WPTS Radio Visits Screenshot Asia: Autobiography Review
by Courtney Lucier
Zoom in on a few drops of blood on a car windshield. Settle for a few moments on the violence and brutality. Now, zoom back out to the terrified and dismayed face of young Indonesian housekeeper Rakib. Stuck between his loyalty to the military dictator General Purna, and his own compromised morals, Rakib finds himself in a situation that seems nearly impossible to escape from. He is both a likable and unlikable character – one who is relatable in his desire for a father-figure, and one who often repulses us with his role in upholding Indonesia’s oppressive regime. If anything, the military dictatorship conveyed in Makbul Mubarak’s Autobiography does for Indonesia’s 1960s-90s military dictatorship similar to what Santiago Mitre’s Argentina 1985, a film based on the Trial of the Juntas following Argentina’s infamous Dirty War, does in relation to their own military dictatorship. It is a kind of film that perfectly conveys the messiness, the complicated circumstances, and the generational impact military rule has on a nation. Makbul Mubarak’s film will have you looking at every small detail for some remarkable symbolism. We learn that bird hunting is more about just birds, karaoke is more than just singing, and a chess game is meant to show the intergenerational link between the young and old in passing down the legacy of a country’s (messy) history.
I will be completely honest – prior to viewing Autobiography at Pittsburgh’s Screenshot:Asia I knew little to nothing about Indonesia’s complicated and violent military regime. And while reading up a little on the historical context before seeing this film might help clear up any confusion, it is not terribly difficult to understand what Mubarak is trying to get at in his film. For further context Mubarak bases the story of Autobiography partly on his own personal experiences in confronting his father’s role as a civil servant during Indonesia’s military regime, and so instead of the film becoming a complex documentary of historical events it feels more like Mubarak’s personal journey in coming to terms with his own moral conflictions. While a viewer can make a more in-depth analysis of the film in regards to Indonesian history and politics, if one has a basic grasp in the understanding of the power and politics of military dictatorship, then they can easily understand and appreciate the film for what it is and what it stands for.
In Autobiography we see how easily Rakib falls under the sway of General Purna – a man who represents the powerful and controversial dictator Suharto, who was in control of Indonesia for thirty-two years and was primarily responsible for the massacre of 500,000 Indonesians. Yet Rakib is an interesting character in that he becomes a part of the regime not necessarily because he is naive or gullible, but because it is expected of him. His family has worked for the General for generations. It is a legacy passed from father to son – a family affair. It is only natural that Rakib continues his service to the General, a man that is not only his employer but a father figure to him, someone who admittedly refers to him as the son he has always wanted. Through watching Autobiography we understand the complexities in people’s involvement in oppressive military rule. We learn that it’s not always simply a choice of one’s politics or out of a person’s own ignorance, but rather because this is the only choice in life known and available to someone like Rakib. It isn’t until after a brutal murder by the General’s hand that Rakib begins to question the regime, and that we see the film’s truly intriguing conflict emerge: will Rakib betray the General, or turn traitor to his own morals?
To sum up, Autobiography is a slow, psychological film that dives deep into the political oppression of governments and the challenges of people living under such regimes. It is a film that excels at long, detailed camera shots. It takes its time focusing on the quiet stillness of a car, the rotating blades of a fan, or the steady and consistent scrubbing of blood from plush car seats. It is deliberately slow and steady, allowing its audience to critique and question the complex politics of both past and present Indonesia. It is a film that slowly builds up to its final mesmerizing, moving ending, of our morally conflicted character Rakib, standing silently among the looming cellphone towers, as we become terribly aware of this last symbol of the General’s power becoming thrust into the unwilling hands of the youth.