Revered as the father of modern Indonesian cinema, Usmar Ismail has long been mythologized as a kind of filmmaking patriot in the country’s popular imagination. His films about the Physical Revolution—a period of armed conflicts from 1945 to 1950 that sought to maintain Indonesia’s newly declared independence from the Netherlands—were held up as examples of what the national cinema should be. They generally center on a conflict between “us,” the Indonesians, and “them,” the imperialists and separatists. Each side has its own moral or existential dilemma, but the distinction is clear: “we” are inherently good and idealistic, while “they” are evil and opportunistic. In this series of films, which began with 1950’s The Long March, the plots resolve on an unambiguous point of closure: the victory of the national army over an external threat.
Set in the years after the revolution, After the Curfew (Lewat djam malam, 1954) doesn’t belong to this series, but it has also generally been seen through a lens of clichéd patriotism. When a restored print was released in 2012, Indonesian audiences considered it another of Ismail’s glorifications of the army and its heroism. Indeed, on the surface, the tale of a war hero struggling in his fight against corruption—a hero who loves his country so much that he takes a bullet for its sins—does sound like the ultimate nationalist fantasy. Public conversations about the movie mourned the hero’s sacrifice but rarely examined the political dead ends that would make such a tragic fate possible and predictable. Upon closer inspection, the film actually interrogates the violent military culture that would come to reshape the nation’s civil life.
After the Curfew opens with a pair of feet walking in the middle of the night. They belong to Iskandar (A. N. Alcaff), a former engineering student who has just returned from his duty as part of a guerrilla unit in the army. His stroll breaks into a panicked run as he scrambles into hiding, and from the shadows emerges a group of soldiers patrolling the curfew. A few years back, these soldiers might have been Iskandar’s comrades, but now they are the extension of an indifferent state apparatus bent on controlling civil unrest. Despite his wartime heroics, Iskandar is seen as nothing more than a potential danger. He manages to evade the patrol and takes refuge in the family home of his fiancée, Norma (Netty Herawaty).
Strikingly, after this intense opening sequence, it takes quite some time for Iskandar to speak his mind. The following scenes depict him being overwhelmed by his immediate circle as he’s mostly absent from view or listening in silence. His future father-in-law berates him for not obeying the curfew and demands that he find work. Meanwhile, Norma glorifies him as a noble hero to her peers. She even uses Iskandar as a moral benchmark to judge her brother, an engineering student, for doing nothing but chasing skirts.
“Iskandar is a hero not unlike the type found in Ismail’s revolution films. He is a military man who speaks in the vocabulary of war and has an unshakable moral code.”
“In After the Curfew,there are no mass politics. In fact, there are no masses to speak of, as Iskandar consistently eludes them.”
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