Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'

Published: Apr 12, 2024
A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Wahyudi Akmaliah

The documentary film Eksil (2022, dir. Lola Amaria) explores the stories of ten Indonesian exiles who have been living in Europe for the past 60 years, prevented from returning to Indonesia due to political obstacles that are only now being addressed.

Amaria’s is not the first film to depict this story of exile. Two feature-length fiction films dealt with the same subject matter; Surat Dari Praha (A Letter from Prague, 2016) directed by Anggi Dwi Mas Sasongko and Nasib Manusia (A Human Destiny, 2014) produced by Gilang Bayu Santoso.

Known for her work as director and screenwriter on feature films including Sunday Morning in Victoria Park (2010), Lima (2018) and Jingga (2016), the idea to make the documentary came to Amaria much earlier. During her visits to Europe to attend film festivals and screenings in in 2010-2011, she met some Indonesian exiles and was intrigued by their personal and surprised by their stories, which were different from the information she had received about the 30th September Movement (Gerakan 30 September, G30S) at school. She was taught that the Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) was responsible for the coup d’état that led to the killing of six army generals and subsequently, the PKI became known as betrayers of the nation. This version of Indonesia’s history was ingrained in the memories of those born in the 1970s and 1980s. Since 1967, this was achieved through educational curricula in schools and universities, mandatory screenings of movies about the G30S/PKI, and ceremonies to commemorate the sanctity of Pancasila every 1 October. These stories were imprinted on Indonesian memories were accepted without any explanation.

For Amaria, her documentary had two objectives. Firstly, it aimed to clarify many questions in her mind related to the sites of memories that had been embedded within the Suharto presidency dealing with the events of 1965-1966 and the stigma of the PKI, without any explanation or clarification around why these people deserved to be arrested and killed. The regime provided only this one dominant version of the PKI and the historical background to the 30 September Movement, which blamed the PKI as the mastermind of the six general killings. Secondly, the documentary aimed to pass on the memories of the exiles to younger generations of Indonesians, particularly millennials and Gen Z, who may be unaware of the events that occurred during 1965-1966, and its huge impacts of them as individuals but also on society as a whole. Amaria provides a subtle yet heart-wrenching portrayal of ten exiles' stories without any pretensions to show the ‘right’ historical version. In light of this, has Amaria’s struggle to pass these exiles' stories down to the youngest Indonesian generation been successful?

Why did they become exiles?

The movie opens with the narration of a poem by Chalik Hamid, depicting the story of an exile who was not recognised overseas or in their own homeland. The narration overlays images of the ten protagonists in the film: Hartoni Ubes, I Gede Arka, Tom Iljas, Waruno Mahdi, Asahan Aidit, Chalik Hamid, Djumaini Kartaprawira, Kuslan Budiman, Sardjio Mintardjo, and Sarmadji. In her interviews with each of the exiles Amaria delves into the complexity of their stories to understand why and how they became stateless, their continued bond with Indonesia as a home country, and their journeys to eventually settling in Europe.

The stories are told by dividing them into three significant events. Firstly, the events of 1965-1966 and its impact on Indonesian students who studied overseas. Many of these exiles were studying abroad as part of the Mahasiswa Ikatan Dinas (Service Bond Student), including in the Soviet Union and China. Following the alleged attempted coup on 1 October 1965 and Suharto’s eventual take over, the overseas students were asked to prove their loyalty to the new government under Suharto’s presidency. Each of the exiles depicted in the film refused to accept this demand because they believed that President Sukarno was the primary reason they had been afforded the opportunity to study overseas. Because of their loyalty to Sukarno and refusal to pledge support to the new regime, their passports were not extended and as a result they became stateless. 

Secondly, the film examines their experiences of living without citizenship and the suffering that came from that. Living in communist countries did not guarantee their safety, especially during political events such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the Perestroika policy in the Soviet Union. This led some of them to seek asylum in Western Europe looking for better opportunities. Internal factors also played a role in their decision to leave their communist countries. Waruno Mahdi's story exemplifies this. He graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from D. Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology in Moscow in 1965. While waiting for his PhD promotion in 1965-1966, his passport was revoked by the Indonesian embassy in Moscow, because he refused to pledge loyalty to Suharto. This left him stateless, and the Soviet government forced him to isolate himself in the small city of Voronezh in the south of Moscow. His difficult situation, coupled with his declaration of not being a communist, meant many Indonesians who supported the Soviet communists ostracised him. He eventually moved to Germany where he sought seek asylum, hoping that the political situation in Indonesia would change. During Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency (1999-2001), there was an attempt to bring Indonesian exiles back, specifically through a mission sent to talk with exiles in the Netherlands, but there was no follow up.

To survive, individuals often worked in jobs that did not necessarily make use of their academic qualifications. This meant taking on roles such as office assistants or cleaners. Their stateless status also led to the loss of communication with family members back home. This was the case for Chalid Hamid and the seven Indonesian students who arrived in Tirana, Albania on 4 February 1965, to study political science. Hamid had left his pregnant wife in Medan, North Sumatra, with plans to bring her and their baby to Tirana once he had established a stable life. However, during the political events of 1965-1966, Hamid's wife was imprisoned. Unable to return home, Hamid's friend protected his wife and daughter by marrying her. After several months she was released from prison. Hamid himself started a new life by marrying an Albanian woman and eventually sought asylum in the Netherlands and became a citizen. This tragic experience left both Hamid and his former wife separated from their families.

Thirdly, the film shines a spotlight on the exiles’ continued sense of nationalism. Even though they do not hold Indonesian passports, their Indonesian nationality remains as strong as ever. This is evidenced by Samarji’s activities, wherein he diligently observes Indonesian politics by documenting Indonesian newspapers and collecting significant books primarily related to the events of 1965-1966. Sardjio Mintardjo’s initiative to make his house a home for Indonesian students studying in the Netherlands further demonstrates a sense of nationalism. Many Indonesian students gather at his house to discuss, celebrate, and stay for a while. This condition is conceptualised by Benedict Anderson as long-distance nationalism. Despite most Indonesian exiles being geographically far from their homeland and no longer citizens of Indonesia, their minds and imaginations remain in Indonesia. The act of planting small bamboo and banana trees in pots in their apartments is not only an effort to preserve memories of their hometowns, but also a demonstration of love for Indonesia. Nevertheless, this long-distance nationalism has created dilemmas amidst the unchanged political stigma of communist imaginaries in Indonesia. Even though most Indonesian exiles can now return home, it remains difficult for them to visit their hometowns due to ongoing stigma and problems of family separation.

From the cinema to TikTok

As the filmmaker, Amaria’s struggle to challenge the stigma of communism extends beyond the cinema. The film also clearly aims to educate, giving historically accurate explanations about the PKI, as the third of the biggest Communist Party in the world after Uni Soviet and the Republic of China at the time, and how the PKI gained the fourth largest number of votes in the Indonesian election in 1955. And Z Generation has responded to this struggle to challenge the dominant narrative. This response is visible through the efforts of some influencers on TikTok, such as @adimereview, @stevany.mora, @chusnulch__, and @virdincach_who created movie reviews with footage from Amaria’s own social media accounts. These influencers narrate the events of the former Indonesian smart generation who were stranded in European countries and never returned home after studying. They present the exiles' stories as mysterious tales related to a sensitive issue, and enthralled audiences in the process. A movie review featured on the TikTok account for @narasi, the Indonesian news media platform led by journalist Najwa Shihab t. Many of these short videos on TikTok have gone viral and have become part of the algorithm of many Z-generation users' For You page. Largely because of this support on TikTok and other social media, Amaria's documentary exceeded her expectations. The film was shown in various cinemas across the country and managed to attract an audience of 63,045 people from 2 February to 1 April 2024, remarkable for a documentary film with a limited promotional budget and without a celebrity cast. Eksil has gone a long way to preserving the collective memory of the past for the younger generation.

Wahyudi Akmaliah (wahyudiakmaliah@gmail.com) is researcher at Research Center for Society and Culture, National Research and Innovation Agency (PMB-BRIN) and PhD Candidate in Malay Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS).

Inside Indonesia 156: Apr-Jun 2024

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