Those wanting to see Jakarta's Blok M shopping and nightlife district on the big screen don't have to sit through the gut-splattering gore of The Raid 2: Berandal. Jakarta cinemas next weekend will be screening Jalanan (or Streetside; see trailer above), a documentary that follows three singer-songwriter buskers on their daily travels through the capital. Next Thursday will mark the film's first cinema screening in Indonesia after it won Best Documentary at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea last year.
Of the three Indonesia-based films making waves internationally this year—the other two being The Raid 2 and The Act of Killing —Jalanan is the most accurate reflection of contemporary Indonesian politics and society.
The Raid films are of course works of fiction, using Indonesia only as a setting for wild action scenes that make spectacular use of local martial arts grouped under the name pencak silat. The franchise's Welsh director Gareth Evans explores life on the streets of Jakarta more deeply in his first Indonesian martial arts film, Merantau (2009), though still as a background for fiction.
The Act of Killing is a more suitable comparison for Jalanan, as both are documentaries. In The Act of Killing, American director Joshua Oppenheimer aims to expose 'a present-day regime of fear' in an Indonesia that he sees as resembling 'Germany 40 years after the holocaust' in a version of history where 'the Nazis are still in power'. Compare this assessment with Gary Hogan's review of Indonesian democracy on The Interpreter this week.
As I have written, The Act of Killing brings to light an important chapter of Indonesian history that has yet to be addressed by Indonesia or the international community; that is, the state-orchestrated mass killing of alleged communists in the 1960s. However, it does so in a way that is likely to alienate a mainstream Indonesian audience, who will not have the chance to see the film in the cinema anyway as Oppenheimer did not submit it to the censors, fearing it would be banned (for those in Indonesia who do want to seek it out, the film is easily available for free download).
By contrast, Jalanan will be available for all to see at Jakarta's two biggest cinema chains next weekend. And what Canadian director Daniel Ziv achieves in social and political commentary on contemporary Indonesia is no less radical. He takes a straight shot at the biggest challenge facing Indonesia today: inequality.
Ziv, who has lived in Indonesia since 1999, shows audiences what it's like to miss out on education, to have nowhere to live and nothing to eat, to have to scrimp together cash to pay for medical bills and to be arrested just for existing. But this is no sob story. Musicians Boni Putera, Titi Juwariyah and Bambang 'Ho' Mulyono tell the stories of their lives with confidence, honesty, pragmatism and, above all, humour.
Ho joins rent-a-crowd protesters at political rallies and sings to commuters about the evils of corruption. Boni slips between worlds, from the bridge where he has squatted for 10 years to the luxury shopping mall right across the road. Titi defies the expectations of her husband and family by heading out busking every day from the bus terminal at Blok M, seeing it as a way to fulfill her destiny. All three are keenly aware of the ways in which social inequality and political weaknesses have affected their lives. And yet they maintain hope for Jakarta, Indonesia and themselves.
Jakartans will see themselves in Jalanan when it screens at the cinemas next weekend, whether they are at the top or the bottom of the social scale. And in this election year, they may carry the film's message of hope into voting and acting for a more equal Indonesia.