Adi Iskandar paints the bigger and smaller pictures in watching Hanung Bramantyo’s latest film.
A word of warning: I have not read the book, ‘Bumi Manusia’, prior to watching this film adaptation of it. I am aware of its significance, and as we have pointed out in our preview, it appears to be a work of art not to be missed. However, it is what it is, and therefore, this review does not attempt to correlate what I saw with what many others will have seen in their minds, a picture inspired by the very words of Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
On screen, we see a love story between Minke (Iqbaal Ramadhan) and Annelies (Mawar Eva de Jongh). They both appear to fall for one another almost at first sight, and intriguingly, this is something that was greatly encouraged by Nyai Ontosoroh (Sha Ine Febriyanti), Annelies’ mother who is the mistress to her father, Herman Mellema (Peter Sterk). Yet this does not preclude her from controlling their domain, handling his business and keeping everything in order with great efficiency, all while her husband spends his time drunk and whoring (sometimes simultaneously).
Minke’s interest is not something that Annelies’ brother, Robert (Giorgino Abraham), is that keen on. This has much to do with Minke’s race and ethnicity; think of the disdain the likes of Draco Malfoy had for someone like Hermione, a ‘mudblood’, and you’ll understand how Robert sees the pribumi as being beneath him. Amp it up a few more levels, for Robert and others appear to place much currency on such lineage, seeing it as the defining factor between the primitive locals and sophisticated Europeans.
Unfortunately, that is a principle that is more contemporary than is comfortable, with white privilege alive and well in Southeast Asia (and beyond). In that sense, when I mentioned in the preview that ‘Bumi Manusia’ has more than a whiff of a star-crossed love story gone awry, I was not quite wrong in considering how it applied much of the eternal Romeo and Juliet formula. I was, however, surprised by how much this is also about the Montagues and the Capulets, a dichotomy replicated through the unequal relationship between the Javanese natives and the colonial Dutch authorities.
Speaking of replication, it is intriguing to note how the socio-political tension which existed between the two can also be mirrored in contemporary Indonesia. For instance, the recent presidential elections featured a number of demonstrations, both prior to and in the aftermath of the event itself, laced with a strong Islamist under- and overtone. The film showcases a similar protest; in resisting the assertion of the so-called superior Dutch rule against the more native and Islamic interpretation of the law, many gathered in front of the court house. As they peppered their anti-colonial slogans with religious sentiments (“Allahuakbar!”), I thought the scene could have also doubled as an origin story for Front Pembela Islam (FPI), a group notorious for its hardline approach in religious matters.
Another, more unfortunate connection I can’t help but make is one beyond the control of the filmmakers. Minke’s is a nickname inspired by the Dutch calling him monkey, an insulting shorthand for the pribumis. In short, currently there is a conflict taking place right now between West Papuans (native to the country’s easternmost region) and the Indonesian state instrument and its affiliates. Tensions escalated on Independence Day just this past Saturday 17th August, when some Papuan students in Surabaya refused to raise the Indonesian flag.
This sparked a demonstration outside their compound, in which racial epithets (involving the word ‘monkey’) were slung in their direction, some by members of the police themselves. In protest, many Papuans have taken to social media, some simply holding placards saying, “Kame bukan monyet” (“We are not monkeys”). While the coincidence of such events are unfortunate, it does not render the above an analysis unworthy; there are strong connections between the Dutch subjugating the Javanese and how (many) Indonesians treat the Papuans.
More’s the pity, for ‘Bumi Manusia’ is a fine filmmaking achievement. Whatever the critics say about the films of Hanung Bramantyo, few openly degrade the artistic direction of these productions. To that end, much of the credit must go to Allan Triyana Sebastian, the film’s art director. In fact, the verisimilitude achieved is a convincing one, situating it in the Javanese culture landscape, and affirming it as a fine compendium to ‘Kartini’ (as an aside, Allan also did the art direction for that). Once again, I am not the foremost expert on this matter, but I do appreciate how Hanung visualises the significance of wearing shoes indoors (or not), or the knee crawling movement to highlight the hierarchical distance between certain characters in different contexts.
That’s not to say that the film is without its flaws. Contradicting some of the above is the sense that there are times when we are being force-fed a very fixed and superficial meaning. The music, in particular, was a little too two-dimensional; when a bad guy appears, you can’t escape the menace in the musical notes, while anything more cultural is almost always accompanied with more traditional instruments. While there is nothing wrong with this, it does not match the multilayered nuance as notice in the film’s visual aesthetics.
Further forcing a round peg into this square hole is the film’s length. ‘Bumi Manusia’ clocks in at three hours, which exceeds many Hollywood superhero films in terms of length. While there is a temptation of fidelity to the original text, a more selective approach in determining what to show on screen would do wonders. We may well have done better with two films made from that one book, with the first focusing on the Romeo and Juliet bread and butter, before transitioning into the Montague and Capulet conflict later on.
I end with the bigger picture. ‘Bumi Manusia’ is paired with ‘Perburuan’, another Pramoedya adaptation. Released on the same day, both are produced by Falcon Pictures, and are intended as a celebration of the nation’s foremost literary figure. Yet somewhat shamefully, I was very surprised to discover that ‘Perburuan’ had been yanked from cinematic exhibition just a week after a very public premiere. As mentioned in the preview, it may not have the same cache as ‘Bumi Manusia’, but all the same I had figured it to last at least as long as ‘Wedding Agreement’ (what? Exactly). I predicted that Indonesian film audiences and Falcon Pictures to be the winners, but I was wrong on this front.
Featured image credit: Berita Daerah