Soegija: A Movie About Humanity

I’ve been meaning to write this post ever since I watched the movie on the 8th of June, but of course, procrastination always gets the better of me, so here I am, finally writing this post. (SPOILER ALERT!)

The title of this movie is taken from the name of the first Javanese Catholic pastor in the former Indonesia (known as the Dutch East Indies) who was later named as one of Indonesian national hero, Albertus Soegijapranata. Soegija is said to be his nickname. Nevertheless, the movie itself is not actually a biographical movie about him, but instead, it involves around the life of multiple character around Soegija. There were at least about 7 notable characters, including Sogija (played by Nirwan Dewanto) himself, each with their own life turmoils in the midst of a chaotic country, looking for an identity of a nation.

Nirwan Dewanto as Soegija
Hendrick and Mariyem

There were Mariyem, a Catholic nurse (played by Annisa Hertami Kusumastuti) who was entangled in a search of her brother and the pursue of a Dutch reporter falling in love with her, Hendrick (played by Wouter Braaf). Meanwhile, Hendrick himself was torn between his love for Mariyem, passion and pity towards Indonesians’ fate intertwined between one colonialism over another colonialism (the movie moves chronologically forward from the end of the Dutch colonialism, Japanese afterwards, and then the Indonesian independence, and lastly the Dutch military aggression post-Independence day in order to re-colonized Indonesia), as well as his loyalty towards his own country. His friendship with a Dutch soldier, Robert (played by Wouter Zweers) didn’t help either as Robert is cruel and racist towards Indonesian, thinking that he’s way superior than Indonesian (which was a typical mindset at that time). He always looked down on Indonesian thinking of them as nothing but people who ought to be ruled by his country. One scene stands out, though. It was during the post-Independence time, when the Dutch was trying to take over Indonesia once again, and he searched the citizens’ houses to look for Indonesian soldiers, a native man didn’t want to move from where he stood even when Robert and his soldier threatened to kill him because they thought he was trying to hide something or someone. Only when they finally shot him did they realize the native man was merely trying to protect his baby. Then Robert approached the baby, and when I thought he was about to kill him, instead he took the baby into his arms, and then cuddled him. When the baby was crying, he was trying to calm him, and kept on doing so whilst walking out of the house. That scene really touched me, as it shows how someone portrayed as cruel as Robert is also shown to have a gentle, soft side within him.

Wouter Zweers as Robert
Olga Lidya in Soegija

Then there’s Ling Ling (played by Andrea Reva), who got caught up in the midst of chaos in the country as well, as her mom (played by Olga Lidya) was taken away by the Japanese as they took over Indonesia in the 2nd World War. She and her grandfather (played by Henky Solaiman) were forced to take refuge in the Catholic church, and this was where their fates crossed over with other characters in the movie since the church was where everybody else sought comfort and protection as Soegija shielded the people from colonialists. And that was also where Mariyem cared and tended the locals and at the same time tried to look for his missing brother amongst the war victims. Hendrick was also there, trying to help the people and reporting as well, including trying to win Mariyem’s heart. The first time they met, Hendrick called Mariyem as Maria, but she refused and insisted to be called Mariyem. By the end of the movie, though, she addressed herself as Maria. I suppose this would mean that she’d come to love Hendrick, eh?

Another notable character is a Japanese comrade, Nobuzuki (played by Nobuyuki Suzuki), who was not free from conflict as well. Once the Japanese ruled, he captured the Dutch soldiers and killed them, and many times local people also got involved. Every things related to the Dutch were banished and forbidden, and there was this one scene where he met a bunch of musician and prohibited them to play any western song. Then after he asked them whether they could play any other pieces, they played Bengawan Solo, and he grew fond of it. Later I found out from this blog that Bengawan Solo is a famous song in Japan. It is a beautiful classic, indeed.

The main character himself didn’t really stand out to me. I mean, it was clear that he was trying to protect the people as a pastor and as an Indonesian as well. Since he was an important person, the people looked up to him and listened to what he said. And as a pastor, he was having the privilege to do certain things that others couldn’t do. For example, when both the Dutch and the Javanese were trying to take the church down, he defended the church because it was actually a refugee for the poor and starving citizens. And he cared for the people. When people were trying to give him comfort (since, of course, he’s no ordinary person), he told everyone to care for the people first, and not him. One line that really touches me is when he said that whenever there’s food, pastors and evangelists are supposed to be the last to eat and they are also supposed to be the ones to starve when food is scarce. Touché. Then during the aggression by the Dutch, he seek recognition for Indonesian independence from Vatican right away, and Vatican was amongst the first countries to acknowledge and admit that Indonesia is one free country.

The movie itself is very good and vivid portrayal of Indonesia at that time. We know that many, many people lived under poverty at that time, and many times they got killed for no reason. The movie gives a very good depiction on how difficult that time must seemed, and the cinematography is awesome. At least that’s what I think. There’s one scene where people were marching at either dawn or dusk (I couldn’t tell the difference, sorry) and it shows the silhouette of people lining up. It was so beautiful.

Yet, I hate to admit that the movie itself looks like nothing but a documentary with a very good cinematography to me. Watching the movie from beginning to end, I felt like I was merely shown an event over another event in history chronologically. It lacks heavy conflicts and climax, and if it’s line graph, it would be a flat line to me. Of course, this is merely what I think and it might differ greatly with others’ interpretation. Despite showing how significant Soegija’s role at that time, his image throughout the movie felt to me like someone so far above the people, where, in contrast with the citizens’ struggle with the situation at that time in the movie, he looked well-fed, healthy and always at peace to me. I mean, if he was fighting for the people, sure he couldn’t look that good! He was mostly siting, writing, walking around, thinking, and constantly in comfort behind the walls and under the roofs. There was even a scene where he got his servant cut his hair while he was reading the news paper, and they looked so relaxed talking to each other and even joking around. It was completely different with the depiction of other characters’ conflicts.

Another thing is the act. I mean, they acted well, but nothing too wow to me, except for Wouter Zweers’ act as Robert, perhaps, because his portrayal of a loony, cruel, yet somehow with little compassion left in him looked so convincing to me. And some scenes looked too staged for me, like when Mariyem was trying to sent the Dutch soldiers away from the hospital when they were looking for Indonesian soldiers. As Soegija pointed out, she told the soldiers that everybody in the hospital were patients, not soldiers or anything else, and as a nurse, she and the doctors ought to do their job that is to care for them. Then suddenly she simply crouched, on her knees, and tending an old woman lying sick on the floor, yet that old woman barely did anything significant. She looked like she was sleeping to me, so what on earth did she crouched for, out of the blue? Or when Ling Ling was praying in front of Mary’s statue, and then out of nowhere, she just slowly (veeeeery slowly, and, of course, very dramatically) turned around, only to found her mother was standing behind her. Wow, did she have a sixth sense? The next thing that happened was even more dramatic as Ling Ling and her mother were running toward each other, and there was this slow motion until they finally hugged, cried, and laughed.

Again, that’s just my opinion.

Nevertheless, I think the movie is worth-watching. What really excites me throughout the movie is how each character switched from one language to another. I mean, the Dutch were speaking Dutch, and sometimes speak Indonesian a little, and most Indonesian in the movie speak Javanese, and the Japanese speak Japanese. It was really fun watching how the movie depicts a radio announcer reporting events in a high level Javanese (we called it “Krama Inggil”, a Javanese language used only when talking to noblemen, royalties, and elder people; see, Javanese has three different kinds of language for talking to people with different social class and status–the Ngoko, Krama Madya, and Krama Inggil). Since the movie was set in Central Java and more specifically Semarang and other regions near Semarang, the dialects used are mostly of Semarang dialect (I didn’t say Central Javanese dialects since the dialect from my hometown which is also located in Central Java is completely different).

All in all, this movie was not one without controversy. Even before it got premiered on June 7th, a group of a hard-line Moslem, famously known as FPI–Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender Front)–(and news about them never fail to piss me off) protested that this is a Christian movie and meant to change people’s belief. Even Garin Nugroho (the director) commented that this is a movie about humanity. Whatever it is, the protest itself sounds ridiculous to me, for it sounds like nothing but FPI people’s insecurities that Moslem people would convert into Christians or Catholics. What the hell is that if not insecurities?

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Published by

Laksmi

An MA student at Waseda University, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyo, Japan. An avid reader. A language geek as well. And a book hoarder.

9 thoughts on “Soegija: A Movie About Humanity”

  1. you summarized the story better than me :)

    I guess we could mutually agree that lingling met with her mother rather… useless eh? I honestly thought garin missed the message, she could have explored the theme of sex slave here.

    I mean c’mon, the womens were brought to the truck and separated from others? these who have read history probably knew they might ended up as sex slave, but for some reason they were freed without further explanation.

    I know there were cases when japanese freed the captives (my maternal grandmother’s brother was captured due to his indo heritage), still.. I feel unsatisfied

    1. Ahh, true. Or it might be better if Ling Ling’s mom didn’t return at all because that’d mean that she died whilst in the Japanese’s captive, rather than appearing out of the blue without any explanation. Not everyone is familiar with the Indonesian or Japanese history, after all. I do agree with you that there should be a portrayal of the Indo community as well, though. I mean, only after I read your blog and partially having read Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet did I understand about how difficult it must be as well for the Indo community. Mayhap you could write a story about it? :-)

  2. Great review. Well rather a thorough analysis. Thumbs up :).

    After reading Calvin’s critical appraisal ( and thinking this director is in the top-league) I was convinced this movie is worthwhile. Now I”m absolutely sure – even if the Soegija actually is mainly a documentary. I would really like to check whether the actors speak proper Dutch :). Have to wait for a DVD with English subtitles though :(.

    By the way you’ve got an impressive and often surprising ( to me) library :). A significant number of titles are on my shelves too :). Moreover it reveals you and Calvin have a lot in common: (8) “Jukstaposisi: Cerita tuhan mati by Calvin Michel Sidjaja” :).

    1. Aahh! Yeah, that. Ummm I haven’t read that one yet (sorry, Calvin), but I do plan to buy it next month! :D

      I wonder as well as for the Japanese and the Dutch spoken in the movie, especially because I don’t know both languages, but I suppose, the Dutch should be the proper one because both main actors are Dutch as well, right? I hope you could get one with English subtitles there!

  3. Hi Dian! You made a very, very good review. Even with the criticism about the acting, it makes me want to see the movie (which could be a little unrealistic for me, being so far away). Anyways, it was a great review.

  4. The main points were presented well.
    Differences: diversity, race, culture, religious,
    Skills, does not matter. People fight for the nation, helping, and respect each other. That we should remember the valuable lesson.

    Don’t make own judgment that the cardinal only sit and does not merge with those civilian that fighting in wars.

    Humanity is one. Even we face differences such nations/ethnic groups, origins, languages, customs, achievements and the way of life, all is one big family.

    1. Hi Iin, I agree with you that in the end humanity is one. As for my own judgment, I am sorry if apparently my interpretation is different from yours or that I didn’t see things you did. All the thoughts and opinions presented are of my own, really. I don’t assume that the cardinal didn’t do anything at all, but I think the movie didn’t show his action enough. I wanted to see more of him in action, more involved with the people around him whose problems are exposed one by one. The connection between each character is clear through Soegija, but I think the movie didn’t do him justice by not showing enough of his role in his service to the community and the country. Anyway, thanks for stopping by! :)

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