Bernie Ijdis (director), The Great Post Road, Pieter van Huystree Film & TV (producer), Netherlands, 1996, 16mm, 150 mins.
Reviewed by VANNESSA HEARMAN
The Great Post Road is a travelogue and historical journey across the 1000-km road built by forced labour under the Dutch Governor-General Daendels in 1809. It is also a journey into the life of Pramudya Ananta Tur, Indonesia's foremost novelist. Last year the New Yorker Magazine said of him: 'No major literary figure alive has suffered more for his beliefs'. Pramudya has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature several times, yet his works are all banned in his country. His status as an ex-political prisoner, and the lack of freedoms it entails today, are in stark contradiction to the world recognition given to him. For this film, he wrote and reads an essay about the road itself and the many places along the way.
The Great Post Road stretches across the northern part of Java, at times hugging the coast of the Java Sea. As the first major road on the island, it functioned as a trade route, ending at the then-important harbour town of Panarukan in East Java. The Dutch filmmakers are like the eyes and ears of Pramudya, who is prohibited from leaving Jakarta to travel on this road himself.
Generous in its coverage of the everyday experiences of Indonesians, it speaks with road gangs, tea pickers, newspaper sellers and a hotel-building entrepreneur who is largely blind to the daily reality going on around him.
The narration is sparse, allowing for Pramudya's reading to dominate. However, giving a sense of our whereabouts on the road would have been less disorientating. Perhaps a map would have served the purpose.
A valuable aspect of the Great Post Road is the insight the viewer gains into Pramudya's life, which mirrors much of the history of Indonesia. He has served prison sentences both under the Dutch colonialists and under the Suharto regime. He was active in the revolutionary war against the Dutch in the 1940s.
He makes many poignant observations on the regime which imprisoned and has continued to persecute him till today. Furthermore his inability to travel, and the latest banning of his book, an autobiography, brings back to the viewer the extreme repression carried out against a person whom many countries would perceive as a national treasure.
This is a timely documentary on a remarkable man and his country's turbulent history of resistance against colonialism, as well as an interesting collection of images from contemporary Indonesia.
Vannessa Hearman works at the Overseas Service Bureau in Melbourne.