Poetics and Politics in Garin Nugroho's A Poet (2)

It is in this willingness to look, to take off the mask, that the historical importance of A Poet lies. The film forms part of a wave of long-repressed criticism of the crimes of the Suharto regime unleashed in the last few years. (12) The film could not have been made during the Suharto era, and Nugroho admits that its 1999 release in Indonesia would have been unlikely if Habibie had been re-elected as president. (13) The new scrutiny of public life coincides with a critical time for the Indonesian film industry. Economic crisis and the collapse of the rupiah at the end of the '90s, which closed cinemas and at first threatened the demise of the movie industries, have in fact opened up new opportunities for cheaper local films, and for a new social realist cinema. (14) Described as 'a one man "new wave"', (15) Nugroho has survived through this period, shooting A Poet on the cheaper digital video format and winning numerous awards with the film. (16)

Although one commentator has written that Nugroho has "graduated" from working in documentaries to making feature films, his work has in fact alternated between both modes. Before making A Poet, he made a documentary on the life of Ibrahim Kadir, and alongside his earlier feature about street kids he also directed a documentary about life on the streets in Jogjakarta. Nugroho clearly chooses the medium appropriate to his task: as Tony Rayns writes, "each film is radically different in form and theme from others". (17) While the titles at the beginning of A Poet state that "a fair and neutral investigation of [the murder of the seven generals that sparked the massacres] was never conducted", Nugroho does not attempt this kind of investigation. In A Poet, we never see the perpetrators of the atrocities, and as for the cause, we are left only with the confusion and questioning of the inmates, "why is this happening?", "what has gone wrong?", "why are our lives so out of kilter?" (18)

Walter Benjamin writes, of the process of storytelling:
It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the marks of the storyteller much as the earthen vessel bears the marks of the potter's hand. (19)
A Poet embeds this story in the lives of the listener-viewer in a profoundly embodied way, inscribed through the texture of the cell walls, the restless pace of the camera, the emotional qualities of the voice, the cyclic structures of repetition. Bowen argues that the western idea that history or politics can be understood as objects distinct from cultural and aesthetic forms is inadequate to address the embodiment of politics in cultural form. Certainly, the disembodied voice of history exists in contemporary Indonesia, but Nugroho emphasises his choice to avoid the historical approach (sejarah), and to work with the emotional registers of "the verbal tradition". (20)

The film bears the marks of two storytellers, the filmmakers and Ibrahim Kadir. (21) Kadir's performance sees him acting a highly stylised role. It is a performance, and a masterful one at that, winning him Best Actor awards at two international festivals, but it is also much more. There is an intensity to his performance, a complex dialectic between distance and proximity in his role representing both himself and the voice of the storyteller. Kadir, the storyteller, is the potter whose bodily memory marks the "earthen vessel" of the story. Just as Kadir does not locate himself outside the events re-enacted, nor does Nugroho, the other storyteller, take up an authorial voice outside or above the experience of these events, the "judicial" voice of interrogation which would present a case, but render culture, experience and feeling as artefacts or objects to be scrutinised. The trajectories of a history that meet in the experience of Kadir and his fellow inmates are not separate from the cultural histories that weave through the tradition of didong. Nor are these events removed from the experience of them, or the deep incisions they have left in the bodily memory of those who survived.

Bowen claims that, in the '70s, "the poetic medium [of didong was] deemed to be 'cultural', and thus somewhat safe from direct suppression" despite its political criticisms. (22) He does, however, document the strategy of the New Order regime in the '70s and '80s "to subsume all social movements and cultural expression under the Pancasila, the Five Principles that form the state ideology". (23) With resonances that go beyond the '60s into the current struggle in Aceh against the central government, didong grounds A Poet in the sense of local culture and cultural affiliation as the life-blood of a people, the vital core of resistance to decimation by military might. (24) Kadir's performance embodies both the refusal to bury the memory of the victims and a refusal to surrender a rich poetic tradition to the homogenising demands of a national culture. By working with the multi-layered affective tradition of didong, Nugroho embeds his film within the complex mesh of layered meanings in contemporary Indonesian cultural politics.

see the footnote here

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