'Nyanyian Akar Rumput' director Yuda Kurniawan, third from right, Wiji Thukul's son Fajar Merah, third from left, and Komnas HAM commissioner Amiruddin Al-Rahab, far right, at a press conference in Jakarta on Thursday. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)

Son of Disappeared Poet Wiji Thukul Stars in New Documentary About His Father


JANUARY 10, 2020

Jakarta. New documentary film "Nyanyian Akar Rumput," or "Song of the Grassroots," attempts to bring public attention back to the still-unsolved disappearance of poet and activist Wiji Thukul during the heady first few months of the Reformasi era in 1998.

Wiji, one of Indonesia's greatest and most revolutionary poets, went missing in 1998 along with several other pro-democracy activists sometime after New Order dictator Soeharto's totalitarian regime was toppled by a combination of the Asian economic crisis, massive student demonstrations and nationwide rioting in May 1998. 


Producer and director Yuda Kurniawan said he wanted to raise awareness of the poet's plight, especially among young people, through a light-hearted documentary film.  

"I want young people to start conversations about human rights violations. The best way to do that is through film and music," Yuda said at a press conference in Jakarta on Thursday.

Song of the Grassroots follows the day-to-day life of Wiji Thukul's only son, singer-songwriter Fajar Merah. He was five years old when Wiji was kidnapped in 1998.

"I've found out more about my father by doing this film, even though in my earlier years I wanted to distance myself from him. Even if it's just through old footages of him, I could satisfy some of my longing for him," Fajar said.

Fajar transformed his father's poems into song lyrics, projecting them into his own life. 

"Other people who have lost their parents can visit their graves, but I have nowhere to go. I don't even know whether he's dead or alive," Fajar said.

Song of the Grassroots won the Best Long Documentary award at the 2018 Indonesian Film Festival and another award at the 2018 Jogja Netpac Asian Film Festival.

It also won an award at the Figueira da Foz International Film Festival in Portugal and was screened at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea.

The film will be on general release from Jan. 12 in Jakarta (Blok M Square XXI), Yogyakarta, Solo, Surabaya, Malang, Palembang, Makassar, Medan, Bandung and Purwokerto. It will also be screened at universities and alternative cinemas.

"We've sent an invitation to President Jokowi [Joko Widodo] to watch the movie. We hope it will jog his memory [about Wiji's unsolved disappearance]," Yuda said.

The director's two previous documentaries before Song of the Grassroots were "Jalan Dakwah Pesantren" ("Good News From Pesantren") and "Balada Bala Sinema" ("The Ballad of Cinemagoers").

Wiji Thukul's Unsolved Disappearance

Wiji, who was also a labor activist who led several factory workers' demonstrations in his hometown of Solo in Central Java, was kidnapped sometime in early 1998 along with 12 other pro-democracy activists.

Current defense minister Prabowo Subianto, the commander of the Army Special Forces unit Kopassus at that time, formed a crack team called Tim Mawar (Rose Team) tasked with kidnapping pro-democracy activists critical of Soeharto's ailing New Order regime.

Members of Tim Mawar and Prabowo were trialed at a military court later that year and the general was fired from the Army.

A National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM) inquiry in 2006 found 13 of the kidnapped activists were still missing. The commission has pursued the issue to the High Court, but until today the government has never launched an investigation.

"There might be more [than 13 activists]. We've been asking the government to look into the case and form a task force to solve it," Komnas HAM commissioner Amiruddin Al-Rahab said.

Amiruddin said the government has so far shown no willingness to revisit the case. 

"We've completed our part of the equation [the inquiry], and now it's up to the State Prosecutor and the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Human Rights Affairs [Mahfud M.D.] to continue the case," he said.

Komnas HAM had written about the case to Jokowi in 2018 and 2019, sat with Wiranto when he was still the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Human Rights Affairs in 2018 and met with the State Prosecutor.

Families of the missing activists, including Wiji, have demanded that President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo make good on his promise during the 2014 election campaign to find out once and for all what had happened to them. 

"They [the 13 activists] should be found, alive or dead," Jokowi said in Jakarta on June 6, 2014.

"Their families have waited for far too long. I hope the current administration can give them some answers," Amiruddin said.

Other than Wiji, the other missing activists are Dedy Umar Hamdun, Herman Hendrawan, Hendra Hambali, Ismail, M. Yusuf, Nova Al Katiri, Sony, Suyat, Ucok Munandar Siahaan, Yani Afri and Yadin Muhidin.