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REVIEW: Laskar Pelangi (film)

Title: Laskar Pelangi
Country: Indonesia
Language: Bahasa Indonesia
Year: 2008
Producer: Mira Lesmana
Director: Riri Riza
Writers: Salman Aristo (screenplay) Mira Lesmana, Riri Riza, Andrea Hirata (novel)
Color, 16:9, Dolby stereo, subtitles (Indonesian/English)

Few Westerners will have seen this film, though it is the highest grossing Indonesian film ever, has won a number of domestic and international awards, and is based on a very popular novel by the same title.  This is probably this finest Indonesian film I have seen, and deserves attention by a wide audience.

To say it is an Indonesian version of "Stand And Deliver," would be unfair.  The locations, circumstances and pacing are completely different.  However, they are similar in that the stories involve inspirational teachers and students from the lower echelons of life.

'Laskar Pelangi', variously translated as 'Rainbow Warriors' or 'Rainbow Troops', is based on the childhood experiences of writer Andrea Hirata, whose 2004 book was quite popular and inspirational for a great number of Indonesians.

The story is set in the 1970s, on an island called Belitong, which is off the east coast of Sumatera, in the Java Sea.  Even today, the area is pastoral and rural, home to farmers and craftsmen.  Like much of Indonesia, it is a quiet, sleepy place, and the film perfectly captures the pace and beauty of the setting.  What is not clearly exposed is the history of Belitong, with which many Indonesians would be familiar.  

In the 1800s, the island was a British, and later a Dutch colony.  It had a wealth of pepper and tin, and those who exploited it were fabulously wealthy traders.  The wealth did not 'trickle down' though, and the local people remained dirt farmers and servants to the wealthy, having little hope of advancing their situations.  After World War II, the British and Dutch vanished, taking the wealth with them and leaving the island impoverished and isolated.

It is against this historical backdrop that the film introduces us to a group of boys and two teachers.  Pak Artfan (Ikranagara) and Mbak Muslimah (Cut Mini) are trying to open a school in a poor village, but they need 10 students to succeed, and only have nine.  The action begins on the first day of school, as the nine students and two teachers wait and hope a tenth will join in.  Near the end of the first day, another boy finally does show up and the story catches fire.

Over the course of the school year, Muslimah and Arfan inspire and illuminate the minds of the boys.  They begin with simple ambitions of taking over their fathers' farms, but slowly open their minds to the greater Universe and to all the possiblities within it.  We see in their faces real hope and dreams blossom into ideas and actions.

This is truly a magical story.  We witness what it means to have hope, when it's not just a marketing slogan.  Arfan dubs his students the laskar pelangi, because he wants them to become agents of change and growth, and it's not to say that farming is a dead end, but that even something as mundane as farming can be a vector of the life-force and a means to change the world.  It's not in what the job is, it's what you do with it that changes those around you.

The film itself is lush with color and texture that evolves through the course of the story.  The palette changes from subtle blues to warm, effervescent light.  The land and forest change from sullen canopies to mysterious adventures.  Daily life morphs from routine to quietly mystical.  Most profoundly is how the boys change in their outlooks.  They are no longer trapped on an island, but launching an adventure.

The boys are played by actual children who live in Belitung.  The director wanted to capture real emotions and authentic faces, which he does brilliantly.  Actors could not have portrayed such an honest and insighful look at the people and life in the village.  We feel as if we are literally tagging along as the boys grow and evolve.  Cut Mini and Ikranagara bring grace and wisdom to their roles.  We feel a depth and desire to push to students to achieve, while still keeping the teachers humbdle and simple.

The locations perfectly capture the languid and sleepy character of village life that charms and entrances outsiders who make it that far.  The beautiful settings and almost-wild surroundings serve to enhance the dramatic leaps of imagination that catch within the minds of the boys.

There's a deep honesty in this film.  The actors and filmmakers show a connection to the material and the surroundings that few films ever capture.  Using children from the area exposes a much deeper tie to the settings than any actors could bring.  They literally inhabit their surroundings and we can feel their genuine connection to the lifestyle portrayed that few cameras, even documentary, capture.

One of the charms of the film is that everything in it still exists.  One can find kampung just like it all over the country, and meet the people portrayed sitting at any corner warung, drinking a Teh Botol.  The director has perfectly captured this life from the eyes of a child.  The camera spends a lot of time at a child's eye-level, making everything look larger, and providing a quiet metaphor for how the world grows in the minds of the children.

One of the attractions of this film for Westerners who appreciate good stories, is that it is NOT Hollywood.  This is not the story of underdog football teams, or egocentric teenagers dreaming of fame and glory.  This is a simple tale about simple people who discover that hope and change aren't something 'out there' to be possessed.  They are 'in here' and must be realized.  Because the film's pace matches its locations and lives portrayed, it is quiet and slow, but it never bogs down.  For all its simplicity, it still delivers the emotional chills of 'Apollo 13', and the domestic charm of 'Milagro Beanfield War'.

The score, by Sri Aksan Sjuman and Titi Handayani Sjuman, is perfectly matched to the story and setting.  The music is uplifting, while still paying homage to the native sounds of Indonesia, using traditional instruments and traditional arrangements.  Yadi Sugandi's cinematography is richly textured and uses copious amounts of warm tropical colors and lighting.  The dialogue is flawless and natural, as if recorded surreptitiously on any street corner.

Laskar Pelangi is highly recommended for those who appreciate superb foreign cinema, who truly enjoy uplifting drama, and for those who are curious to see what life is like in rural Indonesia.  The gentle humor, quality production and profound empathy for the characters should place this film at the top of anyone's 'To See' list.

A Personal Note: I often ask my classes to recommend quality Indonesian literature and film, and I have gotten many great suggestions.  One of my classes at Pertamina Learning Center went a step further and presented me with a DVD copy of the movie on the last day of class.  Not a bajakan, mind you, the real deal!  I want to thank those good people for such a fine gift.  May all your teachers be Pak Arfan and Mbak Muslimah, and may all your dreams come true!  Matur nuwun!  Terima kasih!  Hatur nuhun!  Mau liate!  Matur suksima!

Jangan berhenti bermimpi!