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Indonesia Resources

In an effort to keep track of my reading and research, I’m listing all the sources I’ve used that deal with an aspect of Indonesia in some detail as well as brief summaries and my reactions to them. So far, my sources, I’ve noticed, are mostly by non-Indonesians (my local libraries and bookstores, Netflix, etc., to my frustration, have slim pickings), so if anyone has recommendations, please let me know.

Disclaimer:  I do not endorse the views expressed by any of the authors/filmmakers/artists listed on this page. Also, my opinions are strictly my opinions.

Books

Fiction

A novel by the perennial Nobel Prize in Literature contender Pramoedya Ananta Toer, who was imprisoned for about 14 years under Pres. Suharto during which he orally composed his masterpiece, The Buru Quartet, it tells a fictionalized account of his grandmother’s life. A beautiful yet poor young girl is taken from a small coastal village to be the “wife” of a wealthy nobleman. There, despite dizzying wealth, she slowly, painfully learns the truth about her marriage and grows into womanhood before she can finally break free.

It was supposed to be part one of a trilogy, but the army destroyed the rest of the text, forcing Toer and his editor to compose an epilogue for my edition, explaining what happened. The translation is written in a spare yet unpretentious prose, and the titular girl is never named. Yet, the novel effectively depicts the girl’s psychological growth and subjugated society under Dutch colonial rule. Pity the rest of the novels seem to be lost, but I’m on the lookout for The Buru Quartet. 

Nonfiction

A European bestseller, this is the memoir of German Sabine Kuegler’s time in West Papua with the Fayu, which was a newly discovered tribe at the time. Brought there by her missionary parents, it is a book that dwells on her longing for the simplicity and innocence of her life among these people, cut off from “civilization,” after she returns to Europe for school.

The memoir is episodic in nature, and the writing seems a bit simplistic, but it’s hard to judge the quality of the book based on a translation. I wish there had been more anthropological elements, since the Fayu’s culture is fascinating and alien to me. Also, as a note, I was disturbed by the interactions between Kuegler’s family and the Fayu; the book was criticized for that and other reasons. 

A successful journalist suffers depression before and after her divorce and affair with a much younger man before deciding to embark on a journey to Italy for pleasure, India for devotion, and Indonesia (Bali) for a balance between the two. Oh, and she falls in love at the end.

It’s been a while, but I remember that the writing was good (although some sections, like Italy, were more successful than others, and it’s almost too convenient that she meets the perfect guy at the end). I did have trouble with her perspective that other cultures were “better” at specific things (I’m still not sure how she got to those conclusions), and that she could seek out help for her own issues by getting paid to travel to those places (Yes, her book advance paid for her trip). I had more issues with the book, particularly when she actually gets to India and Bali, which I won’t go into here (Google for more articulate critiques). Still, it’s not a bad read. If you can’t tell already, it’s definitely a memoir as opposed to a more traditional travelogue. I don’t actually remember much of  what she said about Bali, beyond her surprise at the supposedly peaceful island’s violent history.

The 2010 edition of this comprehensive guide to Indonesia, with detailed sections on each island and the biggest cities. Useful information includes a basic history of the country, an explanation of local customs, an overview of traditional arts, crafts, film, and other cultural elements, information about where to stay, where to eat, where to get medical assistance, where to go, etc., and other things an intrepid traveler needs to know. I will say that I was a little weirded out that I couldn’t seem to find an actual Indonesian writer credited in the back (although many Indonesians were thanked for assistance), but Lonely Planet is tough to beat for thoroughness.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is an account of the “spice race” among European powers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on the Banda Islands of now-Indonesia and the brawl between England and the Netherlands for control of them. Spices from “the East” during the period were priced astronomically high, as they were used to preserve and flavor rotting food, in addition to European belief in their miraculous medicinal properties; nutmeg, in particular, which was grown in few places, was particularly sought out because it was thought to be a surefire cure for the bubonic plague.

Milton’s argument is that the defiant stand Nathaniel Courthope, agent of the British East India Company,  took on the particularly nutmeg-rich island of Run against the Dutch East India Company was one of the defining moments of history, since its aftereffects would lead to Holland trading Manhattan to Great Britain for Run.

It’s a rollicking, well-told tale with a list of colorful characters and punctuated by moments of staggering brutality. Most of Milton’s information is taken from letters, diaries, and the records of the British East India Company with the charmingly unstandardized spelling left intact. It’s, however, heavily slanted towards the Eurocentric view of the period, so while you get a pretty good idea of why and how Europe took an interest in the Indonesian archipelago and how they came to conquer it, with the Dutch later forming the Dutch East Indies, it’s much more difficult to get the natives’ side of things, since Milton’s sources are mostly European (I’m not sure what kinds of sources are available from say, the Javanese or Bandanese of the time, although translations of letters from various educated archipelago leaders are included). Also,  the book is very much pro-British (not entirely negative but it’s definitely colored by that worldview, especially when talking about conflicts with other European countries and the somewhat Orientalized approach to the people of the archipelago). Most frustratingly, I was ultimately not convinced that Courthope was all that important or compelling. So many of the sources about Courthope were from others with precious few from the man himself, especially since we get to hear from so many other, more fleshed out, more flamboyant characters. With the center of the book so ill-defined, I was ultimately left a bit dissatisfied. Still, worth a look for a well-paced, adventure-packed read about a world-changing moment in history.

Films

Take an uptight woman desperate to get pregnant to save her failing marriage, her (closeted) gay best friend trying to avoid getting married off by his mother, and their wealthy friend who’s going off the deep end after she discovers her husband cheated, and you have the set-up for Arisan!, the first mainstream Indonesian film to have prominent LGBT themes, including the first onscreen male-male kiss in Indonesian cinematic history.

An arisan is both a social gathering and a microfinance organization for communities in Indonesia. In essence, a group of people gather periodically to pool money and draw lots to see who will both get the money and hold the next arisan. For the well-to-do of Jakarta, however, it’s become a way to show off their wealth and taste.

Meimei, a straitlaced interior designer, is invited by her friend Andien, a woman happily married to a rich man, to join an arisan populated by wealthy women. When her male friend, Sakti, comes to pick her up, he gets drawn into the group. The rest of the movie deals with their struggle to keep up appearances, as marriages crack, new love is found, and people are thrown into jail (say what?).

I wasn’t sure what to expect, since the cover put me in mind of too hip yuppies akin to the women of Sex and the City, but I was surprised by how enjoyable the movie was. It manages to deal with serious issues deftly without hitting you over the head with them. For the most part, the three leads are treated sympathetically, despite their less than stellar choices, although I did think some of the secondary characters could have been fleshed out more. The ending, too, was appropriately heart-warming without being too nauseatingly sentimental. It’s not the most earth-shattering film experience, but for what it is, it’s a keeper.

When a twelve-year-old boy’s mother dies, he is sent to his long-absent father, who works as the supervisor of a fishing platform known as a jermal. There, he must learn to deal with hard physical labor, bullying from the other underage (and illegal) workers, and his distant father, who has a dark reason for being out of his life for so long.

Another example of the resurgence of Indonesian cinema, the film was made by young independent Indonesian filmmakers, Ravi Bharwani and Rayya Makarim, with the support of Dutch filmmaker Orlow Seunke and the generosity of several different donors. It’s a fantastic, promising first effort with apt actors, engaging portrayals of Indonesian social issues (underage laborers), and beautiful shots of the lonely, sun-and-ocean-scarred platform, but I found the ending disappointingly conventional and pat. The movie wrapped up a little too neatly for my taste. Still, I’m curious to see what else these directors have up their sleeves.

  • Merantau

My review went into more detail. Yes, it’s a formulaic naive country hero’s journey to experience in the big city, but its cliched elements are done very well, and the film is a fantastic showcase for the national martial art, pencat silak.

Available on Netflix Instant Play. 

Based on the novel by Hella Haasse, the movie chronicles the return of Johan Ten Berghe to the Dutch East Indies, where he had been raised on a idyllic plantation by colonial officer Hendrik in the waning days of the Dutch Empire before leaving for the Netherlands. Now part of an army bent on taming the rebellious islands, which have declared independence after World War II, Johan searches for Oeroeg, his best friend who had been the son of his father’s Indonesian servant and whom he believes to have murdered his father. Slowly, as Johan instructs his driver, the naive newcomer Twan, on life in the islands, troubling secrets about his family and their relationship with Oeroeg and his father, are revealed.

It’s an uneasy film. In particular, I was drawn to the powerful performances of the four actors who play Johan and Oeroeg as children and adults. The development of their relationship from their initial trusting camaraderie to their bittersweet, final reunion is a study of the effects of imperialism on both the colonized and the colonizers. While Johan, who speaks the local language fluently, is more sympathetic than his racist colleagues in the army, he, as a white Dutch man, still benefits from a structure which denies equal standing to his ostensible best friend. While you feel for him, you are also slowly made aware of his complicity in imperialism. Meanwhile, Oeroeg’s growth from a carefree, charismatic, clever young man to an embittered radical is heartbreaking. A moment of boyish tomfoolery when they are students is followed by Johan’s breach of trust, which profoundly damages their friendship and sets them both on their divergent paths.

This is a movie that will break your heart and make you think. Heartily recommended.

A quiet, beautiful-looking film, The Photograph follows the growing friendship between a singer and part-time prostitute, Sita, and Johan, a dying Chinese-Indonesian photographer, after Sita begins to rent the room above his studio. Both of them have secrets, although only Sita’s (she hides her job from the sick grandmother and daughter she supports financially) is apparent at first. The movie starts to kick into gear (at least as much as the leisurely pace can pick up) when Sita is brutally attacked by some clients and begins to work for Johan as she recovers  and hides from her vicious pimp. Meanwhile, Johan starts a frantic search for an appropriate apprentice as he gets closer to death. 

This is a slow film, and it took me awhile to get into it. I found my attention wandering during the beginning, but eventually I was drawn into the contemplative atmosphere of the film. It helps that Johan and Sita are acted so beautifully and subtly, particularly Johan’s actor, Kay Tong Lim, who lets you know what the mostly silent Johan’s thinking with a single look. The eventual reveal of his deep sorrow broke my heart. Sure, the movie is a bit predictable, but the ending is wonderful — bittersweet yet hopeful with enough implied and enough left open for me to be left satisfied.I definitely recommend it, if you don’t mind slow films.

Based on the novel by Christopher Koch, the movie is set during the tense final days of the Sukarno presidency in Jakarta, focusing on a group of expats who jockey for news and influence. The film centers on an ambitious Australian reporter (Mel Gibson), his British diplomat love interest (Sigourney Weaver), and an idealistic Chinese-Australian photographer with dwarfism (Linda Hunt in a gender-bending, Oscar-winning performance).

It’s a beautiful-looking movie which  evokes the frenzied rush of mid-century Jakarta  and the waning decadence of the expatriate set, whose self-interest is contrasted with the deep poverty of Jakarta’s slums and the frustration of agitating Communists as Sukarno’s failed promises become too apparent.

The best aspect of the film is the performances. Mel Gibson, in light of his recent damaged reputation, is surprisingly appealing and charismatic here as an often-selfish crusading reporter. Sigourney Weaver brings gravitas to what could have been the lightweight role of token love interest. Linda Hunt is the standout here, even as the implications of it made me uneasy; she’s a short white actress playing a biracial man with dwarfism. Basically, it’s yellowface with a side of playing someone with an actual physical condition she doesn’t have. True, it’s a tour-de-force performance; I never thought of her being anything other than a tormented outcast whose ideals ultimately fail him. Still, it takes the film down a peg for me.

Otherwise, though, worth a look, for its powerful depiction of a city falling apart.

Language

A professional and comprehensive series of videos on Youtube. I like that the videos are organized by topic and that they have two different native speakers pronounce the phrases in the videos. I also appreciate the pauses to give the viewers time to copy the pronunciation.

A series of Youtube videos by an Indonesian woman who wanted “to share her language.”  It’s fairly well-organized, and it’s a more relaxed, conversational series (she teaches her super-cute three-year-old daughter the colors in one video). It’s nice to put faces to the language.

Music

  • Krisdayanti by Krisdayanti

A good friend of my uncle from Java  gave me this CD, declaring this album to be by her favorite artist, Krisdayanti, an extremely popular Indonesian star. My current level of Bahasa Indonesia is limited to such phrases as “halo” and “selamat tinggal,” but to my ears, at least, this is a good piece of pop. My particular favorite is this song:

Television

  • Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations — Indonesia 

Contains beautiful images of the stunning island scenery and luscious, mouthwatering food (along with the odd scenes with martial arts and ram-fighting —yes, ram-fighting). Anthony Bourdain cracks wise as usual but seems rather more. . .chill. Given that the episode examined the idea of Westerners “going bamboo,” I can see why.

  • Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern — Indonesia 

In this episode of Andrew Zimmern’s globetrotting quest to eat food often considered unpalatable by Westerners, he downs a snake blood shot in Bali and water buffalo stomach in Sulawesi, as well as going to, among other things, a teeth-filing coming of age ceremony and the biggest funeral you’ll ever see. While the episode is entitled “Indonesia,” it may be more accurate to call it “Bali and Sulawesi,” since the episode focuses solely on those two islands, an understandable choice given the sheer breadth of cultures and cuisine on the islands.

I will say I found some of Zimmern’s asides about what he was eating off-putting and impolite. No, dude, don’t flat-out tell a host that fruit she loves is gross. (contributed by Anna Cabe) 

  • Mysterious Mamberamo

Two white men decide to bypass strict Indonesian security and travel deep into the untouched reaches of Irian Jaya to the Mamberamo River in order to contact isolated tribes. You can question the motives of both the Indonesian government and the adventurers (I did), but it’s still a compelling and nerve-wracking documentary of two adventurous men and their local guides through dangerous terrain.

Both shows are available on Netflix Instant Play. 

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