Jalanan will go down in Asian cinema history as the first feature-length documentary film from Indonesia to have had a substantial cinema run. It has also won a closetful of awards, including the prestigious Best Documentary prize at Busan, Korea in 2013. Filmed over five years, the film follows the travails of three street musicians eking out a living in Jakarta.
A year after Jalanan’s release, its lead characters, Boni, Titi and Ho are still being invited to talk shows to star in small roles on TV and to perform to sold-out audiences. As a tribute to the extraordinary popularity of this documentary film about three marginalised residents of Jakarta, Governor Basuki Tjahja Purnama (also known as Ahok) organised a screening for his staff in May earlier this year. “Guess what: ‘Jalanan’ screening moves Ahok to tears” headlined the Jakarta Post the next day. I finally caught the film at a screening at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), held in the Balinese town that the film’s Canadian director Daniel Ziv now calls home.
Jalanan started slow; I felt eased into the characters’ backgrounds via the TV documentary convention of parallel mini-biographies: the glib, devilish Javanese-Rastafarian Ho; the mellifluous Titi, tough, tender and full of familial piety; talented Boni with the sad childhood and ridiculously boyish face. Soon these three musicians began to sing their cracked hearts out, circulating through the city with vigour and indefatigable faith in themselves. But while their talent, attitude and trendy fashion sense transformed them into cool cats for a little while, deeper questions began to surface.
Like many perhaps, I was moved by the fragility of their individual lives. I found myself thinking ‘What makes you pick up that guitar everyday and make your way through the grime and gore of the streets and travel hundreds of miles on sweaty buses – just to keep on playing for a few coins? Why aren’t you giving up? How can you be so talented and yet live under a bridge? Why do you let your husband smack you around? Why are you invisible to the metropolitan system whose streets you pound?’
One doesn’t have to read biographies of the famous to find lessons about human tenacity. As this film reminds us well, this quality is evident in the lives of millions of people who end up in the crevices and fault-lines of society.
For me, the film intensified when Ho got picked up for busking and ended up in a holding cell. I have no idea how the director managed it, but somehow we too were locked up in the cell with Ho. Ever been inside a prison cell with a bunch of people arrested for the most inane of misdemeanours? A little girl can’t poo, women sleep on concrete floors, cockroaches scurry and Ho croons on, spontaneously manufacturing ballads, lifting spirits and hopefully embarrassing the hell out of anyone in the government who saw this film. Here, the documentary morphs from gritty street-ethnography into socio-realist opera - a moving paean to harassment of the people.
The movie isn’t the same after this point. This isn’t a tender, intimate account of buskers anymore; much larger issues are at stake. We suddenly see our lead characters as civilians riding the omnibus of a careening democracy, teetering on the edge of abandonment, only to stay afloat through their own resilience.
Which Jakarta do you live in? The film asks this question of its local viewers. Is it the city where Ho has furtive, illicit sex in a shack next to a main road, where dismal urban planning leads to Boni’s makeshift home under the overpass to be constantly flooded, where Titi has to abandon her children and look for work to send her father a few dollars to help with hospital bills? The film doesn’t sentimentalise. Rather than evoke pity, it drives home that any notion that the poor deserve their plight is a capitalist confection. These guys hold on to their dignity with admirable grit and a tenacity that would embarrass anyone confident about their next meal.
The characters, however, manage to marinate their lives with love, humour and satire. Ho rhymes 'reformation' with 'masturbation' and pontificates on whether his country loves him back. Boni observes, as he uses the toilet in a luxury mall, that while the shit of all classes mix, people just can’t do the same.
Titi visits her family back in her village in a lovely sequence that provides a breather from the urban squalor. It reminds us of the importance of familial connections, even in the lives of people who appear to be complete drifters. Her parents are gentle country folk who still can’t fathom why their daughter sings on buses. They admit to once having secretly sold her guitar for a paltry Rp1,500. When her father, looking frail in a white starched shirt, starts singing Japanese war songs, we know his end is near.
The buskers don’t just busk on. The movie works because they formulate concrete plans, and the director, via his extensive filmic coverage—given definite shape through deft editing by Ernest Weiss-Hariyanto—makes us privy to their individual journeys towards achieving their goals. When Ho splurges several days of his income to surround his love-interest with plates of Padang food, we want him to get the girl but can't help wondering about his ability to be responsible for a widow with three children. Later, when he tenderly cradles her eight-month old baby in his arms, I am gobsmacked by the transformation.
Titi’s husband leaves her. Blinking her tears and indignity away, she studies for the equivalent of a school certificate to try for a better life. Boni doggedly refurbishes his ever-flooding subterranean accommodation despite constant threats of demolition.
At the film’s end, Titi gets her school diploma and makes a heroic speech honouring her recently deceased father. Boni seems unfazed that his life could be uprooted with the single check mark of an urban development officer, or the next floods. Ho marries his sweetheart, looking ridiculously formal in a clean, pressed shirt. The audience cheers amidst sniffles.
In under two hours, the lead characters of Jalanan have toiled insufferably for their money but have also dreamt, shagged, divorced, wooed, buried a parent, finished school, rebuilt a home, lectured us in economics and regaled us with great humour and of course, awesome music.
Life been a little trying lately?
Film cast: Bambang ‘Ho’ Mulyono; Titi Juwariyah; Boni Putera; Director: Daniel Ziv; Editor: Ernest Hariyanto/Republik Pictures; Producer: Daniel Ziv, DesaKota Productions, ITVS International & Republik Pictures
Running time: 1 hr. 48 mins.
Sandeep Ray (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a filmmaker and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the National University of Singapore. At the IFDC (Indonesian Film Directors Club) Awards in November 2015, Ziv was named Best Director for a Debut Feature Length Film.