Beranak dalam Kubur: Sjumandjaja’s Revisionist Horror

Originally published on 19 March 2011 at Cinema Poetica / Originally written in Indonesian / Translated by Ukky Satya / Edited by Adrian Jonathan

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Certain genres are sometimes employed to carry hidden political messages. Such genre analyses are often applied to films produced in an era of political repression, or films distributed under strict authoritative censorship system. We could point to many critical texts that seek to contextualize the comedy of Warkop DKI as subtle criticisms of the New Order regime.[1] As a medium of expression, comedy is considered to be quite safe—under the assumption that no one would take it seriously. Audiences are expected to pay more attention to the film’s rhetorical devices rather than the underlying messages. In which case, genre imposes a certain kind of narrative binding. It dictates the layers of symbols and meanings within a story, and decrees how quickly and deeply the story’s message(s) are being communicated.

Horror films, with certain considerations to the genre’s peculiarities, could also be analysed in similar light. Rather similar to comedy, horror films often exaggerate their characters to a nonsensical proportion. However, if one is to re-evaluate, horror films puts more emphasis on the antagonistic effect between characters—this is what separates horror and comedy films in terms of storytelling. Other than that, horror and comedy films has the same potential to disguise filmmakers’ messages within the narrative structure of each genre. No wonder that horror films are often used as critiques of various social phenomena. George A Romero is a veteran in this kind of practice—notice how Night of the Living Dead (1968) condemns the Vietnam War or Dawn of the Dead (1978) satirizes the conspicuous consumption in America. Propaganda films such as Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Betrayal of G30S/PKI, 1982) also borrows several elements of horror, to demonize the Indonesian Communist Party and its social circles.

On the other hand, in the context of Indonesian cinema, genre as a method of storytelling cannot be considered to be the only structure in a film’s narrative, even as it serves to help the audiences with tools to decode and enjoy the story. There exists other narrative structure easily overlooked but is actually consistently present regardless of genre. It’s too hasty to specify genre as the sole defining factor for the narrative content a filmmaker trying to convey, even more so if one is to include the ever-present political subtext during certain eras.

We can also try questioning why filmmaker choose certain genre to narrate his or her story. Genre is not always functioned as a vehicle to articulate issues or themes of a story—it could also blurs and obscures them. For example, it’s harder to see a film like Lentera Merah (Red Lantern) as a statement of the filmmaker’s empathy to the victims of 1965’s massacres. The most logical analysis would be: the filmmakers formulate the horror first, and then correlate it to the 1965 tragedy to spice up the horror.

When I re-watched Beranak dalam Kubur (Birth in the Grave), the first name that comes in association is Sjumandjaja—the screenwriter.[2] Not the two directors, Awaludin and Ali Shahab, or its legendary actress, Suzanna. Regardless of how big Sjumandjaja’s role in the production process (which we’re likely never going to find out), Beranak dalam Kubur’s narrative structure is quite similar to Sjumandjaja’s other works, especially on the illustration of class relation.

Sjumandjaja deploys a dominant perspective on social class to criticize the bourgeoisie, while at the same time belittling the role of the proletarian which he wants to represent (Sen, 1994). Villagers are depicted as an angry, uneducated group, ready to run amok—quite the opposite of the protagonist, who is described as sophisticated and cool-headed, with respectable profession like doctor or lawyer. All problems are dealt by or centering on the elite circle of the bourgeoisie. Similar patterns can be found in the works of other filmmakers during Sjumandjaja’s time.

Beranak dalam Kubur narrates the tragedy befalling an orchard family owner. In the beginning, it is told how Lila (Suzanna) must left the orchard and go to the city. She is despised by her stepmother and stepsister, Dora (Mieke Widjaaja), who’s in the future would take over the orchard from their paralyzed father. As she grew up and got married, Lila and her husband returned to her hometown. The old conflict resurfaced—the jealous and cruel Dora tried her hardest to get rid of Lila. After several failed attempts, she succeeded in killing (and then burying) Lila, who was in her late pregnancy. The vengeful spirit of Lila called terror upon Dora, causing unrest among the villagers of the orchard.

As a horror film, Beranak dalam Kubur at first glance is an oddity. It deviates from the “tradition” of Indonesian horror films. No ghost, no religious figure, and very few mentions or displays of occult elements—things that are ubiquitous in Indonesian horror films. The antagonist of Beranak dalam Kubur is not a ghost, again another popular feature in Indonesian horrors, but “a despotic landlord (described as living in shadows and secrets, like a vampire)” (Paramaditha, 2009).[3]

The film is even odder if we consider the contrast between the characters’ physical features. The orchard-owning family (“the vampire family”) is of Eurasian descent, who is up against the local farmers. On the surface, Beranak dalam Kubur gives the impression of a tale of the rise of the oppressed and the fall of the colonial aristocracy. Even as Eurasian faces is considered a marketing strategy until today, Beranak dalam Kubur decidedly draws a straight line between the physical characteristics of the Eurasian descendants and the locals, between the orchard-owning elite colonial and the farmers.

A question worth pondering here is not about the validity of the claim regarding “anti-colonialism” in Beranak dalam Kubur. It is about how, under the social and political situation of the time (including censorship), antagonistic relations are expressed in many, nameless forms. Class sentiment can be translated into nationalistic sentiment (as in the many cases of Third Cinema), while at the same time such sentiment often appears in militaristic narratives and remixes of other various themes.

One of the responsibillities of film criticism is to analyze such relations. Relation between production and material condition of certain eras (read: between artist and surrounding) often could only be read as symptoms, that can only be comprehended in the following eras. The analysis of Krishna Sen (1994) about class representation in Indonesia cinema until 1980s reflects the absence of the working class from the political scene since 1966. In other word, she still presupposes a same category to identify class relation post-1966, as a reversal of the class relation before 1966. Nowadays, when the middle-class is seen as the agent of social change instead of the working class, one thing that is yet to be observed further is the changing aspect of the middle-class itself.

Three types of characters that are always involved in the schema: the dominant, the suppressed, and the in-between. The last character often takes the role of a mediator with ambiguous position, or one who originates from the dominant class but turns to the oppressed, for example: lawyer, doctor, college student—in short, middle-class urban intellectuals.

Dora is an ideal representation of the first group—a landlady who is cruel, exploitative, and manipulative. Second group is clearly represented by the farmers and villagers being exploited by Dora. The paralyzed father fits in the third group, as he was originally part of the first group but thrown aside and is powerless against Dora. Lila shares place with her father: both casted out and thwarted off their home twiceas part of the dominant class and since she moves out to the city.

At a glance, the chronological events of Beranak dalam Kubur all progress toward a standoff—the second and third group united against the first group. It is really not the case, however, considering how the second group is affiliated to the first group. The villagers tend to identify themselves with Lila’s family due to their sufferings. Near the end of the film, when the mases gathered in Lila’s family house yard, the family’s maid yelled at Dora, “There stand a woman with a heart of a devil, she killed her own mother, maimed her own father, extorted us into work for years. She also buried her sister, Miss Lila, alive—while Miss Lila was pregnant and was about to give labor!”[4] In this scene, the conflict between the villagers and Dora is surfacing, as the ugly truth about Lila’s family is revealed to the public.

The elite circle defines the internal stability of the village community, so much that the problem-solving within the community depends largely to this circle. Instead of working on wider structural relation, solutions are often achieved with succession of the old elite with a new elite judged to be more “humane” and “uncorrupted”—thus gaining sympathy from the working class. Exactly for this reason Lila’s husband is singular on his role. He was born in the city, cultured, and a graduate from overseas university. More importantly, he understand exactly what the main problem is and who’s behind it.

Looking back at the political structure of the New Order regime, when nation “stands above all parties” and holds a strong and independent autonomy from the dominant class, the urban middle-class (especially the intellectuals) is not fully integrated to the system and to some extent acts with dissidence. Moralism stands as the central problem, while also serving as the only effective political vehicle of the middle-class (besides an abundant resources) in the face of the working class whom they strive to represent. Another thing, censorship limitations place moralism as the pivot point of negotiation between the censor board and the filmmakers. Consequently, Beranak dalam Kubur can also be interpreted as a narrative for the restoration of an ambiguous elite class, which in the process replaces the idealized version of the middle class.

In this reading, the oddness of Beranak dalam Kubur as an Indonesian horror film materializes as a kind of breakthrough—a revision to the previous Indonesian horror films, especially ones heavily embedded with elements of occult. In Beranak dalam Kubur, santet (traditional Indonesian curses) and the likes are not defeated using mystic means—for example, prayers from religious figures. Dora’s defeated by both spontaneous and calculated efforts. There are Lila’s husband and his doctor friend, there are villagers barging in into Dora’s property, and then there is the father pushing Dora off of her balcony.

In Beranak dalam Kubur, occult isn’t depicted as an inherent part of the cosmology of the villagers’ life. Occult is placed as a tool used for rational means (without one’s belief), as rational as when Dora hires a thug to get rid of Lila and her husband. Many analyses consider this as a victory of modern culture over occult—as portrayed in many films under the New Order regime, pitting witch-doctors against doctors, in the effort of depicting the necessity of leaving certain traditions for progress.

Another conclusion that could be reached, however, is over the involvement of Dora’s assistant with occult practices. In Indonesian horror films, occultism tends to be associated with villagers, while the urbans are generally portrayed as overly rational and arrogant, with a hint of curiosity. One classic example is films about youngsters’ expedition into remote location famous for its supernatural lore, such as Jelangkung and its sequels in the 2000s.

In Beranak dalam Kubur, the villagers aren’t involved in practicing the occult. Instead, they are victims—illustrated in a scene of a farmer, twisted by dozens of snakes after helping Lila escaping one of the snake. The kind of relationship Dora and the occult has in this sense is like an ancien regime, which in this case can be a colonial culture or the old middle-class, with their old and outdated values that are due for a rejuvenation.

Beranak dalam Kubur (Birth in the Grave) | 1971 | Duration: 96 minutes | Director: Awaludin, Ali Shahab | Screenwriter: Sjuman Djaya, Ganes TH | Production: PT Tidar Jaya Film | Country: Indonesia | Casts: Suzanna, Mieke Wijaya, Dicky Suprapto, Ami Priyono, Sofia Amang


REFERENCES

Intan Paramaditha. Foreword for Kuasa dalam sinema: negara, masyarakat dan sinema Orde Baru. Yogyakarta: Ombak, 2009.

Krishna Sen. Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order. London: Zed Books, 1994.

NOTES

[1] Warkop (abbreviation for “Warung Kopi”), previously known as Warkop Prambors, is an Indonesian comedian group that enjoyed success in the 1980s and the 1990s. Assembled in Jakarta on 1976 under Prambors Radio management, Warkop burgeoned as one of the favorite comedian group in Indonesia, along with Srimulat. Subsequently, after they appeared in the cinema, they settled as Warkop DKI, with the DKI stands for Dono, Kasino, Indro—the names of the personnels.

[2] In some films, his name sometimes is referred as Sjuman Djaya.

[3] Original Indonesian text: “tuan tanah despotik penghisap darah (yang digambarkan hidup dalam gelap dan rahasia, seperti vampir)

[4] Original Indonesian text: “Di atas sana berdiri seorang perempuan berhati setan yang telah membunuh ibunya sendiri dan melumpuhkan ayahya serta memeras tenaga kita bertahun-tahun; ia juga telah menguburkan adiknya hidup-hidup, non Lila, padahal non Lila sudah mengandung dan akan melahirkan!

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