muslim cleric Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, better known as Hamka.

According to David Hanan in Inside Indonesia, the film earned a screening at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival.

The historical film is set against the backdrop of colonial-era Padang, West Sumatra, in the 1920s. The story centered on the romance between the two main characters, Hamid (Cok Simbara) and Halimah (Mutiara Sani).

But the real focus is Halimah’s struggle to find a place for herself both in Islam and in the fight for freedom against the Dutch.

Asrul was a member of Indonesian Muslim Arts and Culture Institute (Lesbumi), the cultural arm of Indonesia’s biggest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), so it was only natural that his films, including this one, often promoted Islamic values.

The original Hamka novel itself was heavily informed by religious values in its attempt to highlight the role of Islam in the fight for Indonesia’s independence.

Adrian admires the way the film deftly portrayed how religion can provide a set of ethical values that can be useful in navigating through a crisis. Of course, since the good guys are predominantly Muslims in this story, Islam wins in the end, but there’s a long process of questioning.

“Keep in mind that it’s adapted from ‘Di Balik Lindungan Ka’Bah,’ so obviously there are strong Islamic elements. But these are continuously contested,” Adrian said.

“The film for me also left a lasting impression because it’s a film about a revolution but it shys from saying the state is always right or that the colonizers are always wrong. It’s not black and white. Yes, colonization is wrong but there are good, well-meaning individuals among the Dutch and the Japanese. The film also asks this question: can you guarantee that people from the same country will be good to each other?”

5. Titian Serambut Dibelah Tujuh (1959, 1982)

The original “Titian Serambut Dibelah Tujuh” (The Narrow Bridge) was made in 1959 by Asrul Sani. The version Adrian likes is the 1982 remake, directed by Chaerul Umam. It won the 1983 Citra Award for Best Script.

Ibrahim (El Manik), a teacher and a Muslim, gets a transfer to a remote village called Tanjung Beringin, where the residents are depicted as morally depraved. In his new environs, Ibrahim struggles to uphold his own values.

“Again, in the end, religion is the answer but Ibrahim arrives at that conclusion after a long process of contemplation, even doubt,” Adrian said.

Despite dealing with religion, the film can’t exactly be branded as a religious movie because it doesn’t adhere to tropes related to that genre, Adrian said.

For example, unlike in many contemporary religious movies, such as “Ayat-Ayat Cinta” (Verses of Love), “Ketika Cinta Bertasbih” (Prayer Beads of Love), “Surga yang Tak Dirindukan” (Unwanted Heaven), there aren’t many scenes depicting the protagonist in the act of a prayer in Titian Serambut Dibelah Tujuh.

Instead of always presenting semi-superhero characters like Fahri in Ayat-Ayat Cinta – who is virtuous from start to end – Adrian thinks contemporary religious movies would benefit from having more realistic heroes and heroines.

“‘What I’m doing is morally right, but why do I still have to go through all this suffering?’ is a question that we ask ourselves all the time. But in contemporary religious movies, we hardly ever see that. In Titian Serambut Dibelah Tujuh, it’s the central conflict,” the critic said.

Courtesy : JakartaGlobe
Photo : Bintang.com

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