Solo. Wiji Thukul, a prominent Indonesian poet, human rights activist and freedom fighter, has been missing since 1998, just weeks before Suharto and his totalitarian regime collapsed.
While many believe that he was kidnapped by the Suharto government because of his resistance against the abusive regime, the Indonesian public is still in the dark about his disappearance. The state has yet too officially proclaim his death, though his whereabouts remain unknown to this day.
In an attempt to help raise awareness about Wiji’s role in bringing down the totalitarian state and his fight for the nation’s freedom, as well as to help unveil the mystery surrounding his abduction, non-profit organization Muara Foundation has announced plans to produce a movie on the poet’s life.
Novelist and Muara Foundation chairwoman Okky Madasari, who met with Wiji’s children, Fitri Nganthi Wani and Fajar Merah last week, said the family fully supported the project.
“We approached [publisher] Gramedia about releasing a compilation of Wiji Thukul’s poems, called ‘Nyanyian Akar Rumput’ [‘Grass Root Songs’] last year. Now, we will bring his story to the big screen and hope that people can enjoy it at theaters across Indonesia next year,” Okky told the Jakarta Globe on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Literary Festival in Solo, Central Java, on Monday.
Okky, who is also ALF’s program director, underlined the importance of celebrating Wiji’s life and work as an example of courage and the fight for freedom in the face of an oppressive government, especially among Indonesia’s youth.
The poet was one of many victims of human rights atrocities committed by the Suharto regime. He was hunted down, tortured and, ultimately, he was most likely abducted by members of the military.
The movie aims to keep the memory of both Wiji and this repressive era of Indonesian history alive in its people’s minds, according to Okky.
She hopes the film will inspire the younger generation to defend and support freedom of speech.
“The nation owes him [Wiji], and this film is a way to sustain his spirit and legacy among us,” she said. “We will enlist the help of young movie makers as we want to spread Wiji’s spirit among the younger generation.”
The script — which was written by writer and journalist Is Mujiarso, better known Mumu Aloha — has been completed and shooting is scheduled to start in October or November.
The story will follow Wiji’s early life, his freedom-fighting efforts, up until the time of his disappearance during massive protests to topple Suharto from his throne in May 1998.
The project will be directed by Yogyakarta filmmaker Yosep Anggi Noen, who was also responsible for “A Lady Caddy Who Never Saw a Hole in One.” The short film garnered a Sonje Award at the 2013 Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) and won the Ladrang Award at Solo’s Film Festival (SFF) last year.
His first feature-length movie, “Peculiar Vacation and Other Illnesses” (2012), was screened at several international film festivals, including in Toronto, Stockholm, Rotterdam and Busan.
Wiji’s family, including his wife Siti Dyah Sujirah, or Sipon, hopes the movie will help Indonesians, young and old, better understand the reasons behind her husband’s plight and his kidnapping.
It may even inspire others to step forward about loved ones who also went missing 17 years ago, she said.
“I expect the movie to tell the truth [about what happened to Wiji],” Sipon added.
Who is Wiji Thukul?
Wiji worked in several factories in Solo to make ends meet. He was an active member of the Jagat Theater as well as literary communities of the Central Java Cultural Center. He studied dance at Arts Vocational High School (SMKI), but dropped out.
He soon began writing poetry to provoke and encourage people to confront the Suharto dictatorship, then joined the Budiman Sudjatmiko-led People’s Democratic PARTY (PRD) in 1996 — a move that did not sit well with his wife.
“I did not agree [with his decision to join the PRD]. I told him that he could be pro-proletarian through poetry and the theater, instead of joining a political movement,” Sipon said.
It didn’t take long for the PRD to appear on Suharto’s radar and secure a spot on the dictator’s long list of enemies. Wiji began moving from city to city to avoid military arrest, Sipon recalled.
His family last heard from him in February 1998. The poet had contacted them to say he was in Jakarta to meet up with other activists.
Several witnesses have confirmed spotting him at student-led rallies protesting the government in the capital. But Wiji never came home and was never heard from again.
Budiman, fellow activist Andi Arief and even Sipon believe he is still alive.
“I hope Jokowi [President Joko Widodo] will reveal my husband’s whereabouts. He must have some clue [to where Wiji is],” Sipon said.
Wiji’s poetic style was heavily influenced by Marxist criticism, combining realism with socialist genres.
In addition to daring poems defending the rights of blue-collar workers, Wiji also encouraged Indonesians to rise up and fight against totalitarianism, such as in his piece titled “Warning,” which ends with the stanza: “If ideas are rejected without a thought/Voices are silenced and criticism is dismissed without reason/Labelled subversive and a threat to security/There is only one word: Fight!”
The poem is among Joko’s favorites. During his term as mayor of Solo, the president would often invite human rights activist to his residence, the historical Lodji Gandrung, to honor those who went missing while fighting for democracy out.
Notable poems by Wiji are “Say Your Words,” in which he warned against the dangers of keeping silent (“If we enslave ourselves to fear, we will lengthen the line of slavery”) and “Flower and Wall” — this time a warning to an oppressive tyrant (“If you force silence, I will prepare for you: Rebellion”).
Many of his writings continue to appear throughout Jakarta as graffiti art.
Wiji’s inspiring work earned him an award from the Wertheim Foundation in the Netherlands in 1991 and the Yap Thiam Hien Award from the Center for Human Rights Studies in 2002.
ALF goes to school
The Asean Literary Festival headed to Wiji’s hometown with its ALF Goes to Solo event, staging discussions with the literary community Pawon and visiting two of the cities largest universities to promote literature among students. The festival also travel to Yogyakarta and Sumatra.
“ALF will tour several cities, meet local literary communities and promote literature. Our mission is to instill a love of literature among young people,” Okky said.
The ALF program director addressed students of Muhammadiyah University (UMS) and Sebelas Maret University (UNS) to deconstruct Indonesia’s literary scene, which she said is currently dominated by books that disregard women’s rights.
The country’s selection of pro-feminist novels, she added, is very limited.
“Under the guise of morals, norms and religion, best-selling novels teach [women] to accept polygamy as a divine practice. Women are forced to be weak and do nothing. [In these novels], women are ruled over,” Okky said.
She added that Indonesian literature has long treated women as objects to be dominated.
Okky also singled out the popular Chick Literature (Chicklit) genre and its motto of “be single and happy” for portraying “powerless” women who are controlled by capitalism.
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