Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind) is probably the most famous novel in Indonesian literature. Authored by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the backstory has itself attained the status of legend - he wrote the first book (of four) in the 1970s and 80s while imprisoned on Buru Island in Eastern Indonesia. In a burst of irony that is almost poetic in its rhythmicality, he composed the definitive Indonesian text on the legacy of colonialism and oppression in the archipelago, while himself being confined to prison by the authoritarian New Order on trumped up political charges.
Bumi Manusia tells the story of Indonesia’s birth as a nation. It begins around the turn of the century in Surabaya, and focuses on a young Javanese boy named Minke, the son of a bupati who is educated in the upper class European HBS school along with other high-born Javanese and the children of mixed European relationships. The book is about social class, race, colonial oppression and how these things melted together to spark a nationalist movement that eventually culminated in Indonesia’s independence.
Minke is based on real-life nationalist figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo, the founder of Medan Prijaji which is generally considered the first true Indonesian language publication. Part of what he was doing was using language, Bahasa Indonesia, to bring all the disparate parts of the archipelago together under a shared national identity. He was also one of the first to understand how knowledge and education could be leveraged to buck the grip of Dutch colonialism.
Around 1900 the Dutch began to admit pribumi (I guess you would translate this word as native or indigenous, but it’s loaded with deeper meaning) students to its schools and educate them in the Western style, including in the Dutch language. Governing their large and far-flung colonial empire was becoming unwieldy, and the goal was to gradually create a new generation of Western-educated local civil servants who could help support this large administrative apparatus - the priyayi.
What actually happened is they created an educated class of nationalist heroes who recognized the deep inequity and racism of Dutch colonial rule, and who could articulate their ideas and opposition to this structural racism and exploitation not only in Dutch-language publications but also in burgeoning Indonesian language publications. The Dutch, basically by accident, equipped them with the tools and the knowledge to begin crafting a national Indonesian identity, one with agency that was capable of pushing back against the abuses and the subjugation of the Dutch. Figures like Tirto and Tjokroaminoto developed and hardened these ideas, often linking them to nascent socialist workers movements, and passed them on to the future fathers of the revolution like Sukarno.
That is the background of Bumi Manusia. Minke, in navigating this highly stratified world, meets various people who occupy an ambiguous place in it. The most important is Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who was sold off as a teenager to a Dutch businessman, Herman Mellema, but has since taken over managing his estate as he slips into drunken self-loathing. She is smart, capable and independent, but still limited by her social status. Along with constant abuse at the hands of the Dutch as well as some of his Dutch-Indonesian contemporaries who harbor their own resentments against the pribumi class, Nyai Ontosoroh inspires Minke to try to figure out how to slip those bonds and throw off the shackles of Dutch colonial oppression.
I think it is important that an Indonesian production company, Falcon Pictures, has taken on the task of adapting this seminal novel for the screen. It means they feel the domestic film market is ready for a big screen adaptation of a complicated national origin story that deals with heady themes of social equality and discrimination and identity. That the film’s release has coincided with highly publicized unrest in Papua that provoked a piece in the Jakarta Post headlined Today’s Minkes, merely underscores its enduring legacy and relevance. I think it’s also important that Indonesians make films like this, that tackle their struggles with colonialism and render them from an Indonesian perspective.
The first hour of the film is thoroughly enjoyable. It re-creates turn of the century Surabaya and East Java in an immersive way, especially given that film budgets in Indonesia are still quite modest. I loved the way language is employed to establish the hierarchical structure of society - it is a sign of class and privilege that Minke can speak Dutch, yet the Dutch often command him to speak in his own language. And the use of Javanese to establish a kind of special linguistic connection between certain characters was nice. The film, in its first hour, is very successful at capturing the complexity of society at that time, and portraying the obstacles that Minke struggles with.
Unfortunately, the movie can’t sustain that momentum. For one, it is three hours long. Yes, it is adapted from a novel so of course it is expansive and clunky, but someone along the way should have made better decisions about how to streamline the narrative, and cut some of the fat. It also has a tendency, as many Indonesian films do, to spill over into soapy melodrama.
This kind of exaggerated telegraphing of the film’s emotions (most glaringly obvious in the score, which plays like theme music to an amusement park ride) somewhat undercuts the complex themes it’s trying to get at. The production company, Falcon Pictures, has a history of making breezy popular films for mass consumption - like Si Doel or Dilan 1990 - so it was kind of inevitable I guess that that style filtered into this movie. Unfortunately, it’s not really the right style for a film that takes on such weighty issues.
Then there is star Iqbaal Ramadhan who plays Minke. This kid a bone fide teen heart throb. He propelled Dilan 1990 to big box office success with his boyish charm. In the first hour, when Minke is meant to be a charming teenage boy wooing his love interest, he nails it. He’s basically just playing Dilan but in a blangkon. However, on the back nine, when the film as a whole has already ground to a painful halt, he doesn’t quite have the acting chops or gravitas to embody Minke’s anguish, which is critical because that is ultimately what drives his emerging nationalist fervor. His tortured crying face is particularly… um, well, it maybe could have used another take.
I can’t say I enjoyed this film. It is just too long, and the final hour is not good purely as a piece of filmmaking. But I do think it’s an important film, and an important step for Indonesian cinema. I think it raises complex themes and issues that are obviously still relevant today - the roles have just shifted, from Javanese priyayi to other parts of the social spectrum and archipelago. I really liked the way it depicted the complexity of Indonesian society. It’s just a shame the film loses so much steam toward the end.