Ahok biopic: The making of a man, the unmaking of a nation

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After comedies, ghost horror films are the genre most liked by Indonesians, with 44 percent saying they enjoy them. Apparently they produce a thrill, stimulate the imagination, invite curiosity and induce anticipation that the protagonist will prevail over evil forces.

Personally, I’m not a fan of such movies but I found myself looking forward to Nov. 8, when a “ghost“ movie was to be screened in theatres all over Indonesia. How come? That’s because the film was A Man Called Ahok — yup, about Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, former governor of Jakarta, currently jailed on blasphemy charges. I thought he was one of the best governors Jakarta has had, indeed, one of Indonesia’s best leaders, someone who wasn’t afraid to shake up the status quo.

It was a “ghost” movie in that it contained an apparition of Ahok, which embodied not just his spirit, but also the spirit of values that Indonesia seems to have forgotten, values needed to build a nation.

Controversy never seems to be far away from Ahok, from the no-nonsense way he ran his office, his zero tolerance for bad management, laziness and corruption, his unpopular policies (notably the eviction of squatters from slums), his fiery temper and tough talk (which enraptured and excited, agitated and outraged at the same time), his blasphemy trial and subsequent imprisonment, his divorce from Veronica Tan, his wife of 21 years while in prison, but also his amazing achievements during the short time he was Jakarta governor: disciplining civil servants, eliminating the ubiquitous pungli (illegal levies), transparency of the city budget, responding to citizens’ complaints, transforming Jakarta city transportation into one fit for a metropolitan city, cleaning up filthy polluted Jakarta rivers, beautifying and greening the city — achieving many things his predecessors were unable to do.

But you’ll see none of that in the film that was far from controversial. A review of the film stated that the “biopic about one of Indonesia’s most divisive, loved and hated political figures chooses to play it safe through a family friendly narrative and storytelling” (‘A Man Called Ahok: Journey from childhood to prominence’, The Jakarta Post, Nov. 10).

While the review provides a good summary of the film, I don’t think it was at all a matter of playing it safe. The filmmakers made a very deliberate, wise and insightful choice to portray the making of a man, from his childhood origins in Bangka Belitung, which makes us understand better why he turned into the leader that he did.

The film started when Ahok was aged 10 ( 1976), and stopped just about the time he became regent of East Belitung (2005). Ahok was born and raised in Gantong, East Belitung. His father Kiem Nam was a tauke (Chinese businessman), owner of a tin mining company, who raised his five children with tough love, teaching them to cooperate with each other, instilling the values of hard work and ambition, not for selfish personal reasons, but to serve others.

Kiem would drive his wife to despair, as he was always giving out money to people in need, even borrowing, so he could continue helping them. He said to her that their family still had a roof over their heads, and good food to eat. Yes, that was the case, because she sold some of her gold jewelry, so that the family could continue to eat.

While their relationship was often strained, clearly Ahok was a chip off the old block. He gave up being a doctor (his father’s dream) and a businessman (his own dream), to become a politician so that he could help people in a systematic way, unlike his father, not using his own money, but state funds.

The film is a biopic, true, but it’s a lot more than that. It’s in fact a microcosm of Indonesia, raising issues that remain relevant.

Discrimination: despite Kiem’s known humanitarianism and generosity, when Ahok decided to run for office, he faced resistance because of his Chinese ethnicity. As a child, he had once asked his father, “Are we Chinese or are we Indonesian?”. The father responded unequivocally, “We are Indonesians”. The film shows clearly how his father instilled the love of people and nation in his son.

Bangka Belitung has one of the largest concentrations of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, who have helped the tin industry flourish. Indonesia is the second-largest producer of tin in the world, after China, this means the ethnic-Chinese have contributed to creating revenue for Indonesia.

That’s not the only thing they have contributed. They have contributed to our culture (look at all those dragons, phoenix, snakes and Chinese lions motifs on batik!), food (too many to mention), much needed capital, sporting prowess and guess what? Also Islam, which was brought in by Chinese traders in the 15th century. And yet the Chinese remain reviled and have been targeted as scapegoats throughout Indonesia’s history.

Poverty: There was clearly poverty depicted in the film throughout Ahok’s life in Bangka Belitung. While in 2018 poverty has fallen to a historic low, the Statistics Indonesia (BPS) figures show that almost 10 percent (27 million) of Indonesians are poor. That is still a very large number.

Corruption: in the film, there was a corrupt government official who kept trying to extort money from both Kiem, and later Ahok when he was an adult running the company. So far, corruption is still the cancer that is eating up the nation. According to the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, Indonesia ranks 96th out of 175 of the least corrupt countries. Well, at least it’s better than in 2007, when we ranked 143rd.

The lack of health services portrayed in the film is still the reality for many families in Indonesia, as are education facilities, still out of reach for many children.

Watching the film was a very emotional experience for me because of the injustice Ahok has had to endure. Talk about being punished for doing good! But it was emotional also because I thought of Indonesia and how the nation is currently ruled by mindless sectarianism, where religion is used to incite evil instead of fostering good, where selfish, narrow group interests prevail over the greater good.

A Man Called Ahok is a timely reminder of what it takes to build a nation. Hopefully, like a good ghost movie, the (good guys) protagonists will prevail over the evil forces currently haunting Indonesia.

An early version of text appeared in the Jakarta Post

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