By Patrick Tibke
In recent times Prabowo Subianto’s presidential campaign has often manifested as a peculiar spectacle, characterised by colourful and highly unpredictable politicking. In one such unorthodox campaign manoeuvre, earlier last month, Prabowo released an autobiographical documentary entitled Prabowo Sang Patriot (‘Prabowo the Patriot’), in which he is self-indulgently portrayed as the mortal embodiment of myriad, vainglorious Javanese and Indonesian stereotypes – from ancient, indefatigable warrior descendent, to paternalistic agro-lover and solider of ‘the people.’ In light of this particular item of propaganda, there seems to be no limitations as to what kind of rhetoric or medium Prabowo is willing to appropriate in order to clinch and index his strongman, populist credentials.
Prabowo Sang Patriot, a cinematic experiment produced and funded by Prabowo’s billionaire younger brother, Hashim Djojohadikusomo, was released via the Gerindra party’s exclusive YouTube channel on March 4, though so far to scanty acclaim. And in typically obstinate fashion, the brothers have subsequently denied that the film is intended as campaign propaganda, even though its release seems to coincide uncannily with the run-up to the 2014 elections. Technicalities aside, Prabowo Sang Patriot is clearly a very high-budget production, bolstered by extensive use of archive footage and slick direction from Helmi Adam, as well as an orchestral score and a catchy little campaign ditty, unreservedly entitled Prabowo Presidenku (‘Prabowo, my president’).
In terms of casting, Prabowo has shrewdly chosen not to feature personally in the film, presumably so not to be seen as blowing his own trumpet on-screen, so to speak. Instead, Prabowo Sang Patriot employs the assistance of a motley crew of hand-picked talking heads, each commissioned to narrate the life-story of the presidential hopeful and heap seemingly munificent praise on his pre-eminent, elite lineage.
Thus, in a rather noticeable academic about-turn, esteemed Oxford historian Peter Carey can be seen selling his soul on-screen as he delivers a cheery exposition of Prabowo’s intricate family tree; despite his former rendering of the late New Order Prabowo as an “unpredictable” ruffian known for his “hot temper and cold heart”, who previously “earned a sinister reputation for violence against the local population” during the Kopassus domination of East Timor.
Through an amusingly inventive mix of Indonesian and English, Carey establishes Prabowo’s direct blood relation with the revered Sultan Agung of 17th century Mataram, as well as Raden Tumenggung Kertanegara III, who fought with Prince Diponegoro during his much-vaunted 19th century rebellion against Dutch rule. Then in classic English parlance, Carey concludes that such intrepid ancestry is unlikely to produce a “lickspittle”, “yes-man” or “tag-along” (orang yang ikut-ikut saja). The subtext here presumably implies that Prabowo, by biological default, is a natural born leader embodying the same noble and courageous principles as those exemplified by his centuries-old forefathers.
Further on in the film, in another key scene, Prabowo’s participation in the bloody occupation and even ghastlier retreat from East Timor and West Papua is spun off as little more than a cunning enterprise in saving Western hostages – a remarkable feat which Prabowo could have hardly achieved without perfidiously masquerading as a Red Cross contingent in the heat of battle. Similarly, Prabowo’s later involvement in the abduction, torture and disappearance of pro-democracy activists in 1998 is conveniently expunged and glossed over by another designated expert, author Fadli Zon, who incidentally happens to be the deputy chairman of Prabowo’s Gerindra party. Essentially, all contentions and accusations of malpractice levelled at Prabowo prior to and during Suharto’s downfall are cleverly sidestepped in favour of ‘courageous’ or ‘patriotic’ scenes, such as the one regaling Prabowo’s ascent of Mt. Everest in 1997, in which he is pictured atop the summit valiantly raising Indonesia’s red and white flag and clamouring “God is great!”
Thankfully, for those voters eager to see an Indonesian president untarnished by the violence, pomp and impunity of the New Order period, Prabowo’s platitude-ridden, policy-devoid bio-doc has so far failed miserably to put momentum behind his presidential campaign. With only 70,853 YouTube views as of April 23, I think it’s fair to say that Prabowo Sang Patriot constitutes an embarrassing flop for the Gerindra party campaign team, and an expensive one at that. Indeed, there is no doubt that Prabowo Sang Patriot might strike a chord with Indonesia’s more nostalgic voters, many of whom still prefer the archaic dwi fungsi argument and look towards the military for competent, judicious leadership. But with such poor exposure the film is unlikely to have any significant effect on voting. For now we may as well sit back and revel in the gay melody of Prabowo Presidenku, and wonder what’s next in Prabowo’s weird inventory of campaign tricks.
Patrick Tibke is a Jakarta-based writer and a recent graduate from the Southeast Asian Studies program at SOAS, University of London. His interests include politics, human rights, labour and narcotics-related issues.