View Point: “Lewat Djam Malam”, the Curfews of Our Lives

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By: Julia Suryakusuma

Do you love old movies? I do. Today’s films are filled with special effects, amazing 3D and advanced sound technology, but they are also often formulaic, lacking substance and depth.

There’s something charming and quaint about old movies — and the best ones form a repository of a nation’s history and collective memory.

Perhaps you have to be “old” to like old movies? The film Lewat Djam Malam (LDM, After the Curfew) was produced in 1954, the year I was born, but that was not why I went to see it last week. In fact, LDM is widely considered among the greatest Indonesian films. Directed by the late Usmar Ismail, the “father” of Indonesian cinema, it is prized for both aesthetic and historical reasons.

This is why LDM was selected from the 414 Indonesian films (out of about 3,000 produced since 1926) held by the Sinematek Indonesia (the national film archives) for restoration, at a reported cost of US$160,000, and took one year to do.

The result was nothing short of miraculous (read “Restoring Film History, One Movie at a Time”, The Jakarta Post, Feb. 19, 2012).

Sitting in a darkened movie theater in Pondok Indah Mall, I was transported back to the past. LDM is set in my hometown of Bandung, so I recognized streets and old buildings from my childhood — even the famous Ragusa ice cream parlor on Jalan Braga, one of the city’s best-known locations.

Set in 1949, the film tells the story of two days in the life of Iskandar, a former freedom fighter trying to adjust to a world that has become alien to him. He fails miserably at jobs he’s offered, no longer connects with his fighting buddy Gafar (now a building contractor), and is disgusted at his former commander Gunawan, who’s become rich and corrupt, while still spouting revolutionary slogans.

Then there’s his old mate Pujo, reduced to being a gambler, drunkard and pimp for Laila, a prostitute, who lives in Pujo’s house. Laila, a victim of domestic violence, fantasizes about being saved by a man and living in middle-class marital bliss, surrounded by material goods. She cuts out photos from LIFE and other Western magazines to paste in her pathetic scrapbook of dreams.

Iskandar loves Norma, his fiancée, who for five years waited faithfully for his return from war. However, he feels at odds with her bourgeois, materialistic world. He wants to change the world, but the highlights of her life are all-night dancing parties with her equally bourgeois friends. She decides to throw such a party as the best way to celebrate her fiancé’s homecoming. Iskandar is a fish out of water.

And he’s tormented by guilt at having killed a woman and her family on the instructions of Gunawan. Only later does Iskandar realize that although Gunawan claimed they were Dutch spies, in fact he really just wanted their possessions and jewelry to start up his own business.

Watching Iskandar stumble into one awkward situation after another was extremely discomforting. It was amusing, however, to observe the way the actors dressed and behave, and their theatrical acting.

The stereotypical roles played by the women — the faithful (Norma), the airheads (Norma’s friends), the temptress (Laila) — were annoying, but they were also an accurate reflection of the times (as was their and their menfolks’ non-stop smoking!).

The men, on the other hand, were prototypes of men from any era in Indonesian history: Gunawan, the immoral, opportunistic, corrupt leader; Puja, the lowlife criminal; and Iskandar, the idealist, consumed by his own revolutionary fervor, who in a fit of anger, shoots Gunawan dead for tricking him into killing innocent people.

Iskandar is shot dead too. Tragically he does not die for any cause, but simply because he is caught in the street after the curfew hour by the military police. His is a senseless death, but it might have been worse had he lived to witness the abandonment of the revolutionary ideals he had risked his life for.

In this sense, Iskandar is more than just a prototype — he also embodies an Indonesia that somehow never lives up to its ideals, whether the revolutionary ones of 1945 or the Reformasi ones of 1998.

In the end, LDM is about people in search of an identity and a life; and a people caught between unfulfilled dreams and political chaos. The film portrays confusion as to the direction of the nation, inter-class relations, hypocrisy, greed, the intimate relationship between the military and the civilian bureaucracy (the mainstay of the New Order regime) and gender relations. Its theme is the “curfews” (boundaries) that “the authorities” — and society itself — set for us all. Overstep them and you are sidelined — or killed.

A great film has the ability to remain relevant for different historical periods. It is clearly defined, uncomplicated and has a strong message — without resorting to special effects.

LDM is one film that stands the test of time. Just imagine what else is lurking among the 413 others waiting to be restored at the Sinematek!

If only we could persuade the younger generation to watch restored classic movies instead of formulaic re-hashes like Batman: the Dark Knight Rises. Believe me, being inspired is better than 3D!

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Notice: This opinion article has been displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Wednesday, 25 July 2012. It is also able to be searched at: www.thejakartapost.com [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 25 July 2012].

The writer (juliasuryakusuma.com) is the author of Jihad Julia.

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