A Poet

“…chopped up at the blink of an eye, whether relatives or friends, cleared out completely.” (1)

These lines, quoted from a performance staged in 1978 to applaud the achievements of the Suharto regime, celebrate the massacre of between 500,000 and 2 million people which clinched the victory of Suharto’s forces in purging Indonesia of communists in 1965. (2) Under Suharto’s program of the civic function of the army, strategies of control and intimidation infiltrated the micro-level of daily life and cultural activity. The recruitment of the popular form of didong, the sung poetic duels renowned among the Gayo people of central Aceh, as a tool of the New Order, exemplifies this pervasive influence. John Bowen, the scholar of Sumatran poetics and politics who quotes these lines, has documented how, as the army spread its tentacles during the ’60s and ’70s down into the grassroots of local cultures, local government recognised that a popular art form such as didong could become a dangerous tool of dissent. (3) Didong had evolved through the middle of the 20th century from a folk form into a tool for engaging the modern world in a popular idiom, a form characterised by humour and word-play which used the veiled language of metaphor as a vehicle for incisive political criticism. (4) Bowen traces the attempts by the central government under Suharto to counter this potential threat by enlisting didong in its service. (5) Despite the ‘distaste’ that, according to Bowen, many Gayo felt on hearing these lines, their framing within the poetic form of a didong performance provided a potent mnemonic device to keep an awareness of the price of dissent vividly in the popular imagination. (6)

It is no accident that A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry (Puisi tak terkuburkan), the first Indonesian film to revisit the 1965 massacres, works back up from the grassroots of didong to reclaim this history, to give testimony to the trauma of those who lived through it. (7) As a work of mourning, A Poet, directed by Garin Nugroho, affirms the other tradition of didong-the powerful humanist tradition of a poetic form for emotional expression which ‘gives dignity to humanity’. (8) The film starts from the ballads of didong poet, Ibrahim Kadir, an eye-witness to the massacres of 1965 who plays himself in the film, and works with many non-professional actors from the Takengon area of central Aceh who also experienced the events and whose relatives and friends were among the victims. (9) Far from the callous gloating of the 1978 performance, accounts of the production of A Poet tell of a process of filming marked by tears and grieving. (10) The difficulties of making a film that could do justice to the scale and enormity of the trauma of ’65 must have been a daunting task to the crew of A Poet. Facts, statistics, chronologies could never measure the scars left on a community, a culture, by such a history. The solution Nugroho has found to this challenge is to work on the smallest scale, to focus on the raw experience of a few dozen people caught in the mesh of the rampaging army-rice farmers, fishermen, housewives, mothers. The film revolves around the memories of Kadir, arrested at the height of the massacre and held in custody for 28 days before being released, and follows the inmates of two cells as they struggle to make sense of what is happening and to keep a sense of their own humanity even as they await execution.

The Indonesian title of the film, Puisi tak terkuburkan, means a poetry that cannot be buried, that has not been surrendered to the grave. The English translation, A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry, acts almost as a euphemism as it misses the vital link to the earth, grounded in the knowledge in an agrarian culture of the gritty reality of bodies consigned to the earth. Indeed, the fragile physicality of bodies is ever-present in A Poet. The space of the film is the space of incarceration, shot entirely inside two prison cells and the guard’s foyer, a murky amorphous space shot in low resolution, black and white digital video. Fear seeps out of the dingy, musty cell walls-a palpable, all-pervasive fear amplified by the claustrophobia of the camera which pries into tightly crammed corners filled with sleeping bodies, pins people against the cell walls and creeps listlessly in close-up across the startled eyes and clenched faces of prisoners waiting to learn of their fate.

The sound of the film, as if in contest with the tight, rigid, closed-in space, is fluid, mobile, a vehicle of transport, both tugging us in to the space of terror and drawing us back out into the space of survival. The sense of duelling voices, central to the performance of didong, animates the structure of Nugroho’s film, as it alternates between the sounds and voices of authority and menace, and the songs and melodies of resistance, of a humanity under duress. (11) Sound echoes the terror of entrapment. The clanging of the prison gates, chains and locks wracks the bodies of the prisoners, ricochets as if through empty shells that can no longer protect the vulnerable organs within, leaving limbs quaking. The voice of the guard calling the names of the inmates to be taken is like an invisible string reeling in unwilling captives. As he recounts the terrible experiences of ’65, Kadir is still haunted by bodily memory of the sounds of slaughter-the ‘crak crak crak’ sound of bodies being severed by the parang, the short sword, as head is separated from body. The memory of a woman shot with her baby at the breast is carried by a scream across shifting levels of reality:

I looked at the moon and from it there came a cry
The moon and the stars were crying just like my own child.

Even in the face of this horror, as a ceh, the leader of a didong group, Kadir’s accounts of the events are infused with the spirit of the oral tradition of storytelling, drawing on all of the emotional registers of the voice, and sliding effortlessly from voice to song and dance. The richly layered soundtrack carries the film across invisible boundaries, shifts the mood from the atomised space of isolation and terror, and draws people from the confined space of the cell out into the expanded space of memory, from bewilderment and disintegration back out into the space of communal affirmation.

The animating power of didong continually breaks through the surface of the film. Even as they are held captive, the rhythm, the allusions of the storytelling mode take hold of the inmates, transporting them across time and space, beyond their physical confinement, to evoke the sensuous qualities of memory. Lured into the space of pleasure, warmth and laughter, they recount stories of courtship, tell jokes and break spontaneously into dance and song. If you could say that in A Poet the sound is the air that we breathe, then this life-giving force is in music. The opening credits of the film shake with the pounding rhythm of a group of didong singers as they beat pillows in accompaniment to their singing and rhythmic swaying in a joyous communal performance. In the cell, the rhythm of a prisoner anxiously knocking on the wall becomes a counterpoint to the melody of a song which gives voice to the fear of the inmates:

I fear your fate is that of the little chicken, its heart trembling for fear of the hawk,
Happy are the water fowl that even in murky water can float.

The tremulous song of someone attempting to stay alive is taken up by the group like a lifeline that rekindles and sustains the spirit. At the end of the film, the haunting voice of the singer reintegrates the painful memories once again into the strength of the communal tradition, driven by the rhythm and the vigour of didong performance. It is not just poetry that has refused to be put in the grave, but a poetics, a way of life lived within the ambit of a sensuous poetic tradition.

The intensities of the film are channelled through tightly-controlled and paced theatrical performance, cycling around a limited set of stylised motifs. As Kadir tells another inmate of the executions he has witnessed, his hands mimic the sharp slicing movement of the sword decapitating its victims. Hands are involuntarily transformed into tools of violence: Kadir is forced to tie the hands of the other inmates before they are taken to be killed; a bloodied hand scraped across the wall in anxiety symbolises the fracturing of daily life:

Why do these hands no longer knock on doors in greeting
Why is a knock on the door now frightening
Why do these fingers not point out the many kindnesses
Why do these fingers betray?

The overcrowded platform on which inmates crush together to sleep, a stage for storytelling and dancing, itself becomes a motif as it is suddenly sparse, the few remaining bodies spread out, separated, empty spaces between them. Sacks made for storing rice are transformed into hoods as group after group of prisoners is masked and led out to be killed, a ritual that punctuates the film over and over. The steady supply of sacks brought into the jail dries up, as villagers realise how they are being used and refuse to sell. At the close of the film, one of the last remaining women finally refuses everything the sack stands for:

Tie me up if you will . . . but don’t put that sack over my head . . .
Whatever life is, I want to see it.

A Poet

It is in this willingness to look, to take off the mask, that the historical importance of A Poet lies. The film forms part of a wave of long-repressed criticism of the crimes of the Suharto regime unleashed in the last few years. (12) The film could not have been made during the Suharto era, and Nugroho admits that its 1999 release in Indonesia would have been unlikely if Habibie had been re-elected as president. (13) The new scrutiny of public life coincides with a critical time for the Indonesian film industry. Economic crisis and the collapse of the rupiah at the end of the ’90s, which closed cinemas and at first threatened the demise of the movie industries, have in fact opened up new opportunities for cheaper local films, and for a new social realist cinema. (14) Described as ‘a one man “new wave”‘, (15) Nugroho has survived through this period, shooting A Poet on the cheaper digital video format and winning numerous awards with the film. (16)

Although one commentator has written that Nugroho has “graduated” from working in documentaries to making feature films, his work has in fact alternated between both modes. Before making A Poet, he made a documentary on the life of Ibrahim Kadir, and alongside his earlier feature about street kids he also directed a documentary about life on the streets in Jogjakarta. Nugroho clearly chooses the medium appropriate to his task: as Tony Rayns writes, “each film is radically different in form and theme from others”. (17) While the titles at the beginning of A Poet state that “a fair and neutral investigation of [the murder of the seven generals that sparked the massacres] was never conducted”, Nugroho does not attempt this kind of investigation. In A Poet, we never see the perpetrators of the atrocities, and as for the cause, we are left only with the confusion and questioning of the inmates, “why is this happening?”, “what has gone wrong?”, “why are our lives so out of kilter?” (18)

Walter Benjamin writes, of the process of storytelling:

It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the marks of the storyteller much as the earthen vessel bears the marks of the potter’s hand. (19)

A Poet embeds this story in the lives of the listener-viewer in a profoundly embodied way, inscribed through the texture of the cell walls, the restless pace of the camera, the emotional qualities of the voice, the cyclic structures of repetition. Bowen argues that the western idea that history or politics can be understood as objects distinct from cultural and aesthetic forms is inadequate to address the embodiment of politics in cultural form. Certainly, the disembodied voice of history exists in contemporary Indonesia, but Nugroho emphasises his choice to avoid the historical approach (sejarah), and to work with the emotional registers of “the verbal tradition”. (20)

The film bears the marks of two storytellers, the filmmakers and Ibrahim Kadir. (21) Kadir’s performance sees him acting a highly stylised role. It is a performance, and a masterful one at that, winning him Best Actor awards at two international festivals, but it is also much more. There is an intensity to his performance, a complex dialectic between distance and proximity in his role representing both himself and the voice of the storyteller. Kadir, the storyteller, is the potter whose bodily memory marks the “earthen vessel” of the story. Just as Kadir does not locate himself outside the events re-enacted, nor does Nugroho, the other storyteller, take up an authorial voice outside or above the experience of these events, the “judicial” voice of interrogation which would present a case, but render culture, experience and feeling as artefacts or objects to be scrutinised. The trajectories of a history that meet in the experience of Kadir and his fellow inmates are not separate from the cultural histories that weave through the tradition of didong. Nor are these events removed from the experience of them, or the deep incisions they have left in the bodily memory of those who survived.

Bowen claims that, in the ’70s, “the poetic medium [of didong was] deemed to be ‘cultural’, and thus somewhat safe from direct suppression” despite its political criticisms. (22) He does, however, document the strategy of the New Order regime in the ’70s and ’80s “to subsume all social movements and cultural expression under the Pancasila, the Five Principles that form the state ideology”. (23) With resonances that go beyond the ’60s into the current struggle in Aceh against the central government, didong grounds A Poet in the sense of local culture and cultural affiliation as the life-blood of a people, the vital core of resistance to decimation by military might. (24) Kadir’s performance embodies both the refusal to bury the memory of the victims and a refusal to surrender a rich poetic tradition to the homogenising demands of a national culture. By working with the multi-layered affective tradition of didong, Nugroho embeds his film within the complex mesh of layered meanings in contemporary Indonesian cultural politics.

* * *

This article was refereed.


Deirdre Griswold, Indonesia 1965: The Second Greatest Crime of the Century, 1970, http://www.workers.org/indonesia/

Kathy Kadane, “Ex-agents say CIA complied death lists for Indonesians. After 25 years, Americans speak of their role in exterminating Communist Party”, States News Service, 1990

Ralph McGee, “The Indonesia Massacres and The CIA”, Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1990

Richard Phillips, “To explore one of the dark episodes in Indonesian History: interview with Garin Nugroho”, World Socialist Website, 19 September 2001

Ron Moreau, “The Back Beat of Hard Times”, Newsweek 1999

Tony Rayns, program notes for Brisbane International Film Festival, 1995

Tony Ryanto, “Poetry unveils truth”, Variety, 6 December 1999

Tony Ryanto, “Local pics break out”, Variety, 13 November 2000

Peter Dale Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967”, Pacific Affairs 58, Summer 1985, pp. 239-264

Puisi tak terkuburkan (A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry) 1999, produced and directed by Garin Nugroho A S.E.T. Audiovisual Workshop production. Screenplay: Nana Mulyana, Nugroho; camera:Winaldha E. Melalatoa; editor: Rahmat Tepe; music: Tony Prabowo; production designer: Tonny Trimarsanto; with: Ibrahim Kadir, Bertiana Fibrianti, Jose Rizal Manua, Ella Gayo, Fuat Idris.


  1. John R. Bowen, Sumatran Politics and Poetics: Gayo History, 1900-1989 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 207.
  2. In the 1960s, Indonesia had the third largest communist party in the world, with “an estimated 3 million members. Through its affiliated organisations such as labor and youth groups it claimed the loyalties of another 17 million” (Kathy Kadane, “Ex-agents say CIA complied death lists for Indonesians. After 25 years, Americans speak of their role in exterminating Communist Party”, States News Service, 1990, p. 7) While official New Order explanations of the events of ’65 claimed that the purges were a response to an attempted communist coup, substantial evidence has been presented to discredit this account, and to suggest the role of factions of the army in staging the attempted coup as a catalyst to overthrow the government of President Sukarno (Deirdre Griswold, Indonesia 1965: The Second Greatest Crime of the Century, 1970 & Peter Dale Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967”, Pacific Affairs 58, Summer 1985, pp. 239-264). Statements by CIA-linked operatives in the 1990s have admitted the role of the US, in the context of the Vietnam War, in supporting the annihilation of the Indonesian communist party, the PKI, going so far as to make up death lists and check on the progress of eradicating those on the lists. (Kadane & also Ralph McGee, “The Indonesia Massacres and The CIA”, Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1990). While the army was the instigator of the extermination campaign, they recruited and armed civilian groups. See Scott, “political liaisons [of the army] with civilian groups [“the civilian administration, religious and cultural organizations, youth groups, veterans, trade unions, peasant organizations, political parties and groups at regional and local levels”] provided the structure for the ruthless suppression of the PKI in 1965, including the bloodbath” (p. 10). The resulting slaughter was one of the largest massacres of the 20th century.
  3. Bowen, 1991.
  4. Bowen describes the shifting nature of didong. In the early part of the century didong was performed at weddings and other rituals by individual performers and focused on verbal play. By the ’70s, it was performed as a contest between teams or clubs, as key attractions at social events, with the emphasis on competition. He describes the value given to didong in the ’80s, for its “ability to express the issues or emotions of the present through allusion and imagery” (p. 194). Bowen describes didong as “a highly lexicalised shorthand for cultural knowledge” (p. 177), and claims that in the 1980s “didong became the center of efforts at cultural revival among urban Gayo living in Jakarta” (p. 207). Didong, he writes, was “a relatively transportable art form that [could] be used to recreate cultural identity in an urban setting” (p. 209).
  5. Bowen points out that this strategy of appropriation went hand in hand with an attempt to mute the voice of didong into a folkloric one, subsumed under the broad rubric of cultural diversity/pluralism within the nation state.
  6. Bowen notes that, in the Gayo area, “although all those killed were accused of affiliation with the Communist Party” the denunciations followed previously existing fractures in communal life, motivated by both political and personal rivalries. He writes that, “by the 1980s, men and women were reluctant to discuss the killings” (p. 121). Though the silence was partly due to shame, he argues, it was also fear: “the memories and fears the killings generated are a critical psychological element in New Order strategies of political control” (p. 119): “to question the moral soundness of the killings, even in the 1980s, is to challenge the legitimacy of the New Order itself” (pp. 121-2).
  7. A Poet screened at Sydney Asia Pacific Film Festival in August 2001, and the director, Garin Nugroho, was a guest of the Festival.
  8. Quoted from the press kit for the film. Nugroho has said that, as “everyone in Indonesia lives under this shadow, [he] made this film to show that what happened was against all of humanity”, “To explore one of the dark episodes in Indonesian History”, interview with Richard Phillips, World Socialist Website, 19 September 2001.
  9. The film also works with many actors from Jakarta.
  10. SAPFF press kit for A Poet
  11. Didong is staged as a duel between two competing voices or groups.
  12. See for example, Ron Moreau, “The Back Beat of Hard Times”, Newsweek 1999. Moreau, writing in 1999, discusses a parallel revival of activist work in theatre, citing in particular the public staging of Marsinah, a play by writer Ratna Sarumpaet, which is about a labour activist killed by the army. After its first staging in 1998, the writer spent four months in jail; in 1999 she was featured as a speaker at a government-sponsored conference.
  13. Tony Ryanto, “Poetry unveils truth”, Variety, 6 December 1999. Despite this new openness, Nugroho has discussed the dangers of making this film, and the fears of his friends and family that he would be killed for it, Phillips, 2001.
  14. Tony Ryanto, “Local pics break out”, Variety, 13 November 2000; and Moreau, 1999.
  15. Tony Rayns, “Now We Are Ten: BIFF’s Asian Decade”, program notes for Brisbane International Film Festival, 1995.
  16. The film has won a Silver Award at the Locarno Film Festival in Italy in 2000, Best Actor award for Ibrahim Kadir in the Cinefan 2001 Awards in India, Best Actor and also the jury prize for best film at Singapore Film Festival, 2001.
  17. Rayns, 1995.
  18. Nugroho has discussed the importance, for him, of generating “a dialogue, without revenge, about our history”, Phillips, 2001.
  19. Walter Benjamin, “On some motifs in Baudelaire”, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt Brace and World, Inc., 1968) p. 161.
  20. A Poet, press kit.
  21. Ibrahim Kadir also had an important role in the the1988 Indonesian anti-colonial film Tjoet Nja ‘Dhien about the woman (Tjoet Nja’Dhien, now a national heroine) who led a band of guerrillas against the Dutch in the mountains of Aceh in the early part of the 20th century, after her husband, also a rebel leader (Teuku Umar) was killed in battle. This film, directed by Eros Djarot was the first Indonesian film invited to Cannes, and was screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 1990, and has also been shown on SBSTV. (Thanks to the anonymous Senses of Cinema referee for pointing this out).
  22. Bowen, p. 202
  23. Bowen, p. 125
  24. This reading of the film, a “reading between the lines”, must be tempered by Nugroho’s stated “concern that events in the Balkans could happen in Indonesia, which is also a multicultural society”, Phillips, 2001.

About The Author

Anne Rutherford is a Senior Lecturer in Cinema Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney. A key focus of her research is on cinematic affect and mise en scène.

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