Watching the documentary film “Jalanan” by Daniel Ziv, I’m struck at how ugly and horrible Jakarta is. To be sure, the place is not exactly the prettiest in the world, but seeing the city close up, warts and all, an alien looking at it could be forgiven for thinking that we inhabit one of Dante’s seven circles of Hell.
I guess all this time I must have got used to the ugly parts of this sprawling mess of a metropolis that my brains have ceased to register any judgment as to its aesthetic (or lack of) value, especially as I’m also guilty most of the time of experiencing it behind the tinted window of my car. Because unlike many other capital cities of the world, Jakarta is built not to be enjoyed but to be endured.
Looking at the Big Durian on the big screen, one can almost smell the sewage-filled gutters, choke on the fume-filled polluted air, and feel oneself trapped in the teeming humanity that populate every inch of the pot-holed, traffic-jammed road of the city like bacteria in a Petri dish.
And when the rain falls, the city becomes one huge lake of muddy water filled with drowned vehicles — a proud metropolitan rapidly sinking in despair. Not the kind of reflection you wish to see of yourself in the mirror.
But that’s exactly what “Jalanan” is. A mirror of ourselves and the life we lead.
And it does so, honestly and with no pretense. Perhaps this is why the film resonates with us who call Jakarta our home. Seen through the eyes of three street musicians, whose day-to-day existence consists of singing on rickety public transportation to commuters (who are already on the lower end of the economic scale), for a handful of coins with which to feed themselves, the visual diary of Boni, Ho and Titi strips bare all the layers of superficialities that make up this restless city.
Living under a bridge, having sex with a prostitute under the sky to the sound of traffic, saving every rupiah earned to send to parents in the village, these three buskers cannot be anything other than authentic and honest.
Boni, Ho and Titi have almost nothing in this life, except a vocal chord, a battered guitar and a lucid view of life that grants them wisdom and humor in their outlook and an endless source of inspiration for their lyrics.
Already labeled society’s trash, they’re freed from the need to conform, to fulfill certain social expectations, to be someone they’re not. They’re freed from the fear of losing, of failure, of not being successful. Instead, they are blessed with the ability to see life as it really is, with all its hypocrisy, its corruption, its silliness.
Boni often uses the public toilet in one of the many flashy malls in the city. The place amuses him. ‘This is where the different sh**s mix,’ he chuckles.
The rich, the poor, the different nationalities. In life, these people don’t mix, he observes. They keep themselves to themselves. But in the toilets, their excrement gets together quite happily.
Watching the many vociferous anti-corruption demonstrations at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout, Ho is unimpressed. Those who lead the protest are just envious. As soon as they’re in power, they will be just as corrupt.
At the end of the day, everyone is a hypocrite.
Titi, meanwhile, knows which songs to sing to elicit generosity in the breasts of her listeners. Women wearing head scarves are usually the stingiest, she says. So she throws in a few religious songs with references to kindness and the love of God. Sure enough the wallets start opening. Some songs are real money-earners, she says.
Although deprived of the luxuries, the malls, the high rises, the restaurants and the cafes of Jakarta, often with only the sky as the roof and hard floor as their bed, strangely one gets the feeling these street buskers feel more at home and more attached to the city than any of us will ever be.
Desi Anwar is a senior anchor at Metro TV. She can be reached at desianwar.com or dailyavocado.net.