Although Southeast Asia is praised for being a relatively stable region, it has never been truly free from conflicts and tensions. This is because conflicts can occur in any place and can be triggered by numerous factors. From interethnic or interreligious clashes at the local level to territorial claims at the regional level, these are examples of conflicts present in the Southeast Asian region. The impacts of conflicts have stretched beyond state borders as can be seen from the cases of the displacement of refugees, crossing of borders by illegal migrants, and the smuggling of narcotics and arms. In short, conflict is always endemic to any society. Additionally, in a multicultural society where different cultures and ethnicities mingle, conflict becomes inevitable. Of course, conflict is not limited to bloody violence as stereotypically portrayed in the mainstream mass media, it can also be understood as a manifestation of tension rooted in the unequal power relations in society.
Conflicts in Southeast Asia are frequently concealed within the ideology of harmony. As is well known, the political elites of this region enthusiastically preach the importance of harmony, something that is claimed as integral to the identity of the East (Asia), while denying the inequality of power in society. At the level of Southeast Asian region, the importance in maintaining harmony is upheld in the principle of “non-intervention”. However, this often leads to unjust and unequal powers being perpetuated. As a result, harmony turns into an illusion that is propagated by the elites to the people and it becomes a mask of various forms of marginalization and discrimination against minority groups in society.
In contrast, the mainstream mass media, or the media as it will be referred to here, tend to depict conflict as news, based on the principle that “bad news is good news” or “if it bleeds, it leads”. Consequently, conflict is viewed based only on its spectacularity and news value. The blatant economic motive of the media to expose the spectacular dimension of conflict has led to impacts of conflict being untouched. In fact, on many occasions, the media jumped into the bandwagon to “plant a seed” into a conflict and escalate it, such that they can continue mining news items. While the media often manage to reveal a conflict in society, their predilection to shortcuts in reporting, as opposed to the long and complex process of reporting the resolution of conflict, entrap them into the harmony ideology. The idea of “peace journalism” often turns into a mere technical procedure in reportage that seemingly keeps away the parties involved, thus, allowing the media to stand beyond the conflict zone as an innocent bystander.
The two documentaries, namely, Hafiz Rancajale’s Marah di Bumi Lambu (Raging Soil, 2014) and Adjani Arumpac’s War Is a Tender Thing (2013), are interesting examples of poetic as well as political responses to conflicts taking place in two Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia and the Philippines). Instead of documenting meticulously of conflicts in Bima (Indonesia) and Mindanao (the Philippines) outright, Rancajale and Arumpac sought a more contemplative visual language in their documentary films to probe into the complexity present in conflict with subtlety, while capturing the physical and emotional landscape of those who are in the midst of one.
The documentary Marah di Bumi Lambu opts for black-and-white images, which suggests that the documentation value and recollection of conflict gradually fades away in popular memory. With black-and-white images, Rancajale’s documentary does not pretend to be spectacular nor sensational. Rather it shows the dismal nature of conflict and the dreary fate of ordinary people as they fall victims to it from time to time. Furthermore, the black-and-white images accentuate the presence of ordinary people in the throes of a violent conflict, drawing the sharp line between the powerful and powerless actors.
It should be noted that Rancajale did not directly record the clash between the figures of authority and the masses in peaceful protest, which ended up with three deaths. Instead, he merely utilized blurry footages, which are probably obtained from an amateur. Hence, despite his reliance on the interviewees’ (victims and their families) testimonies, Rancajale used material objects that indicated traces of the past conflict. For instance, his interviewee, a mother, recounts her memories of her son who has died in the demonstration against the land takeover by the mining company through the use of a piece of cloth with a bullet hole. Similarly, the ruins of three burned buildings seen in a long scene bear witness to the conflict that has happened in Bima.
In Marah di Bumi Lambu, less hierarchical relations between the filmmaker and his documentary subjects are found. Rather than interrogating the subjects of his documentary (as most Indonesian TV wont to do), the filmmaker establishes rapport with his subjects. When it rained in the middle of interview both the filmmaker and his subjects ran for shelter together, with the camera intentionally capturing this moment. The informal and warm relations that had been established not only avoided the tendency for documentary films to be explanatory, but also, provided spacious room for the subjects to express their thoughts and feelings in the documentary. Essentially, the subjects of the documentary are not merely an instrument for the filmmaker to convey his ideas.
Contrary to the convention of obediently following a chronological plot and using investigative approach to deal with the conflict, Rancajale embarked from the starting point of his documentary with the fragmented memories of the victims’ families. While memory is selective and could have questionable accuracy, the deadly incident, especially for the victim’s family, had left an indelible memory that never fades. What the camera captures is the families’ resilience in spite of the constant recollection of the event that took the lives of their loved ones. Although on the surface it seems as if the kampong has not changed much after the deadly conflict, but the wounds inflicted remained, never fully healing.
Meanwhile, War Is a Tender Thing underscores the nature of a conflict that has tore apart the filmmaker’s land and family through fragments. As a second part to the Mindanao documentary trilogy, War Is a Tender Thing intimately records the life of Adjani Arumpac’s family in disarray due to the endless conflict in Mindanao. While her first documentary Walai (2006) depicts the lives of Muslim women life in Mindanao, her second documentary War Is a Tender Thing encourages the viewers to look closely into how conflict has impacted her family. It is clear that Arumpac’s continuous concern for the conflicts plaguing Mindanao have encouraged her to direct her second film, War is a Tender Thing, eight years since her first documentary.
While Arumpac is not the first Filipino filmmaker to tackle the prevailing issues in Mindanao’s, her courage to express her family’s sorrows and share them through a film openly in an emotional way should not be dismissed. This can be seen in how her parents had ended up living separately from one another. In one scene, we can see a leaking tap in the house where her mother was staying which highlight the plight of her mother’s loneliness with no one present to lend a helping fact. Certainly, living separately from family members pose emotional challenges and with the political conflict in Mindanao ripping familial ties apart, the conflict also becomes a human tragedy. This is evident in a scene where one of the subjects, Abdul Arumpac, requested the filmmaker to turn off the camera, as he was unable to control his emotions when discussing the lives lost due to the conflict in Mindanao.
In War is a Tender Thing viewers are treated to shots of the landscape and the sky as inserted by the filmmaker. This was not only used to mark transitions from one location to next in Mindanao, but also, to highlight that people in Mindanao live in the same land underneath the same sky, regardless of their faiths. However, the pervasive political conflict has caused many to forget the simple fact that they are equal and standing on the same ground. Arumpac also shot an uninhabited house with walls full of bullet holes, surrounded by wild plants and coconut trees. This silent and dilapidated house standing alone in a field turns into a perennial witness of how the armed conflict in Mindanao has inflicted wounds on its people and divided them.
It should be noted that Arumpac’s documentary does not provide a conclusive explanation on the origins of Mindanao conflict as is often found from an investigative report. On the contrary, Arumpac’s film seems to provoke questions such as: Why do societies dealing with conflict ultimately culminate in armed violence? Where is the end to trauma from the instigation of revenge and disputes? Why can’t familial ties endure a huge social or political conflict sweep it? These questions, which have haunted the filmmaker, continue to linger after the film is done. Therefore, we must weave the fragments from the subject’s memory (the filmmaker’s relatives) by ourselves in order to find out the answers of those questions.
Although both documentaries portray conflicts of different origins, they capture the contemporary issues plaguing Indonesia and the Philippines. While the source of conflict in Bima, Indonesia was the land takeover for mining industry, similar to other instances in other areas of Indonesia, the conflict in Mindanao was triggered by the government’s resettlement policy, which displaced Muslims, as well as indigenous communities, from their homes. As it is commonly known, the elites have always reaped the profits of conflict, be it politically or economically, while the masses must suffer through the painful costs. It is worth noting that these documentary films provide a platform for the masses, who have no vested interests or any intention to polish their image in front of the camera. Hence, through documentary films we are provided with the opportunity to witness the unflinchingly honest expressions of the people who had to endure the painful experiences in conflict-ridden areas. As the documentary theorist Bills Nichols stated, documentary films depend entirely on the spoken word as speech expands our horizon, or understanding of the world.
Both Rancajale’s and Arumpac’s documentary films are similar in the way that they lack the pretense that often accompanies the investigative aspect of documentary films when there is an overwhelming amount of information about the conflict being loaded. Rather, as an audience, we are invited to weave together with the filmmakers, the threads of conflicts documented via the interviewees’ testimonies. However, those who sought comprehensive and definitive explanations over the conflicts in Bima and Mindanao would perhaps never find them in these documentary films. Instead, they would find them in media reports, which are able to provide sufficiently more information on these conflicts. But for those who have the patience and persistence to listen to ordinary people’s stories, as well as the sensibility to follow the traces of conflicts from various material objects recorded in these films, they will ultimately find the subtler nuances present within these conflicts, especially in violent ones, as well as the far-reaching implications that these conflicts have.
In essence, these two documentaries should not be regarded as a celebration or the aestheticization of conflict, rather, they should be treated as a highlight to the importance of approaching conflict, within a society afflicted with power struggles, ethically and politically. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben stated, since cinema has its center in its gesture, not in its image, it belongs to the realm of ethics and politics rather than aesthetics. Thus, Rancajale’s and Arumpac’s documentaries removed the illusion of harmony propagated by the political elites and commodified by the mass media. In these two documentaries, instead of being denied and commodified, conflict is viewed as something real that compels the audience to understand its root and imagine an authentic reconciliation. This is because documentary films always bring us closer to reality, if not truth.
This curatorial note for the Southeast Asian cinema programme first appeared in the Arkipel—Jakarta International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival (19-29 August 2015) catalogue. This version has been re-edited by Alma Delia Sukma
Image sources: War (waymagazine.org), Marah (thejakartapost.com)