Daniel Ziv’s Jalanan: Documenting Jakarta’s Street Buskers

Jalanan, a documentary by filmmaker Daniel Ziv, reveals a rarely seen side of the Indonesian capital Jakarta: the struggle for survival of its bus musicians and street buskers. Novelist Michael Vatikiotis shares his impressions of the film, which premièred at Busan Film Festival 2013.

At one point in Daniel Ziv’s award-winning new documentary about street buskers in Jakarta, Boni, one of the three characters around which the story is skilfully crafted, walks into a glitzy shopping mall in the city centre. He strolls past luxury-brand stores and heads for the toilet. Boni, who lives with his wife under a bridge and over an open sewer, has a broken water pipe as his only source of running water. After relieving himself and washing up, he speculates about the mixing of all the different waste: from foreigners, rich people and poor people like himself. ‘Their faeces seems to mix just fine,’ he says, ‘so why can’t we?’

Jalanan is one of the finest portrayals of Indonesian life to emerge for outside audiences in years. Shorn of stereotypes and finely observed, it presents a gritty reality that even Indonesians find shocking. The film follows the lives of three street musicians who make a living belting out their own songs on the city’s dilapidated mini-buses. Boni, Ho and Titi, nearly destitute, live precariously on the margins of Jakarta. Spliced between beautifully filmed and recorded music sequences featuring their original songs, is the story of their struggle to overcome their impoverished circumstances and find fulfilment.

Almost six years in the making, and coming sharply on the heels of another more controversial documentary about Indonesia made by a foreigner, Jalanan elevates Indonesia to something more than a place of exotic tourism. Earlier this year Joshua Oppenheimer’s award-winning Act of Killing, about the slaughter of more than a million people accused of communist sympathies in the 1960s, lit up the festival circuit. Likewise, Jalanan has now won a coveted best documentary award at the recent Busan Film Festival.

Indonesia has long been an artistic cul-de-sac — in global terms — burdened by crude stereotypes, a poor image and weak marketing. For many years Indonesia was stuck in the 1960s era of poverty and military thuggery, depicted by Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously, based on the eponymous book by Christopher Koch. The image stuck, as Indonesia wrestled first with the end of authoritarian rule, a brutal religious war in Maluku, and then a botched and bloody withdrawal from East Timor at the turn of the twenty-first century. A democratic transition that should have been greeted as a good-news story was then marred by the Bali bombings and the emergence of violent Islamic extremism. All this has made Indonesia a hard sell.

Jalanan provides a refreshing corrective, without papering over the enduring problems the country faces. For one thing it is a story about real Indonesians. The characters themselves are realistic about the hardships they face. The contradictions and hypocrisies that are a burden to millions of Indonesians trying to make their way in what is often bitterly referred to as the ‘era of reform’, are cuttingly portrayed.

At one point in the film, Ho is arrested by city officials for busking. He ends up in a city jail and decides to compose a song there for his fellow inmates. ‘They call this a democratic country,’ he sings with his raucous voice, ‘but it is still unsafe — especially when you busk in the streets. We are Indonesians but treated as aliens.’ Ho is filmed hanging out at several of the city’s incessant street demonstrations, which in recent years have focused on corruption. ‘This is bullshit,’ he remarks, ‘they are all hypocrites.’

It’s hard not to like Ho, with his dramatic dreadlocks and profane sense of humour. But much of the film dwells on Titi, from East Java and mother of three children. She has drifted to the city for the opportunities she imagined would be available, and to prove that she can be somebody. She lands up with a no-gooder from a strict Muslim family who leeches off her meagre takings on the buses.

The film paints an intimate portrait of a believable and typical character, exposing her emotions and beliefs with moving candour. Titi lingers at a market stall over cosmetics and tells the vendor ‘street buskers must look nice, too’ but she can’t afford to buy anything. A few minutes later she gives some change to an old woman who begs nearby because the woman has no children to support her. At home Titi is forced to wear a jilbab, but when she leaves to ride the buses she picks up her guitar at a nearby food stall and casually stuffs the head-covering in the case – a scene that prompted spontaneous applause in one recent public showing in Indonesia.

The reality of these stories is painful, yet also endearing. Unlike the Act of Killing, which uses all kinds of artistic devices such as theatrical re-enactments to induce confessions from a pair of thugs who participated in the killings of communists in the 1960s, Jalanan is constructed like a long sequence of time-lapse photography.

Watch a trailer for Jalanan here:

Canadian-born Ziv spent over four years shooting the characters almost full time, resulting in about 250 hours of raw footage. ‘Cool shit doesn't happen on demand,’ he says. ‘So I followed them for about four and a half years, and every six months or so something amazing would happen. It was only after around four years of shooting that I felt I had captured a big enough — and deep enough — slice of their lives to somehow represent who they are and what their world is about.’

The cinematography is at times patchy, but given the challenges of following street musicians on and off crowded buses on Jakarta’s city streets, the overall effect is stunningly vivid, and full of energy. Ziv attributes a great deal of the film’s look to editor Ernesto Hariyanto and almost two years in post-production.

The music is strong. Most of the songs are original compositions by Boni, Ho and Titi and is all the more remarkable given how poor their backgrounds are. Boni began life as a street urchin and can’t write, but describes how he composes songs in his head: ‘My head is like a tape recorder.’ Ho’s lyrics are bitingly satirical. ‘I love Indonesia, but does Indonesia love me back?’ he asks. He regards himself as a nail hammered into steel: ‘It won’t go in, but gets bent out of shape.’

The Busan Festival jury rewarded the film for its ‘humanizing and respectful look into the class system of Indonesia’ told through ‘heart-warming and redemptive characters in a non-sentimental fashion’. For Daniel Ziv, the making of the film was an epic journey into the heart of a city and society he has embraced as his own. Ziv set out to make a short film about the busking community. But over time he says it became clear that he was uncovering a fascinating, important story about Indonesia: ‘a sort of snapshot of the post-reformasi era from the perspective of those caught in that very uncomfortable crack between two phenomena that we celebrate so often: reformasi and globalization. My buskers were feeling both these things very profoundly, but benefiting from neither.’

Despite the temptation to bask in well-deserved glow as a filmmaker, Ziv has instead thrust his subjects into the limelight, insisting that Boni, Ho and Titi deserve all the credit for the courage and patience to allow him to tell their stories. Has it changed their lives? Not really. ‘They are all mostly in the same place and doing the same thing they were when I met them six years ago,’ says Ziv. ‘And that's a hard lesson about the street, and about life in the margins: things rarely ever change, even with money, even with a mysterious foreigner shows up to make a movie about you.’

By Michael Vatikiotis

Michael Vatikiotis is the author of two novels set in Indonesia and two books on Indonesian politics published by Routledge. His latest novel, The Painter of Lost Souls is set in Central Java.