The Untold History of Indonesia

By Łukasz Mańkowski

The camera slowly fades into the ambience of the jungle, unfolds the drifting sounds of the past. It is entangled with the present now. Once built by the colonial Dutch, the first radio station in Indonesia, Radio Malabar, is now merely a ruin. Or is it not? Through a pseudoscientific narrative of Drs. Munarwan, we get to know the origins of the radio station, its significance in the past, and how it altered to the present. Can the mountain still transmit the signal? What does it sound like? Can humans grasp the meaning of it?

I met with Riar Rizaldi and discussed his motivations behind his recent short film, Tellurian Drama. We met on zoom. I set the meeting’s password as tellurian. Sitting in our rooms, me in Poland, him in Hong Kong, we could communicate through the signal of our devices. I was wearing an Indonesian shirt. We both seemed a bit exhausted with the aspect of constantly looking into a screen. We delved into Indonesia’s history, environmental movements and perception of time, as we all have problems with time these days.

I deliberately set our zoom meeting’s password as tellurian as in the title of your film. Could you explain what that means?

Tellurian means ‘inhabited to the Earth’. By including tellurian and drama in the title, I wanted to achieve a film that would not be from my point of view, as a filmmaker, but rather shot from the perspective of a mountain, an expression of the mountain’s thoughts. Besides the many dramatic aspects that compose a film, I wanted to include more indigenous elements. In Tellurian Drama I worked with my friend, Iman Jimbot, a Sundanese musician who’s engaged in many indigenous practices. His performance enabled the tellurian element – his performance imitates the voice of the mountain. The mountain is a character in Tellurian Drama, with its own voice.

Riar Rizaldi potrait by Kay Beadman

What about the radio itself? It seems it has a peculiar meaning for your work.

Since I’m actually fascinated with radio dramas, I’ve started to read about the history of radio in Indonesia. Then I found out about Radio Malabar. There was almost no information about it and everything I could find was in Dutch. Radio Malabar seemed to be a missing chapter of Indonesian history. Gradually, I started visiting the place more frequently and my research was focused on the transformation of landscapes. Thanks to that, I could see how the technology affected the landscape around Bandung, my hometown in the 1920s or 30s. Now this area merely a ruin that is slowly being gentrified by the government for the tourist purposes, but I think the film shows an interesting dynamic between the colonial, modern and natural.

In Tellurian Drama you also included the work of a pseudo-scientist, Drs. Munarwan. How did you encounter his work?

The scientific background is actually inspired by the environmental movement in Indonesia in the 1970s, which at that time was quite influential, because these were the only movements that weren’t prohibited by the regime. The movement arose alongside a fascination for New Age and was mixed with indigenous beliefs. For instance, there was a strong belief that the signal from the ruins of the radio station could transmit a protecting signal for our planet. I loved the complexity of these beliefs and I wanted to reflect on that in my film. There has been some sort of re-emergence of the new age pseudo-scientific ecological movement in Indonesia recently, so it seems the history repeated itself, nothing really changed. The government continues to treat the environment very badly. Foreign investments, extraction, there’s much to address these days and I have a feeling the current movements are paying homage to the movements from the 1970s. The figure of Drs. Munarwan is also very important – he was actually a victim of the left-wing activist purge that arose in Indonesia during the mid 1980s. He was simply cleared from sight and there were more people missing, being kidnapped. He was not the only one.

Your work addresses time not only as a linear or historical notion, but also in its philosophical sense, in particular Indonesian context. Can you tell us more about that? 

I’m always interested in the notion of time. There is this anecdote from the colonial times, that Indonesian are never punctual. My parents used to joke the same. [laughs] We also have this notion of elastic, rubber time (jam karet), as we don’t perceive time as a rigid system. I’ve started to think that maybe the notion of time can be perceived differently. I found research on clock being a symbol of capitalistic approach to time, or Balinese monk’s scripts on calculating time through light and dark. Then there’s the aspect of language. When I started to learn English it was very hard for me to distinguish tenses, because in Indonesian there are no tenses. When we speak in Indonesian or in Malay, the time is always the same. It’s not grammatically exposed. 

How about pandemics? Did it affect your perspective on time?

Totally, yes. Every morning I wake up and it seems to me that, wow, the time seems to be going faster. All of my activities have become set in one room,  the space I am in now. The sense of time became so accelerated. I stopped experiencing the presence of time. It became a mathematician equation, to use Henri Bergson’s words, not the experience. It feels that I’ve just stopped experiencing time.

Łukasz Mańkowski
Written for the Young Film Critics 2021