Review of “Jalanan”

When “Jalanan” (“Streetside” in the Indonesian national language) premiered in Indonesia in early 2014, it came at a very tumultuous time in Indonesian politics. The popular Governor of Jakarta, Joko Widodo was on his way to a closely-won presidency, and his enthusiastic deputy Basuki Tjahaja “Ahok” Purnama was preparing for the take-over. Amid Indonesians’ fierce debates about where to stir the country towards, it’s hard to think of a better way than this film to capture the country’s urban distresses and hopes, all flowing through the megacity of Jakarta like the polluted canals which some of the protagonists live along. How can a foreigner represent the urban poor without showcasing and muffling them?

The feature-length documentary Jalanan follows the lives of the three Jakarta street buskers Boni, Ho, and Titi over a period of six years. The camera closely tails along when the police drags Ho to prison for busking, when Titi visits her family in a village in East Java, and when Boni’s descends into his refuge in a sewage tunnel, where he has tapped into the city’s freshwater supplies and brushes his teeth in mountains of toothpaste froth: “Cleanliness is the key to health” he says with a big white and foamy grin.

Filmmaker Daniel Ziv has found three charismatic street artists to carry his film. Watching them brings to mind not only the suffocating poverty and injustices of Jakarta, but also the German word Lebensk├╝nstler – master of the art of living. All three of them write their own songs and juggle traditional family values with their irregular lives and jobs. Growing up in poor families, both Boni and Titi began earning their own money very early so that they wouldn’t burden them. Boni never learned how to write and you cannot but admire his determination when he explains how memorises lyrics and melodies when he creates his music. Titi’s voice is beautiful; Ho’s lyrics are hilariously aggressive; and Boni’s underworld and memories of his Jakarta street childhood remind us of how little of a city foreigners and wealthy Jakartians normally see. Sometimes they sing about love and about God (“a big earner,” Titi grins), and sometimes they turn their anger at corruption and injusticeinto lyrics. When Ho screams at passengers on a packed bus it’s difficult to decide whose side you’re on, letting you simultaneously feel with the passengers and the busker. Some scenes bring out Indonesian humor with all its wit and sarcasm. For those who do not know Indonesia, it offers a microcosm of the country’s difficulties, and how some of its people try to overcome them. For those who have their own love-and-hate-relationship with Jakarta’s city of 12 million, the film exposes new angles. “From above, it looks like a normal bridge.” says Boni, while we see a typical Jakarta drain, framed by tropical green, crossed by pipelines, and covered in rubbish. “But from down below, it feels like mountains or forest.”

The film portrays Jakarta’s growing inequality and its difficulties through the eyes and voices of those who know it from the streets. It is personal yet also deeply political, and critical without slipping into sentimentality. It also succeeds at hinting at the city’s brutality without any sensationalism. When an old beggar woman Titi passes on the street says that she doesn’t have anything and that her life has come down to begging in the street, the camera hastily rushes on as most pedestrians do. We are reminded that we are just barely touching the surface, and that amid all the energy and irony, there are also the real horrors of urban poverty.

Filmmaker Daniel Ziv and Editor Ernest Hariyanto have skillfully crafted the film from years of footage. The camera carefully avoids intrusiveness. It never pokes into situations to grab melodramatic or theatric images. Rather, it lets you feel that it merely went along. Nobody is put on display.Titi, Boni, and Ho are not objects of this film but as wildly idiosyncratic subjects.

The film has taken a life of its own since its screening. Apart from winning a Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) Mecenat Award for Best Documentary in October last year, Indonesians celebrated the film in the streets and in the malls. The documentary made the rare jump from Indonesian film festivals and universities to commercial cinemas. Suddenly, the glitzy upper classes who usually avoid street buskers through their private cars were paying to see them on the big screen in air-conditioned malls. Also, the film received attention from the highest political ranks. Jakarta Acting Governor Ahok himself hosted a screening in City Hall and watched it together with hundreds of his staff. “Thank you for this wonderful movie,” he tweeted afterwards.

The film has sprung the protagonists into talk shows and two of the protagonists now have entered the political debates. They are part of a wave of hope and enthusiasm that Jokowi’s campaigning and election have encouraged. Just last month, Ahok announced plans for affordable housing and promises to demand that property developers allocate 20 percent of their units for low-cost apartments if their construction projects cause people to be evicted from their homes. The policy is still vague but it is of a piece with Jokowi’s blusukan surprise visits where he listens to the people.

Listening: this is what makes Daniel Ziv’s depiction of these three urban poor so effective. He doesn’t speak for them, he doesn’t put them on display, and he doesn’t romanticize or pity them. He just listens to them and lets them speak. It is a rare spark of hope for Indonesian politics that Titi, Ho, and Boni now also get to speak to decision-makers and thrive on a wider audience than they could have ever expected on a typical day of busking.

Saskia Sch├дfer works on Islam and Indonesian and Malaysian politics, and is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University.