Bachtiar Siagian’s Violetta: A Lekra Romcom

photo from bunga siagian's collection

photo from bunga siagian’s collection*

went to see bachtiar siagian’s violetta last nite at kinosaurus, a new tiny bioskoop at the back of kemang out of all (three) minikinos in jakarta at the moment, this one looks most moneyed. it’s got all the requisite artisanal hipster mod cons–to the deserted vinyl shop monka magic, the piles of murakami at the bookshop (they haven’t turned this into a stationery store) and the hypebeast-wear distro 707 at the front add a neat coffee shop with a stormtrooper something machine and baristas in nicely faded flat heads and a pop up/pop art gallery. so on the surface isn’t it ironic doncha think that a screening of a rarely seen 1962 film by bachtiar siagian, a leftist filmmaker and a member of lekra, the defunct PKI cultural onderbouw, was taking place here–at jakarta’s hipster/bourgeois/immigrant (i refuse to call them expats) ground zero? well maybe not as much as would satisfy my craving for outrageous reversal of fortune. there were only seven people in attendance for violetta. the previous screening, for pasir berbisik, had nineteen. okay that movie had the young dian sastro in it and was shown at the more friendly sunday 7:30 slot (violetta was shown at 9:30), but according to meiske taurisia,┬áhead honcho for kinosaurus it seems (forgot to ask what she actually does there), it’s been a bit of a chore trying to attract audience for classic indo movies. perhaps what khrisna sen said in this article still stands, after 35 years kawan bachtiar still has not acquired “a following among students and young intellectuals who had come to adulthood since 1965 and were trying to make sense of their cultural heritage.”

okeh, on to violetta. in that same article, sen also mentioned that “neither contemporaneous reviews nor later attacks on siagian have seriously argued that his films contained communist propaganda” and wondered “whether or not there was artistic merit in his films”. let’s find out how these two arguments/reflections stand against an actual viewing of a siagian film.

violetta turned out to be a bittersweet romcom with a tragic twist. the style is more classic(ist) hollywood than neorealist (a label sometimes heaped on indo films from this era and earlier) or russian anything (as the sen article might suggest). violetta (rima melati, babe) is the young, only daughter of a strict headmistress of a catholic girls school (“direktris”–fading beauty fifi young, not so young anymore) who–made clear early the movie–was also a single mother. violetta is obsessed with the absent father figure, often staring at a painting of a perfect balinese nuclear family (avec dad) in her room and endlessly pesters her mum with questions about her dad (did he love you? did he have a moustache?–a motif that recurs later in the movie) domineering mum gets angry at such interrogations, lily-livered violetta gets upsets and goes on fainting spells. to recuperate from her condition mum and violetta rent a bungalow at the foot of a mountain and plan to stay there for a month. at the bungalow they are accompanied by an old male servant (kasman) and his mute son (cemeng) who provide comic relief in the increasingly depressing story. then comes the bemoustached knight in drab, regulation-issue army uniform riding a decrepit raleigh!: kopral herman (bambang hermanto), local tni masuk desa manunggal bersama rakyat man who often comes to the bungalow to seek kasman and cemeng’s companion bearing gifts of fresh produce (corn cobs, pineapples, a live chicken). according to kasman, kopral herman is kind to the villagers, keeps the village safe (safer since his arrival) and the villagers reciprocate by offering him bits of their harvest/livestock. there is a scene of kopral herman on his bike throwing candies to kids so he must be a nice guy. violetta is frightened by the gruff virile manliness of kopral herman (or is it his mo?) but so obviously turned on too. the slow courtship gathered pace after violetta beat kopral herman in a game of chess and the next day he brought her a gelatik bird in a cage as a prize for her win. our violetta is ready to bloom, spread her wings and fly. but no one tells the gilded cage of mum’s overbearing overprotectiveness! she expressly forbade kopral herman from seeing violetta again (is it because he’s a kopral, mama? no, it’s because he’s a man!) and though he acquiesced to the elderly woman’s quiet bourgeois power, violetta had another fit of tantrum and took off in flight into the night. in a cruel twist of the plot ex machina, patrolling kopral herman accidentally shot mad violetta thinking she was a thief in the night. cue regret and despair all around. film ends with a gelatik on top of a makeshift massive wooden cross on violetta’s grave (does it remind you of golgotha?) after mum made the confession: “it’s not your fault, kopral. i killed my own daughter.”

kawan bachtiar deftly manipulated classic(ist) hollywood style so beloved of his more bourgeois compatriot usmar ismail to deliver a subtle, almost light-hearted critique of the conservative tendencies of early 60s indo bourgeoisie. violetta comes from a well-to-do family of batak catholics who won’t even allow guys to attend violetta’s sweet seventeenth birthday. mum even expelled a girl from her school for the petty crime of talking to a guy in the school yard (“tapi bu, kami tidak bicara roman”). but then again, there’s also a psychological aspect to mum’s overprotectiveness: her hatred of men (never explained why). considering that kawan bachtiar also made the first indo movie to champion the rights of prostitutes (see sen’s essay again), perhaps we could see this hatred as a protest, a dissent against the moustachioed braggadacio of, perhaps, pemudas in post zaman bergerak indonesia.

note also the ambivalent portrayal of kopral herman. at once a loser (in the eyes of mum) and a bully of wong cilik (he relentlessly threatens, half-jokingly, to beat up kasman and his mute boy), he’s also funny and big-hearted enough to admit he took a right beating from violetta at chess. the symbolic/visual jokes in violetta are always subtle and delivered with impeccable comic timing. once violetta tried to hop on into kopral herman’s dodge truck when he suddenly stopped her. he reached into her seat and fished out a long rifle, “awas, ada bedil!” then for the rest of the bumpy ride (premonition for their bumpy relationship!) the rifle conveniently sticks out like herman’s raging erection behind his seat. not for kawan bachtiar it seems the more straightforward doom and gloom/pseudoexistentialist portrayal of military men preferred by usmar ismail.

so, does violetta contain any communist propaganda? propaganda obviously not, kawan bachtiar, at least on this one evidence, seems to be too much of a subtle artisan to allow for the crude sloganeerings that propaganda demands. what about communist idea(l)s then? there is a bit of class conflict in violetta definitely, one can read the film as an exposition of different classes’ desires and interests. the lumpen proletarians kasman and cemeng seem happy enough to let others (especially kopral herman) keep them in their place, the bourgeois mum seems happy enough to issue orders around like a baroness. perhaps here, if one is to read violetta as a marxist critique of society, kopral herman’s ambivalent place/status/class in the world becomes pivotal. as a military man he’s supposed to be a member of the ruling class, but since he’s only a kopral, he’s not doing much ruling at all (except for his bullying of kasman and cemeng). he’s totally subservient to the wishes and whims of the ├╝berbourgeois mum. is bachtiar saying that the fate of the world depends upon not the resolution of the class conflict but upon negotiations between members of the same ruling class, albeit those from different hirarchies of power within it? does kawan bachtiar think radical social change is not inevitable, but impossible? well he’d be hardly a marxist then! tongue emoticon

but then again, perhaps the aesthetic merit of violetta lies not in its social(ist) critique–he’s no ken loach, or mike leigh–but in its skillful manipulation of classic(ist) hollywood tragiromcom form to deliver, nevertheless, a heartfelt condemnation of conservative bourgeois values in 1960s indo. lenyapkan adat dan faham tua!


*taken from cinema poetica