- Promised Paradise
Agus Nur Amal (b. 1969) is a Jakarta-based comical storyteller, puppeteer, performance artist, and media personality, born in Aceh, Indonesia, and trained in modern theatre at Institut Kesenian Jakarta (IKJ, or Jakarta Arts Institute). Agus has been active in peace campaigns in Jakarta and Aceh since 1999 and assumed national prominence as a television commentator in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. His stock in trade is a modernized form of a rare southwestern Acehnese storytelling genre known as dangedria, which he researched after graduating from IKJ. Agus performs under the nom de stage of PM Toh, after the most famous dangedria artist in living memory, now deceased, who took his own stage name from a bus stop.
Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich's provocative fifty-two minute documentary Promised Paradise depicts Agus's travels around Java and Bali in 2004-2005 as he creates various performative interventions around themes of Islam, violence, and difference. It weaves together a number of strands of Agus's work with footage of Teater Mandiri, one of Jakarta's leading theatre companies, rehearsing one of Putu Wijaya's poetic dramas on the theme of war, with shadow images and a giant mannequin stuffed with newspapers.
The film begins with Agus performing one of his trademark interactive Televisi PM Toh shows to an audience of enthusiastic children. Standing in a television-shaped puppet booth, he relates the 9/11 story as object theatre using toys, household items, and handmade props. A cardboard fish [End Page 400] transforms into a Boeing 747, a plastic bag becomes flames enveloping the World Trade Center, and a bath ladle and flashlight is a helicopter sent to kill Osama bin Laden. Osama himself is a battery-operated dancing doll in fatigues. When Osama asks his audience why Osama dances, a boy shouts back that he is defecating.
Agus sings a lament within a police cordon in front of the Australian Embassy after a terrorist bombing and is chased off by the Jakarta police. He conducts a theatre workshop in a pesantren (Islamic school) on the theme of Joseph and his brothers. In his company is an intellectually disabled street person named Endang, described in a title as a "vagabond," whom Agus meets in a café in the parking area of the Taman Ismail Marzuki Arts Center in Jakarta, a popular hangout for IKJ students and artists more generally. The pesantren students are happy enough to create a scene in which Endang, playing Joseph, is thrown down a well formed of sarongs. But later, a workshop participant protests that Joseph is supposed to be the most handsome of brothers, and asks for the part to be recast, causing Endang to storm off.
Agus then travels to Bali in order to conduct another pesantren theatre workshop (not filmed); he invites Endang along but is politely rebuffed. Agus sings a song about Indonesian girls prostituting themselves to white men on a main street of Kuta and sings in English to Jerry, an Australian on a motorcycle with a scantily-clad Indonesian woman in tow. The Australian offers blessings from Australia for the loss of life during the 2002 bombing, playing along with Agus's performative style through the use of dramatic gestures. Agus presents the Australian with a T-shirt saying "Fuck Terrorist" purchased down the street. Agus sings: "But fuck is the same word as making love." This, he intones, will lead to baby terrorists and more bombings. Agus sings his hopes that Jerry will be happy with his girl tonight. "I just met her," protests Jerry.
Agus attempts also during his Bali trip to visit Imam Samudra and Amrozi, two of the surviving perpetrators of the 2002 Bali suicide bombing, awaiting execution in Denpasar's prison. Agus is unable to meet the convicts, though he does get into altercations with guards and other visitors to the prison. Through clever editing with stock footage, however, an interview is staged in which the gleeful Imam Samudra justifies his actions...