by: Okky Madasari

In August 1963, Wiji Thukul was born in Solo, Central Java. This August, 53 years later, a film based on his life was screened for the first time for a global audience in Locarno, Switzerland. The movie will be screened across Indonesia at the end of the year.

I am sure this is not the kind of birthday present that Wiji would accept cheerfully. For him, this film and its first screening at a prestigious film festival would have been like a monument of sadness rather than a stage for celebration.

Istirahatlah Kata-Kata (Solo, Solitude), the film based on Wiji’s life, was born out of the sadness, anger and frustration over the uncertainty surrounding the 18 years of Wiji’s disappearance. This film, once again, reminds us that there is a poet, an activist, a husband and father, and above all, a human being, who has been “disappeared” until now because of his words and his thoughts.

Directed by Yosep Anggi Noen, Istirahatlah Kata-Kata captures the last days of Wiji as a fugitive until he was disappeared. The movie attempts to present his emotions and psychological condition, rather than the chronological events of his life. The visuals, dialogue and the characters tell a story of fear and loneliness, courage and madness, love and longing. 

So what? Do we need that kind of story? Does it help to bring up the issue of  Wiji’s disappearance? Will it help us get him back? Will it be just another campaign project – to be shouted for a while and then forgotten?

Do we really need a film about Wiji, which cost more than a billion rupiah to produce, even when it’s just a low-budget film? Or is it just a kind of art product that should be seen and appreciated merely for its artistic achievement?

Wiji Thukul is one of the greatest poets that Indonesia has ever produced. From the very beginning, he believed that the beauty and strength of a poem is not in the play of words, but in its meaning, and its ability to reflect the world we live in, the problems in our society and the struggle of human beings encountering any kind of suppression.

However, this doesn’t mean his poems are poor in their artistic quality. The way Wiji chose his words undoubtedly makes him as great as any of the Indonesian giants. He was never merely a pamphlet writer.

When he received intimidation and even violence because of his critical poems, as he used to after taking the stage to read out his poems in the neighborhood, or when he was being hunted by the military for his later involvement in various demonstrations, he resisted. He refused to surrender.

He opted to stand courageously, even when he was forced to leave his family and run away. He fought against suppression and everything that wanted to silence him. For Wiji, what he has written in his poems should be living in his life. That’s why – just like one of his poems – there is only one word for him: Resist.

The history of mankind is the history of struggle against suppressive power, while the history of authorities is a history of controlling people. It is always a battlefield between the effort to control people, ideas and language, and the struggle against suppression to break free. As a part of such a battle, Wiji, a poet, has been silenced and disappeared.

Wiji has been erased from Indonesia’s literary history and also from the history of the nation’s fight against an authoritarian regime to achieve freedom and democracy. The New Order robbed him of his freedom and his work. Moreover, the regime has also robbed our right to know, read and learn about his work and sacrifices.

Ideas and language are used by regimes to control people. The ruling group chooses which books are to be banned or read by the people, or which movies can be watched by the public.

Through ideas and language, the regime built bricks around us to keep us away from truth, a critical mindset and a courageous mentality. 

All those ideas and words used by the regime are as equally dangerous as weapons and violence. These things can be even more dangerous as they influence people’s minds and consciousness.

We - Indonesia’s younger generations, which were raised by the ideas and words chosen by the New Order - have lost an opportunity to know about Wiji and read his great poems. We have grown up without knowing his words and spirit.

For all those losing years, it’s time for us to use our own ideas and language to bring back Wiji Thukul and make him a part of our history. Istirahatlah Kata-Kata may not bring him back to his family, or to his life. But this film will bring his work and spirit to a new generation.

Wiji Thukul would probably have cynically smiled to himself to see himself on a silver screen in fancy malls, and watched by people around Indonesia – even by people around the world. It is something that seems very glamorous for a poet who performed on kampong stages in poor areas, in the middle of demonstrations and in front of children and poor people.

But I really believe Wiji will realize that the world has changed and so does the medium of struggle. We have to use various ways to touch as many people’s hearts and minds as possible. And film is one of the best mediums for that.

Okky Madasari, a novelist, is the executive producer of Istirahatlah Kata-Kata (Solo, Solitude), a film based on life of Wiji Thukul.

Published by The Jakarta Post Wiji Thukul: From Solo to Locarno

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