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VENICE 2022 Orizzonti

Review: Autobiography


- VENICE 2022: Echoes of Indonesia’s 31-year dictatorship abound in the present, in debutant Makbul Mubarak’s sombre political drama

Review: Autobiography
Kevin Ardilova (right) and Arswendy Bening Swara in Autobiography

It would be beneficial to know some biographical facts about this film’s director, Makbul Mubarak, before delving properly into Autobiography [+see also:
film profile
, his debut feature, which has been given a plum spot in Venice’s Orizzonti section, before heading across the Atlantic to Toronto later this month. Whilst it’s important not to over-emphasise real-life parallels or influences, what’s actually most pertinent here is the fact that the film’s story is only indirectly inspired by his family history: he grew up as the son of prominent civil servants, engaged in propping up the rule of the country’s former dictator Suharto. Autobiography aptly muses on the notions of loyalty and proximity to power, but renders them on a completely different social stratum, and also in a different historical era – the present day.

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So, in this age of autofiction and the fashionability of personal memoirs, Mubarak beckons us to see the concept of “autobiography” in a more abstract sense. This is a tense, downbeat quasi-thriller, obsessed with atmospherically grimy bilateral compositions filmed through reflective surfaces, such as fungus-caked plexiglass windows. It feels like a dream that Indonesia, haunted by its past, is having about itself – a “national” autobiography – with its erstwhile fascist political structure eerily reflected in its central power dynamic between a regional mayor, General Purna (Arswendy Bening Swara), and his young enforcer.

Rakib, or Kib for short (Kevin Ardilova), this housekeeper-turned-confidant of the mayor, is the latest in his family’s long line to serve as house help at Purna’s estate (how interesting the idea of parallel dynasties is: of powerbrokers and the descendants of the “help” who nurse them and clean up their waste). Kib’s father is in jail, so Purna offers himself up as a surrogate father figure, and initially at least, Kib is totally up for it. His options at this stage of his young life are either to join his older brother as a building-site labourer in nearby Singapore, where he’ll be trafficked over the border by a local gangster, or to leave the General’s estate behind and join his security detail.

With a tone not far from Full Metal Jacket, Mubarak is showing how young, impressionable men can find solace and belonging not so much in fascist ideology, but more in suppressing their humanity to become robotically loyal soldiers for a cause – “born to kill”, to quote the aforementioned Kubrick film. Kib seems frighteningly empowered when he is forced to arrest a protester railing against the municipality’s planned hydroelectric plants, the impacts of which would harm the agrarian livelihoods of the area’s inhabitants. But the bleak fallout from this finds Kib being almost anti-redpilled, finally glimpsing some morality from being so close to power’s bleak source.

The presiding issue with Mubarak’s film is unfortunately its generic nature: it’s novel and exciting to see a major independent Indonesian film attempt to reckon with the country’s past, from a young and talented director at that, but still, this plot conceit is just too generic and familiar, and arguably could take place in any region. And it’s not surprising to read that it began life as a short film; the story sketched above struggles to sustain tension across its two-hour running time and feels devoid of a few more gradients in its plot arc. To circle back to the beginning, the imaginative empathy he attempts to create by placing himself in a very different person’s shoes can only go so far.

Autobiography is a co-production between Indonesia, France, Singapore, Poland, the Philippines, Germany and Qatar, staged by KawanKawan Media, In Vivo Films, Potocol, Staron Film, Cinematografica Philippines, NiKo Film, FOCUSED equipment and Partisipasi Indonesia. Its world sales are courtesy of Alpha Violet.

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