The Disappearing Decade :
Agency of Leftist Subject in Indonesian Film History

January 11, 2021, 3:41pm

Written by Bunga Siagian

Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Pychita Julinanda

It is quite difficult to recall the aesthetics and cultural markers of the socialist film tradition of the 1950s and 60s that was very much alive, and exalted by the actors involved. The obstacles to constructing a kind of film that breathes and defends the idea of ‘the people‘ is/was caused by the peak political-cultural tempest of the 1965 coup d’état that prohibited, destroyed, erased, and exterminated, elements of communism. The event led to the disappearance of films made by leftist film-makers. At the time, leftist cineasts were affiliated with LEKRA, (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, eng: Institute of People’s Culture), an institution accused of being affiliated to the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), albeit the two in practice were often in discord. As a result, the names of several leftist film directors such as Bachtiar Siagian, Basuki Effendi and Kotot Sukardi were regarded as myths due to the unavailability of their films. Hence, certainly in the New Order era, the debate of their film aesthetics was not as eminent compared to their political action. The most highlighted discourse was the anti-American film movement boycotting AMPAI (American Motion Picture Association) that involved many members of the leftist group, highlighting the political and cultural polarity of the Cold War.

The anti-communism discourse at the time hindered the discussion of LEKRA’s output, usually with the accusation that they were of bad quality due to its use as a propaganda tool of the communist party. Amidst the situation, Krishna Sen‘s Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order (1994) was for many years the only work that referenced an analysis and reading of the markers of ‘leftist‘ film aesthetics, including readings of Bachtiar Siagian‘s films. Within the frame of the polarization of two political and cultural groups: LEKRA, representing the progressive left, and LESBUMI(Lembaga Seniman Budayawan Muslim, eng: Muslim Arts and Cultural Workers Association of Indonesia), an association involving the Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama, Krishna Sen compares the narrative of Bachtiar Siagian‘s and Usmar Ismail‘s films. According to Sen, Bachtiar explored the social and historical situation of the characters, while Usmar explored the private psychological realm of the characters.[1] It is noteworthy however that in constructing her analysis, Sen did not watch a single film of Bachtiar Siagian. Sen acknowledges that the films were unavailable at Sinematek Indonesia when she conducted her field study in the late 1980s.  Her sources of study were synopses, scripts, and interviews.

***

In 2013, nearly twenty years following the publication of Sen‘s book, I was surprised to find Bachtiar Siagian‘s film Violetta included on a list of twenty nine films in Sinematek Indonesia‘s archives to be digitized by the Ministry of Education and Culture. Recently, Anis, a friend of mine who was working on the film digitization programme at Sinematek Indonesia, explained how Violetta was donated by a ‘layar tancap‘[2] manager who held a celluloid storage in Bogor, West Java. When Anis visited the celluloid storage facilities, she found that they were located precisely on the river’s edge and were subjected to frequent flooding. Whether it was luck or coincidence, Violetta being handed to the Ministry and managed to escape from damage by flood was a blessing that enabled the momentum for multiple possibilities of analysis.

Violetta was first screened for the public – post-1965 – in 2015, in a small theater, Kineforum, managed by the Jakarta Arts Council. The screening was a part of ARKIPEL – Jakarta International Documentary & Experimental Film Festival, curated by me personally. That was the first time the public was able to watch what had been labelled as a ‘leftist film‘. As expected, enthusiasm ran high and the theater was packed.  Screened after seventeen years of Reformation, the discourse and discussions of the works of LEKRAartists are now different from the New Order era. The democratic climate and technological development provides a situation in which studies of LEKRA’s cultural works have resurfaced. Dozens of discussions, texts, and critical-comprehensive studies reading the artistic practices and quality of aesthetics of LEKRA artists are produced. Yet, when many works of literature and fine arts of LEKRA’s artists are found and studied, it does not apply to the film counterpart. Thus, it is not surprising that audiences were curious of the film and ‘construed‘ it as a depiction of the notion of socialist realism.

After the screening, it appeared that many members of the audience holding such expectations were bewildered. What happened was that they had just watched a tragic drama that did not explicitly convey a story of class struggle, such as the general narrative of leftist activism that has been overshadowed by the cold war. Violetta, an only child deprived of a father‘s affection, was raised by a single mother who was the head of an all-girl dormitory. The mother, played by Fifi Young, is overly protective and possessive of Violetta, particularly over her relationship with men, even though Violetta had almost no male friends. Her mother’s treatment puts so much pressure on her mental state that it weakened her physical health. At her doctor‘s suggestion, Violetta is sent away to a villa in an undisclosed rural area. Unexpected by her mother, Violetta encounters a corporal who is carrying out the field assignment of Turun ke Bawah (Turba)[3] with the aim ofhelping farmers. The two fall in love. As a matter of course, the mother objects to their relationship and their story ends in tragedy. On a night in a forest, Violetta is shot erroneously by the corporal‘s own gun, having mistaken her for the enemy.

Regardless of the melodrama, Violetta’s visual form is interesting to examine. Bachtiar often used chiaroscuro in his lighting technique in Violetta to contrast the light and dark elements. It is used for close-up and medium shots to emphasize characterization. This technique creates another space that isolates the character within, despite the actual physical space. This shows in the scenes where Violetta is having a conversation with her mother, in which the scene appears more dramatic and very private due to the light that falls only on the faces/bodies. In other scenes, Bachtiar also used double layering or superimposition that overlaps two images. In the scene where Violetta is having a nightmare, an image of a mask overlaps Violetta’s face, stressing a traumatic situation that ‘something’ is haunting Violetta.

In the introduction of the catalogue of Violetta, I wrote about Pudovkin’s influence that emphasized character exploration for Bachtiar personally — which he learnt  during the independence war. We remember how Pudovkin criticized Eisenstei’s montage that for him lacked emphasis on individuality (psychological realm) so that the position of the character within the image construction is awfully mechanistic. Both techniques employed by Bachtiar explained above are, for me, mediums to explore the pyschology of the characters in the conflicts of the narrative. At this point, Bachtiar Siagian parted ways with Usmar Ismail who emphasized the psychology of his characters through narrative construction, as Sen had explained. Bachtiar, at least through Violetta, conveyed the psychological aspects through the exploration of techniques and visual forms while adhering to the social and historical situation of the narrative. What is interesting is that both techniques are also found in Basuki Effendi‘s directorial debut called Pulang (1952) — Bachtiar’s colleague in Lekra. The film was produced by the State Film Company before Effendi joined Lekra.[4] In world cinema history, the techniques were mostly used in German Expressionism, American noir films in the same period of cinema as Lekra, or Italian neo-realism. The next question is the extent of the influence of world cinema on Indonesian films in that period. By tracing the critique texts or discourse on Indonesian films of that period, the terms of film noir and German expressionism have so far not been found. Certainly, the absence of the term film noir is understandable, the definition of film noir itself did not exist until many years later in France. One could even say that in the 50’s, the ‘film noir movement’ itself did not exist. Meanwhile, there was a film critique text by A. Dahlan. Sr. that mentioned  neo-realism, Dahlan even called Bachtiar a neo-realist. Joebar Ayoeb, a Lekra official, also said that Bachtiar Siagian and his friends in Lekra watched neo-realist films, one of which was Bitter Rice (Giuseppe De Santis, 1949). [5] This shows that Italian neo-realism films were discussed and became part of the discourse of cinema in Indonesia at that time.

So, we ought to connect the link between Violetta’s melodramatic narrative model— in this case, the reading of Violetta’s form as an absorption of clasical Hollywood film (as hegemonic modernism) is still susceptible – with Bachtiar theory, discourses, and speech that stridently resound revolutionary films dedicated to the Indonesian revolution, bearing the duty to establish national culture. In his speech during the 1964 Asia-Africa Film Festival, for instance, he firmly contrasted the positive values of revolutionary film with films that had ‘negative‘ values, favouring commercial interests, and which he regarded as characterising the epigones that were responsible for reinforcing imperialist interventions.[6] In reference to Sen‘s analysis of the relation between film, texts and political movement of Bachtiar and his colleagues in Lekra with the analysis of Third Cinema, in its limited implication, such efforts could indicate an attempt to re-imagine alternative models of cinema distinct from those of Hollywood. Even so, this must be examined within the national political context at the time, particularly with the need to align the Indonesian film scene’s agenda with Soekarno‘s anti-Western political discourse[7]— a project that in Indonesian historiography has been defined as ‘nation-building‘.

This imagination of an alternative model of cinema distinct from Hollywood, if traced from the texts produced by Lekra intellectuals, is evident in the way it references  works of genres including gangster, glamor, Rock ‘n Roll, and obscene films — films regarded as ‘utilized by the imperialists to provoke and augment decadency, racialism and pessimism among the struggles of the people.‘[8] The debate over American films which ‘corrupt the morals‘ had evidently been around since the 1920‘s, but within a different context. The colonial rulers at the time were exasperated by those morally degenerate American films causing decadence of the dignityof Europeans in their colonial states. An article in Filmland magazine in December 1926 states that “(…) the scenes depicting the crime and obliquity (of Western people) were accepted as a solid representation of everyday lives of white people in their own countries (…)“.[9] In 1956, the concern of American film imports dominating the market in comparison to local films began to be perceived as an obstacle to the growth of the local film industry. This subsequently shifted into a political issue in 1964, marked by a mass boycott of American films and demands by PAPFIAS (Panitia Aksi Pemboikotan Film Imperialis Amerika Serikat, eng: Committee of Boycott Acts Against the United States Imperialist Films) which represented many different groups calling for the disbanding of AMPAI.[10] At this point, I argue that the anti-Hollywood narrative and the reimagining of alternative cinema is within the content itself.

Bachtiar once wrote a letter to Salim Said, an author of Indonesian cinema history, on his decision to opt for the production of an entertainment feature. Bachtiar had a formula that he described as ‘Pil Kina Bandung‘ (eng: Bandung Quinine Pill), a form coated with ‘entertainment sugar‘, analogous to quinine covered with a layer of white sugar. Bachtiar asserted two aspects to be taken into consideration with regards to the establishment of a national film. First, to put in mind the aspect of the industry (material), for the capital of Indonesian film industry to grow and advance, in order to push the course of Indonesian film into a better direction. Second, the substance and the form of the film had to achieve a balance, as in the balance between the public‘s satisfaction that generally places more attention on entertainment values and the aspects of education and cultural alignment with national interests and demands. [11]

The first point asserted by Bachtiar refers to economic nationalism pursued by Indonesia as a newly independent nation, with the objective of economic sovereignty. Within the context of cinema, these efforts were not just to establish local film companies, but were directly linked to attempts to rewrite history by constituting those companies as the birth of bona fide Indonesian cinema.[12] Bachtiar revealed that in discussions that took place throughout 1964, he was frequently asked why filmmakers did not create films about the peasant labor class. For him, this was materially impossible, although the inclination was there. The main problem was the lack of equipment for screening films in rural areas coupled with the futility of screening such films in an urban context. Producers would not be interested in financing films that did not pique the interests of the audience. Bachtiar emphazised an important notion, one that distinguished film from the scope of other works in LEKRA, namely that the condition of Indonesian cinema at the time was not adequate for it to participate on the front line. Film only had the capacity to partake in drawing power in the national economy while creating more progressive films compared to the ones previously produced. When national capital had acquired power to face a more powerful foreign capital, the capital would bring a fortune for the development of artists and the film ecosystem. Therefore, in the sense of agitation and propaganda, film did not possess any significant role. [13]

Bachtiar admitted that the dependence of film production on the power of capital caused the position of film production to be way behind other works in Lekra, such as literature. Even when Bachtiar had help from his producer colleagues with similar visions, such as the owner of Garuda Film, an Indonesian of Chinese descent from the Sin Po newspaper group that since its establishment in 1910 had been actively speaking of Indonesian nationalism, there was still a requirement: do not make a financial loss. While LESBUMIhad the resources and capital, Bachtiar had to find financial support on his own. Under such conditions, his notion of ‘Pil Kina Bandung‘ was formulated. Interestingly, in his interview with Sen, Bachtiar offered a different explanation of Turba, known as the principles of Lekra‘s cultural works to produce artistic practice based on the interest of the people. As described by H.R Bandahar, a Lekra activist, Turba is an observation, research, examination and recording carried out by scholars and artists by moving to rural areas. [14] The leaders of Lekra named it Tiga Sama (eng: Three Principles of Collective Life): work together, eat together, and sleep together.[15] On film, Bachtiar highlighted a different Turba, in the sense of creation: creating films that were within the reach of the public‘s appreciation.  [16]

Bachtiar Siagian. Image Courtesy of Bachtiar’s family

According to Bachtiar, the cultural works that were closest to the sense of appreciation of the people, particularly Javanese society, was wayang. The aesthetic of wayang is placed within its characterization, in which the tradition takes a narrative form. Wayang also brings a certain form in its figures and characters. Unfortunately, for Bachtiar, due to the feudalism rooted deep within Javanese society, the form of these characters constitute a hierarchy. Bachtiar gave an example of how the formation of a character with good moral compass is imagined to have a ‘good shape‘ because they have enough food and clothes, resembling the characteristics of the kings depicted as nearly perfect, while it is almost certain that the evil characters possess a ‘bad shape‘. [17] Bachtiar himself had attempted many times to challenge such characterization models by reversing the narrative attached to the body. For example, in Corak Dunia, the protagonist who fights for peace has a hideous face. Or in Kabut December, he positioned a prostitute as having respectful status, an unpopular proposition among the common Indonesian films that viewed prostitution as a moral disease.[18]

***

Semiotic interpretation of Violetta is quite diverse. Dag Yvenson, a film researcher, states that in Violetta there is no display of an ‘actual conflict‘, nor an enemy, “as if the revolution doesn‘t exist“.[19] Consequently, according to Yvenson, instead of class conflict, what is displayed is the subject of universal gender issue.[20] The appearance of religious symbols—the cross in this case—for Yvenson is also a feature that distances Violetta from communist texts.[21] Another analysis by Mikael Johani suggests that the ambivalence of Corporal Herman‘s social class when facing the burgeois mother is Bachtiar’s way of stating that the world is not driven by class conflict, but rather negotiations within the ruling class itself. It is shown in the scenes where Corporal Herman abided the Mother, while as a soldier, he is supposed to be the ruler. [22] In other words, the ruling class is not a single entity but there are various hierarchies of power within. The directions taken by the two analyses provide fertile ground for examining Violetta further and deeper. In regard to Yvenson‘s analysis, we may ask further what revolution means for Bachtiar, while Johani pushes for a more comprehensive examination on Bachtiar’s translation of class conflict in his films, departing from the position of the non-singular ruling class.

The most explicit theme of revolution or physical revolution is shown in Turang (1957) that he made in Sumatra, his birthplace. In the film, Bachtiar specifically intended to depict the peasant community in mountain areas that contributed in the fight for independence. The narrative shown in Turang, not long after the social revolution in Sumatra, emphasized a distinct version of revolution compared to the prevailing national narrative since the New Order that I am more familiar with, in which the military is the sole actor in the fight for independence followed by a single narrative of fighting against outsiders in the name of the nation. It is a story based on his own experience as a guerilla fighter in Karo mountain areas  around 1947/1948. Therefore, it is important to trace Bachtiar Siagian’s personal life history and to approach it as a social archive, to further connect the lines between the body and the narrative/visual of revolution in his films that provide space for the common people.

Bachtiar Siagian was born in a colonial tobacco plantation in Binjai, North Sumatra. These plantations were established post the 1870 Agrarian Act. During the early days of forest clearing, Chinese laborers were bought in by brokers from Singapore and Penang. During the tobacco boom in the late 1880‘s, contract labor from China reached 20,000 per year. It was not until 1900 that the plantations fully hired laborers from Java.[23] Bachtiar‘s father was a railroad laborer who married the daughter of a plantation contract laborer.  Since his childhood, Bachtiar witnessed and experienced directly how the lives of plantation laborers were exploited by the Deliaan or Dutch Deli planters who reaped and amassed huge wealth and profit. Tan Malaka described the gap that existed between the laborer and the planter as “a sharp conflict between the dense, arrogant, sloppy, white colonizer and the colored people experienced in tireless hard-work but which are deceived, exploited, oppressed… this was what exarcerbated the conditions in Deli.“ [24]

The role of rich and numerous Malay kingdoms was significant at the time. As the landlords, the sultans received huge sums of money in tributes or ‘land revenue‘ excluding the income from the Dutch for the land rent cost per year to stay low. By the early 1920‘s, nearly all the lands of the Malay people were under the control of foreign plantations. [25] The conflict widened with the Karo people living in the mountain areas when the sultans claimed their rights over any territory that they considered theoretically under their rule. The Karo then fought against the foreign plantation and the kingdoms continuously.[26] The abundance of wealth the kingdoms gained from political contracts benefitting both their side and the foreign plantation lords coupled with the starkly contrasting conditions of the contract laborers and the people resulted in long-term conflict that ended in social revolution in 1946, an event where the intention to topple feudal rule was overridden and ended in the assassination of the sultans and their families.

In Ben Anderson‘s analysis of Mary Steedley‘s essay Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesians, an etnographic-historical research on the revolution of the Karo people in the mountain areas, Anderson outlines a reminder of the two types of revolution. Beside the revolution against outsider/invader/colonizer, there is also a populist revolution against various internal parties within the society, such as colonial bureaucrats, oppressive sultans and aristocrats, hypocritical village chiefs, Dutch spies, traitors (most of whom were Christian), Indo-Chinese traders, loan sharks, and others. It was an era that was depicted by an actor in the revolution interviewed by Mary as ‘a moment where people hated each other‘. Another informant described it as “we were our own enemies.“ 1950-1955 was the period when, according to Anderson, there was a blurring of the meaning of social revolution that shifted into a struggle in the name of a nation in a binary oposition of the colonized and the colonizer. During the New Order regime, social revolution dissipated and was replaced by the notion of a ‘war of independence‘ in which the military was credited as the national hero.[27]

Reflecting Bachtiar‘s experiences as someone who was born and lived as a labor working class in Sumatra who suffered through oppression not only by colonizers but local ruling class, coupled with his direct participation in the social revolution era, we can understand that the kind of revolution portrayed in his films is not limited to the struggle of binary opposition that pits ‘us‘ as a nation, Indonesia, against outsiders which was used as a mantra for unifying the people by the nationalist elite. It also seemed that the meaning of revolution for Bachtiar is a criticism on elements of society that hinders the national struggle; for instance, the Mother as a catholic who shows no compassion in Violetta, an archaic mindset displayed by a handful of people who look down on a prostitute in moralistic fashion without noticing her substantial role by working hard to send her brother to school so he could contribute to the nation as an intellectual in Kabut Desember (the modern influence on Bachtiar’s conscience is shown in this film), or his protest of the national elite government in the film Daerah Hilang (1956) which carried out the eviction of the poor in Kebayoran in the name of elite housing development. There is an effort to convey his political expression embodying complexities of elements within society in his films, leading him to a sense of class struggle distinct from PKI Marxist tradition. Bachtiar admitted that whoever took a stance against imperialism was a progressive force that was needed, even if they were businessmen, landlords, or religious figures.[28] Apparently, this stance led to him often clashing with the Communist Party‘s vision. In his film Baja Membara, Bachtiar highlighted the role of the Islamic group in the birth of the national struggle against Japan in Aceh, causing him to face harsh criticism from the party that questioned the need to highlight the role of religious groups.

***

The explanations above illustrate how consequential is the influence of Indonesian social-political situations, both as a state and nation entity in the 1950s, to Bachtiar’s political and aesthetics film construction. The ’50s itself has a unique position in Indonesian historiography, one Ruth McVey regarded as a ‘disappearing decade’. In this period, Indonesia as a nation and a state underwent an important phase to imagine and establish itself, before it was all wiped out by the 1965 coup d’état and the rise of the New Order. A number of intellectuals were certain that ‘Indonesia’ is a modern construct that is relatively  young. One of them was Pramoedya Ananta Tour who stressed the element of agency in the nation-building process, leaving a narrative of laws of history.[29] In the ’50s, Indonesia had not been constructed entirely, it was on the phase of ‘becoming’. According to Adrian Vickers, there are at least three aspects in this period: the spirit of liberation from colonial powers, the desire to absorb what was regarded as modern, and the wish to subserve to the construction of a new nation.[30]

Thus, the theoretic notion of socialist realism that had been Lekra’s slogan as an institution and a leftist movement does need to be dissected and reimagined through agency or individual practices that intersects directly with the concept of nationalism of a new independent nation, economic independency, and what had been Indonesia’s most important contribution in international political constellation,  the zeal of anti-colonialism and imperialism. I personally would avoid formulating briskly the significant role or part of Lekra cinema, specifically Bachtiar’s films, in that crucial period of Indonesian nation-building process. But, certainly, we could slowly identify what is Leftist cinema, a kind of question that had been echoing for so long.


About the Writer

Bunga Siagian was the curator at ARKIPEL Film Festival from 2013-2016 and is the current programmer of Jatiwangi Sinematek. At present, she is interested in the artistic practice of ‘how’ to perform the moving image, instead of ‘what’. Since 2017, together with Ismal Muntaha, she has been actively managing the Land Affair Study Agency (Badan Kajian Pertanahan), a temporary agency experimenting with methods and forms of arts in the study of the cultural landscape, in relation to land affairs.


[1] Krishna Sen, Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order, translated as Kuasa Dalam Sinema by Windu Jusuf (Penerbit Ombak: Jogjakarta, 2009).  p. 78.

[2] Translator’s Note: layar tancap = Indonesian mobile cinema screening

[3] Translator’s note: Turun ke Bawah (Turba) = a program by officials of sending someone to rural areas to conduct social project/activities helping the community

[4] Pulang was part of the digitalization project of Indonesian classic films by Film Development Center in 2016. The source for this project is yet to be confirmed. However, there seems to be a correlation between the survival of the archive and the fact that it was produced by the state film company, and so the archive kept.

[5] Interview of Krishna Sen with Bachtiar Siagian in 1981. Accessed from personal archive of Bachtiar Siagian.

[6] Muhidin M Dahlan & Rhoma Dwi Aria Yuliantri, Lekra Tak Membakar Buku, (Jogjakarta: Merakesumba, 2008), p. 218

[7] Krishna Sen, et al., Anthony R. Guneratne & Wimal Dissanayake, ed., Rethinking Third Cinema, (New York: Routledge, 2009). p. 151

[8] Muhidin M Dahlan & Rhoma Dwi Aria Yuliantri, Op. Cit., p. 204

[9] Sen, Kuasa Dalam Sinema, Op. Cit., p. 23

[10] Ibid., p.

[11] Bunga Siagian, et al., Manshur Zikri & Ugeng T. Moetidho, ed., Arkipel Catalogue : Grand Illusion, (Jakarta: Forum Lenteng, 2015). p. 172

[12] Sen, Kuasa Dalam Sinema, Op. Cit., p. 33

[13] Interview of Krishna Sen with Bachtiar Siagian in 1981. Accessed from personal archive of Bachtiar Siagian.

[14] Muhidin M Dahlan & Rhoma Dwi Aria Yuliantri, Op. Cit., p. 226

[15] Ibid, p. 32.

[16] Interview of Krishna Sen with Bachtiar Siagian in 1981. Accessed from personal archive of Bachtiar Siagian.

[17] Interview of Krishna Sen with Bachtiar Siagian on 1981. Accessed from personal archive of Bachtiar Siagian.

[18] Sen, Kuasa Dalam Sinema, Op. Cit., p. 71

[19] Dag Yvenson, A Dissertation : Non Aligned Features : The Coincidence of Modernity and the Screen in Indonesia.  (University of Minnesota : 2016), p. 165.

[20] Ibid, p. 164

[21] Ibid, p. 167

[22] https://popteori.com/2016/03/13/bachtiar-siagians-violetta-a-lekra-romcom/

[23] Anthony Reid, Sumatera : Revolusi dan Elit Tradisional, (Depok: Komunitas Bambu , 2012), p. 58

[24] Ibid, p. 56

[25] Ibid, p. 68

[26] Ibid, p. 69

[27] Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, Leslie Dwyer, Mary Margaret Steedly, Review Essay : Rifle Reports: A Story of Indonesian Independence. SOJOURN : Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia Vol. 30, No. 3 (2015), p.861.

[28] Interview of Krishna Sen with Bachtiar Siagian in 1981. Accessed from personal archive of Bachtiar Siagian.

[29] Hilmar Farid, Pramoedya dan Historiografi Indonesia, p. 98

[30] Adrian Vickers, Mengapa tahun 1950’an penting bagi kajian Indonesia, p. 69.