Can a movie cure blindness? Jalanan reveals urban poverty

I got an e-mail today from film-maker extraordinaire Daniel Ziv. His documentary Jalanan, about street musicians and urban poverty in Jakarta, has been playing to great acclaim around the world, noticed by publications such as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal, that tend to devote more column inches to the winners of Indonesia’s erratic growth-fest than to the losers.

The film deserves their attention. But in his e-mail, Daniel was rightly more excited about the attention the film is getting right there in Jakarta, most notably from putative Governor-in-Waiting Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (‘Ahok’). Ahok held a gala screening of the film, was moved to tears by it, and afterwards made this statement:

“There’s barely any interaction between the government and people of this city. For many people in Jakarta, it’s as if no government exists,” he said. “Many government officials are like unreachable deities. Even God is easier to reach than some government officials. To reach God you only need to pray.” (Ahok then gave his personal mobile number and blackberry messenger pin to Titi, Boni and Ho, and has been personally in touch with them since.)

Ahok has listed a number of steps he intends to take to improve communication, as well as to reduce the bureaucracy’s habit of treating citizens as criminal just because they are poor. Daniel, who is a good judge of these things, believes Ahok is speaking and acting in good faith, and I have no reason to question that.

I am properly thrilled that a film so honestly made, and so respectful of its subject matter, should have such a useful impact. This is what great documentary making (and great reporting, and non-fiction writing) should be about. I’m especially pleased because, as I noted at the time of the election, the people most likely to benefit from Ahok’s social conscience are those that are least likely to have voted for him. It’s worth mentioning too that poverty has been on the Acting Governor’s agenda before he saw the film; he recently complained that the number of poor people in Jakarta was greatly understated because the statistical cut-off for poverty is far too low: just a dollar a day. But I feel that in the comments quoted by Daniel, Ahok has only partially diagnosed the problem. It is not just that there’s no interaction between civil servants and most residents of Jakarta. It is that there is no interaction between Indonesia’s educated, thinking (and unthinking), ruling, hiring, politicking, media-producing Haves and the Have Nots that are in the majority across most of the country.

Daniel’s film is extaordinary because he SAW Boni, Ho and Titi, rather than looking through them as so many well-heeled Indonesians would have done. And he saw them as humans, no better or worse than the rest of us, not to be celebrated for their poverty, not to be pitied or patronised either — just people you might become friends with. It’s absurd that this should be so unusual, but wealthy Indonesians seem to suffer a peculiar sort of blindness when the people standing beside them are like Boni, Ho, Titi or the millions of other residents of Jakarta who scrape a living off the richer people who share their city but not their fate. I’m both gratified that Jalanan should have made the invisible poor more opaque, and sad that films like this are growing ever more necessary.