Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
Indonesia-watchers inclined to write off President Abdurrahman Wahid as, politically, a dead man walking, should tune in… A remarkable fly-on-the-wall documentary by the Sydney filmmaker Curtis Levy shows how this ‘frail, clinically blind Muslim cleric’ – as the cliché goes – is a great political escapologist. That many of Mr Wahid’s power threatening predicaments are of his own making, or at least greatly deepened by his penchant for indiscreet remarks, is also only too obvious.
Levy first encountered Mr Wahid in the early 1990s, while making his documentary series Riding the Tiger, about Indonesia’s turbulent modern history. They became friends when Levy made Invitation to a Wedding, focusing on Mr Wahid about the time then president Soeharto was trying to topple him from the leadership of the vast Islamic organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), still the President’s chief power base.
Early last year, Levy spent four months with Mr Wahid, watching and filming close-up, from the President’s 4.30 am walks around the palace grounds until his last callers depart about midnight. Levy was fascinated by a man of boundless energy (despite severe physical handicaps resulting from diabetes and several strokes) and genuine commitment to reform, who disguises his anxieties with what seems constant flippancy…
Levy came back to his Balmain backroom studio with 200 hours of videotape, nearly all of it intimate glimpses of the leader of the world’s fourth biggest country. But he concentrated on one episode that may be the high point of Mr Wahid’s presidency: the circuitous undermining early last year of General Wiranto, the military chief left behind by the Soeharto regime.
With Mr Wahid away on a bizarre 18-day foreign tour (he was due back in Jakarta last night from his most recent overseas travels), Wiranto clearly thought he could tough out an Attorney-General’s report listing him among those responsible for the militia violence in East Timor. After two weeks of contradictory signals from Mr Wahid at every stopover, General Wiranto was waiting with his resignation on the President’s return…
A lighter moment, and the program’s title, came from Mr Wahid’s eclectic musical tastes; on one walk he is singing along to a tape of Tex Ritter’s Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’ – the theme, as he explains to his entourage, from the movie High Noon. Mr Wahid, like Soeharto, is not one to cut himself off from enemies, Levy points out. ‘[Wahid] likes to engage his enemies and turn them around. It’s a kind of age-old tradition of Javanese rulers to somehow negate them.’ — Hamish McDonald, Sydney Morning Herald, 8/3/01