Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Rights films show how cheap life is

By Dini Djalal

JAKARTA (JP): He may wallow in isolation now, but once former president Soeharto was part of an exclusive, privileged club: that rarefied fraternity of dictators. Today only a few despots remain, but before they fell, along with the Berlin Wall, tyrants flourished world-wide. Romania's Nicolas Ceaucescu, Chile's Augusto Pinochet, Haiti's Baby Doc Duvalier. Among these alumni of Cold War autocracies, few are more eccentric than Mobutu Sese Seko of the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), christened by Mobutu as Zaire.

The self-proclaimed president of the Popular Movement of the Revolution is also the subject of a fascinating documentary Mobutu: King of Zaire, to be shown at 9:15 p.m. on Monday at Taman Ismail Marzuki I.

Two years in the making, many of that time spent scouring through 950 hours of archival footage, this two-hour film chronicles three tumultuous decades, from Mobutu's seizure of power in 1960 to his lonely death in exile a few years ago. Blink and you can almost mistake the story for Indonesia's.

And so it is with the other "Human Rights" films offered at this year's JiFFest (Jakarta International Film Festival). Crazy (Saturday, Nov. 11, 2 p.m./7:30 p.m. Erasmus Huis), a Dutch production, recounts the fears and tribulations of several United Nations peacekeepers -- quandaries likely unfolding in neighboring East Timor.

Long Night's Journey into Day, which was shown on Saturday, is a film about South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission - cathartic therapy which Indonesia would be wise to emulate. Throne of Death (Nov. 9, 9:15 p.m., TIM I) tracks down an innocent farmer falsely condemned to the electric chair - a case of injustice few Indonesians are unfamiliar with.

There is also The Village Goat Takes a Beating (Nov. 6, 5 p.m., Usmar Ismail Film Center), a documentary about the Indonesian military operation in Aceh.

These films may not be the ideal aperitif after a hard day's work. For example, the plodding, depressing Throne of Death, an unvarnished account of everyday poverty, will make you long for a remote control.

Director Murali Nair won the Prix Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his minimalist camerawork, and indeed the film is quietly compelling. But the film's message - that a glorious death is preferable to an impoverished life - is a bitter pill one may refuse.

At their best, films can offer insight for those hoping to not repeat the mistakes of history.

Thierry Michel's profile of Mobuto is one such film. The production is indifferent at face value, comprising mostly of old footage. But look closer at the black-and-white reels, some of it never released, and one can almost feel Mobutu in the same room. This is extraordinary, unbridled access, and oftentimes the result is not flattering.

There is Mobutu in Brussels, an unassuming 28-year-old veteran of the colonial army training as a journalist. There he is two years later, a confident Colonel loathe to share the throne of the former Belgian colony. Often he is deep in thought, silently plotting his dictatorship. Only a character so desperate for validity would give journalists such free rein.

His ascendancy was swift, and ruthless. It took Mobutu less than nine months to topple revolutionary leader Patrice Lumumba - thanks in part to the CIA (former operative Frank Revlin provides the inside track on the United States' involvement in propping up Mobutu). Lumumba was accused of being a communist sympathizer, arrested (this particular segment is gripping), and promptly killed. The murder would pave the way for the future purges and massacres of dissidents; four ministers were even publicly hanged in a stadium. "I like order by nature .. so I re-established order," was Mobutu's justification.

As he settled into authoritarianism, the details of Mobutu's life surpassed even the most fantastic fiction. He married his first wife, improbably named Marie Antoinette, when she was only 14. His third wife was the twin of his second: yes, Mobuto shared two identical sisters.

He slept with his colleagues' wives too, in order to make them feel insecure and weaken their ambitions.

These idiosyncrasies prompt the question: are dictators born or groomed? Was Mobutu a CIA creation gone wrong? His hobnobbing with George Bush and Jacques Chirac, after all, was well-noted in the film.

Yet a king requires a kingdom and there were plenty of superstitious Congolese eager for supernatural guidance, tragically unaware of the consequences of government-sanctioned hero worship. The parallels to Indonesia are startling, even today.

Consider his five-year descent into disgrace, brought upon by a graft-wracked economic crisis. Or the tug-of-war which raged even within Mobutu, who shirked away from the same democratic reforms he attempted to introduce. Dictators, believe it or not, are human too.

Herelies the major weakness of an otherwise forceful film: it does not adequately explain how a mild-mannered journalist transformed into a parody of megalomania. Vignettes describe his childhood spent in a Catholic missionary, and then follow Mobutu's climb up the political ladder, but they are not enough to demonstrate how a monster came to life.

Perhaps that is a tall order. After all, if one is able to spot a dictator in the making, they would never get past the post. But watch Mobutu: King of Zaire, and the festival's "Human Rights" films, if only to be painfully reminded that life is cheap around the world, not only in Indonesia.