In Indonesian media aware middle-class, if you don't know what Laskar Pelangi is, then you must have came from an uncool planet far far away. It's okay. Then, for you who came from another planet (although from another country would suffice for you to not know), I will tell the overview.
It All Began in Belitong
The story deals with a group of 10 poor children who attended a dying private school, Muhammadiyah Elementary School, at the island of Belitong, east south of Sumatra. In fact those ten were the only student the school had. It is The iron ic y is that the poverty-stricken island is actually rich in tin, clay, and silica sands . b But the natives rarely benefited from it, since all the resources were exploited by the giant state-run tin mining company, PT Timah. Not only that, the company also segregated the community by creating fenced housing, unequal opportunities and criminalizing the local miners. But among these hardships, in a tradition akin to Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (1997), those children refused to surrender. They chose to see life as a great opportunity to explore, no matter what. Accompanied by their idealist teachers, Mrs. Muslimah (Cut Mini) and the principal Mr. Harfan (Ikranagara), they had to go through life with its bitterness, but without hate or prejudice. And with a deep sense of hope and perception on beauty, they called themselves ‘ L laskar P pelangi’ (lit erally . R rainbow W warriors).
Riri Riza's Creative Choices
Sounds motivational? Well, it should be. The film was adapted from a the same-titled book of the same name with, penned by probably the most spirited writer in Indonesia in this time, Andrea Hirata. The book Laskar Pelangi is actually a somewhat-fictionalized-and-dramatized autobiography of its author (His alter ego, the boy named Ikal, is one of those children). I put the word "somewhat" because the story's structure and style is quite odd. Maybe it is because Andrea is so highly spirited, that he chose not to meddle himself with literary theory. And that's why this book, while brimmed with positive aura, has so many anomaly and inconsistencies. It was filled with illogical dialogues and misplaced metaphors, not to mention his hyperbolic hyperboles. Believing a boy so genius that he could explain principles of optical phenomenon, Newton’s rings and Descartes in his preteen age is hard enough, let alone believing an elementary student contest would pose problem about that! Despite the flaws, Indonesians love the book, for it has brought them a story so allegedly enlivening, so praised and so popular that it has been reprinted more than 20 times. Only a matter of time before a film adaptation takes place. And this is where Riri Riza stepped in.
In adapting process, Riri Riza seemed to be aware exactly where the strength and the flaws lie in the book. For capturing the Belitong-ness effectively, he shot the film on location, and casts natives Belitong kids as the warriors. Books with so many different characters were always a monster for adaptation process, and Riri Riza successfully dodging the trap. He chose to focus his story on 3 boys only: the perceptive Ikal, the genius Lintang and the eccentric-artistry Mahar. He also put more light upon the teacher character, Mrs. Muslimah, to bring up her truthfulness and dedication, and also created new characters not found in the book. Riza's creative choices proved to be successful. The story is watered down, but lacking the book's flaws, retained its beautiful spirit, and the amateur kid-actors were amazingly natural and talented. Since Petualangan Sherina (Sherina's Adventure, 2000) and Untuk Rena (For Rena, 2005), Riri Riza has been known to be excellent at directing children. In general, he managed to retained Laskar Pelangi's positive aura, and in the same time, repressed its flaws. Unfortunately, Riri he cannot avoid his own flaws. What flaws? We will come back at that. It felt inappropriate to discuss flaws while highlighting its positive aspects. After all, it's a story with a strong inspirational tone, right?
A Story Oprah Would Love
But it's a story a Marxist would hate. Why is that? Because in Laskar Pelangi, poverty is basically portrayed as a mere nostalgic moment. Andrea Hirata, a.k.a Ikal is already a successful social climber, who can see his hardship-ridden childhood days as good old days gone past. I can't say the same for the rest of the warriors, especially Lintang, whose cleverness could not get him out of poverty circle. Once again, my memory flew back to Children of Heaven. Yes, they both put a Zen-like look at poverty, and yes, they did not resent to anger and suffering about it. And yes, both are using amateur children as the star. But there's a difference: Children of Heaven avoid romanticize the poverty, unlike the case with Laskar Pelangi. Casting amateur talents sometimes is believed to be able to bring a sense of realism and authentic-ness, but by romanticizing, it could not help. Because romanticizing anything has a danger putting the audience in some distance. Instead of an involved filmmaking, this method is known for creating the notorious effect of a house of glass. It's like observing another world from a safe distance. Hence, the audience cannot actually feel true empathy other than just feeling sorry. Riri Riza had been guilty of making a film with a house of glass attitude in 3 Hari Untuk Selamanya (3 Days to Forever, 2007). True, in Laskar Pelangi, the attitude has improved a little, if not to say ‘not at all’.
And then there's another distancing aspect: the humor. While Children of Heaven portrayed poverty as is, humbly living side by side with the rich, sometimes the situation evolved into small comedic moments, but we cannot laugh without any feeling of uneasiness. You must feel guilty for laughing at them. On the other hand, Laskar Pelangi consciously adds the humor parts and stripped down any uneasiness. Instead, it separated humor and tragedy in a stark contrast: on some scenes the children were seen doing funny things, and on another time, the film was tear-jerking the audience by killing one of its main casts. It felt like an old mixture reminiscence of any old melodrama.
Humor has always been used as magic-pills in Indonesian films. Add some humor, and your film may be saved from box-office nightmare. Allegedly, Riri Riza was using humor like some magic potion too here. Sure, it attracted millions of viewers and sparked some warm laughter among families. But humor is a double-edge knife. As amusing as it can be, it can also be an alienating effect. How can it be so? Take a glance on history. Indonesians, especially Javanese, are used to revert to humor when facing hardships. Since the ancient times, the lower class had genially created humor out of their sorrow in folks' show such as ludruk or dagelan Mataram (Mataram i an gags). But their exposure upon the upper class with the coming of media boom in the 20th century had caused an unanticipated effect: the upper class actually liked it. But one can question whether they actually laugh with them or at them.
Let's not forget that those "millions of viewers" and "families" are mainly urban middle and upper-class. The contemporary social gap is still so wide that its urban middle and upper class are — so to speak — alienated from the reality of their society and the younger they are, more severe the alienation is . The contemporary social gap is still so wide that its urban middle and upper class are — so to speak — alienated from the reality of their society. And it is more severe in its youth. For them, the story of poor boys from a far away island, even though is part of their country, echoed like a fairy tale. By putting those Belitong kids' hardships in a context of humor, the already alienated audiences are in danger of being mislead to view them as a distant other. For the urban youth, scenes where Lintang is forced to wait for a crocodile to cross before passing the rugged road may seem funny, but one has to wonder whether there's an honest empathy somewhere in there. The nostalgic struggle could lost its meaning when exposed carelessly to the audience already comforted by gadgets, air-conditioned rooms, malls, virtual hot spots and Starbucks. There is a danger that this supposedly inspiring story then be disregarded upon as just another tale in the movies. Of course, I'm not saying that Laskar Pelangi then would have to bear an unrealistic burden to soften the already stiff hearts, but their take on humor — this double-edged knife — could have been handled more carefully. Especially among our urban-saturated folks.
Nevertheless, the humor aspect served its main purpose: to grab the audience. And Riri Riza has succeeded in that. He made a film about a lot of things: poverty, struggling, dreams, voice of the marginalized, wisdom of life, social injustice, love, idealism, tragedy, flawed system..., wait. Wait. Is it that many? People said that a great works of art could hold a lot of meaning. But a work that is so indecisive could also hold a lot of meaning solely because it wants to say many things in a cluttered fashion. Which one of this does Laskar Pelangi belongs to?
Riri Riza's Creative Doubt -ness
Riri Riza may have his creative choices. He may choose to put more highlight upon social injustices in Belitong, in a dosage more than those in the book. In the opening sequence, he injected a historical context on why such injustices happened. But, like so many other sub-themes in Laskar Pelangi, it's just that. There were so many pieces of stories, failed to form a sense of coherence. One can defend this style as a mosaic-like work, where the theme don't have to tell the narrative linearly, but as a stream of pieces. But how can you defend the story about a missing rich girl, found, inexplicably attracted to Mahar, and then no more we hear from them? Maybe the rich girl was too interesting to be left out, initially. How can you defend a piece about the boys' adventure to a remote island to meet a shaman, without any significant link to the whole story? Maybe he felt the boys' absurd journey was too interesting to be left out, too. Even the most serious theme, its socio-political undertone, fell short. Maybe the director didn't want to include too much to avoid the film become too political. Or maybe he was just plainly indecisive.
With this too many 'maybes', one has to wonder where Riri Riza actually headed. He could play with one sub-theme more, but then he left it. Then there's another potential sub-theme, he took a piece of it, and then left it. The trace of his indecisiveness, sadly, is scattered around the film, and hurting the whole narrative.
Resurrecting an Old Tradition
But thankfully, just like the book, the positive messages were overshadowing its flaws in an entertaining way. Once again, we saw a phenomenon that has been lost for decades: whole families flocked to theaters, hopefully returning Indonesian cinema back into its heyday. There was a time where Indonesians routinely watching film, collectively with the whole family in Lebaran Holidays (Eid-al-Fitr Days), akin to westerners watching Christmas movies. In those times, the movies screened consisted only with comedies, especially from Warkop group, sometimes purposely released at Lebaran times. Untuk Rena was Riri Riza's experiment with creating a film specially released at Lebaran. It was a decent, small-budget movie with no pretension for a box office. But this time, with Laskar Pelangi he hit it big, and succeeded in resurrecting an old tradition among Indonesian cine-philes.
Riri Riza's geniality in directing and marketing overshadowed his hesitation concerning stories, and that alone would suffice to forgive and congratulate him. With this achievement, hopefully Indonesian mainstream cinema will retain its energy and spirit. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, and think positive. Besides, that's what Laskar Pelangi had taught us.
* * *
A Skeptical Rant as a Post-Scriptum:
And, the last problem lies with me. Once again I forgave a film's so many flaws only because there’s no other film like it. When the industry is blooming and the competition becomes fierce, and quality is harshly measured, these flaws will be unforgivable. I only pray that in the future, Indonesian cinema landscape would flourish and we don't have to make unnecessary apologies. Seeing that Laskar Pelangi may have launched the industry into its blooming state, I forgive it even more. Oh, my.
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