Film perjuangan: portraying the struggle for independence

They are rarely shown in the Netherlands: Indonesian films that deal with the struggle for independence. Media and culture scholar Arnoud Arps sets out the various ways in which Indonesian filmmakers go about representing this history. A fascinating story of how views are formed and images created.

By Arnoud Arps08 March 2022

In the opening scene of the film Kadet 1947 (Rahabi Mandra, Aldo Swastia, 2021) the red-and-white Indonesian national flag is hastily painted on the side of bomber by a group of young cadets. Their haste is due to the prestige of a figure who is approaching: president Sukarno, who is there to inspect the plane. The wet paint gives away the fact that this plane is not yet ready to go to war. The bomber – a Kawasaki Ki-48, to be precise – has only recently been captured by the Indonesians from the Japanese. Renamed ‘Pangeran Diponegoro’ (Prince Diponegoro), it is intended to be the flagship of the new Indonesian air force. Its non-operational status prompts Sukarno to give a motivational speech, pointing out to the cadets the importance of honesty, conviction and courage. He states: “One day, one of you will fly this mighty aircraft.”

Sukarno’s speech is the launchpad for a story about the Indonesian air force’s early attempts to resist re-occupation by the Dutch; the action takes place in 1947, during ‘Operation Product’, known in Indonesia as ‘Agresi Milliter Belanda I’ (‘Dutch Military Aggression I’).

still from Kadet 1947 (Rahabi Mandra & Winaldo Artaraya Swastia, ID 2021)
still from Kadet 1947 (Rahabi Mandra & Winaldo Artaraya Swastia, ID 2021)

National heroes

Kadet 1947 is the latest addition to a large body of Indonesian film works tackling the Indonesian War of Independence (1945-1949). The film is based on the true events of the first aerial raid carried out by the newly created Indonesian air force. Making use of both familiar and new themes, Kadet 1947 represents the most recent portrayal of the struggle for independence in Indonesian war films.

As is the case with many other ‘film perjuangan’ (‘films of struggle’), Kadet 1947 focuses on heroism. For example, several Indonesian national heroes feature in the abovementioned opening scene, which is less than four minutes long, and later in the film even more appear. This focus on the history of military aviation emphasises an aspect that to date has not received the attention it deserves in Indonesian films about the war of independence – which is remarkable, considering the number of films that have already been made on this topic. Whereas in the Netherlands the number of cultural expressions dealing with this war has only started increasing in recent years, in Indonesia this has been the case ever since the nation’s birth.

Culture of popular memory

A culture of popular memory exists in Indonesia concerning the Indonesian War of Independence: this is made up (among other things) of films, ‘historical re-enactments’, music, fashion, cartoons, literature and (computer) games. This Indonesian popular culture is an almost untapped source of information on how the violent end of the colonial era is seen today. It acts as a cultural archive in the sense of a ‘place where memories are stored’. This can best be illustrated by the idea that the Indonesian War of Independence should be seen as an empty canvas on which people constantly project their interests and aspirations. In this way, ‘the idea’ of the Indonesian nation is still being created through the ongoing telling of the stories and myths of its birth, for example in war films.

Film perjuangan cover many genres and perspectives, from films full of spectacular combat to scenes of romance. The film programme Revolusi! gives a unique insight into this culture of memory. Each film portrays the colonial past in a different way, meaning that a range of different cultural memories of the past is created. This is significant as, more than 75 years after the war, it shifts the way we see the struggle for independence: from memories exchanged between people to memories exchanged through popular culture. Without having actually experienced the war, we can nevertheless now ‘remember’ this war. In this way, various memory experts argue, the boundary between natural and artificial memories blurs. Which ‘memory’ of the past then arises depends on how this past is depicted.

still from Kadet 1947 (Rahabi Mandra & Winaldo Artaraya Swastia, ID 2021)
still from Kadet 1947 (Rahabi Mandra & Winaldo Artaraya Swastia, ID 2021)
still from Kadet 1947 (Rahabi Mandra & Winaldo Artaraya Swastia, ID 2021)
still from Kadet 1947 (Rahabi Mandra & Winaldo Artaraya Swastia, ID 2021)

Multi-layered

Stereotypes, heroism and nationalism often play significant roles within film perjuangan. Some of these films reinforce dominant narratives and opinions concerning the war, and some call these into question. The latter tendency could be seen as an objectifying process, as these films add nuance and new perspectives on the ‘official history’. It would be too simplistic to suggest that these films merely create ‘counter-memories’ to the state-sponsored narratives however; rather, this ‘objectification’ is a multi-layered memory project.

This multi-layered nature of Indonesian memory is also demonstrated in ‘the Indonesian perspective’ on the Indonesian War of Independence, as there is in fact no one single perspective. Indonesia is a melting pot of different languages, cultures and histories and this is reflected in the stories that are told. In addition, every form of storytelling brings the past to life in a different way: an animated children’s film about the war will tell the story differently from a musical comedy. Both of these existing examples once again highlight the diversity of film perjuangan.

still from Merah Putih (Red and White) (Yadi Sugandi, ID 2009)
still from Merah Putih (Red and White) (Yadi Sugandi, ID 2009)

The Merdeka trilogy, Kadet 1947 and Soegija

The Eye depot contains Merah Putih (2009) by Yadi Sugandi, the first film in the Merdeka trilogy (2009-2011). If we look at the film perjuangan from roughly the past decade, this trilogy represents box office hits shot with a big budget and with strongly nationalist political leanings. The ties a mega-rich producer of the trilogy has to the populist political party of his brother (an ex-son-in-law of former president Suharto) show how film, nationalism and politics are entwined.

Another part of the spectrum is represented by the arthouse film Soegija, by celebrated filmmaker Garin Nugroho, who zooms in on the human aspect of the war, eschewing big spectacle. Although Nugroho’s film – like some other film perjuangan – deals with a national hero, it does not follow the dominant discourse on what an Indonesian national hero should be. The character archbishop Soegija is a member of a religious minority and does not have any ties to the army.

Whereas the Merdeka trilogy and Soegija show contrasts, in certain aspects they also correspond. The same can be said of Kadet 1947, which tells a story of military service personnel, was produced by big film companies and in which the Dutch army is the main antagonist. The spectrum of film perjuangan therefore cannot be split into two camps, but should rather be seen as an uneven landscape in which both differences and similarities can be found.

The Indonesian perspective

The abovementioned films introduce us to the variety of genres and perspectives offered by Indonesian films on the war of independence. Kadet 1947 is also an example of what we could call the ‘Indonesian perspective on the war’. This film emphasises that the role played by the Netherlands in shaping the post-colonial narrative is subordinate to that of Indonesia and – in Kadet 1947 particularly – that of Indonesian (military) heroes.

The historical freedom fighters of Kadet 1947 are familiar to Indonesian audiences, but less so to Dutch ones. The fact that, in the Netherlands, it is necessary to give an explanation of the film emphasises once again the Indonesian perspective on the violent end of the colonial era and the limits of knowledge of this in the Netherlands.

still from Soegija (Garin Nugroho, ID 2012)
still from Soegija (Garin Nugroho, ID 2012)
poster Revolusi

Films, talks & events

Revolusi! depicts the Indonesian people’s political struggle and the legacy of colonialism from multiple perspectives. Eye will screen a programme of Indonesian ‘battle films’ of which some have never been seen in the Netherlands before.

About the author

Arnoud Arps is a media and culture scholar at the University of Amsterdam. His doctoral research project focuses on memories of the Indonesian War of Independence in relation to contemporary Indonesian popular culture.

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Revolusi!