INDONESIA: Documentary review: “Tjidurian 19”.

Tjidurian 19, directed by Lasja Susatyo and M. Anduh Aziz, screned Jakarta, November 17, 2009

This film is about some of the people who were leading writers and artists in the Peoples Cultural Institute (LEKRA) in the 1960s. LEKRA was aligned with the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), and like the PKI was banned after 1965. Many of its leading figures were imprisoned for lengthy periods and tortured. Their writings were banned. In fact, they are still banned today even though since 1998 and the fall of Suharto these works have been easier to buy in bookshops.

The film focuses on those LEKRA writers and artists who worker out of the LEKRA office in Jakarta, a house at Jl. Tjidurian.

The film is easy to watch and flows well. The personalities of the various writers come across clearly, often their emotions stirred by memories. The film is also interspersed with clips from newsreel or official government footage from the period before 1965. The focus of the film makes it clear that one purpose of the project was to counter the demonisation of LEKRA writers that took place during the Suharto period and which has a strong legacy.  More than 1 million people were murdered; thousands more tortured and imprisoned for up to 14 years without trial. And there still has been no process to either end the demonisation, or to tell the truth about these events to all those who were brought up under the New Order regime who systematically told lies for 33 years. The efforts of the producers, the film-makers and the participants to defy this demonisation should be supported by all. However, I think the dominant framework in which this de-demonisation takes place does not make good political education.

The film does not try to hide the political affiliations of LEKRA. It also presents the sentiments of these writers as being sentiments in solidarity with the poor, workers and farmers. Sometimes there is a quote by one of the interviewed subjects, such as Martin Aleida who told of his feelings when he saw mistreated workers in a factory near his home. At other times, this alignment is through graphics, such as at the beginning of the film, where paintings of peasants and workers are used. President Soekarno is portrayed in a favorable light. However, these affiliations are sentiments are robbed of any ideological content and of any real political context.

This disaffiliation is effected in a number of ways. First, the various interviewed Lekra figures generally give the impression that the process of joining Lekra was devoid of any conscious ideological choice; that is a choice beyond having sentiments in solidarity with the common people. Neither the “s” word let alone the “c” word are mentioned. Yet, even in the 1950s there was a clear and open battle for and against “communism” and it was very clear where LEKRA stood. Was there no discussion of ideology in the process of people joining LEKRA?

Second, the recollections of the LEKRA figures about their activities gives no significant emphasis to the role that LEKRA played, alongside other groups, in mobilising mass participation in an increasingly sharp conflict between social classes and their organisations for state power. Their emphasis on acting training, music, dance training, having a kindergarten and so on present an image of a group of artists more-or-less divorced from any struggle for state power, even if they were concerned about the common people. Yet, especially by the 1960s, mass mobilisation of millions of people was taking place in an increasingly tense situation. We do see clips of mass rallies, but there is no real sense of the LEKRA’s real role in the battles taking place.

Third, the interviews present a picture of LEKRA having artistic independence from the PKI; of there being debates over what to emphasise in the arts and literature; and of how the writers themselves were not really driven by some of the aesthetic theories of the PKI. This is all true. Any perusal of the anthologies of the works of the Lekra writers will show the variety and richness of their work and they were not people who had lost their individualism to some kind of red beuacratic conformism. Indeed, I think it could be argued that Lekra was the most intellectually radical part of the PKI oriented left. However, by giving no real emphasis and having no discussion at all of the real role LEKRA played as an ally of the PKI in the political struggle for state power, the activities of these writers is robbed of its ideological content and its political context.

Fourth, the catastrophe that befell LEKRA after 30 September, 1965 is presented as a mystery. This is done in two ways. The interviewees tell of how they had no idea about the events of 30 September and 1 October 1965 which were used as the pretext for the banning of the PKI and the persecution of its members and sympathisers and, in fact, all left-wing supporters of Sukarno. This is no doubt true. Those events were organised as a secret conspiracy. However, focusing on this event in the way film has done gives the impression that these LEKRA artists had no idea that there was tension developing or that their activities, as part of the alliance between Soekarno and the Left, were a direct and serious threat to the Indonesian conservative elite at the time and that the fight was a fight to the finish: would Indonesia become a neo-colonial capitalist country or a socialist country. This impression is strengthened when, in one interview, one of the LEKRA figures says that the New Order has still not explained why they crushed the revolution that LEKRA was helping to finish, after all “they”, including Suharto, had supported the revolution. However, that Indonesian society was divided in this way had been visible for a long time, since the 1920s, resurfacing in the 1940s and 1950s in armed clashes and repression of the Left by the army.

In the discussion that followed the screening here in Jakarta, one person praised the film for showing that these LEKRA figures were not after all “seram” (frightening and threatening) as the New Order regime and its supporters have said. But the historical reality was that they were “seram” – they were seram in the eyes of the land-owners, corrupt officials, conservative military officers and also the intellectuals and artists whose ideological outlook had been ascendant in the 50s and 60s. They were seram to those afraid of losing their privileges if the struggle for state power was lost to the Left. The best way to end the demonisation of the Left in history is to explain why these elites were afraid of and hated LEKRA and all the left. This means placing Lekra’s role in the battle for state political power that escalated in the 1955-65 period at the centre of any explanation of who they were.

Apart from the general need to give a full picture of what happened, this approach has many advantages, of which two are perhaps the most important. It would provide a more inspiring picture of what these people were doing in that period, that they were struggling that the masses should actually wield power. It would also put more clearly on the agenda a very big question: what went wrong? Why did they lose that battle? Why did Suharto’s Indonesia – the Indonesia of today – win, and not the Indonesia of the poetry, stories, dance and songs of LEKRA’s and of other left artists?

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