Jakarta. The focus of the recently released "army romance" flick "Jelita Sejuba: Loving a National Hero," turns out to be less about the "jelita," the long-suffering, beautiful wife of an army soldier, but more about the heroic acts of the husband, making it yet another Indonesian movie extolling the great deeds of its servicemen, pushing everything else into the background.
Sharifah (last year's Citra Award winner Putri Marino) just graduates from high school and now works in a small kiosk selling smoked fish in Sejuba, a small village on a beach in Natuna Island, off the eastern coast of Sumatra.
Sharifah spends most of her time having fun with her friends Hasna (Abigail) and Rohani (Mutiara Sofya), going on fun rides around the island on their motorbikes.
The village beauty falls in love with Jaka (Wafda Saifan Lubis), an army (TNI AD) captain recently posted in the remote island, and marries him. She spends the rest of the film trying her best to be a good wife, mother and member of the Army Wives’ Association (Persit).
The movie then turns its spotlight on Jaka, showing his chivalry in many matters of least importance.
He teaches Sharifah and her friends how to julienne carrots just the right size for a capcay. He rescues drunk Farhan (Aldy Maldini), Sharifah’s brother, from the street and brings him home safely. He helps his son Andika with his math homework when no one else can.
Captain Jaka is shown in military practice scenes demonstrating his leadership skills. He stands out from his rough, happy-go-lucky fellow soldiers, who are all too ready to descend into buffoonery, by being extremely polite and smooth-spoken.
Jaka is a perfect guy, the epitome of Indonesian and TNI masculine ideals.
Director Ray Nayoan admitted at the movie's press screening on Tuesday (03/04) that the film's storyline is a little cliché, but he also claimed that was because he tried to be faithful to the real lives of many wives of Indonesian servicemen.
Perhaps the more important question is, what does the annoyingly faultless saintly character Captain Jaka really represent?
Indonesian Military on the Big Screen
If we look back to representations of the military in earlier movies from the New Order era like "Janur Kuning" (1979) to more recent nationalistic movies like the star-studded "Merah Putih" trilogy (2009-2011), we can see that Jaka is another in a long line of characters showing not just the ideal image of a man but also an idealized view of the Indonesian military as a whole.
Jaka brings order to his community and keeps the moral high ground at all times, just as many soldier characters in New Order-era army movies did.
According to film historian Budi Irawanto in his book "Film, Ideology and the Military: Military Hegemony in Indonesian Films," the Indonesian military is always portrayed as idealistic, patriotic, proactive and full of integrity – in contrast to the compromising and cowardly civilians – on the big screen.
These films include the aforementioned Janur Kuning, "Serangan Fajar" (1982) and Arifin C. Noer's famous propaganda piece "Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI" (1984).
In 2009-2011, the "Merah Putih" trilogy came out, produced by Media Desa Indonesia, a production house owned by Hashim Djojohadikusumo, the brother of former Indonesian Special Forces commander and presidential nominee Prabowo Subianto.
Windu Jusuf said in Cinema Poetica the films were made to promote Prabowo ahead of the 2009 presidential election.
Last year, there was also "Merah Putih Memanggil" (The Red and White Calling), produced by TeBe Silalahi Pictures, a company owned by former army general T. B. Silalahi.
In the action flick, a TNI special force team is sent abroad to rescue civilians kidnapped by African terrorists. Director Mirwan Suwarso denied the movie was army propaganda, saying only that it tried to show how TNI soldiers are always ready to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
There are not many films countering this narrative of "the good TNI."
The short docudrama "Surat Cinta Kepada Sang Prada" (Love Letters to the Soldier) can be seen as an antithesis of Jelita Sejuba. It too talks about the life of an "army wife" in a remote area of Indonesia, this time the conflict-prone border areas of Papua.
But instead of glorifying the Indonesian military, this short film sheds light on sexual misconducts by TNI soldiers when they are posted in remote areas of the archipelago.
Produced by Engage Media and directed by Wenda Tokomonowir, the movie tells the story of a Papuan woman called Maria Goreti who was abandoned by her army husband Samsul while she was five months pregnant with their baby.
In between her struggles to raise their young daughter, Yani, Maria kept writing letters to Samsul, saying that she will faithfully wait for him to come home.
The film is based on a finding by the Catholic church group Justice, Peace and Integration of Creation (JPIC) that found at least 19 cases of sexual violence committed by TNI soldiers in Bupul village near Merauke in West Papua from 1992 to 2009.
The short film, which won Jakarta's South to South Film Festival award in 2012, shows an overlooked side of the army, a much needed story to balance out the Indonesian public's perception of these "defenders of the nation."
Strong Actors, Weak Plot
The only redeeming things about Jelita Sejuba are the lush visuals and the rich Malay-tinged soundtracks, thanks to music director Ricky Surya Virgana, the bass player in indie band White Shoes and the Couple’s Company.
Putri, despite the limitations of her role, also proved herself to be a versatile actor, adept at bringing to the fore both the youthful and motherly sides of Sharifah.
Putri and Wafda also show excellent chemistry on screen – if only their courtship weren't so cheesy and their characters a lot more realistic.
Jelita Sejuba is out in cinemas on Thursday.