Poetics and Politics in Garin Nugroho's A Poet (1)

".chopped up at the blink of an eye, whether relatives or friends, cleared out completely." (1)

These lines, quoted from a performance staged in 1978 to applaud the achievements of the Suharto regime, celebrate the massacre of between 500,000 and 2 million people which clinched the victory of Suharto's forces in purging Indonesia of communists in 1965. (2) Under Suharto's program of the civic function of the army, strategies of control and intimidation infiltrated the micro-level of daily life and cultural activity. The recruitment of the popular form of didong, the sung poetic duels renowned among the Gayo people of central Aceh, as a tool of the New Order, exemplifies this pervasive influence. John Bowen, the scholar of Sumatran poetics and politics who quotes these lines, has documented how, as the army spread its tentacles during the '60s and '70s down into the grassroots of local cultures, local government recognised that a popular art form such as didong could become a dangerous tool of dissent. (3) Didong had evolved through the middle of the 20th century from a folk form into a tool for engaging the modern world in a popular idiom, a form characterised by humour and word-play which used the veiled language of metaphor as a vehicle for incisive political criticism. (4) Bowen traces the attempts by the central government under Suharto to counter this potential threat by enlisting didong in its service. (5) Despite the 'distaste' that, according to Bowen, many Gayo felt on hearing these lines, their framing within the poetic form of a didong performance provided a potent mnemonic device to keep an awareness of the price of dissent vividly in the popular imagination. (6)

It is no accident that A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry (Puisi tak terkuburkan), the first Indonesian film to revisit the 1965 massacres, works back up from the grassroots of didong to reclaim this history, to give testimony to the trauma of those who lived through it. (7) As a work of mourning, A Poet, directed by Garin Nugroho, affirms the other tradition of didong-the powerful humanist tradition of a poetic form for emotional expression which 'gives dignity to humanity'. (8) The film starts from the ballads of didong poet, Ibrahim Kadir, an eye-witness to the massacres of 1965 who plays himself in the film, and works with many non-professional actors from the Takengon area of central Aceh who also experienced the events and whose relatives and friends were among the victims. (9) Far from the callous gloating of the 1978 performance, accounts of the production of A Poet tell of a process of filming marked by tears and grieving. (10) The difficulties of making a film that could do justice to the scale and enormity of the trauma of '65 must have been a daunting task to the crew of A Poet. Facts, statistics, chronologies could never measure the scars left on a community, a culture, by such a history. The solution Nugroho has found to this challenge is to work on the smallest scale, to focus on the raw experience of a few dozen people caught in the mesh of the rampaging army-rice farmers, fishermen, housewives, mothers. The film revolves around the memories of Kadir, arrested at the height of the massacre and held in custody for 28 days before being released, and follows the inmates of two cells as they struggle to make sense of what is happening and to keep a sense of their own humanity even as they await execution.

The Indonesian title of the film, Puisi tak terkuburkan, means a poetry that cannot be buried, that has not been surrendered to the grave. The English translation, A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry, acts almost as a euphemism as it misses the vital link to the earth, grounded in the knowledge in an agrarian culture of the gritty reality of bodies consigned to the earth. Indeed, the fragile physicality of bodies is ever-present in A Poet. The space of the film is the space of incarceration, shot entirely inside two prison cells and the guard's foyer, a murky amorphous space shot in low resolution, black and white digital video. Fear seeps out of the dingy, musty cell walls-a palpable, all-pervasive fear amplified by the claustrophobia of the camera which pries into tightly crammed corners filled with sleeping bodies, pins people against the cell walls and creeps listlessly in close-up across the startled eyes and clenched faces of prisoners waiting to learn of their fate.

The sound of the film, as if in contest with the tight, rigid, closed-in space, is fluid, mobile, a vehicle of transport, both tugging us in to the space of terror and drawing us back out into the space of survival. The sense of duelling voices, central to the performance of didong, animates the structure of Nugroho's film, as it alternates between the sounds and voices of authority and menace, and the songs and melodies of resistance, of a humanity under duress. (11) Sound echoes the terror of entrapment. The clanging of the prison gates, chains and locks wracks the bodies of the prisoners, ricochets as if through empty shells that can no longer protect the vulnerable organs within, leaving limbs quaking. The voice of the guard calling the names of the inmates to be taken is like an invisible string reeling in unwilling captives. As he recounts the terrible experiences of '65, Kadir is still haunted by bodily memory of the sounds of slaughter-the 'crak crak crak' sound of bodies being severed by the parang, the short sword, as head is separated from body. The memory of a woman shot with her baby at the breast is carried by a scream across shifting levels of reality:
I looked at the moon and from it there came a cry
The moon and the stars were crying just like my own child.

Even in the face of this horror, as a ceh, the leader of a didong group, Kadir's accounts of the events are infused with the spirit of the oral tradition of storytelling, drawing on all of the emotional registers of the voice, and sliding effortlessly from voice to song and dance. The richly layered soundtrack carries the film across invisible boundaries, shifts the mood from the atomised space of isolation and terror, and draws people from the confined space of the cell out into the expanded space of memory, from bewilderment and disintegration back out into the space of communal affirmation.

The animating power of didong continually breaks through the surface of the film. Even as they are held captive, the rhythm, the allusions of the storytelling mode take hold of the inmates, transporting them across time and space, beyond their physical confinement, to evoke the sensuous qualities of memory. Lured into the space of pleasure, warmth and laughter, they recount stories of courtship, tell jokes and break spontaneously into dance and song. If you could say that in A Poet the sound is the air that we breathe, then this life-giving force is in music. The opening credits of the film shake with the pounding rhythm of a group of didong singers as they beat pillows in accompaniment to their singing and rhythmic swaying in a joyous communal performance. In the cell, the rhythm of a prisoner anxiously knocking on the wall becomes a counterpoint to the melody of a song which gives voice to the fear of the inmates:
I fear your fate is that of the little chicken, its heart trembling for fear of the hawk,
Happy are the water fowl that even in murky water can float.
The tremulous song of someone attempting to stay alive is taken up by the group like a lifeline that rekindles and sustains the spirit. At the end of the film, the haunting voice of the singer reintegrates the painful memories once again into the strength of the communal tradition, driven by the rhythm and the vigour of didong performance. It is not just poetry that has refused to be put in the grave, but a poetics, a way of life lived within the ambit of a sensuous poetic tradition.

The intensities of the film are channelled through tightly-controlled and paced theatrical performance, cycling around a limited set of stylised motifs. As Kadir tells another inmate of the executions he has witnessed, his hands mimic the sharp slicing movement of the sword decapitating its victims. Hands are involuntarily transformed into tools of violence: Kadir is forced to tie the hands of the other inmates before they are taken to be killed; a bloodied hand scraped across the wall in anxiety symbolises the fracturing of daily life:
Why do these hands no longer knock on doors in greeting
Why is a knock on the door now frightening
Why do these fingers not point out the many kindnesses
Why do these fingers betray?
The overcrowded platform on which inmates crush together to sleep, a stage for storytelling and dancing, itself becomes a motif as it is suddenly sparse, the few remaining bodies spread out, separated, empty spaces between them. Sacks made for storing rice are transformed into hoods as group after group of prisoners is masked and led out to be killed, a ritual that punctuates the film over and over. The steady supply of sacks brought into the jail dries up, as villagers realise how they are being used and refuse to sell. At the close of the film, one of the last remaining women finally refuses everything the sack stands for:
Tie me up if you will . . . but don't put that sack over my head . . .
Whatever life is, I want to see it.

Author: Anne Rutherford
Anne Rutherford teaches Cinema Studies at University of Western Sydney.

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