Sun, 26 Mar 2000

'Unburiable poetry' digs up little on '65 coup attempt

By Oren Murphy

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesian director Garin Nugroho's latest endeavor in filmmaking Puisi Tak Terkuburkan (Unburiable Poetry) sounds great on paper but ultimately disappoints as a film. It tackles one of the most taboo subjects in modern Indonesian history; the 1965 coup attempt and the bloody political cleansing that took place following it. Set in the troubled province of Aceh, it employs traditional Acehnese singing, didong, as a vehicle for the expression of people's suffering. The protagonist of the story is the jailed Acehnese poet Ibrahim Kadir who plays himself in the film. Sounds fabulous, right? It isn't.

Exploring the events of 1965 is a daunting endeavor for any filmmaker and Garin struggles with the enormity of the task. He wisely chose to limit the scope of the work to just one historical player, Ibrahim Kadir, and similarly, the film's location has also been limited (not so wisely) to the interior of a ramshackle prison cell, where Ibrahim is detained with other prisoners.

The film strives to show the fear and uncertainty of the times by presenting a myopic view of the events in one prison in Aceh. We witness the days and nights of both male and female prisoners, separated by a thin wooden wall, as they wait for their executions at the hands of the Indonesian military. In the process of waiting, they share memories, dance and sing to ward off fear and pass the time. The singing that periodically punctuates the story is the unburiable poetry of the film's title and Garin relies heavily on this music to convey the struggle of the prisoners.

Unfortunately, none of these memories or shared experiences emerges as part of a holistic view of the atmosphere during the political killings. The plot does not move in any purposeful direction and, by the end of the film, the audience is left knowing little more about Ibrahim Kadir or the 1965 coup attempt than when they first entered. Although we are presented with a variety of characters, none, including Ibrahim, are explored in any depth. They largely remain cardboard cutouts of types (the ideologue, the pious Muslim, the prison guard) and are rarely given the chance to expand beyond the sum of their stereotyped characteristics.

This is particularly unfortunate, since there is very little beyond character development to hold the audience's interest. Garin made a bold decision by denying the audience access to events outside the prison cell, through flashbacks or through following prisoners to their executions. In doing so, he has forced the audience's attention solely on what transpires in the cell, and frankly, not much happens there.

There are few obvious reasons (other than perhaps a limited budget?) behind the decision to forego alternative shooting locations. While undoubtedly the audience is viscerally exposed to the tedium and mundanity of prison life, five to ten minutes of exposure would have sufficed to set the mood. There is a marked difference between making a film about tedium and making a tedious film. The contrast provided by portraying life outside the prison would have reinforced the bleakness of the prison while simultaneously providing the audience with a much needed visual break. Furthermore, forcing the audience to listen to stories rather than see them via the camera seems a bizarre rejection of filmmaking's primary power: the capacity to make viewers feel as though they are witnessing events firsthand.

Garin's decision to locate the entirety of the film in the prison causes one to wonder whether this story wouldn't have been better served as a play performance, where the audience would at least have been privilege to the emotional power that often accompanies live performances. This impression is further reinforced by the periodic soliloquies delivered by Ibrahim Kadir while standing in an undefined black space. This theatrical convention feels out of place in a movie and again, one senses his emotion-wrought narrative would have better served as a voiceover to a visual portrayal of the events he describes.

Garin, considered as one of the best young directors at home, has won many international awards. Like his other films, Bulan Tertusuk Ilalang (And The Moon Dances), Surat Untuk Bidadari (Letter to An Angel) and Daun di atas Bantal (Leaf on a Pillow), Puisi Tak Terkuburkan is successful in its camera work. There are some beautiful moments where the camera slowly winds its way across the jumbled bodies of the prisoners sleeping on the floor. The prisoners' faces and bodies become landscapes of sorts, explored by the camera's progress across them. There are also great opening and closing shots of the actors performing the Acehnese didong: singing in a circle while thumping on pillows and clapping hands. Regrettably, these shots are not buttressed by the powerful dialogue and compelling storyline they deserve. Nor are they sufficient to break up the overall monotony of the pace and location.

The script is at its best during its least formal moments. There is an entertaining scene when the prisoners are waxing nostalgic on how they courted their spouses in classrooms and coffee plantations. Here the script feels spontaneous and less melodramatic. Even during these lighthearted moments though, one wonders why the director didn't capitalize on an opportunity to film the pursuit of love amongst the coffee beans.

Puisi Tak Terkuburkan is the one of the first Indonesian films to explore the dark chapters of Indonesian history. It makes a valiant attempt, but doesn't quite succeed. The ill-defined focus of the film is particularly regrettable as this subject, perhaps more than any other, cries out for clarity and definition. Unfortunately, the film remains a murky conceptual Frankenstein, which never receives the bolt of lightning needed to bring it to life.