A marvellous film shown at FINAS last night but was a wasted opportunity to expound on and celebrated it when FINAS brought in a certin to speak about it!. How was he going to do it when he was having a siesta during the screening?. It was a slow moving and he was more used to the trash from Microwave Studios. So there'a a parallel to the officers here and the officers in Riri's film. LOL!. As the outside world increasingly encroaches on their tribal lands impacting both natural environment & cultural traditions, the Orang Rimba (jungle people) near Jambi in South Sumatra, struggle to protect their communities from the ravages of capitalists and their ‘development’.
Inspired by the book of the same name, Sokola Rimba, chronicles the early career of Butet Manurung, a young, award-winning Indonesian anthropologist & founder of SOKOLA, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing literacy & advocacy programs for indigenous & marginalized communities throughout the Indonesian archipelago. Directed by Riri Riza, the leading film director of post-reform Indonesian cinema, known for his ability to push the limits of genre convention & achieve box-office success. Riri Riza’s Sokola Rimba provides audiences with the opportunity to journey into the depths of Bukit 12 National Park, experiencing the pressures, trials & tribulations faced by Butet during the early years of her career.
That is the background to the film but what is the film really about? This is what the invited speaker (a graduate of Universiti Malaya & who supposedly had attended a few film courses there), failed to enlighten the audience upon. In the hands of a director like Riri Riza, a film will have a subtext – a background story that tells the audience why he really made the film & his concerns as to the direction his country was taking. The visual signifiers of Riri are all there. On the surface, the jungle environment that Butet faces is full of dangers. At the start of the film, she wanders alone in the jungle looking for the Jungle Folk that she has been assigned to teach their children to read & write. Someone sinister appears to be shadowing her & when she falls in a faint, this person is seen as someone who will take advantage of her predicament. This does not happen (as it would in a city!). Instead, he has carried her to her destination very, very far from where he lives - and she is amazed by this. Later we find that this is Bugong, a youth from another distant tribe who is eager to learn to read & write so that his people are not fooled by one-sided written agreements by outsiders who are encroaching on their lands.
Her first meeting with the Jungle Folk is a test of her patience. They appear to be aloof & are inextricably bound by their numerous, illogical customs & animistic beliefs. It takes some time for her to connect with them. The fauna of the jungle is depicted as fearsome & ominous. There is the low growl of an unseen tiger. A huge python slowly makes its way along her path. And neither is Dr Astrid, a European who is regarded as a \meddling foreigner’ by Butet’s boss. Butet comes down with a serious bout of malaria but recovers. Illegal loggers also appear to be a threat to the Jungle Folks’ way of life but this is not expanded upon. They are not shown to be violent. And there is a reason for this. They are not the real threat. All the above elements are seen as primitive, predatory, hindrances & obstacles. But they are nothing compared to what she faces with the so-called civilized, outside world. Early in the film, Riri shows a solitary shot (on television) of Gus Dur (the Indonesian President then) who is more concerned with efforts to topple him. This was the widely ridiculed ‘sleeping President’ (Malaysia had a parallel leader, if you recall!). This scene foreshadows the apathy of the people who are entrusted to serve the people (including the marginalised) but had failed to do so (numerous instances of this are evident in Malaysia as seen in the films of KOMAS & books written by anthropologists).
Other binary opposites are Butet’s boss who is more concerned over giving the right image to the press – that Butet is a heroine who is trying to uplift the lives of the indigenous people. And when Butet finally reacts against this in front of the press, the journalist are seen standing in proximity, huddled together & just staring at her outburst. No one sees it as something newsworthy. The scene is a subtle comment by Riri of the subservient media of the times. Riri also hints that Butet’s boss is probably on the take, profiting from those from the outside who are eyeing the jungle land with dollar signs in their eyes. The introduction of oil palm plantations towards the end of the film signifies the business interest of foreigners (read: Malaysians!) who are encroaching on their jungle, fully aided by Indonesians themselves. This is the real threat. The illegal loggers are Indonesians but they are not as big threat as the unseen corporate figures & government officials who decide what lands to take & how to do it using one-sided agreements on paper.
At the end, in spite of it all, Riri gives us a happy ending. Butet has lost her job as a teacher but her indomitable spirit & efforts in trying to bring education to the Jungle Folk that would make them less a prey to the capitalists & government officials with vested interest appears to have paid off. Her young colleagues rally to her, their spirits and minds opened up by Butet’s sacrifices. They are now together with her in helping the Jungle Folk to head for a brighter future. These are the generation that will break with the older ones whose hearts are not in the right place. These are the hope of the new Indonesia. And Riri Riza is right up there with & among them.
by : Hassan Abd. Muthalib, Film Critic.