The Center for Southeast Asian Studies is pleased to add a new student and community produced film review component to our ongoing Southeast Asian film program resources online. Our first cooperative project was done with the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies, Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia (see news post). We hope to continue to encourage students and community members to write film reviews both as an exercise in writing about film, but also to encourage them to think more deeply about the stories they are seeing produced by filmmakers in Southeast Asia.
Bagong Buwan, or the Banality of Peaceful Demands
by Windu Wahyudi Yusuf
Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies
Universitas Gadjah Mada
Seeing Bagong Buwan on screen, I was reminded of the Indonesian film, Laskar Pelangi (2008). A beautifully-shot film, but also an inspiring story of children in a provincial town in Sumatra demanding better schooling (better facilitation, more teachers, better building and so on). It implies one should have gone to the city, or the capital, in order to be able to access more proper schools. Well, it is all about the importance of education and being an educated person-only education will prevent crimes, violence, and so on. I found it to be quite optimistic, but not quite neutral.
The problem with this theme is who defines proper education and what kind of people are said to be educated and need to be educated? Everybody who grew up in Indonesia in the 1990s and saw Anak Seribu Pulau, a documentary series produced by Garin Nugroho for state television, knows what it means to be an “educated person”: nationalist, pro-development, tolerant (“tolerant” in New Order’s exact sense which demands its citizens to pay respect to different cultures from twenty-seven provinces and five official religions), and avoidance of the topic of SARA (an acronym which stands for “ethnic group, social group, and religion”). Thus “educated person” here stands for “model citizen,” while “education” becomes similar almost to “re-education” through which a model citizen is produced. And upon returning to their kampong (village), our good citizen is usually portrayed as seeing his childhood friends still in abject poverty, regretful about not taking the chance once offered to them to get better schooling in the city.
One can recall Denias, Senandung Di Atas Awan (2006), another Indonesian film with the same underlying theme showing a kid from Papua optimistically striving for better education. There is, strangely, no depiction of armed conflict on the background. The absence of, say, representation of people identified with rebelling OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka, Free Papua Movement) renders Papua into nothing, but the least developed province with poor children longing for nicer school buildings. Gone are the days where the bad, gun-toting Papuans were around; we have here instead “real problems” solved only by humanitarian aid from Jakarta in some 100-minute film designed to comfort urban-dwelling Jakarta audiences.
But in what way are we to read Bagong Buwan in this respect? It is very simple indeed. The main protagonist, Ahmad, is a young doctor from Mindanao who lives in Manila. When his son is killed in the crossfire, he decides to return to Mindanao in order to get the rest of the family to move to Manila. A good, enlightened Muslim, he is opposed to the MILF’s [Moro Liberation Front] violent struggle, of which his older brother, Musa, is a member. Hence, a good Muslim and a bad one, each defining what it means to be a proper Muslim in the midst of military situation: for the former, a Muslim should be opposed to violence. It is right to fight against injustice and so on but the struggle should be carried out in non-violent way, while for the latter, only a total war against infidels is justified. Losing his son to a stray bullet, Ahmad is depicted as a sympathetic family man, and he even soon finds a substitute for his son in Francis, a Christian boy separated from his parents after a bombing that took place near the urban police headquarters.
There some other characters who do not fit in their stereotyped positions, for example, Jason, a church activist doing volunteer work in the conflict area. Though citing Christian prayers all the time, he is opposed to the stereotypical image of the missionary who tries to convert all populations he or she encounters. And finally, one Filipino soldier who is “a human just like us,” for thinking that he is “just doing his job” in the military. The female characters, strangely, only figure as “victims” who never show any sign of hostility to their Christian brethren, and therefore symbolize the maternal figure, the heart of the community, unexhausted by their positions in a war-torn region.
To put it simply, yes, we have those ideal characters that do not identify themselves with violence, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations, and the protagonist Ahmad acts as the most resolute moralizing force. A doctor and a peace-loving family man, he is not just an educated “Muslim from Manila,” but also, within the ideological field of the film, representing a token identity for “Manila-ness,” along with others who grow weary of the war and “opt for dialogue.” Therefore, “Manila” stands not only for military policing (Bad Manila), but also a kind of humanitarianism (Good Manila) but they are both the same since what they want to say is “we are all human, so forget about the armed struggle”; and the word “human” can also be referred to as “Filipinos” (considering the northern Filipinos to whom the film is addressed to), while this is actually what have been rejected by the Moro Muslims: being a “Filipino.”
This is why the humanitarian Bagong Buwan presents a patronizing view as if saying that the conflict is not about religion, that Muslims are naturally good people, and they become bad Muslims for their lack of proper education (as implied in the finale where the film depicts some pupils learning the basic literacy). Is this not symptomatic of our contemporary, post-9/11 ideology where the polarization shifts from Muslim vs. Christian to Good Muslim vs. Bad Muslim. Where Bad Muslim (a political category ranging from fundamentalists, those who want Islam be the governing principle of their state, to Islamist separatists to vigilante groups) has to be taught multiculturalism in order to be Moderate Muslim, the Model Muslim? Hence, the old discursive formation from the era of Spanish colonization (in Bagong Buwan’s case) is here being reproduced and given a new translation informed by a contemporary global political constellation.
And telling the opposing side to resort to peaceful struggle, dialogue and so on can also be equated with imposing one’s demands related to an already specific agenda (who are we to tell them to do so?). Indeed, a call for pacifism, peace, dialogue, and all those nice things has never been neutral, even if it is done in the name of the oppressed (the war-torn Moro population, for example) and ostensibly for the reason that they have real problems (instead of an ideological battle) such as lack of education. By comparison, isn’t it obscene to tell hardcore members of the OPM or the pre-tsunami GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, Free Aceh Movement) to do something “real” in order to deal with the “real problems” of the populace? “Real problems,” however, are already interpreted in a presupposed ideological frame, as if saying that Good People (either from Manila or Mindanao, Muslim or Christian) deal with real problems and Bad People (fundamentalist Muslims, independence fighters, blood-thirsty nationalist generals) respond with unrealistic demands and arms, like those fighting for the Filipino state, or for the Muslim state in Mindanao. Unfortunately, this goes unquestioned and thus is ideological.
It is of course easier to say that the conflict is not about religion but more about post-ideological, typical NGO populist concerns such as education and poverty, while implying that religion has masked the real antagonism. Indeed, the film itself makes an attempt, however inadequately, to bring up a sort of moderate interpretation of Islam (which is to say that it considers religion to play a deeper and more important role than just a mask). But what if the Muslim rebels themselves stick to the very point (that Islam is all about peace, tolerance, human rights, etc.)-yet do not shrink from further possibilities to engage in armed struggle to defend it? As in many cases of national liberation, real problems persists and, as the rebels believe, can only be solved when a new political order is established.
Hence, the old motto, sic vis pacem para bellum: in order to have a peaceful sovereign order (Islamic state, for the rebels; or a united Filipino state, for the nationalists), you have to prepare for a war (however much you hate it). Violence here is best articulated as excess, the worst consequence one could assume in a political struggle, and a suspension of normal procedures. This while the film sought to establish theological grounds to oppose violence and fall foul to certain essentialism that violence is the product of wrong interpretation of holy texts (hence, the post-9/11 Good Muslim and Bad Muslim distinction). But is it possible to apply this to anti-colonial struggle in the Philippines, saying that the bloody nationalist terror during Filipino struggle for independence at the end of 19th century stems from the wrong interpretation of Dr. Jose Rizal’s anti-colonial texts without being laughed at?