History, Propaganda, and Perception: A Conversation on Gie
Reviewed by: Lisabona Rahman
The year 2005 is proving to be a very productive time in Indonesian Cinema. This year there are over 50 films either in release or going into production. It’s safe to say that among all of these films, the most anticipated one has been director Riri Riza’s biopic of 1960s student activist Soe Hok Gie, titled Gie. Not only because it marks the return of Riri Riza to the director’s chair since 2002’s critically acclaimed Eliana, Eliana, but also because Gie tackles a sensitive period of Indonesian history. A time that saw the downfall of Indonesia’s first president Soekarno, a bloody uprising, and the rise and fall of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). Only one other Indonesian film has ever attempted to cover the events of that time; the government sponsored epic propaganda film, Pemberontakan G30S/PKI (the September 30th Rebellion by the Indonesian Communist Party), directed by legendary Indonesian filmmaker, Arifin C. Noer.
One evening after a second viewing of Gie, film critics Lisabona Rahman and Paul Agusta sat down to talk about the film; it’s flaws, it’s merits, it’s homoerotic subtext, and it’s unavoidable comparison to Arifin C. Noer’s film.
On the Body of Work
Lisabona Rahman: I think the main thing you get out of the film doesn’t actually come from the film itself, but from the information surrounding it. I mean the most important thing that you have to have in a historical film is the character and the story you want to tell about this character or the historical event. I think the film only succeeded in conveying whatever Riri’s opinion on Soe Hok Gie…
Paul Agusta: And not actually what happened…
LR: Well, it’s at least his opinion… Gie is like…
PA: Only a vehicle…
PA: Also I felt that… being somebody not completely aware of the history of that period… I felt that a lot was left to the audiences’ assumption. The director assumed that everybody who watches the film knows some of the historical context; he didn’t really explain some of the events that were going on. Like at the beginning of the film the quick flash of the Cikini bombing. And then when they come back on October 1st they just said that General Yani was kidnapped. But they didn’t go into full details. It didn’t even really explain that the PKI was supposedly involved in it and all. That whole thing was designed for people that know the history that lived with watching that Arifin C. Noer movie every year. He definitely failed to create the environment of that period for people who know nothing about it. So if you’re not Indonesian, or you didn’t grow up knowing the history, you’re screwed. You won’t understand what’s going on.
LR: That I think is the main difference between Gie and Pemberontakan G-30-S PKI. Film-wise it was good. I would consider it as one of the best Indonesian films.
PA: Me too, I’d put it in my top ten.
LR: I think the strongest point in Arifin’s film is that it actually builds up its characters.
PA: Yeah, everyone is three-dimensional, and it’s not that much longer than Gie.
LR: So I think Riri might have failed to go out of his own enchantment towards Gie. And he kind of assumes that everybody knows about Gie, or at least whoever is watching it knows about it.
PA: Yeah and people would automatically have the same enchantment he had towards this character.
LR: Well, I would say he tries hard to make people understand about how this person was so wonderful. By putting him as a very critical character with a critical mind, knows a lot, reads literature. For kids his age at that time he already know Andre Gides… he was special. And look at how he uses Gie’s words. Riri counted so much on the words of Gie narrated by Nico to create the whole story, without actually trying putting it into visualization.
PA: The thing is that there wasn’t enough information about why he was the person he was. The family environment isn’t as well portrayed as it should be.
LR: But he tried to mention it towards the end, when Gie fell asleep on the table, woke up and told his father why he became a writer.
PA: I felt that that was expository. It was put there to explain something that we didn’t get elsewhere. And that is failure in scriptwriting.
LR: And it was far less than enough.
PA: Until you get to that point you think “God, this guy!” He (the father) has no job, doesn’t talk, I mean did he have a stroke or something.
LR: No, he didn’t. Because (in one scene) he was able to write one word perfectly, but then tore the page and threw it away…
PA: Because he just sat there, and did nothing. I think the character of the father should’ve been fleshed out more in order for us to understand Gie more. And his brother is another very important person… I’m sure he had some influence in his life. They were in severe competition with each other.
LR: The scenes at the school when Gie and his brother were reading each other’s article was intended as the background information on their competition although it was not strong enough. And another time when his brother wanted to get an Indonesian name, while Gie said he didn’t want to. There was a lot of conflict that wasn’t properly developed while it could’ve added valuable details to the film.
PA: I noticed that you say it tried, tried, tried. This film tried to do a lot, but failed. It would get an A for effort but D for final product.
LR: True. But maybe that’s also probably because I was too excited about it and had high hopes for it. But when I saw it, it wasn’t quite what I had expected.
PA: Yeah. Everybody though that this is gonna be great! I’m sure everybody had such high expectations after Eliana, Eliana. I did.
LR: I don’t understand why Riri insisted on making it in a linear plot. I can’t find any good reason why he showed each period with equal length, with nothing that really connects one part to the other. Like nothing really builds up towards the end.
PA: Could it be because it is based on a diary or journal, and the journal itself is fragmented? And not enough research maybe to fill in the gaps?
LR: But supposed that it was true. But still the maker would have been able to develop one consistent statement about who this person was and what kind of story you want to tell. And that’s exactly where this film fails. What kind of story you want to tell? Let’s look at how the film starts; the opening was not really an introductory picture of whether it’s the period or the person. So it makes you wonder what comes next. But what comes next doesn’t really help you to understand it.
PA: I think that he was trying to portray everything but failed. The biggest flaw in this film is lack of focus and it became so painful to watch. You should give us medals for watching it twice.
LR: Fragmented films can be very successful if it has very strong theme. And that’s what’s lacking. I tried to think that Riri made this film because of his political purposes rather than telling a story. Everything was very provocative you know, like the statements that he put in, and especially the ones he put at the ending. So I think you can watch this film with your eyes closed, just listen and look at the text once in a while and you won’t miss much of it. I was so frustrated because I really expected a lot from it.
PA: But there are good things about the film. Would you not agree that of all the recent films that this is one of the most well-produced films? Cinematography… costumes, period setting, art direction…
LR: Okay cinematography was good. Art direction was strong, but I think it uses a lot of location and properties like cars and stuff over and over again. So like ľ of the film I started to feel confused because similar things pop up again and again. Like time doesn’t move forward, or I even feel that Gie was being stalked by somebody in a two-tone sedan.
PA: Do you think something that is made for as much money could’ve been better?
LR: I wish. So I don’t know if its bad production… but I do agree that among the recently released Indonesian films it has better quality than the others I’ve seen lately. Coming from Riri, at least it has the same quality of pictures as his previous films.
PA: Well, I’ll watch the 4-hour version when it comes out. Because I still find it difficult to believe that Riri Riza can be that sloppy.
LR: I think Jonathan Mulia (the actor who plays the younger Gie) deserves a praise, being a non-actor.
PA: Yeah. The Jonathan Mulia-Nicholas Saputra transition was very smooth. But the young Han and Thomas Nawilis they look absolutely nothing alike! And the teeth, very distinctive difference. This is a huge flaw. And also we can bring up what everybody was saying about Eurasians playing Indonesian Chinese…
LR: I wouldn’t make it a case because it wouldn’t have mattered if they played well. Nobody would’ve complained if they were good actors.
PA: Again, maybe it was because they gave very bad performances. You see Wulan Guritno (Sinta) and you see the parents, I can’t help to think, how could she be their offspring? It is unbelievable that she’s Chinese.
LR: That Sinta character, I don’t even understand why she’s there. It didn’t really contribute to the story.
On Gie and Pemberontakan G-30-S/PKI
LR: Pemberontakan G-30-S/PKI was so imprinted in our minds. I never got to watch it in full length during the 11 years it was screened on TV, so I watched about 3 years ago on VCD. And I was so impressed how much I appreciated the film. It definitely was one of the best Indonesian movies I’ve ever seen. It has very clear story, very strong characters. They even think about what kind of artistic elements can enhance each characters. Like in the houses or rooms of the good guys there will be paintings and sculptures, to show how cultured they are. And then the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) people would be the ones who are always smoking Dji Sam Soe (unfiltered clove cigarettes), they have very sloppy outfits, black lips and so on.
PA: And there was subtle subversions in the art direction. It was his own political statements being made subtly through art direction. And that was the greatest thing about the film. Because a lot of people criticized and attacked him for making that film.
LR: Because of the story…
PA: And it was government propaganda…
LR: Well let’s go back to Leni Riefenstahl then… I don’t agree with the opinion suggested in the film, but I think it is still a good film.
PA: It is a very masterfully made film. But I also felt that through the subtle things in the art direction, Arifin was able to let out his own politics which was opposite of the government’s lie which this film was supposed to serve.
LR: I agree. It kind of subverts the story. I just realized after it was no longer on TV that the PKI characters are actually portrayed very satirically. Coming back to Gie, if during the process of making decisions about this film, if they had only thought about criticizing what was there on the Pemberontakan G-30-S/PKI, it would be a much better film.
PA: Exactly. Again he didn’t know what he wanted to do with it.
LR: Riri didn’t make it a case against Pemberontakan. He kind of picks up where it left off. I thought he had strong opinions about Indonesian films, he was obsessed with it. And he didn’t even talk about the most important film in Indonesian film history.
PA: Exactly. I automatically expected Gie to be an antithesis of that film. But he didn’t even try the least bit to be that.
LR: I’m very surprised that the only thing about film in Gie was the fact that Gie watched films. Not about how films were used.
PA: What year was Pemberontakan made?
LR: Around 1984…
PA: You go…
LR: I think it’s the first homoerotic Indonesian movie in 20 years…
PA: I would have to agree with that. Actually the most glaring thing… and the only thing I thought that the director successfully did, if he was trying, was the incredibly questionable portrayal of Gie’s friendship with Han and later Herman Lantang. Like the one scene when the Jaka guy was yelling at Gie and Herman Lantang came between them. Gie put his arms around Herman Lantang. What is that? He puts his arms around Herman and on his chest and pulls Herman back….
LR: to him!
PA: Yeah… I was like… “What the hell…” If that wasn’t intentional I don’t know why.
LR: Maybe it appeals to the director’s sub-consciousness… Because the director was happy about it.
PA: I won’t try to speculate about his sexuality… Well let’s start with the flaws.
PA: Why would you call it the first homoerotic film in Indonesian film history?
LR: Let’s ask about why we even think about that as we watched it. First the shorts, very tight and very short…
PA: But of course the fashion of that period…
LR: But the angle of the shots… when Gie and Han sat together on the roof…
PA: Yeah, that was a very cool display of legs.
LR: And that scene when Gie was sleeping on a couch. Why was the light aimed directly at his crotch?
PA: And the crotch was exactly central frame, horizontal and vertical.
LR: And I think how the story evolves around Gie’s relationship with Han…
PA: That was I think the one main focus…
LR: Yeah, because it builds up through the film. It was the beginning and the ending. So this film should’ve been called Gie and Han. And I don’t know why there should be the two women…
PA: Yeah, they were just friends. I think he was even physically uncomfortable when he was around them but very much at ease when he was around his male friends…
LR: And he was very physical around them…
PA: Exactly… He could be incredibly physical with Han but could barely touch Ira and Sinta. I felt that the scene when Ira reads the letter towards the end, it seems stuck there to sort of quell any thoughts of homosexuality on Gie.
LR: But after the first two sentences, the letter started using ‘kalian’, the plural form of ‘you’ which kind of negates whatever propositions that was initially suggested. It destroys the whole assumptions about Gie’s feelings for Ira.
PA: Maybe it was supposed to be for Herman? [laugh]
LR: [laugh] The Dani guy gave it to the wrong person…
PA: And at the end the text said that he died in Semeru with Herman Lantang. Or in the arms of Herman Lantang, that’s exactly what it said. But this film is not doing a very good job in…
LR: It actually leads us more and more into the homoerotic aspects, which actually creates another question, why the two women? What are their functions in the story, to create a conflict in Gie’s sexuality…
PA: But that wasn’t explored!
LR: Or maybe we find it absurd because the kissing scene was censored. Who knows there might be an explanation there.
PA: But judging from the rest of the film. If it’s not a sex-scene that’s being cut off, that part wasn’t convincing enough. There too many gay sides to it, and it is as subtle as a jackhammer. But… anyway, he supposedly died with Herman Lantang. But how come he was portrayed alone in the trip that I assume was the trip in which he died. That was a very big flaw.
LR: A lot of people actually thinks that this film is very homoerotic. I wonder why it never came to be discussed.
PA: How controversial could it be if in fact: one, he was intentional with the homoeroticism and he’d go further.
LR: That would be great. I would forgive it for not referring to the Pemberontakan, because then the film has different purposes. But everybody even Riri was so busy trying to point out these political aspects of Gie’s life. But he never even once said anything about Gie’s sexuality. If he had, it would have been perceived differently.
PA: I agree. The question is why is he dodging it.