We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku, Angga Dwimas Sasongko, 2014)

A motorbike courier finds himself torn between conflicting priorities when his community is threatened by internal strife in Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational sporting drama We Are Moluccans (Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku). As the title suggests, team sports provide a means of communal healing fostering both hope and unity among the young but even so the traumatic memories of the recent past prove hard to overcome while the older generation struggle in the wake of their own broken dreams and contradictory responsibilities. 

At the turn of the century, a violent conflict breaks out between Muslim and Christian communities who had until that point lived together in relative peace. With his motorcycle courier business disrupted by the ongoing chaos, former youth footballer Sani (Chicco Jerikho) begins coaching a collection of local boys mostly as a means of keeping them away from the immediate violence of the riots. As the situation begins to stabilise, his new responsibility to the children places a strain on his relationship with his wife, Haspa (Shafira Umm), who complains that he spends too much time giving back to the community while the family is struggling economically to the extent that she can no longer extend their tab at the grocery store. His old football friend Rafi (Frans Nendissa) is also struggling with his fishing business having lost most of his crew who fled the area’s violence and so the two of them begin to make the football club more formal but it soon becomes clear that they each have differing goals and responsibilities that endanger their partnership and the commitment they’ve made to the boys.  

At several points Rafi, not to mention Haspa, criticise Sani for what they see as irresponsibility while some of the other village men also accuse him of unmanliness for choosing to look after the children rather than fight with them to protect the village. His problem is that he’s too kind hearted but is entirely unable to order his priorities torn by the necessity of providing for his family and following through on the commitment he’s made to the neighbourhood boys. He often gives his hard won money away to those in need, angering his wife who cannot understand why he continues to help others rather protect his own family even giving away money he’d saved for their youngest daughter’s vaccinations and abruptly selling their goats without discussing it with her when she’d earmarked them as an emergency fund to pay the enrolment fees when the oldest daughter starts school. 

Because of the ongoing violence, many of the boys are in single parent families and live in relative poverty often needed to help out with their parent’s businesses. To begin with many are fine with them playing football so long as it keeps them safe but as they begin to grow older attitudes harden, many believing that it’s a “pointless” waste of time and too much of a distraction when the children should either be earning money or studying. Sani becomes a kind of surrogate father teaching the boys diligence and responsibility even if struggling with the same in his personal life but obviously cannot overcome the social and economic difficulties of small town life all on his own. His original goal was only to keep the children safe and ensure they had happy childhood memories that weren’t about hate, violence, and fear, whereas Rafi is much more ambitious floating the idea of opening an official football school while eventually deciding to run for public office further adding to Sani’s sense of personal inadequacy. 

“Nothing can destroy us as long as we have will to live a better life” Sani later tells the children, mistaken it seems in his belief that they would find it easier to overcome the differences between them when acting as head coach for a team representing the entirety of the local area. Many of the original team resent the introduction of “outsiders” from the nearby Christian town, but the difficulties turn out less to be about religion or community than trauma, the source of the problem being that the father of two of the Christian boys is a policeman whom another of the players blames for his own father’s death. While such tensions exist within the group the team continues to fail, losing not because of a lack of ability but because they cannot overcome the legacy of trauma to work together. The problem is only solved through a reassertion of their commonality as “Moluccans” rather than Muslim or Christian ironically forged in opposition to their current other which happens to be a team from Jakarta, the urban pitted against the rural. 

In any case, Angga Dwimas Sasongko’s inspirational drama eventually makes the case for mutual forgiveness as path toward putting the past to rest in order to move forward into a kinder and more prosperous era. The emotional closing scenes provide both a personal sense of acceptance in as Rafi begins to put his pride aside to support the local team while Muslims and Christians come together to listen to the nail-biting penalty shootout through their respective contacts in the auditorium after the TV broadcast cuts out before extra time. Demonstrating the power of sports to overcome cultural barriers, We Are Moluccans finally advocates for the right to dream as the youngsters begin to develop self-confidence and a sense of possibility while working together towards a clearly defined goal. 


We Are Moluccans streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Letter to an Angel (Surat untuk Bidadari, Garin Nugroho, 1994)

A lonely, motherless child’s infinite “curiosity” threatens to destabilise the intensely traditional world in which he lives in Garin Nugroho’s melancholy Sumba fairytale, Letter to an Angel (Surat untuk Bidadari). Taking ownership of a borrowed camera, the boy seeks instant images in order to make sense of his existence and thereafter to explain the way sees the world to those around him, but often finds that his messages go unheard while his society finds itself pulled towards a fractured modernity anchored by corrupted male authority. 

At nine years old, Lewa (Windy) is in a way no one’s child and everyone’s. While his father works his land, Lewa rides his horse or spends time with the local women in search of echoes of the mother he lost in infancy. Somewhat literal, he finds it difficult to follow his Indonesian textbook, stumbling over the simple phrase “this is my mother” which might under the circumstances be an insensitive sentence at the best of times, but in this case because the illustration is of a typical Indonesian woman rather than a woman from his community and does not resemble him or the image he had in his mind of his mother. Asking his father about her elicits only partial history as he shows him the wreckage of the bus accident in which she died, Lewa becoming mistakenly fixated on the poster of Madonna (in name at least literally “the mother”) pasted on the side, snapping it with a polaroid camera gifted to him by a sympathetic travelling performer. 

“Pictures show reality” he muses, talking to another of his maternal figures, Berlian Merah (Nurul Arifin), the village’s most beautiful woman. Beauty can, however, be a curse though she perhaps won’t quite know that. Evil local big wig land grabber and Elvis obsessive Kuda Liar (Adi Kurdi) desires her and so manoeuvres to have her husband killed. Not content, he later goes after Lewa’s other mother figure, the school teacher who told him of an angel who could heal the sick and bring the dead back to life. Muddling images in his mind, Lewa skips school and writes letters to the angel as if she were his mother, looking for comfort and guidance but finding little more than frustrating silence. Kuda Liar hassles his father for his land, and his mothers for their bodies, thinking nothing of throwing little Lewa himself off a cliff simply for the crime of existing. 

Yet Lewa is repeatedly saved by his village chief who insists that Lewa is a good kid and being “curious” is no bad thing. It’s that curiosity, however, that repeatedly gets him into trouble, especially when he takes a photo of something he shouldn’t and offends a neighbouring village, triggering a long dormant feud into a moment of mass violence. “I don’t understand why I’m told I’m a bad person when all I wanted was to show my father’s real face” he writes in a letter on another occasion, unable to understand why others are not curious in the same way as he is, unwilling to see his version of the truth as mediated by the “reality” of his photographs. 

Garin Nugroho too is determined to capture a certain kind of “reality” of the lives of the islanders as they practice their traditional culture, including footage of a series of rituals as they are performed complete with bloody acts of animal cruelty while Kuda Liar is at least forced into performative contrition in a “ceremony of forgiveness” for throwing Lewa off the cliff (into water, he is unharmed), demonstrating the way such ceremonies are used to mediate disputes within the community unlike the more “civilised” trial which occurs at the film’s conclusion, charged with discerning a more concrete notion of “reality” but in actuality setting out to prove a preconceived narrative, unwilling to hear the truths of others. It’s this contradictory authority that Lewa struggles to parse, looking desperately for his mother while inheriting only problematic visions of masculinity from his distant, angry father, to the “mad” uncle Malaria (Fuad Idris), and the cruel eccentricity of Kuda Liar. Eventually it imprisons him with the notion that he must be “rehabilitated”, presumably to become less “curious”, taking away from him the means to define his own reality for himself but allowing him perhaps to find that which he had been looking for.   


Letter to an Angel streamed as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)