Basuki Resobowo as a Jack of All Trades: The Intersectionality of Arts and Film in Perfini Films and Resobowo’s Legacy in Indonesian Cinema
Basuki Resobowo (1916–99) is known primarily as a painter, activist and head of Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (Lekra, Institute for People’s Culture). He was affiliated with left-wing politics during Sukarno’s Old Order (1945–65) and first entered the film industry in the 1940s when he played the role of Basuki in Jo An Djan’s film Kedok Ketawa (1940). During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), Resobowo was part of Keimin Bunka Shidoso (Culture Centre). Literature on Resobowo’s artistic practice has mostly referred to his background in painting. However, in the 1950s, he joined Perusahaan Film Negara Indonesia (Perfini) as an art director and scriptwriter, making seven films, including Darah dan Doa (Blood and Prayer) in 1950, which is regarded as the first film nasional (national film).
This article, while devoting some space to Resobowo’s overall career, chiefly endeavours to revisit the early Perfini films and examine the influence of Resobowo’s ideas about art and theatre on cinematographic mise-en-scene. Previous [End Page 313] studies of film nasional have concentrated solely on the narrative aspect of these films, and their visual qualities have been rarely mentioned. With an in-depth reading of Perfini films, this article shows how Resobowo’s multidisciplinary background and ideological inclinations towards realism made a significant contribution to the filmic reality made by Perfini.
Basuki Resobowo (1916–99) is an essential figure in the history of Indonesian art and cinema. He appears as a jack of all trades, making the transition from painter, activist, writer, actor, teacher, scriptwriter, to art director for theatre and film. Resobowo is widely known as the head of the visual arts department in Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (Lekra, Institute for People’s Culture), who persistently advocated for social realism in the arts and culture. Prior to becoming an authoritative figure during Sukarno’s regime, Resobowo joined Persatuan Ahli Gambar (Indonesian Painters Organisation) from 1938–42, a collective that criticized mooi indie painters, and he also became a member of Seniman Indonesia Muda in 1946. After 1965, Resobowo was known as an artist-in-exile. He was trapped in China when the 1965 military coup happened, unable to return to Indonesia due to the political turmoil. After 1972, Resobowo lived in Germany until he obtained permanent residence in the Netherlands, where he turned his focus to writing.
Although Resobowo’s early published thoughts were largely restricted to art and culture, he gave voice to his ideas in a single article in 1950 on decoration, set and props in theatre. He stated that although decoration belongs to a theatre show, it is still part of the fine arts. He also suggested that “the decoration must be like a painting that expresses its own autonomous aesthetic rather than being subordinated to the director’s rule”.1 After this article was published in Siasat, Resobowo joined Perusahaan Film Nasional Indonesia (Perfini) and produced Darah dan Doa (Usmar Ismail, 1950), which is regarded as the first film nasional (national film) in Indonesia. If Resobowo could express his ideas about cinema, would he declare, like Leopold Survage (1879–1968) when he created a series of paintings entitled Colored Rhythm: Study for the Film in 1913, that film is a painting in movement? Robert Stam argues that understanding cinema through previously existing media like literature, theatre, music and visual arts is a classical approach.2 However, in the Indonesian context, this approach is important because, as Indonesian film theorist Peransi argues, the biggest sin of Indonesian cinema scholarship has been that critiques only approach film from the perspective of literature [End Page 314] and theatre.3 Hence, this essay accounts for Resobowo’s career as an art director and seeks to measure the extent to which the tropes of Resobowo’s modern art have infiltrated Indonesian cinema.
In his writings on visual art, Basuki Resobowo was a fierce critic of painters at home and abroad. He opposed the realism advocated by French painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814–75) and argued that “the work of this Barbizon painter was only able to bring a sense of affection to the peasants who lived in poverty and could not raise the ideas to improve their life”.4 He directly attacked Affandi (1907–90), stating that “the romantic nature of Affandi’s paintings verged on superficiality”.5 His relationship with the modern Indonesian painter, S. Sudjojono (1913–85) was even worse. Initially an admirer of Sudjojono’s political stance, Resobowo later rejected him, concluding that Sudjojono’s position was based on a separation of art from politics.6
In addition to his published art criticism, Basuki Resobowo’s efforts to formulate realism in fine arts were realized in several sketches published in popular broadsheets between the 1940s and 1963. The sketch Bung Djingklak (Tyre Repairman), for example, was published in Siasat, and other sketches were published in Mimbar Indonesia, Zaman Baru and Harian Rakjat (see Figures 2, 3, 4, 7). Resobowo made illustrations like these of the so-called rakyat kecil (little people), in an effort to foster an anti-colonial spirit and serve as a model for a new ideal.7
Significantly, Resobowo’s attempts to represent urban realities in his illustrations, which display a strong visual acuity in developing chiaroscuro or light and shadow contrast (see Figures 2–7), also appear in Perfini’s black-and-white films. I will discuss later how this ideal and aesthetic seen in Resobowo’s illustrations also figured in his films.
In the history of Indonesian cinema, the first film regarded as a film nasional is Darah dan Doa (Blood and Prayer, 1950). According to Misbach Yusa Biran, Darah dan Doa is the first film made with a sense of national awareness.8 Usmar Ismail, the director of Darah dan Doa, is celebrated as the father of Indonesian cinema, and the first day of shooting, 30 March 1950, is commemorated as National Film Day.
For Charlotte Setijadi and Thomas Barker, the promotion of Darah dan Doa as the first film nasional ignores the contributions made by pre-Independence directors of Chinese descent such as the Wong Brothers, The Teng Chun, Lie Tiek Swie and Tan Tjoe Hock, and thereby erases their role in the nationalist awakening.9 Moreover, the historiog raphy and discursive legacy of film nasional also marginalises the contribution of other filmmakers who focused [End Page 315]
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on making documentary (rather than feature) films. These documentary filmmakers were usually employed by Berita Film Indonesia (BFI, Indonesian News Film).10
Scholarship on Indonesian cinema, which mythologises the singular role of the director, also marginalises the contributions made by other divisions in filmmaking. In the case of Darah dan Doa, only the director Usmar Ismail is exalted. Basuki Resobowo, who contributed as art director for the film, is often left out of the discussion. If we examine Usmar Ismail’s background as a playwright and critic, there is no evidence that he was visually literate. When he wrote film criticism, he only discussed the plot or the acting, and rarely mentioned the visual aspects seen onscreen. It is clear that Resobowo made a significant contribution to Darah dan Doa and thus also on the interpretation of the script.
During his time at Perfini, Resobowo was the art director for seven films while polishing their scripts. Like Darah dan Doa, the films Enam Djam di Djogja (Six Hours in Jogja, 1950), Kafedo (1953) and Embun (The Dew, 1952) focus on recounting the effects of the revolutionary years (1945–49) in Indonesia. Dosa Tak Berampun (Unpardonable Sin, 1951) and Terimalah Laguku (Accept My Song, 1952) can be categorised as films that relate stories about the division of social classes. He was also the one who brought up the initial [End Page 318] story idea for Tamu Agung (The Exalted Guess, 1955), which explores issues of decentralization during the Old Order.
In the past ten years, restoration and digitisation of classic Indonesian films, including the seven Perfini films mentioned above, has generated much nostalgia in the country. For me, this presents a good opportunity to rewrite and reconsider many aspects of Indonesian cinema that have never been articulated. As Laura Mulvey stated, “to see cinema through delay is to discover that cinema has always been there”.11 Mulvey used the term “delay”, commonly used to describe digital features of editing and playback, to refer to what possibilities we may discover if we view cinema in delay mode, pausing and slowing down the text in film. This has the effect of emphasizing the visual qualities of cinema.
Using this approach when viewing Perfini’s films, focusing on their visual aspects that have not previously been discussed by scholars, we realise that our perceptions of reality after the revolutionary war, as depicted in films, may have been shaped by the work of Basuki Resobowo, a figure who has been largely overlooked in cinema history. Subsequently, through in-depth readings of Resobowo’s work and Perfini’s films, we can understand this dynamic aspect of Indonesian cinema. This dynamism is embodied by the relationship between film and modern art, in particular, the aspects of Resobowo’s art that he injected into film. How do we understand Resobowo’s definitions of the “freedom in painting” and how did he employ this in the mise-en-scene of the Pefini films? Before we arrive at an answer, I will give a brief glimpse into the life of Basuki Resobowo as a painter and an activist before he committed to be an art director in the 1950s.
Basuki Resobowo in Flashback
The colonial government enacted the Politik Etis (Dutch Ethical Polity) in 1901, after Queen Wilhelmina from the Netherlands officially began her reign. Before 1901, there was only the Eurospeesch Lagere School (ELS), established in 1817 for Dutch and European students in the colony, but after 1903, the colonial government established several schools for the ‘natives’. An important impact of modern education in the colony, according to Benedict Anderson, is the growth of national consciousnees.12 Anderson argues that the spread of national consciousnees was spearheaded by youths and the intelligentsia, who after gaining a modern education, filled the role of the representative body in the colony through their writing. Novels and newspaper articles written by the ‘natives’ became a mirror—an imaginary one—showing that we the colonized shared the same destiny as the Dutch colonizers who [End Page 319] had taken our freedom. Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s Buru Quartet (1980–88) probably offers the best illustration of the significance of the mass media in the period of national awakening. The novel tells the story of Minke, who is inspired by Tirto Adhi Soerjo (1880–1918), the founder of the newspaper Medan Prijaji and a famous figure for criticizing the colonial government. The mass media was able to unite youths in this period. This culminated in the declaration of Sumpah Pemuda (The Youth Pledge) in 1928, an event that is still celebrated in Indonesia today.
Resobowo was an active leader of Indonesia Moeda, a united youth organization, from 1936 to 1938, when he was studying in Bandung. Prior to his involvement in the nationalist movement, Resobowo had studied in Meer Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs (MULO), which is the equivalent of an American middle school. He continued his studies at Taman Siswa, where he met S. Sudjojono. Taman Siswa was an educational movement established in 1922 by Ki Hadjar Dewantara (also known as Suwardi Suryaningrat), an activist who had also famously written “Als ik eens Nede ander was” (“If I were once to be a Dutchman”) to criticize Dutch insensitivity in commemorating their independence in the colony. Many pupils from Taman Siswa later joined the resistance movement against the Dutch colonial government in the 1930s.13 Matt Cox has argued that Taman Siswa adopted a different method from schools established by the Dutch, emphasizing the importance of students’ initiative.14 Moreover, Taman Siswa also underlined the importance of rasa (feeling) in the arts, which was later reflected in Resobowo’s writings, as he always implied a focus on rasa when he criticized works by other artists. After completing his studies at Taman Siswa, Resobowo joined Persatuan Ahli Gambar (Persagi), along with Sudjojono and Affandi. Their criticism of mooi indie paintings became the start of their artistic process to make a new Indonesian art.
Resobowo’s career in the film industry began with the now lost film, Kedok Ketawa (The Laughing Mask, 1940), directed by Jo An Djan. The reason Resobowo was an actor in this film was probably that Union Films Batavia had promised to make films for the intelligentsia in the Dutch East Indies. Misbach Yusa Biran has noted that in promotional materials for Kedok Ketawa, Union Batavia Films added Raden, a prefix for the Javanese aristocracy, to the names of actors Fatimah and Basuki, for advertising purposes.15 Prior to Kedok Ketawa, the Chinese producer merely made films with fighting scenes and poorly developed plots for Chinese audiences and kelas kambing (‘the goat class’), a term used by the Dutch to describe the lower class of ‘natives’. Based on a synopsis of Kedok Ketawa, the film was likely similar to other films of the time, depicting a hero in a black costume (probably [End Page 320] influenced by Zorro), who saves a woman from bandits in the Dutch East Indies. Compared to Matjan Berbisik (Tan Tjoe Hock, 1940), Srigala Item (Tan Tjoe Hock, 1941) and Gagak Item (Joshua and Othniel Wong, 1939), Kedok Ketawa is the only film that represents the youth and also features a painter on screen. The artistic aspect of the film and its simple storyline was praised by the critic Saroen in Pemandangan magazine.16 A still from the film depicting Resobowo painting his model R.A. Fatimah (Figure 8) brings to mind a saying by the famous Indonesian painter Basuki Abdullah: “A woman is more suitable to be painted, rather than becoming a painter.”17 This scene seemed to have been so memorable that other painters later followed the gestures adopted by Resobowo in the film, including Basuki Abdullah. Thirty years after Kedok Ketawa, director Ali Shahab made a similar image in his film Bumi Makin Panas (The Earth is Getting Hotter, 1973). We can see here a growing trend in which the young lovers who share a moment of intimacy in the painting studio become a reflection of the objectification of womanhood in Indonesian modern art.
As the Second World War escalated and Japan expanded southwards, many Indonesians saw Japan’s expulsion of the earlier colonial occupiers as a promise for liberation. To gain support from the Indonesian people during the Pacific War (1941–45), the Japanese military department formed Sendenbu, a propaganda unit in Java. Sendenbu’s task was to convey information to [End Page 321] the civil society regarding the essential role of the people in supporting Japan, food security and Japan’s victory against Western imperialism. To reinforce the propaganda of Asia Timur Raya (The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere), Sendenbu formed Keimin Bunka Shidoso (Institute for People’s Education and Cultural Guidance, also known as Pusat Kebudayaan or Cultural Centre) on 1 April 1943. Basuki Resobowo was selected as a member, and he proposed to write a script to discuss fine art on the radio.18 During his time in Keimin, Resobowo met Usmar Ismail, who was in the literature department. Along with Cornel Simanjutak, Suryo Sumanto, Djadoeg Djajakusuma, Rosihan Anwar, Sarifin, Rasidi, Suhaimi and Malidar Malik, Usmar Ismail and Resobowo formed a group called Seniman Merdeka.19 Each department in Keimin Bunka Shidoso was headed by Japanese cultural experts who collaborated with Indonesian artists. In the theatre department, there was Korean-born director and playwright Dr Huyung (Hinatsu Eitaro), who worked with prominent theatre troupes such as Bintang Surabaya, Cahaya Timur, Wanasari and Dewi Mada under Perserikatan Oesaha Sandiwara Djawa (POSD.20 According to Antariksa, Keimin Bunka Shidoso provided free studios, visual art teachers, oil paints and canvases for anyone who wanted to learn painting. Antariksa also records that Ono Saseo (1905–54) taught in Keimin Bunka Shidoso and introduced mural painting.21 Later on, the use of murals and posters in public spaces appears in Perfini’s films, and Usmar Ismail adapted Japanese scripts. However, Resobowo left Keimin to join Cahaya Timur, a theatrical troupe founded by Andjar Asmara and Ratna Asmara.22
Resobowo was involved in Komite Van Aksi, a collective of young intellectuals based in Menteng 31, Jakarta. In September 1945, the Komite Van Aksi encouraged Sukarno and Hatta to speak to the people about the future of Indonesia. This event is known as Rapat Raksasa Lapangan Ikada (Big Convention at Ikada Field). During this event, the two founding fathers of the Indonesian nation persuaded the people to believe in the new government, instead of going to war. The uproar of freedom only lasted for a short while. The Allies (the Dutch, English, American and Australians) occupied Java and Sumatra. They started Agresi Militer I Belanda (Operation Product), followed by Agresi Militer II Belanda (Operation Kraai). Indonesian people regard this period as the revolutionary years, the worst period when Dutch soldiers violated human rights and carried out mass murder.23 During this period, Sukarno moved the provisional government to Yogyakarta, and many artists, including Resobowo, followed his lead. In the milieu of artists and filmmakers living in Yogyakarta during the revolutionary period were Usmar Ismail and Djadoeg Djajakusuma, who had learned how to make [End Page 322] films with R.M. Sutarto and Dr Huyung from Berita Film Indonesia.24 Also during this period, Resobowo and Usmar Ismail formulated and signed Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang.25 In the post-revolutionary period, their enduring friendship became the basis for the establishment of Perfini films.
Perfini Films Revisited
After the Revolutionary War, film companies increased in number and filmmakers began making fiction films. The advanced filmmakers who had previously joined BFI and the Dutch-owned South Pacific Film Company, merged into the Perusahaan Film Negara (Perfini, or PFN). Dr Huyung, Usmar Ismail and Djajakusuma’s teacher, founded Stichting Hiburan Mataram, and began collaborating with Perfini. Andjar and Ratna Asmara joined Perseroan Artis Indonesia (Persari), which was founded by prominent producer and another father of Indonesian cinema, Djamaluddin Malik (1917–80). Perfini was founded by a group of amateur filmmakers, including Resobowo, Usmar Ismail, cameraman Max Tera, editor Sumardjono and Djadoeg Djajakusuma. Perfini films emphasized the importance of a kind of cinematic realism, for example, by using slow-paced editing that allowed the audience to see clearly what was being presented in the frame.26 [End Page 323]
Resobowo once said that his main reason for joining Perfini was to develop his artistic skills in creating sets and set decoration. Recalling his laborious efforts, he wrote that he “worked for several days and nights to build villages with shanty houses and small alleys in the studio”.27 Although Perfini was influenced by Italian Neorealism, which is characterized by on-location filming, they faced technical challenges that made it impossible to shoot all the scenes on the street. Based on Usmar Ismail’s statements, Perfini used an old Akeley camera, and the group made films with small budgets.28 Akeley cameras were often used for sporting events and documentary films. Knowing that the production quality was insufficient, Perfini built a studio and shot scenes for Darah dan Doa both inside and outside the studio. Resobowo played an important role in building the appearance of filmic reality, synchronizing scenes shot outside the set with those shot inside (see Figure 10), and providing space for camera movements so that the film could explore the staging approach of Usmar Ismail’s film direction and accommodate the tracking movements of cameraman Max Tera. Through slow-paced editing, the audience could see everything that Resobowo had built in the mise-en-scene, including details such as a small poster of a Caucasian girl, Indonesian propaganda posters in Enam Djam di Djogja, as well as paintings in middle-class houses in Terimalah Laguku (see Figure 19).
The main characteristics of the earliest Perfini films are the use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism techniques of pronounced contrast between light and shade, which were derived from painting. Gillian McIver argues that “filmmakers are well aware of the dramatic power that chiaroscuro and the more extreme tenebrism offer, but the lesson was taught by painters”.29 Considering Resobowo’s background as a painter, and having seen his illustrations that mostly underline the use of highly contrastive black and white, it is quite clear that he extended this technique into his filmmaking. Resobowo created chiaroscuro techniques to represent the qualities of each character in his films. For example, when Sudarto, the anti-hero of Darah dan Doa appears on screen, his face is always shown in semi-darkness, a lighting technique favoured by film noir to indicate the character’s inner conflict. In contrast, also in Darah dan Doa, the character of Adam, the head of the Siliwangi Division, always appears in bright light, indicating that this character has a firm attitude and upholds militaristic principles in dealing with problems during the long march. At the end of the story, Sudarto’s enemy is depicted in silhouette, thus appearing menacing to the audience. The use of this key lighting also appears in Dosa Tak Berampun and Terimalah Laguku (see Figures 11, 12). [End Page 324]
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Resobowo might have been influenced by chiaroscuro techniques in painting developed by Rembrandt van Rijn (1616–60) or Caravaggio (1571– 1610). Scenes such as a soldier’s wife holding a baby in Darah dan Doa, or the sick mother in Dosa Tak Berampun, as well as the bold contrast lighting in Terimalah Laguku, recall paintings such as the The Calling of Saint Matthew (1600) by Caravaggio (see Figures 14, 15). When Sudarto walks with Widya the nurse in Darah dan Doa, the scene looks like Night Watch (1642), a famous painting by Rembrandt (see Figure 13). The use of tenebrism or the ‘spotlight’ effect also appears in Terimalah Laguku, when Sobari, the old and poor musician who sells his saxophone to help his former student, sits with his wife (see Figure 18). Resobowo borrowed from The Last Supper (1490s) by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) in his depiction of the people in Darah dan Doa, such as when the Siliwangi soldiers are fed by Darul Islam members disguised as common villagers (see Figure 16). Resobowo’s incorporation of aesthetic references from painting could also have arisen because he was also refining the script. Given Resobowo’s role in shaping the visual aspects of Perfini films, it is clearly not tenable to regard Usmar Ismail as the sole auteur in Perfini filmmaking.
Darah dan Doa recounts the story of the long march, which started in December 1948 when General Sudirman asked the Siliwangi Division to return to West Java because the Netherlands Indies Civil Administration (NICA) controlled Yogyakarta during the Agresi Militer II Belanda. Usmar Ismail tells the story of this historic event from the perspective of the Siliwangi soldiers, who faced multiple enemies during the war, including NICA. Resobowo worked in the studio, making the sets for the villages the soldiers passed through during the long march, ensuring that they accurately represented the real villages.
Dosa tak Berampun is an adaption of Chichi Kaeru, a script written by Kikuchi Kwan (also known as Kikuchi Kan), a Japanese modern playwright. Usmar Ismail adapted the script while he was working in Keimin Bunka Shidoso.30 The family drama is about a man who refused his father’s visit during the celebration of Eid. The father, who had left his family and humble home to chase wealth and women, returns after his wealth runs out and is rejected by his son, Gunarto. Resobowo worked to transform the studio into a small kampong, building details such as wells, a market stall and a place where an unemployed character plays a harmonica.
Compared to other Perfini films, Terimalah Laguku is the most explorative work, in terms of its story and the collaboration with Radio Republik Indonesia and Orkes Studio Jakarta. Basuki Resobowo and Gajus Siagian worked as the scriptwriters, adapting Asrul Sani’s short story Tiga Kawan dan Sebuah [End Page 326]
Lagu [Three Friends and a Song]. The story is about a genius clarinet player, Iskandar, who wants to be in an orchestra. He is helped by his teacher Sobari, an old musician, and some of his friends. Besides the fact that the story is quite different from other films made during the 1950s, Terimalah Laguku is also an homage to old silent films made in pre-Independence Indonesia such [End Page 327]
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as Si Tjonat (Nelson Wong, 1929), with Resobowo mimicking some scenes from the earlier film. It is worth noting that silent films during the period of the Dutch East Indies were preferred by lower-class audiences. Resobowo had probably seen Si Tjonat as a child.
I argue that Terimalah Laguku set the benchmark for the following Perfini films. Although the film was a commercial failure and the censorship board cut several scenes that showed women as more powerful than men, its legacy remains.31 Resobowo built t he atmospheric mise-en-scene in Terimalah Laguku by privileging visually perfect and subtle messages over dramatic ones. I am referring to how the atmosphere of the film affects our reception and emotional response to it, without knowing exactly what is happening in the plot. Resobowo makes spaces that are able to represent the characters and their social class. For example, there are mooi indie portrait paintings hanging in Iskandar’s living room. John Berger once said that when we paint, we see our ownership.32 Resobowo highlighted the class antagonisms between the rich and the poor through displays of wealth and poverty. Iskandar’s house, for instance, is replete with the modern art of the day while Sobari’s house is made of bamboo. Sobari can only afford to use old newspapers as wallpaper for his house. When we isolate scenes from Terimalah Laguku and examine them as stills, the images offer many different insights. This demonstrates Resobowo’s application of what he calls “freedom” in creating the mise-en-scene. He regards set decoration as being similar to the act of painting—in its powerful storytelling aspect.
Inspired by Agresi Militer II Belanda, Enam Djam di Djogja emphasises the Serangan Oemoem 1 Maret 1949 (General Attack of 1 March). The historical event of Serangan Oemoem demonstrated the continued presence of Indonesian soldiers even though the Dutch had successfully occupied Yogyakarta. The film conveys the story of guerilla armies and civilians strategising to attack the Dutch soldiers. A scene of the soldiers discussing their plans and making anti-Dutch posters is shot in the studio. The narrative continues with a scene of a woman bringing a poster that consists of images such as a crown and a cross. This poster can be seen as embodying the film’s underlying statement that the Indonesian people had refused to submit themselves to the Dutch. At the end of the film, an optimistic statement is made via a poster that declares, “As long as Merapi is still active, even after a thousand beatings, our spirits will never perish.”
Basuki Resobowo once said that “for the populist artist, it doesn’t matter if they can only support the political movement by making posters. People will consider that as part of the struggle.”33 The scenes of people making posters (see Figure 17) in Terimalah Laguku were probably based on Resobowo’s [End Page 333] experience working in Keimin Bunka Shidoso, as well as his recollections of going to the streets to post posters about Indonesian Independence in Jakarta. At a time when radios were too expensive to rely on for broadcasts to spread information, posters became the people’s saviour. Due to the ease and low cost of producing posters, they could be distributed to spread a message efficiently. During the Japanese Occupation, posters were used to spread awareness of the Pacific War.34 After the proclamation of Indonesian Independence in August 1945, Resobowo witnessed the artist Affandi making revolutionary posters commissioned by Sukarno. Sudjojono suggested that Affandi use the painter Dullah (1919–96) as his model. Resobowo and the poet Chairil Anwar, who arrived late to the discussion, laughed when Affandi agreed to use the slogan “Boeng Ajo Boeng” as suggested by Chairil.35
Although “Boeng Ajo Boeng”, which translates roughly as “come on, boys” would have encouraged many to take up arms, it was also used by sex workers in the Pasar Senen area to call their customers, and so the phrase took on a double meaning in Affandi’s poster, since many artists also frequented the nearby brothels.36 Considering his background as a bohemian who frequently visited the brothels in Pasar Senen, we may regard Resobowo’s mise-en-scene in Enam Djam di Djogja and Terimalah Laguku as his reenactment of the aesthetic of Pasar Senen. He uses the bamboo walls covered with newspapers in Terimalah Laguku to represent the “little people’s” poor living condition. This recalls Marco Kartodikromo’s short story illustrating the housing of the prostitutes. Kartodikromo (1890–1932) describes the sex workers’ accommodation as follows:
Atimah’s house was small, with a little tile roof and plaited bamboo walls. It was surrounded by a small unkept garden. It only had one room with a wooden bed covered by a dirty tattered mosquito net. Pictures from cigarette packets and picture postcards were stuck on the walls for decoration… The only light in the room was a suspended oil lamp which gave out a greenish light. 37
Besides replicating the sex workers’ accommodation on the set, Resobowo also depicts a prostitute in Embun. He polished and wrote Embun’s script based on Usmar Ismail’s story. The film implies that the impact of the revolutionary war was also experienced by people in the rural village. Former soldiers became bandits, disguised as the saviours of the village. The opening of Embun is similar to Sudjojono’s painting of 1950, Seko (The Pioneer Guerilla). Leman, the hero of the film, finally saves the village from the bandits’ terror and chooses to live as a farmer. Leman’s sister, Tari, works [End Page 334] as a prostitute under Barjo, the antagonist. One of the scenes in Embun depicts sex workers calling out to Leman when he visits his sister (see Figure 20), a scene that was probably derived from Resobowo’s recollections of his experiences in Pasar Senen.
Resobowo also probably drew on his past experience of going to Madiun with Seniman Indonesia Moeda (SIM) in 1947 in the film Tamu Agung, which is an adaptation from the satirical play, The Inspector General, written by Nikolai Gogol (1819–98) in 1836. Set in a rural village in East Java, Tamu Agung is critical of Sukarno’s regime. The political aspects of Tamu Agung can be seen in the way that the rakyat kecil (‘little people’) of the village realize the empty promise of Indonesian Independence and decide to build their own village without submitting to the state. Tamu Agung is about villagers in Sukaslamet waiting for an exalted guest to arrive. Instead of an important guest, they instead meet a drug dealer accompanied by a salesman who pretends to be the exalted guest. Resobowo later confessed that the character of the drug dealer was inspired by Sukarno, who is commonly known as penyambung lidah rakyat (the extension of the tongue of the people). Tamu Agung is a comedy that targets the most famous figures in Indonesian history. Resobowo satirises Sukarno, presenting him as a small figure who looks bizarre when he rides a horse and has short feet, resonating with the way Napoleon was satirised by British artists as a short figure during the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15). Besides this satire of Sukarno, Resobowo also incorporates a discourse on feminism through the female character who wants to build a house for abandoned women. The polarisation of politics in rural areas can be seen in the scene in which the village officials argue. Tamu Agung was awarded the Best Comedy at the Asia Film Festival in 1956 in Hong Kong. Although the film was a commercial failure, critics have praised it for its bravery to criticise the system. As David Hanan proclaimed, “Tamu Agung is a social satire with complexity and sophistication.”38
The Legacies of Basuki Resobowo in Indonesian Cinema
In 1955, Basuki Resobowo was elected as a member of Dewan Konstituante (Constitutional Assembly of Indonesia) tasked to write a new constitution, doing away with the 1945 Constitution of the Republic of Indonesia. Resobowo’s work in Dewan Konstituante was the main reason why he left Perfini. However, he kept his close friendship with Usmar Ismail. In 1958, they worked together on Mutiara dari Laut (Jewel from the Sea), a play written by Usmar Ismail in 1943. This performance was a collaboration between the artists and the military, under the auspices of Panitia Senintara Pembebasan [End Page 335] Irian Barat Artis Film dan Militer (Committee of Film Artists and Military Supporting the Liberation of Irian). The West Irian (now West Papua) Liberation event happened because the Netherlands still regarded the eastern areas of Indonesia as their province. Meanwhile, because Indonesian nationalists still imagined the nation based on the map created by the Dutch, the government was willing to do anything, including making artworks to support West Irian liberation from the Netherlands.39 Critics praised the performances in Mutiara dari Laut, commenting that “the simple yet artistic decoration made by Basuki Resobowo is satisfying”.40
Even after he stopped producing films, Perfini continued to use the logo designed by Resobowo. The buffalo statue appears at the opening of Perfini’s films. The legacy of Resobowo’s philosophical and methodological approaches to set design are also present in Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew, 1954). Resobowo was replaced by Chalid Arifin (also known as Abdul Chalid) at Perfini. Chalid had previously worked as Resobowo’s assistant in Kafedo.41 In Lewat Djam Malam, Chalid constructs a mise-en-scene similar to that found in Terimalah Laguku. For the scene in which a poor woman named Laila seduces the main character Iskandar, Chalid applies a collage to her bamboo wall comprising of pictures cut out from contemporaraneous magazines, including images of cars, big houses, babies and happy families. Chalid stuck these pictures to the bamboo wall as though this was the home decoration done by Laila, who aspired to be a modern woman with a modern family. A similar collage appears in Terimalah Laguku in the scene where Iskandar and his friends discuss the fate of Sobari in a small tavern. Besides this detail, there is also a scene of Laila cutting images from magazines, which is probably inspired by Resobowo’s scene of the soldiers making posters in Enam Djam di Djogja. Both these scenes featured dialogues between the main characters sharing their dreams. Laila dreams about modern life, while the soldiers in Enam Djam di Djogja dream of freedom.
Resobowo’s legacy is evident not only in Chalid’s practice as a set designer, but also in his later pedagogy. After completing his studies in France, Chalid decided to be a lecturer at the Institut Kesenian Jakarta (IKJ, Jakarta Institute of Arts). As such, Resobowo’s method of making film sets, which Chalid followed, was indirectly taught to the Indonesian filmmakers who were Chalid’s students at IKJ.
In 1952, Resobowo wrote an article about the importance of public space and arts learning in Jakarta. His dreams were finally realized when Ali Sadikin built Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) in 1968. In the article, Resobowo stated that in a public arena, people can see performance, film, and learn about the arts (see Figure 21). In addition, Resobowo proposed that “taxes [End Page 336]
can be taken from film screenings which do not provide education and are merely entertainment to support more educative and idealistic filmmaking”.42 This idea is still relevant today when Indonesian cinema is bombarded by Hollywood films, and taxes are important to help Indonesian filmmakers to make ‘good’ films. The friction between entertainment films versus idealistic films was also revealed when Resobowo defended Lekra’s decision to ban [End Page 337] Hollywood films. For Resobowo, the barrenness of Indonesian film production during Lekra’s rule was not its fault, but the fault of film directors for not being able to make films that were both idealistic and entertaining.43
Although Resobowo’s career in filmmaking ended in 1954, he was still active in the film ecosystem. In 1964, when Indonesia became the host of the third Asia Africa Film Festival, Resobowo was appointed as a juror along with Bachtiar Siagian (1923–2002), a filmmaker who was also active in Lekra and who won the Best Film award at the 1960 Indonesia Film Festival for his film Turang (1957).
In 1965, when the military coup occurred, Resobowo was in Beijing, processing a documentary film of the 45th anniversary of the establishment of the Indonesian Communist Party.44 It was impossible for him to return to Indonesia because of his proximity to the Communist Party. After 1965, he became a political refugee in China. In 1972, he moved to West Germany until he was granted permanent residency in the Netherlands in 1990. Suharto’s Orde Baru (New Order) blamed Lekra and members of the Communist Party for the events of September 1965. This is ironic. In Darah dan Doa, Resobowo represents the military as those who fought fiercely after Indonesian Independence Day.
Resobowo has said, “The creative task of the artist is to create a new society, the socialist society. Artists should integrate their life within the life and struggle of the people, the anti-imperialist and anti-feudal value.”45 In the same article, he also emphasizes the idea that Indonesian arts were the result of revolution. Although his ideas about realism were chiefly related to visual artists, it is possible that Resobowo made this statement based on his reflection about his films and his belief that artists should learn about and experience the people’s life before depicting it in art. The way Resobowo created the sets of Dosa Tak Berampun and Terimalah Laguku, which emphasized the poor living conditions of its characters through the arrangement of small alleys and bamboo huts, basically became the representation of the real conditions of the poor people after Independence. Though there were several films using bamboo sets, such as Gagak Item and Matjan Berbisik, those films did not show the real conditions of poor people. Resobowo’s set is similar to Affandi’s painting of 1949, Ibu Dalam Kamar (Mother Inside the Room) and to Sudjojono’s painting of 1950, Potret Seorang Tetangga (A Neighbour Portrait), in which both painters tried to show the real conditions of poor people living in bamboo housing. [End Page 338]
By revisiting Perfini’s fims and examining how Resobowo constructed a filmic reality through the mise-en-scene, I conclude that film nasional was also created through the intersection of cinema and visual art. This article has attempted to answer Peransi’s protest that “The biggest sin of criticism and writings on Indonesian cinema is the strong approach from drama and theatre, saying that no one appreciates the artistic aspect of Indonesian film.”46 Resobowo extended his use of chiaroscuro and tenebrism—techniques that also appear in his illustrations—to his film sets and thus he accommodated Usmar Ismail’s stage directing approach and Max Tera’s tracking-camera movements. Resobowo also represented important episodes from the history of modern art in Indonesia, especially during the Japanese Occupation, in the scene from Enam Djam di Djogja where the guerillas make propaganda posters to defend the nation from the Dutch. Moreover, Resobowo’s significant contribution in the artistic aspect of Perfini films is proof that there is no single author or player in the film industry—a fact that undermines the myth of Usmar Ismail as the sole founding father of Indonesian cinema. Film nasional is collectively built by amateurs from different backgrounds. Without Resobowo, the ‘jack of all trades’, Perfini probably could never have made Darah dan Doa, the first film nasional.
Umi Lestari completed her B.Litt. in English Letters and M.Hum. in Cultural Studies from Universitas Sanata Dharma, Indonesia. She is a lecturer in the Film Department, Universitas Multimedia Nusantara, Indonesia. Her research interest is enunciating the forgotten players in the Indonesian film industry and Indonesian film history during the 1950s.
The research on Basuki Resobowo and his contribution in Indonesia cinema is funded by the Southeast of Now Emerging Writers Fellowship. I am very grateful to my mentors, Dr Matt Cox and Dr Alex Supartono for their constructive comments, suggestions and feedback.
4. Basuki Resobowo, “Mengantar Pleno Lembaga Senirupa: Kita Madju Dengan Semangat Kerdja, Beladjar, Kerdja Dan Beladjar [Introduction to the Arts Plenary: We Move Forward with the Spirits of Working, Learning, Working and Learning]”, Harian Rakjat, August 1963.
7. Ibid., p. 11.
10. When Japan was defeated by the Allies, Nippon Eiga Sha employees took over the film studio located in Jatinegara, Jakarta. They took a camera and celluloid, then made it the capital to record Independence in 1945. The documentary filmmakers formed Berita Film Indonesia (BFI), which followed Soekarno from Jakarta to Yogyakarta during the revolution years. The film footage taken by BFI served as international evidence that Indonesia was indeed independent.
13. See Kenji Tsuchiya, “The Taman Siswa Movement—Its Early Eight Years and Javanese Background”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 6, 2 (1 September 1975): 164–77, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022463400017306.
14. See Matt Cox, “Modern Indonesian Painters: Education and Cultural Nationalism in the Early 20th Century”, South-East Asia Studies in Art, Cultural Heritage and Artistic Relations with Europe, 2012.
16. Ibid., p. 23.
17. Dermawan Agus T., “Kreasi Wanita, Wanita Dalam Kreasi [Woman’s Artwork, Woman in Artwork]”, in Bukit-Bukit Perhatian: Dari Seniman Politik, Lukisan Palsu Sampai Kosmologi Seni Bung Karno (Jakarta: Penerbit PT Gramedia Pustaka, 2004), p. 215.
19. Rosihan Anwar, “Seniman Merdeka Dan Sandiwara Maya [Seniman Merdeka and Maya Theatre Troupe]”, in Sejarah Kecil: Petite Histoire Indonesia Jilid 7: Kisah-Kisah Zaman Revolusi Kemerdekaan (Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas, 2015), pp. 44–5.
22. Andjar Asmara (1902–61) is the reformer of theatre in Indonesia. Before joining Dardanella, he was a critic for film and theatre. In the 1930s, he and Ratna Asmara established the Bolero troupe. Andjar Asmara worked as a film director during the 1940s but later chose theatre. Andjar wrote scripts for only two films, Sedap Malam (1951) and Dr Samsi (1952). These films were directed by Ratna Asmara, who is known as the first female director in Indonesia.
23. See Marie Muschalek, “Colonial Counterinsurgency and Mass Violence. The Dutch Empire in Indonesia, edited by Bart Luttikhuis and A. Dirk Moses”, Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land-En Volkenkunde/Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia (2016), https://doi.org/10.1163/22134379-17201013.
24. The BFI crews, R.M. Soetarto and Dr Huyung became mentors when Usmar Ismail held a film discussion in his residence at Jalan Sembiring No. 5, Yogyakarta. When Usmar Ismail went to Jakarta, joining South Pacific Film Corporation, Djajakusuma assisted Dr Huyung in Cine Drama Institute, the first film school founded by the Ministry of Education and Kino Drama Atelier, a film school built by Dr Huyung. Through discussions and assisting Dr Huyung, Usmar Ismail and Djadoeg Djajakusuma learnt filmmaking.
25. Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang first appeared in Siasat Magazine in 1950, several months after the world acknowledged the independence of Indonesia and the end of the revolution years. Asrul Sani, Rivai Apin and Chairil Anwar were the initiators of this manifesto. Gelanggang originated from a column in Siasat Magazine, which was used by Indonesian writers and painters to share their ideas about Indonesian art and culture. The Gelanggang group consisted of male artists/writers such as Mochtar Apin, Henk Ngantung, Baharuddin M.S., Basuki Resobowo, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Usmar Ismail, Sitor Situmorang and Mochtar Lubis. One of Gelanggang’s statements was: “We are the legitimate heirs to the world culture and we are furthering this culture in our own way.” This statement emphasized that Indonesian intellectuals, artists, and writers were ready to face the new world, to detach themselves from the old values in Indonesian culture during the process of decolonization in Indonesia. Some of Gelanggang’s members later joined Lekra, such as Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Henk Ngantunk and Basuki Resobowo. See: Jennifer Lindsay, Heirs to World Culture: Being Indonesian, 1950–1965 (Brill, 2012).
30. See Henk Maier, “Wind Shall Blow: Modern Indonesian Literature about the Japanese Period”, in Representing the Japanese Occupation of Indonesia: Personal Testimonies in Indonesia, Japan, and The Netherlands, ed. Remco Raben (Waanders Publishers, 1999).
34. Kurosawa Aiko, Mobilisasi Dan Kontrol: Studi Tentang Perubahan Sosial Di Pedesaan Jawa 1942–1945 [Mobilization and Control: Studies on the Social Change in Villages in Java around 1942–1945] (Jakarta: Grasindo, 1993), p. 45.
36. In Indonesian modern art, a prostitute is a figure who frequently appears in paintings. Soedjojono’s portrait of prostitute “Di Depan Kelambu Terbuka”, according to Cox, is both a confirmation of male desire, as well as a concession of inseparable links between the construction of male and female identities within the gendered social spaces of the private and public worlds. See Matt Cox, “The Painting of Prostitutes in Indonesian Modern Art”, Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia (2017), https://doi.org/10.1353/sen.2017.0013.
40. Majalah Aneka. Nomor 35 tahun VIII. 10 Pebruari 1958.
41. Before Abdul Chalid joined Perfini, he studied in the Fine Arts Department at Institut Teknologi Bandung from 1950–52. Perfini asked Chalid to be art director after Krisis (Usmar Ismail, 1953). He was awarded the Best Art Director award in the first edition of Festival Film Indonesia, 1955 for his contribution in Lewat Djam Malam. In 1955–59, Chalid studied at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, Paris. He became an art director for Pagar Kawat Berduri (Asrul Sani, 1961) and Toha Pahlawan Bandung Selatan (1971), and production designer for Kantata Takwa (Gotot Prakosa dan Eros Djarot, 2008).
42. Original in Indonesia: “Jika separoh uang padjak tontonan yang masuk ini dipakai buat penyelenggaraan kesenian yang sehat, barangkali dapat rakyat Jakarta suatu hidangan pendidikan rasa keindahan.” Basuki Resobowo, “Sebuah Gelanggang Kesenian Di Djakarta [An Art Arena in Jakarta]”, Indonesia: Madjalah Kebudayaan No. 9 Th. III (Jakarta, September 1952).
45. Original in Indonesian: “Tugas kreatif kita adalah membantu terciptanya masyarakat baru, masyarakat sosialis. Dan untuk ini jalan satu-satunya adalah terus-menerus mengintegrasikan diri secara rela dan gigih dengan kehidupan dan perjiuangan Rakyat yang anti-imperialis dan anti feudal.” Resobowo, “Mengantar Pleno Lembaga Senirupa: Kita Madju Dengan Semangat Kerdja, Beladjar, Kerdja Dan Beladjar.”
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.