Review of film Merah Putih, evil colonialists & brave patriots.
As promised, a review of Merah Putih, which we viewed in the Wednesday late-night screening, barely fifty people in the audience, at Bioskop Slipi.
As you'd expect from a country which, despite its constant troubles and endless disappointments, maintains a healthy national pride, (and in contrast to American and a lot of other Western countries where one's own armed forces are often cast as fools, villains or worse) the film is unashamedly patriotic, and the Dutch depicted as almost Luciferian in their wickedness. (My resident Indonesian consultant was only moved to comment once,
during one of the first Netherlands atrocities. I don't doubt they were no angels, but history suggests that every side in every war contained a fair sprinkling of sinners, and saints)
Apart from the satanic Hollanders, the least likeable character is the posh twerp Marius, (Darius Sinathrya) who looks down on just about everyone and gets straight on the case of the feisty Christian Tomas, (Donny Alamsyah), while to provide some sentiment of pancasila we have the Hindu Dayan (Rifnu Wikana) and a serious honourable Muslim named Amir (Lukman Sardi) as well as an all-purpose nationalist, Soerono (Zumi Zola).
They all join up, fall in, fall out and ultimately redeem themselves, predictable, I suppose, but full of action and heroism.
The ladies play important but lesser roles, Melati, Amir's pregnant wife (Astri Nurdin) and Soerono's sister (Rahayu Saraswati) - again unlike western movies, these actresses rely on their talent rather than having their boobs flop out or a quickie every time the action slows down, which it rarely does, the grand finale being an ambush, the depleted handful of Indonesian soldiers re-inforced by the male survivors of a village burned and massacred by the evil Dutch.
One wishes that the imbecilic louts who ran amok in South Jakarta on Hari Kemerdekaan could use the heroic characters portrayed in this movie as their role models, rather than whomsoever they have chosen from gang-banger US crime yarns.
Whatever the short-comings of the men who fought for self-determination, (and I'm not talking about those who surfaced at the end and claimed the political credit), they were brave and idealistic, as well as patriotic, qualities that appear to be as lacking in the ruling class today as in the afore-mentioned louts near Blok M earlier this week.
Haven’t seen it….on the yotube page for that video is a spiel from the producers which is pretty interesting.
MERAH PUTIH, the first film of the Freedom Trilogy, a three-film co-production by PT Media Desa Indonesia, owned by Hashim Djojohadikusumo, and international film production company Margate House, Ltd., owned by Rob Allyn and Jeremy Stewart. Set against a historically authentic backdrop of Indonesias struggle for independence in 1947 during the Van Mook offensive into the heart of republican territory in Central Java, MERAH PUTIH tells the story of a fictional band of freedom fighters who bond together as cadets to survive a massacre, fighting on as guerrilla soldiers to become true children of the nation, despite their sharp conflicts and deep differences in social class, ethnicity, geographic origin, religion and personality.
Directed by Yadi Sugandi, Indonesias most celebrated cinematographer and Director of Photography for LASKAR PELANGI, UNDER THE TREE, TIGA HARI UNTUK SELAMANYA and THE PHOTOGRAPH, MERAH PUTIH features an all-star ensemble cast of Indonesias most talented young actors: Lukman Sardi (LASKAR PELANGI, QUICKIE EXPRESS, 9 NAGA, GIE), Doni Alamsyah (FIKSI, 9 NAGA, GIE), Darius Sinathrya (UNGU VIOLET, DBIJIS, NAGA BONAR JADI 2, LOVE), Zumi Zola (KAWIN LARIS), T. Rifnu Wikana (KADO HARI JADI, LASKAR PELANGI). The film also stars Astri Nurdin and introduces London-and-Hollywood-trained actress Rahayu Saraswati.
Shot in 35-millimeter film, MERAH PUTIH gathered a topflight team of special effects and technical experts with experience in Hollywood films: British Special Effects Coordinator Adam Howarth (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, BLACKHAWK DOWN), Stunt Coordinator Rocky McDonald (MISSION IMPOSSIBLE II, THE QUIET AMERICAN), Make-Up and Visual Effects Artist Rob Trenton (BATMAN – THE DARK KNIGHT), Key Armorer John Bowring (CROCODILE DUNDEE II, THE MATRIX, THE THIN RED LINE, AUSTRALIA, X-MEN ORIGINS:WOLVERINE) and First Assistant Director Mark Knight (DECEMBER BOYS, BEAUTIFUL).
MERAH PUTIH will be released national wide in theatre starting August 13th, 2009 at theatre networks of 21 and Blitzmegaplex.
late-night screening, barely fifty people in the audience, at Bioskop Slipi.
My general impression from searching around is that there is not a huge amount of interest in this film, far less than say for some of the Islamic films like Ketika Cinta Bertasbih.
Also, there’s another production with same name, ‘Merah Putih’:
a six-part mini-series and feature film about the Indonesian War of Independence with me playing Captain Schaffer, a Dutch officer.
‘Me’ is David John Watton, here’s a teaser video, somebody’s been watching too many Vietnam War movies I think
aahh… I hope Darius acts better than he does in the daily sinetrons!!!!!!!!!!!
While this sort of jingoistic nationalism usually makes me cringe, given that many Indonesians appear to be moving away from the pancasila values the country was founded on, I’ll look at it a bit more kindly than I would in a lot of other situations.
The fundamental observation of colonialism is that non-European societies thrive under normal European administration, at least in comparison to their condition under native rule. This observation was obvious during the colonial period. Since, it has only grown more so – at least, to those who can handle the truth.
Sort of on topic and was just reading a blog post with the above. An example given was Hong Kong
In a sense Britain, through its actions in Hong Kong, did more to reduce world poverty than all the aid programs undertaken in the last century.
But Indonesia is not Hong Kong and the Dutch weren’t the British. So obviously the Dutch exploited Indonesia and Indonesians, that is the point of colonialism, whether it has positive by-products or not, but if the replacement for it is native elites (and foreign companies) exploiting Indonesia and its people then….this kind of film seems to just pull the wool over people’s eyes or glorify something that makes little difference to everyday peoples lives. Just putting that out there.
Agree with you, of course, Patung, that the British Empire was a tremendous force for good, and that some others, e.g. Belgian and less so Dutch, were less good.
But colonialism was not all about exploitation.
A genuine sense of mission, religious and political, motivated many Brits, and the results were all the schools, hospitals, roads etc. Much as the Romans did for us, and had the Saxons not interfered, no doubt Brits of old would in due course have demanded self-determination. Evidence suggests that Arthur and Co. were Brits eager to preserve their roman status.
But the film was not a glorification of people like Sukarno, who were such keen collaborators with the Japs. It showed ordinary folks fighting for something they believed in, much as our not-so-distant ancestors took up arms joyfully to do battle for independence in 1939.
Where are you getting that opinion, Patung?
Britain did a great job in the very limited domain of Hong Kong, but its record elsewhere is extremely spotty. Britain’s record in early settler colonialism is abysmal, though it improves in the high colonial period. The Netherlands was a worse colonial overlord, if you are comparing high colonial regimes, as it built less of lasting value and took more brazenly. Belgium was the absolute worst.
Well, in India we did okay, and in Africa.
If you mean Aussie and Canada, those two countries turned out pretty well, much as the Anglo-Saxons and Normans did a fairly decent job of bringing Britain through to developed status, and the Franks rebuilt Gaul quite well once they got established.
Pre-White North America and Australia were not exactly paradisical, though I admit the Maoris got a raw deal in NZ.
Of course, I’m talking about the effect of colonialism on already existing populations. Bit hard to say it “turned out well” for the Aborigines or Native North Americans, isn’t it?
It was from here – http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2009/08/from-cromer-to-romer-and-back-again.html, it’s very long, talks mainly about British Egypt and Belgian Congo…
It is good to keep in mind that actual full scale military action from the Dutch side was limited to two short periods of altogether four and a half weeks in four years (21st July – 5th Aug.1947 and 19th Dec.1948 – 5th Jan.1949). The Dutch called these “police actions” and the Indonesians refer to these periods as “agresi militer” I and II.
The territory of what was then called the “Republic”, which had its main seat in Yogyakarta, and that of the colonial governement and its military apparatus were separated by a “demarcation line”. This line was continuously transgressed by Indonesian guerillas. In the socalled Renville Agreement of 17th Jan. 1948 the Republic acknowledged the line that the Dutch army had reached in the first ‘agresi militer’ as demarcation line and bound itself to no longer infiltrate Dutch occupied territory. This was an empty promise. Indonesian civil servants and village heads cooperating with the colonial government remained subject to intimidation and terror.
Presumably the film Merah Putih retains a discrete silence about these matters.
Odinius, totally unhindered by any real information on these matters, keeps airing his prejudices and non-arguments about the comparative merits or demerits of colonial governments.
I have earlier referred to the writings of a contemporary witness who was well briefed on both Dutch and British colonial policy: J.S.Furnivall. He is an acknowledged authority on this matter (the Encyclopedia Britannica refers, in the bibliography to its entry “colonialism”, to his writings as an “illuminating comparative study of colonial policies”). Furnivall’s comparison certainly did not lead to Odinius’ “conclusions”.
To judge the comparative merits of erstwhile colonial states on what has remained after more than sixty years of independence is about as enlightening as judging the quality of a soccer coach in greatgrandfather’s generation on the basis of ‘his’ team’s performance today.
Factors that should be taken into account in these matters are:
1. the impact of the Japanese occupation (not present in India)
2. the nature of the decolonisation process – conflictuous or non- conflictuous, and directly linked to that
3. the position of the established traditional elite: destroyed or retained during the decolonisation process (the former was the case in Indonesia, the latter in Malaysia)
4. the position of the trading minorities (far stronger in Malaysia than in Indonesia as far as the Chinese are concerned – in 1956/57 Indonesia nationalised also all Dutch owned enterprises and required all Dutch citizens to leave the country – incidentally it is worth mentioning here that about 150 to 200,000 Eurasians who had adopted Indonesian citizenship also felt compelled to flee to Holland – the nationalised enterprises suffered from defective management ).
For some solid information on these and other matters see L.Blusse “Report on the first Cambridge – Delhi – Leiden – Yogyakarta Conference ” Delhi, 3-5 January 1985 (online).
I should have mentioned that the earlier demarcation line was based on the armistice of October 1946. This one wasn’t respected either.
This movie gives a glimpse of life in pre-war Jakarta:
I’ll embed that
There’s also this (hope it’s not the same video just different sections), mainly Jakarta I think but also Bali, I haven’t watched through to the end, keep meaning to do a post about these videos, from University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum). How much has changed?
Patung it is a different movie, not of the same pictorial quality but a welcome addition all the same.
I directed my ire at Odinius but Ross is also rather smug as far as his opinion on the comparative merit of British colonialism is concerned.
How come that Furnivall was in despair about it and Orwell (who was in the Imperial Police in Burma) came to despise it.
In my years in the UK I got quite enough of British self-congratualation, thank you, and I am sorry to encounter it here again.
Well actually sorry dumb of me but the second video is from 1955, by Watson Kintner, as is this one, which is just “Java”.
This is also “Java” and then it switches to Ceylon at some point
Arie, Orwell is one of my favourite authors, and was one of the most honest socialists I’ve ever encountered. However, that doesn’t make his every view binding on me.
Burma is scarcely a great argument for emancipation, thouygh there are other countries that became independent and are pretty damned sound. Sri Lanak, with tis excellent attitude to terrorists, is one such.
I’m not saying we should go back and re-colonise, even were that a practical option, but it can’t be denied that numerous African states were much better off under the British Empire.
My parents’ and grandparents’ generation were proud of their ‘dominion over palm and pine,’ not because they wished the ‘natives’ ill but because they believed, correctly, that the Empire was a benevolent factor in their lives.
Ross, .apart from the fact that Sri Lanka was colonised by both the British and the Dutch, it seems to me a bit odd to refer to that country as a successful product of British colonialism. It hasn’t managed to get on top of its internal divisions and it is just emerging from a murderous civil war, in which ‘the other side’ did not just consist of a bunch of terrorists. It is arguable that its internal divisions are also due to the erstwhile British preference for Tamils.
“that numerous African states were much better off under the British Empire.”
Yes, but the elites there wouldn’t agree with you. They are better off today. This is also the case in Indonesia. The Indonesian elite, especially the ‘homines novi’ who are now in charge, is better off under its own dispensation than it would have been under the Dutch. It is quite a different story as far as ordinary Indonesians are concerned. They were better governed before the war. The rule of law was firmly established, there was greater respect for human rights and there was virtually no corruption. It was on the whole a well ordered society, as Holland itself was and is. The elite version of history would of course never acknowledge that.
Pre-war Indonesia suffered, to be sure, from the internal contradiction that on the one hand there was a theoretical acknowledgement of merit, as for instance shown in educational qualifications, but that on the other hand there was a colour bar to the higher positions. There was not enough scope for an up and coming Indonesian educational elite and it was from its ranks that the nationalist leaders were recruited (Sukarno, Hatta and Sjahrir are the prime examples here).
Raymond Kennedy has rightly said that education is dynamite for a colonial system.
However, the picture now presented by the Indonesian elite of the colonial period (of which movies such as ‘Merah Putih’ are popular versions) is largely mendacious but yet widely accepted by foreign ‘observers’ who have no access to the primary sources.
Oh! I misinterpreted your sentiments. Empires were not so bad, after all. Though the more modern ones, China’s and the Soviets, were awful, indeed.
Empires are always, at some point, viewed as terrible by the people who lack access to the center.
…and there’s the rub. Despite a lot of talk at home about Rights of Man, liberty and so own, none of the colonial empires allowed colonized “natives” to vote in their parliaments, or granted full citizenship on par with what the white colonizers enjoyed. The problem, of course, with using the language of liberty and rights is that, eventually, people want it to become more than just window dressing. Given that circumstance, it’s inevitable that those left out would want to skim the top layer off the cake and start anew.
Most of the time, this just entailed a new top layer forming, with a new set of exploiters. Typically these were the same elites cultivated by the colonialists to be their yes men. But at least these fellows could represent themselves as representative, and by doing so, make people feel as if the new states were “theirs.”
Probably right. Perhaps the argument I have often put forward, that rajas, here, or rajahs, in India, or tribal chiefs in Africa, were a better idea than half-baked intellectuals as inheritors of authority when we withdrew.
If you mean Aussie and Canada, those two countries turned out pretty well
Yup, the near-extermination and marginalization of the indigenous peoples are minor not-worthy-to-mention hick-ups in the success stories that Australia and Canada are. These groups are now very successful at serving as tourist attractions.
Pre-White North America and Australia were not exactly paradisical
Paradisical as in the glorious 20th century, the age of genocides?
We cannot turn back the time but looking at the cost of lives and misery caused to local peoples one cannot seriously view colonialism as something positive.
1948 the Republic acknowledged the line that the Dutch army had reached in the first ‘agresi militer’ as demarcation line and bound itself to no longer infiltrate Dutch occupied territory. This was an empty promise.
Pangeran Diponegoro, does there ring a bell? Empty promises, the Dutch virtually invented it and the Indonesians learned from their former masters. Too bad the current leadership is still full of it. It’s time for Indonesia to ditch that “Dutch treat”.
Odinius for once I agree with you. However, as far as Indonesia is concerned the elite that took over in the “national revolution” did not consist of the former yes men of the Dutch. Most of them had been imprisoned or exiled at one stage or another. If the former ‘yes men’, that is the traditional elite with at the top the Javanese aristocracy, had retained its position for a while there would have been greater institutional continuity.
Apart from the inbuilt contradiction about educating an elite and then maintaining a colour bar (to a certain extent) there is , for societies that are democratic at home, a far more serious inbuilt contradiction: they can never create a democracy in their colonies. The reason being of course that the ultimate political sanction in a democracy is to send the government of the day packing. If that happened in a colony the colonial situation would come to an end. Various surrogates have been thought of. One could have a ‘consultative council’ at the top (in Indonesia de “Volksraad”) and democracy of a sort at lower levels (“Regentschapsraden” en “gemeenteraden”- councils at the level of the kabupaten and cities and towns). But these remained surrogates for the full thing.
In the Philippines Rizal was speaking at one stage (in a letter to Blumentritt) of Filipino representation in the Spanish parliament, such as it was then. But if that had been done on a proportional basis Filipino representatives would by now outnumber the Spanish ones by almost 3 to 1. The situation would even have been more unbalanced in Dutch parliament. This kind of ‘solution’ is only feasible with small populations. France has it for some of its remaining overseas territories, I think.
In short a colony is an impossible thing for a democracy.
This all is not to suggest that the Indonesian ‘new elite’, apart from being hungry for its own place in the sun, was universally so for democracy. Sukarno, at least, abolished it at the first opportunity he had, to replace it with ‘guided democracy”(‘demokrasi dipimpin’) – a euphemism for authoritarianism
Laredion, Pangeran Dipo Negoro huh? I have a story to tell here. Many years ago I went to Magelang to see for myself the stage where it all took place. As it happened there was an Indonesian teacher there with a group of students whom he gave the full low down on the betrayal by that Dutch sabre dragger. Since I was the only foreigner there some moments later he approached me and asked where I came from. I said prudently Australia, which was the literal truth (moreover I did not only come from there – I am Australian by nationality). He found out soon enough that I am of Dutch origin, however, and to my surprise he started to reminisce happily about his youth in colonial times. He still knew the names of all his Dutch teachers. Here was an Indonesian, so I thought, who didn’t judge the situation in his own youth by what happened a century before. Many contemporary Indonesians, who often only know about the colonial situation through propaganda in the style of “Merah Putih”, have however a very odd sense of chronology. If one judged democracy in Britain in the 1930′s, say, by the situation that prevailed before the Reform Bill, more than a hundred years earlier, people would think you to have a bizarre sense of history. But Indonesians do that all the time when they judge the colonial situation. They come up with seventeenth century examples, for instance, to argue how awful it all was. Well, things were awful in most countries then.
And if you think that the Javanese had to learn the concept and practice of betrayal from the Dutch you have never looked seriously at earlier Javanese history.
Unfortunately, when in the relations between civilised states a certain modicum of good faith had become fairly common it remained a very rare article on the Indonesian side. Sukarno was notorious for entering into an agreement of some sort or other with the firm purpose not to stick to it. The last flagrant one in this category was the Bunker Agreement of August 1962 between Indonesia and the Netherlands re Papua. Even though this provided, among other things, for a plebiscite on self determination in Papua it not only became clear pretty soon that Sukarno did not intend to stick to this but that he had not intended to do so at the very moment Indonesia entered into it (Suharto later understood that it was more profitable to have a fraudulent plebiscite than no plebiscite at all). See for this whole saga my thirteen part series on Australian Webdiary (the first Google entry under my name).
Every nation creates its own national myth and in that regard Indonesia is no different from Holland which also paints a collective history of itself that can often be picked apart quite easily, the same can be said for Britain or France or any other nation.
The Republicans won the Indonesian War of Independence, whether they actually achieved any significant military victory over the Dutch is irrelevant; the Dutch left, Sukharno’s Republic was established and according to the famous dictum the victors get to write the history.
Had the Dutch successfully defeated the Republicans then today we would read about how the Federation of Indonesia (minus Papua) successfully thwarted an early attempt by former Japanese collaborators to establish a Javanese-centric dictatorship over all the Indies but thankfully due to the loyalty of many Indonesians and the gallant police-keeping duties of the Dutch Army a peaceful federal union was created instead (think of Malaysia and the defeat of the Communist insurgency in the 1950′s).
Whether you think Indonesia would have been a better place had the Republicans failed is a matter for one of those tedious historical “what if?” discussions, the Republic won and for better or for worse this is the Indonesia we now have. It ill behoves a national (or former national) of the ex-colonial power to tell them how wrong they are, it deserves the same reception as would be accorded to an Englishman in certain bars I know in Ireland if he were to tell them that their independent Irish Republic was a failure and they should have listened to the British instead.
That famous dictum that ‘the victors get to write the history’ is a description of a sorry situation, not a prescription. Genuine historians try to follow the prescription i.e. to dig out the facts wherever they lead them. Unfortunately, this type of historian is, I think, pretty rare in Indonesia . And most certainly never to be found among the folk that are repsonsible for composing an epos like ‘merah putih’.
“It ill behoves a national (or former national) of the ex-colonial power to tell them how wrong they are,” I beg to disagree. It is such nationals who are most keenly aware of the discrepancy between the dreams that some of their progressive countrymen in the thirties and even in the forties believed in (that of a free, independent, democratic and progressive Indonesia) and the god awful place it has been for most of the time since independence.
I was first tutored in things Indonesian at the University of Amsterdam by the late Professor W.F.Wertheim. Before the war he was a professor at the School of Law in Jakarta and there he started to share that dream. Back in Holland after the war he became a vociferous advocate for Indonesian independence. But later he became an even more vociferous critic of the Suharto regime and an advocate for the many tapol rotting away in Buru.
Why should he have shut up because he happened to be a Dutch citizen? He knew at first hand that the situation in the last decades of the colonial regime was a hell of a lot better for ordinary Indonesians than it was under the Suharto regime. But even if it had not been that he would still have spoken out. And rightly so.
I know at first hand that the situation in Papua under that ‘repressive colonial’ government of ours was infinitely better for ordinary Papuans than it has become since that much heralded ‘pembebasan’ – after which they got to know real repression.
If you attempted to shut me up with your references to those ‘bars in Ireland’ you have failed. Unfortunately for you you don’t have the means at your command that are generally available there. What would you have preferred, a broken glass or a broken bottle?
And hey, Berlian Biru, just as an afterthought: have you thought of the implications of your taboo on critique by nationals of former colonial powers, such as the British, in other situations than those Irish bars you seem to be so familiar with? A Briton has, from your point of view, to keep mum about almost any foreign situation because chances are that at one time or another his country was involved in a colonial government there. Perhaps you should send Blair an email next time he opens his mouth about Mugabe. I bet he prefers it above a broken bottle in his face.
From Inside Indonesia Magazine Jan-March 1999
Professor Herb Feith
Pak Wertheim, the founder of modern Indonesian studies in Holland, was nearly 91 when he died. Like others who die at an advanced age, much of his story had faded from public memory by that time.
And if you think that the Javanese had to learn the concept and practice of betrayal from the Dutch you have never looked seriously at earlier Javanese history.
Duuh, really? How old are you? My point was to show that empty promises and betrayal are perfect examples of normal human behaviour, not limited to any particular group, anywhere in the world. In the era of colonialism the Europeans (the Dutch included) took it to another level.
Arie, in August 17th 1945 Ahmad Sukarno and Mohammed Hatta declared the independence of Indonesia, they declared that Indonesia was one united republic under the Red and White flag and consisted of all the territory formerly under Dutch control. The Dutch who had been unceremoniously kicked out of their former colonial territory three and a half years earlier disputed this claim, they even went so far as to send armed forces back into Indonesia to fight the Republicans, kill them and try to destroy the Republic.
The Dutch failed, they lost, they were beaten, the rest is history.
I am sorry about my allusion to Irish bars, that was uncalled for, you are of course perfectly entitled to express your viewpoint without fear of violence but nonetheless the point remains; Indonesia is an independent nation now. The Dutch, whether they were quite progressive rulers in the dying decades of their empire or not, were never entitled to be in the country in the first place and if they had been the marvellous, beneficent rulers that you paint them to be then they would either still be here or would have left some form of tangible impression on the newly independent state. The fact that they utterly failed to do so speaks volumes about how the natives of Indonesia viewed Dutch imperial pretensions.
Tony Blair is perfectly correct to criticise the rule of Mugabe, but he does so on the basis that Zimbabwe is an independent state and should be treated as such, the minute Blair or any other Briton says to Mugabe “you should listen to us because when we ran your country we did so much better” (which is your attitude) Mugabe, the people of Zimbabwe and indeed the rest of the world would resoundingly tell Blair to shove his opinions up the Zambesi.
The Dutch are gone, they should never have been here, but we can’t turn back the clock, why you insist in doing so I fail to understand, maybe Indonesia would have been a better country without Sukarno and maybe if my auntie had testicles she’d be my uncle, but we are where we are now and post colonial schadenfreude on the part of apologists for Dutch imperialism has a distinctly unpleasant aroma about it.
The Dutch lost, Sukarno won, try to get over it, it was nearly seventy years ago after all.
The Red Indians lived in Canada for thousands of years, The Aborigines in Australia for as long if not longer. What did they do with the immense potential of those huge areas.
My kin arrived a couple of hundred years ago and both countries are now vast and vital countries.
I don’t feel we have anything to apologise for. They were all busy warring down each other – we hardly introduced conflict, merely were, by virtue of technology, better at it.
And for the record, I always liked Indians. One of my fave photos from childhood was me with two braves in full regalia on the Hamilton Ontario Orange Walk.