A still from 'Siko,' directed by Manuel 'Abe' Alberto Maia. (Photo courtesy of Yayasan Kelola)

'Siko': Eyewitness Account of Life After Timor Leste Independence Referendum


DECEMBER 11, 2018

Jakarta. East Nusa Tenggara has been attracting the attention of many Jakarta filmmakers in the past few years. Both Mouly Surya's satay western "Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak" ("Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts") and Riri Riza's children's flick "Kulari ke Pantai" ("I Run to the Beach") were filmed in exotic locales in the Eastern Indonesia province. But according to local filmmaker Manuel "Abe" Alberto Maia, who grew up and still lives in Kupang, these Jakarta films have rarely offered a realistic representation of the place and the people living in it.

Jakarta filmmakers seem to use East Nusa Tenggara mostly for the pretty vistas, of which it has in spades – think of Sumba in Marlina, now a major tourist destination – and are reluctant to dig deeper into the story of the people and the place.

If there are references to local culture in the film, they're usually self-exoticizing and thinly researched.

Abe wrote a critical review of Marlina in the respected film journal Cinema Poetica last year, in which he lambasted the film's cultural inauthenticity.

The film is now being lauded for winning more Piala Citra – Indonesia's Oscars – than any other film in history at the 2018 Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) on Sunday.

In his article, Abe questioned whether Marlina was a story set in Sumba or merely "filmed" on the island.

Abe has written about local filmmakers' effort to give a realistic portrayal of East Nusa Tenggara in an essay, "Komunitas Film Kupang: Membangun Sinema dari Timor" ("Kupang Film Community: Developing Timor Cinema," published only last week in the "Unjuk Rasa: Seni - Performativitas - Aktivisme" ("Demonstration: Art - Performativity - Activism") anthology published by Yayasan Kelola.

In his essay, Abe gave an account of the long history of Komunitas Film Kupang, which since the early years of Reformasi in 1998 has been trying to redress the lack of realistic portrayal of East Nusa Tenggara on TV and film.

Abe has been part of the community since 2012, producing several short documentaries with their help before making the feature-length "Nokas" in 2016.

The film, which follows the story of local farm boy Nokas as he prepares for his (very expensive) wedding, has been on the festival circuit for more than two years and won awards from Yogyakarta’s Festival Film Dokumenter in 2016, Malaysia’s Freedom Film Fest in 2017, the Philippines’ Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival in 2017 and Balinale in 2017.

Now Abe returns with his first short fiction film, “Siko,” a nominee for Best Short Film at FFI this year.

The short film was informed by Abe's life when he was a boy living in Indonesia-occupied East Timor.

The filmmaker was born in Balibo, now in Timor Leste, and moved to Kupang in East Nusa Tenggara when he was in the third grade in 1999, after the independence referendum and the violence that came after it.

Abe said his memories of his birthplace have been bugging him all these years, and he simply had to make a film about it.

"This is an important story to remind us that we Indonesians were once the colonizers, and that the Timor Leste issue was not resolved in a good way," Abe said after a screening of Siko at Kinosaurus in Kemang, South Jakarta, on Wednesday (28/11).

Real Actors, Real Symbols

Siko is short for Fransisko, a little boy in the film who lives with his family in Timor Leste after the 1999 independence referendum in which the East Timorese surprisingly voted to secede from Indonesia.

The film showed how Siko and his friends tried to carry on with life as normal after violence ripped apart the newly independent country.

Siko and his friend play with kites every day and blow on bullet shells to summon the wind to make them fly.

One night, Siko's mother leaves the house to find Siko’s sister, who did not come home after playing with her friends.

Siko's sister eventually returns home, but his mother is never to be seen again.

A few days after, Siko finds his mother's necklace in a field where he usually flies his kite.

Since then, Siko stops blowing on bullet shells.

The kite and the bullet shells are visual symbols that have strong roots in the local culture of Indonesia-occupied East Timor, according to author and journalist Seno Gumira Ajidarma, who spoke in the discussion after the Siko screening.

"Timor Leste under Indonesia was a place filled with silence and death. Every day, there would be bullet shells thrown away. I used to play with kites and bullet shells. I had a friend whose father was in the army, he used to bring home lots of bullet shells. Every whistle from those shells represents a life lost," Abe said.

He said kites in his film represent Timor Leste’s uncertain future back then. "You never know when the kite string will get cut off," Abe said.

The film also shows stones placed on the streets with flowers on top of them. This was the thing to do to show passersby that someone has been killed on that very spot.

Seno Gumira Ajidarma, whose short story collection "Saksi Mata" deals with life in Indonesia-occupied Timor Leste, said the film captured the situation very well.

In his visit to East Timor in 1994, the author witnessed how the Indonesian army killed local people as they pleased.

"When the referendum happened, people in Jakarta were in uproar. 'How did this happen? How could they choose independence over us?' But consider this, why would they choose to remain with Indonesia if their people were killed mercilessly under our government? Back then, people could be killed anytime without committing any crime," Seno said.

Writer and activist Olin Monteiro, who also attended the Siko screening, agreed with Seno's assessment.

Olin joined a volunteer team sent to Timor Leste after the 1999 referendum, and said Siko is a very realistic film.

Olin recalled seeing the same piles of stones and flowers as seen in the film, not only in Kupang but also in other parts of Eastern Indonesia, including Sumba.

She also praised how Abe accurately depicted the different reactions of adults and children to the violence they experienced.

"The adults were more obviously traumatized. They were given the difficult choice of moving to West Timor, which became part of Indonesia, or staying in East Timor, which became another country. For the kids, life went on almost as it used to. Children kept playing with their kites. Teenagers hung out with their friends. It was a unique situation where life went on despite all the traumas," she said.

Behind the Scenes

Komunitas Film Kupang helped Abe produce the short film. He also received assistance from B. W. Purbanegara, the director of "Ziarah."

The film was partly funded by the Hibah Cipta Perdamaian 2018 ("2018 Peacemaking Fund") that Abe received from Yayasan Kelola.

The director planned to shoot the film in Timor Leste, but then had to make do with Kupang since he did not have enough money.

The actors in the film were real Timor Leste refugees living in a camp in Kupang called Bone Ana.

Working with children with zero acting experience had its own ups and downs.

The boys who played Siko and his friends didn't know Tetum, the local language spoken on the island of Timor. Abe had to teach the kids how to deliver the Tetum lines before each scene.

The actress who played Siko's mother had lost a daughter and other members of her family during the Indonesian occupation of East Timor.

One of the scenes in the film brought all her traumas back and the actress nearly had a breakdown. Filming had to be postponed for a time to allow her to recover.