What you need to know
Indonesian film ‘Autobiography’, the co-winner of the 2022 Golden Horse Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize, explores relationships defined by power, both historical and intimate.
The sixteen members of the jury awarded the 2022 Golden Horse Asian Cinema Observer Recommendation Prize to *two* of the NETPAC-nominated films! Taking them in screening order, below I review Autobiography. My review of the other winner, Jeong-sun, is available . You can read capsule reviews of all nominees in two parts, and .
What does it feel like to grow up in close proximity to terrifying power?
Indonesian film critic Mukbal Mubarak’s writer-director feature debut, Autobiography, relates how former general and current electoral candidate Purnawinata (Arswendy Bening Swara) takes under his wing Rakib (Kevin Ardilova), the nineteen-year-old son of his lifelong servant (Lukman Sardi), whether Rakib wants it or not.
The position of servant is hereditary, so when Rakib’s father is jailed, Rakib takes up the duties by custom. The opening scenes in which he does so resemble a psychological thriller, as he cowers before the menacingly taciturn General. Turning his back to the General seems to court danger. When the General orders Rakib to drink his coffee for him, it feels like a trap.
In fact, it’s the first sign of the General’s paternal feeling for Rakib, one twisted by a subtle despotism. When the General visits the jail and discovers that Rakib’s father was arrested for protesting a reckless corporate development project, he chastises him for taking direct action instead of asking for his help — especially since the General has a stake in the offending corporation. But one gets the sense that the General would’ve just admonished him to shut up and be grateful for what he has.
This atmosphere of deadly ambiguity is conveyed by cinematographer Wojciech Staroń’s hazy, dusty, chiaroscuro lighting; Carlo Francisco Manatad’s slow-burn editing; and Bani Haykal’s distorted electronic score. The fog also symbolizes the two main questions of Rakib’s coming of age: Can he see the danger enveloping him? How will he deal with it?
As the title suggests, this is a portrait of not just a man but a nation. Indonesia emerged from centuries of colonialism after the second World War, led by the anti-imperialist president Sukarno, only to regress into U.S.-backed Cold War authoritarianism under Suharto. Even today, it’s still searching for solid footing amid the postcolonial wreckage. Against the background of a global fascist wave, it faces the same two questions as Rakib.
Yet this allegory is nuanced. As the General teaches Rakib to play chess and shoot a hunting rifle, introduces him to his army lackeys, praises him in front of his wife and daughter, and grants him a sergeant’s uniform that gives him stature in the eyes of his friends, Rakib gradually warms to him. After a fender bender, he takes the General’s lecture on forgiveness to heart, apparently unaware that the people they bump into forgive out of fear, not highmindedness.
When a local highschooler (Yusuf Mahardika) engages in a surreptitious act of protest against the General, the General asks Rakib to bring him over to apologize. Rakib, oblivious, does so, and is shocked and slammed with guilt at what happens. The General, he finally sees, is evil incarnate; but still he doesn’t see the structural supports that keep him in power.
Mukbal’s script is economical with its symbolic tokens. The deeper meaning of the opening coffee is revealed later, while Rakib’s sergeant’s uniform recalls an encounter with another sergeant. And Chekhov would be proud of that hunting rifle.
This attention to detail makes us sit up and take notice when there’s the slightest hint of a queer vibe shift. The General guides Rakib’s rifle aim in a particularly intimate way, and later barges into the bathroom to “help” Rakib bathe. The performativity of fascism often invites camp and, hence, queer aesthetics; think of the idolization of muscular men and women in uniform. As the saying goes, “Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
As Rakib drives the highschooler to the General, he intentionally drops something near his feet and “asks” the boy to pick it up.
The absence of women allows for this queer reading, but it also underscores fascism’s toxic masculinity enabled by military culture. The madonna–whore complex is on full display, as the women who do appear are either family or objectified party girls. They’re on the bottom rung of a social ladder that oppresses everyone who’s not at the top, cishet men included. It also corrupts the one person who is at the top, and who does anything it takes to stay there.
The film ends on a note of ouroboric despair, but it’s worth keeping in mind that autobiographies are written by the living. Indonesia is yet to turn the last page.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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