Written by Lupita Witono
From 28 to 31 March 2012, the National Museum of Singapore showcased Merdeka!, a special focus of six major film works by acclaimed Indonesian directors from two different eras: Usmar Ismail and Garin Nugroho. Regarded as the father of Indonesia cinema, Mr. Ismail started PERFINI, the first wholly Indonesian-owned film company in 1950. It produced the first few films that that showed the real lives of Indonesians and their struggle for independence. Through his films, Mr. Ismail explored ideological themes through channeling his personal life experiences, which included a military career (he was a major in the Indonesian army) as well as capture and imprisonment by the Dutch.
I had the honor to represent InSIM in an invite-only, work-in-progress preview of the restoration of Ismail’s critically acclaimed classic “Lewat Djam Malam” (“After the Curfew”) on Wednesday, 28th March. ”Lewat Djam Malam” was made five years after Indonesia’s independence from Dutch colonial rule and had won the best film award at the first Indonesian film festival in 1955. Frankly speaking, I have never heard of Usmar Ismail before, let alone any of his works. However, a short synopsis of the film was enough to dig out that hidden nationalism within me. I highly anticipated the film even weeks before the screening.
I didn’t know what to expect by coming. I was, however, already sure that I would learn a thing or two about a country that, after leaving eight years ago, felt foreign to me. Upon reaching the basement of the National Museum, I was dumbfounded to find that it was filled with a group of people mainly consisting of Generation Xs, with many different nationalities. That little ball of pride I had for being Indonesian just multiplied itself a thousand times.
Before the film started, the film critic JB Kristanto gave a short yet informative speech about what the film stood for, and when the lights were dimmed, I could barely hold myself from jumping out the seat. This is it; I was seconds away from watching the film that had defined the Indonesian filming industry.
Starring as the lead actor is A.N. Alcaff as Iskandar, a former medical student and freedom fighter. Our hero does not fit with the post-war society he is returning to, a society that values wealth and luxury above all else, filled with the burgeoning nouveau riche who are against whatever revolutionary values he and his comrades had stood up for. Instead, he is caught in a constant war of head versus heart. While his head belongs to the revolutionary values he fought for, his heart harbors guilt because of the people he had killed during the war.
Coming home from the war, he sought a peaceful return to the civilian life. Having spent five years away from civilization, it was normal to anticipate an entrance into an idealized society, the materialization of all that he has fought for during the war. However, he found himself in a rapidly developing society rife with contradictions and injustice.
Among the culprits are Iskandar’s partners during wartime: Gafar, Gunawan and Puja. He was taken aback that revolution didn’t produce a just society. Instead it gave birth to a society rife with corruptions and conspiracies. The revolution is clearly a losing game, and everybody has different ideas of winning.
In this film, social status separated the country into two. Half of it is filled with people like Iskandar’s fiancée, Norma (Netty Herawati), who is a member of the blooming bourgeois and whose pastime is spent partying and dancing. The other half is represented by Laila, a woman-for-hire kept by Puja in his house. For Laila, Iskandar is the ideal man and Norma represents the woman she wants to be.
Seen in a bigger picture, such separation suggests and idea of a nation torn in between unfulfilled dreams and political dead-ends. In a social order solely defined by the rich and the bourgeois, social mobility exists only as a myth for the working class.
This tragedy remains stuck in our hero’s head, and it is he alone who weeps for the nation’s future. In the end, Iskandar’s reward for trying to shake up the social order is a bullet through his heart.
This film serves as a sketch of a revolution gone wrong, where the collective values once held dear are now subverted into means for personal gains. In 2012, fourteen years after yet another revolution in 1998, Indonesia is no better. Through “Lewat Djam Malam”, Usmar Ismail was really calling for more Iskandars to come forth, and in their midst there would be ones who will be more successful in initiating change.
Personally, I think that this film deserves more attention than it has received. It is endowed with a realism that illustrates the nuanced complexities of war, revolution and morality. It allows future generations and us the chance to revisit the ethos and pathos of newly emancipated people of Indonesia, so as to understand the tension that eventually spilled over throughout the archipelago in recent years.
The completed restoration will be screened in the near future. In the mean time, it is heartening that “Lewat Djam Malam” will be reintroduced onto cinemas, reaffirming its place in the history of Indonesian film.