Gripping Drama Shines Light on Indonesian Dark Past

Labodalih Sembiring | Jakarta Globe | November 21, 2011

Critics can dissect any movie, but only great films are worthy of deep analysis. As a film that aims to shine light on a sliver of national history, Sang Penari begs for the audience’s critical eye. The film is an eye-opening narrative, especially for people who were only ever taught just one side of the story it deals with.

The end credit of Sang Penari (The Dancer) says the film was inspired by—not adapted from—Ahmad Tohari’s Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Ronggeng Dancer of Paruk), a notable literary trilogy set largely in the 1960s in a small village in Central Java and published during Suharto’s New Order regime.

That the books address the events of 1965, no matter how curtailed, is in every respect courageous. But the film goes further, revealing the horror that Ahmad witnessed but could not write about. According to the author, if he had written about the killings, he would have been shot by Suharto’s men.

Few other films have even dared take on that content, either misrepresenting or ignoring the massacres and contributing to a conspicuous void in the national dialogue. Sang Penari could have done the same and stayed true to the book by only offering mere glimpses of what really happened, but the movie’s fresh storyline was adapted with a sharp eye.

The love story between Srintil the dancer and Rasus the soldier, as well as the bizarre aspects of ronggeng—a Javanese and Malay dance tradition in which couples exchange poetic verses as they move—are meticulously imbued with lines and information that lead up to the shocking images of the torture and slaughter of villagers who knew very little, if anything, about politics.

“All I know is dance,” Srintil says during an investigation. A farmer also professes his innocence: “I only know of the Farmers’ Union,” he says. “I joined the queues at the distributions of seeds.”

Just as the words of the simple peasants and village artists cannot save them from their tragic fate, the comical use of western Central Java’s ngapak accent at the beginning of the film is no match for the brutal scenes that follow, which were based on accounts of those who lived through the terror.

Repeatedly in the film, communist “missionary” Bakar utters weighty lines not found in the books. These lines, as well as the events attributed to the propagandist, set the film’s tone and allow the plot to flow smoothly.

In his first appearance, Bakar says: “Something is amiss, brothers. How can a warung next to a rice farm have no rice?” It’s a simple but effective way of introducing agrarian issues vital to the rise and fall of communism in Java in the 1960s. Sang Penari deserves a nod for developing Bakar into a key character, which actor Lukman Sardi owns through and through.

Several scenes feature Srintil, played by Prisia Nasution, speaking Javanese, but with the wishy-washy air of a Jakarta teenager in a bad mood. Fortunately, Prisia’s haunting dancing salvages her precarious performance in playing Srintil, a celebrated a character in Indonesian literature.

Under the direction of Ifa Isfansyah, the rest of the actors relate admirably to the socio-cultural elements that wrap each of an ensemble of characters befitting a Shakespearean tragedy. Slamet Rahardjo and Dewi Irawan successfully personify the commanding presence of shamanic duo Ki and Nyai Kartareja, while the complex, heartrending philosophy of the clown finds vivacity in Hendro Djarot’s portrayal of the blind musician, Sakum.

Two important male figures in Srintil’s life, her best friend and love interest Rasus and her grandfather Sakarya, are portrayed by actors of opposite acting styles—Oka Antara cautiously calculates the evolution of his Rasus, whereas Landung Simatupang carries his consistently multifaceted character with ease.

Yadi Sugandi’s cinematography and Eros Eflin’s art direction are reminiscent of great pictures from Indonesian cinema’s golden period. The scores, however, suffer from Aksan and Titi Sjuman’s decision to employ the violin to either stitch together or substitute Javanese ethnic melodies during some of the film’s dramatic moments.

Historians may be disappointed with several unsubstantiated details surrounding the introduction, the sway, and the obliteration of the Communist Party in this film. One example is the missing significance of a caping hijau, or green peasant hat, in a major scene at Eyang Secamenggala’s tomb.

But Indonesians as a whole should be grateful that a movie that pays great attention to the circumstances surrounding the 1965 killings has finally been made. That some teenagers who were laughing and giggling at the beginning of the film left the theater with a puzzled look, and started small discussions, is surely a good sign. Sang Penari raises hope that more of the younger generation will try to better understand their country’s history, no matter how dark it might be.

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