FEATURE: Indonesian movie explores life of young Chinese activist.
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The pages of the book Catatan Harian Seorang Demonstran (An Activist's Diary) had been turning yellow when prominent Indonesian film producer Mira Lesmana lent it to young, talented film director Riri Riza three years ago.
Lesmana, 41, herself read the diary of the late Soe Hok Gie in 1983 when it was first published by activists of the Jakarta-based Research Institute for Educational, Economic and Social Information, who were critics of the New Order regime of then strongman Suharto.
Hok Gie, an Indonesian of Chinese descent who gained prominence in the 1960s for his active involvement in the student movement against the previous Sukarno government, wrote all his thoughts, ideas and feelings down in his diary.
Though never intended for publication, the spirit of his writings spread, touched and even electrified those who read them.
The book came out 14 years after his mysterious death of the legendary activist on the peak of Mt. Semeru, Java's highest volcano, at the age of 27, and further inspired generations of young activists who followed in his footsteps.
For Lesmana, the diary gave a different, less flattering portrayal of Sukarno, modern Indonesia's founding father, compared with what she learned in her childhood.
Her father, famous musician Jack Lesmana, who was frequently invited by Sukarno to perform at the presidential palace, told her only good things about him.
The diary contains not only a snapshot of a meeting between Hok Gie and Sukarno, but also his strong criticisms of Sukarno's policies, which he said were detrimental to the country's underprivileged ''little people.''
''Thursday, Dec. 10, 1959. This afternoon, I met a starving man. Two kilometers from him, our 'king' may be having fun, good lunch with his beautiful wives,'' reads part of the diary, revealing Hok Kie's sadness over the suffering of the people as their leader led a life of luxury.
The ''king,' Sukarno, always dressed dandily and surrounded himself with beautiful women, from a Japanese geisha who became his wife, Dewi Sukarno, to Hollywood star Marilyn Monroe.
His speeches, in which he portrayed himself as sympathetic with the Indonesian masses, always attracted the attention of poor people, farmers and laborers.
For Hok Gie, however, the speeches were no more than thick cosmetic powder covering up the suffering of the common folk, who had to queue for hours just for a jerry can of kerosene while Sukarno pleasured himself with his wives.
''Saturday, Dec. 12, 1959. This morning, Mochtar Lubis was arrested without any reasons,'' reads another part of his diary, referring to a famed Indonesian journalist who was awarded the 1958 Magsaysay Award, dubbed Asia's Nobel Prize.
''We praise democracy. But cutting someone's tongue for expressing his opinion...?'' he wrote.
In articles published by newspapers, Hok Gie also vented his frustrations with the Suharto's New Order regime for not upholding the rule of law, for allowing corruption among military generals and for protecting smugglers.
It was beyond Lesmana's imagination that one day she would make a film about the Hok Gie -- that is until she met 35-year-old Riza, who is dubbed Indonesia's Bernardo Bertolucci, and lent him the book.
They finally decided to collaborate on the production of a film about the activist to educate the country's youth.
''I see the relevancy of Hok Gie's thoughts to what is happening now,'' Lesmana said. From the Old Order under Sukarno, to the New Order under Suharto and then the current reform era, each era started with false expectations that eventually brought widespread disappointment, she said.
In producing the 147-minute film ''Gie,'' Lesmana and Riza traced and interviewed people who knew Hok Gie when he was a student at the prestigious University of Indonesia, where he founded the university's nature lovers group.
Among them was Hok Gie's elder brother Arief Budiman, who was arrested by Suharto's regime in early 1970s for opposing the establishment of the Beautiful Indonesia Miniature Park, built at the initiative of First Lady Tien Suharto when many people still lived in dire poverty.
Budiman, who now lectures at a university in Melbourne, once questioned whether his brother's life had meaning. He later concluded it did indeed after many people, from the coffin maker to the airplane pilot who carried Hok Gie's body on board, told him they had read his articles and felt sad to lose him.
In the movie, Riza inserts a dialogue between Hok Gie and Budiman, whose Chinese name was Soe Hok Djin, on why his elder sibling changed his name.
Following an aborted coup attempt in 1965 blamed on the outlawed Indonesian Communist Party, locally known as PKI, the government cut ties with China, which had been accused of supporting the coup.
The commotion led many ethnic Chinese Indonesians to change their Chinese names into Indonesian ones to avoid being the targets of discrimination and violence. But Hok Gie insisted on keeping his Chinese name. He said his actions alone would determine whether he was a real Indonesian.
He also kept criticizing the government when many Indonesians of Chinese descent lacked the courage to speak out and preferred to take the safest course of action by remaining low profile.
His other brother Dien Pranata disclosed in the interview how disappointed Hok Gie was when he realized he had misplaced his trust in senior military officers like Suharto, having hoped they would lead post-Sukarno Indonesia on the road to justice and equality.
His disappointment led him to seek solace in the peaks of Javanese mountains where he felt cleansed of the dirt of Indonesian politics.
Lesmana and Riza not only read his articles and diary, but also the books Hok Gie had read, including those on Islamism, liberalism, humanism, communism, Marxism, and works of Albert Camus.
Two years were needed for the film to materialize, including to revise the draft scenario at least eight times and to find an appropriate actor to play the role of Hok Gie, for which Nicholas Saputra was chosen.
To prepare for the role, the 21-year-old actor read Hok Gie's diary and articles. He also saw ''A House in the Jungle,'' a 1969 documentary produced by John Powers of Australia that tells about Hok Gie's criticism of Suharto's policy of having Javanese migrate to other islands in the archipelago.
According to Lesmana, the production cost for the movie was 7 billion rupiah (about $715,000). The Hubert Bals Fund Award of the Rotterdam International Film Festival and some other donors financed the production, including a mysterious donor who donated 2 billion rupiah.
Lesmana and Riza faced difficulties, however, when they had to make PKI flags no single printing house was willing to make the flags, even just for a movie.
Many people in the country are still haunted by the communist ghost that has led to those related to the party being dragged off to prison or being blocked from pursuing education in public universities or applying for jobs in military and government institutions.
After some heated negotiations with the Home Affairs Ministry, Lesmana and Riza were finally allowed to print 500 PKI flags by themselves on the condition that the flags had to be delivered to the ministry after the film production was completed.
Doubts were also raised about whether the movie could weather the scrutiny of the Film Censorship Agency as there are many sensitive scenes in the movie.
In one such scene, hundreds of supporting actors and actresses wave the PKI flags and shout ''Long live PKI!'' while in another scene military soldiers are shown opening fire at student protesters.
Under Suharto's rule, such kinds of scenes would have been never escaped censorship. Lesmana recalls shouting ''Yes!'' in happiness when she was told that the agency decided not cut the scenes.
But a condition was put that a kissing scene -- something still taboo among Indonesia's Muslim population -- between Hok Gie and his girlfriend Sinta, a native Indonesian woman, had to be cut.
Despite the difficulties the movie crew faced and minor censorship here and there, the movie has been praised by film critics for showing a side of history often at variance with the officially accepted one.
During Suharto's 32-year authoritarian rule, only one version of history, the state version, could be disseminated. The recent screening of ''Gie,'' in major Indonesian cities and also abroad, demonstrates the passing of that era.