“It’s 2017. Forget about hierarchies. We are friends” a former general disingenuously reassures from the other side of the bars in Makbul Mubarak’s pointed exploration of the mediation of power in contemporary Indonesia, Autobiography. A young man with few prospects for the future is drawn towards authoritarianism by a charismatic father figure but is soon confronted by the realities of his quasi-fascist posturing only to discover that there may be no real escape from the violent world of toxic masculinity that he has unwittingly entered.
19-year-old Kib (Kevin Ardilova) lives alone in a vast mansion, the country home of a former general, Parna (Arswendy Bening Swara), who soon arrives unexpectedly with the intention of beginning his political career. Kib is quite obviously awestruck by the figure of the General, gazing at him like some long lost saviour drunk on the sense of power he exudes from every pore. On silently collecting the old man’s laundry, he stops to stare at a large portrait of him in uniform on the bedroom wall as if somehow thinking he too could one day be a fine general wielding such infinite power for himself.
Such a thought might in a sense be transgressive. Kib is a servant in this house and as his father Amir, currently in prison for standing up to developers who were trying to steal his land, points out, their ancestors have always served the ancestors of Purna. Purna may tell him that no one cares about class anymore, but it obviously isn’t true or these two men wouldn’t be on opposite sides of the bars, or perhaps they would but their positions might be reversed. “Be careful who you trust” Amir tries to warn his son, but it’s already too late. Kib is ambitious. There’s something that bristles in him when Purna asks after his brother and wonders how well he can be doing as a migrant worker in Singapore with thinly concealed disdain in his voice. When Purna gives Kib an army shirt and says he looks just like him when he was young, a resemblance soon noticed by others, it flatters him to think he may be the General’s son rather than that of a mere servant turned convict.
The more time he spends with Purna the more like him becomes, walking around with a swagger, exuding power and intimidation as if he really were a soldier not just a boy in a green shirt. Tragically he doesn’t even quite understand how this power mechanism works or what it’s implications are. When he accidentally bumps into a mosque while attempting a tight three point turn, local men surround the car demanding compensation. Purna gets out and puts on a show of authority. On realising what they’re dealing with the men instantly back down. Purna has a sheepish Kib apologise, and the men apologise to him, before explaining that sorry is a powerful word that can turn rage into blessing. What Kib fails to realise is that Purna is talking not about humility but intimidation, a mistake he learns to his cost in bringing a boy only a little younger than himself to Purna to “apologise” for disrespecting him expecting the General to pull the same trick again but shocked when events take a much darker turn than he’d anticipated.
The boy he brought in, Argus, was the son of a woman whose coffee plantation would have to go if Purna got his hydroelectric plant approved. Purna sells the plant as a way of dealing with the problems caused by inefficient infrastructure but hides the corruption at its centre, forcing families off their land for the developers’ benefit through violence and intimidation. Argus is just as angry Kib, only he’s not falling for Purna’s sales patter. Kib watches the General shift the blame onto the developers, whom he backs and back him, while claiming to be a man of the people and giving a glib speech at the funeral of a boy he killed in nothing other than pettiness.
Yet Purna is ageing and his grip on power may not be as firm as it once was while his seeming sentimentality in his attachment to Kib as a surrogate son is also a weakness. Kib may be deciding that being a migrant worker’s not as bad as becoming the heir of a man like Purna, but once you’re in it’s hard to get out as the ambivalent closing scene implies catching him dumbstruck once again only now like a general overseeing his troops and in one way or another a prisoner of his father’s house, a servant inheriting the mansion whether he wants it or not. In many ways a tale of seduction, Autobiography paints a fairly bleak picture of the contemporary society ruled by violent masculinity and fragile authority figures who quite literally visit their sins on their sons.
Original trailer (English subtitles)