Unmuting History – Rising From Silence

Fikri Jermadi checks out this treat of a documentary from Shalahuddin Siregar.

I have a slightly cynical take on ‘Rising From Silence’, a documentary tracking the launch of an album from Dialita. A choir group featuring survivors of Indonesia’s communist purge in 1965, the documentary follows them as a whole (and their leader, Uchikowati, and member, Utati Koesalah, in particular) as they rework their trauma through the art of music.

They represent a generation of a certain age, yet the members remain enthusiastic in working through painful memories, partly as a means of exorcising ghosts from the past, and partly as a way of getting their story out there. In publicising the personal, the film is quite an important one. Simply put, it historicises a history (herstory?) that may vanish into the ether. Yet that sentence, of publicising the personal, hints at a feeling I can’t quite shake, that ‘Rising From Silence’ is as much a promotional video as it is an effort at pinning down recollections of history.

I say this because the structure of the film follows that of a band, as they prepare and rehearse for a big upcoming show. This climax is the launch of their album, ‘Dunia Milik Kita’, on 17th August 2016. For those not in the know, this is a particularly symbolic date; celebrated by the masses as Indonesia’s Independence Day, here the group is setting free (in both senses of the word; the album is available online for free) their stories and melodies. Much of that structure is visualised as a behind-the-scenes look at their preparations, featuring the same narrative beats of videos put out by the likes of K-Pop bands on YouTube.

Having said that, these are minor concerns which merely distract from the film’s core, without necessarily detracting from our experience of their experiences (more on this later). The fact remains that ‘Rising From Silence’ is a documentary that sheds light on a dark side of Indonesian history. Some of the most effective moments are felt early on in the film, when the director, Shalahuddin Siregar, deliberately juxtaposes Dialita’s melodies with the visual maladies of history, assaulting us with brutal images on screen. Though grainy and shaky in its black-and-white, old-age revolutionary aesthetic, it remains difficult to watch.

Yet this is not my fight, not my battle. I have no horse in this race. What of those who do? What about others who have lived through such trauma? In the case of Dialita, what made them confront this not with anger in return, fighting fire with fire, but instead through feelings made harmonious? That is bravery, that is courage, that is the realisation that ours is a life not lived for us, in a way, but for others; as mentioned above, the greatest contribution ‘Rising From Silence’ can make is to enlighten newer, younger generations of Indonesians.

I argue, however, that it could have taken a step further. By this, I mean that I am surprised by the film’s lack on emphasis on Chineseness. Certainly in many of the research and information I have come across, as much as 1965 has been framed as a cleansing of communism by Suharto (with some aid by the meddling Americans), what happened was also used as a cover attacking Chinese identity. It has begotten a cultural genocide perpetrated along lines as ethnic as they are ideological. Yet I cannot recall much in the film that brings this up, even when there are clear signifiers of Chineseness, from their physical appearances to their names (many members of Dialita have only one name, a legacy of that period).

Yes, this is not the only factor oscillating in the film’s constellation, and perhaps ‘Rising From Silence’ is deliberately taking a more muhibbah approach. Maybe it is also my Malaysian mindset at play here, wherein race is very much inculcated in a lot of what we think about. Nevertheless, I see what I see, and I know what I know. Whatever my biases may be, I feel that the producers are missing a trick in not highlighting this specific factor, which is particularly galling when the entire documentary is premised on fighting against historical erasure.

There ends the nitpicking, because I would not be doing this film a serviceable review without talking about its technical qualities. ‘Rising From Silence’ is a beautifully-done documentary, with good lighting, proper focus and lovely subtitles; they are italicised when we hear the lyrics of songs, for instance. These are minor details, of course, but I believe that such fine details make for a fine film experience. Speaking of the producers earlier, the name NHK World features prominently in the beginning, suggesting that it is made as much for an international television audience as it is a local one. To that end, it is successful.

Ultimately, ‘Rising From Silence’ is simultaneously personal and professional, in terms of promoting the band. The subject matter also renders it important from a historical perspective, making a fine contribution to awareness efforts. Unfortunately, how effective it is lies not only within the film itself, but also outwith; scenes in the film show how productions that seek to highlight these corners of Indonesia’s history are not well-received, especially if it runs counter to what the zeitgeist considers to be mainstream. To that end, it seems likely that unless this film is released freely on the Internet, it will suffer much of the same fate as its subject matter.

At least the music won’t. Their album can be downloaded here.

Featured image credit: FullHD Wallpapers

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