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, head 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 überbourgeois 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



senyap adalah film yang ramai metafora: adi sang optometris sebagai tiresias the seer yang membuka mata free man-free man yang dikelabui propaganda orba selama ini, adi sang yogi tercerahkan yang piawai headstand (bandingkan dengan free man-free man berkupluk dan bertasbih yang buta sejarah), papa adi yang buta ngesot sia-sia mencari sajadah dan akhirnya teriak-teriak ketakutan digebuk wong karena merasa dirinya tersesat ke dalam “kelambu” (kelambu sejarah? :p) orang lain.


metafora-metafora yang dikerahkan bersama alur cerita dan editing melodramatis ala sinetron serta door-stop interview eksploitatif ala syurnalisme tabloid untuk menunjukkan bahwa kita, bangsa indonnesia, adalah bangsa yang buta sejarah dan harus dibuka paksa matanya.


meneruskan argumen jagal, senyap juga mereduksi tragedi kemanusiaan dan politik 65 jadi sekedar tragedi antar manusia baik dan manusia jahat saja. apa perlunya ngomong tentang konteks perang dingin, dekolonisasi, anti-nonblokisasi, jika lebih seru bercerita tentang kombo kekejaman dan ketololon monster-monster dunia ketiga yang dijamin mengundang tawa sekaligus air mata (dan semoga nominasi oscar)?


senyap tidak beranjak jauh dari dikotomi caliban-caliban subhuman (herman koto dan groupie-groupie anwar congo yang lain) vs caliban setelah direedukasi pengalaman membuat “film” arsan & aminah (anwar congo sendiri) dalam jagal. walaupun adi sang optometris keliling dan tokoh utama senyap kali ini adalah keluarga korban dan bukan tukang jagal seperti anwar congo, dalam semesta kedua film ini mereka berdua memainkan peran yang sama: budak dan talking head prospero cinéma vérité yang menyandang white man’s burden untuk mencerahkan seluruh rakyat indonesia tentang apa yang sebenarnya terjadi di tahun 1965–si masbro joshua oppenheimer sendiri.


prospero punya set-up/con ala cinéma vérité yang menarik dan efektif dalam jagal (mengundang anwar congo untuk membuat film “arsan & aminah” yang kemudian difilmkan dalam “jagal” karya joshua oppenheimer)–sebuah psychoanalytic con yang berhasil membuka isi kepala anwar congo dan membuat kita hampir mengerti pergulatan id, ego, dan superego di balik topi koboinya. dalam senyap, tidak ada con canggih seperti ini. yang kita dapat hanya door-stop interview ala michael moore yang menghasilkan lebih banyak momen krik krik daripada kesenyapan yang penuh arti.


coba pikir, mungkinkah free man-free man yang matanya tertutup selama berpuluh tahun oleh propaganda orba tiba-tiba mengaku salah hanya karena sekali diinterogasi oleh seorang keluarga korbannya? seperti pungguk merindukan deus ex machina…


jadi bisa dimengerti jika ada yang pernah bilang jagal lebih mirip mockumentary daripada documentary.


beberapa scene dalam senyap jadi sangat problematis buat sebuah film dokumenter. scene truk-truk tua melaju dalam gelap di awal film yang diulang di beberapa momen lagi itu misalnya. apakah ada fungsi lain scene ini selain menyetir imajinasi penonton untuk membayangkan kira-kira bagaimana abang adi dulu di-“amankan” pakai truk dalam gelap untuk dibantai? tapi kan katanya senyap bukan sebuah fictionalized biopic? masak ada scene reka-ulang TKP ala buser?


kemudian jukstaposisi antara adi si optometris suka yoga dengan free man-free man berkupluk dan bertasbih suka do’a tadi (beberapa dari mereka ditunjukkan ingin menghindar dari interogasi adi dengan alasan sudah waktunya sholat). apakah modernitas selalu berbanding terbalik dengan nilai-nilai agama? apakah islam selalu identik dengan keprimitifan, sementara yoga dan optometri dengan aufklärung? apakah ada islamofobia terselubung dalam senyap?


kemudian lagi scene bapak adi ngesot tersesat mencari sajadah di tempat jemuran tadi. apakah ini metafora bahwa jawaban untuk persoalan pelik macam tragedi 1965 di indonesia tidak akan pernah bisa dicari dalam ibadah, dalam agama, tapi hanya tersedia dalam orakel-orakel modern macam film documenter karya joshua oppenheimer? islamofobia lagikah ini? atau blind faith kepada modernitas yang always already sekuler?


tanpa memberikan konteks sejarah dan politik yang kuat, maupun menjelaskan betapa totalnya propaganda orde baru mencuci otak orang indonesia, potret “indonesia” dalam senyap terlihat begitu simplistis, bagaikan heart of darkness yang hanya dihuni dua macam makhluk yang selalu berperang: monyet-monyet sadistis, beasts from the east seperti inong (salah satu penjagal yang, surprise surprise, ditunjukkan punya monyet peliharaan) dan/atau malaikat-malaikat tercerahkan yang selamanya hidup dalam ketakutan macam adi.


senyap seperti menafikan kemungkinan bahwa kedua kubu bisa juga dilihat sebagai pelanduk yang kehilangan free will mereka di tengah-tengah keriaan gajah-gajah imperialis kapitalis neolib berbagi-bagi kue dekolonisasi setelah perang dunia 2!


nanti tanggal 10 desember waktu “indonesia menonton senyap”, jangan terkejut jika bakal banyak cermin dibelah, karena penonton kecewa kok the look of silence ternyata begitu black and white!


*artikel ini adalah hasil bahasan bersama Mikael Johani, Anya Rompas, Edo Wallad, Ratri Ninditya, Festi Noverini, dan Doni Agustan.