Jakarta buskers in unlikely story of hope

Award-winning documentary "Jalanan" follows the lives of three street buskers in the Indonesian capital.


    I have passed the bridge a hundred times. It is around the corner from our office. It crosses an open sewer going under the main thoroughfare in Central Jakarta, close to all the five star hotels and shopping malls.

    For the first time I climb down on a small steep path and discover a different world. Boni has lived under this bridge in a small tunnel for more than 10 years, on and off. Together with other homeless people he spends the nights in a small dark room he built here. When it rains he has to run for his life because the tunnel quickly fills up with water.

    Boni has decorated his 'home' with small pieces of art and drawings. It looks like a museum of street life. On the wall he wrote one word: Hyatt. In the back he installed a used bathtub and a toilet. His one-star hotel made out of rubbish.

    "We are considered human garbage," Boni tells me, "That's why I collect garbage and make something nice from it. And now this human garbage is even seen on the big screen." The 30-year-old laughs. His dark humour lightens up the movie Jalanan (Streetside) in which he features together with two other buskers Titi and Ho.

    For four years the street musicians took director Daniel Ziv by the hand through their turbulent lives, turning themselves into heroes of their own existence.

    The film shows their misery and the darkest sides of their struggle, but above all it reveals their perseverance and hope with a purity cinemagoers hardly encounter. Viewers go through a rollercoaster of emotions, crying from both loud laughter and bitter sadness.

    Enormous pride

    They get for example an interesting inside look into Ho's complicated love life. The street singer's at times hilarious struggle with relationships is recognisably also to those who consider themselves living normal lives.

    Titi, the only female character, was forced to leave education before she reached high school. Jalanan shows how the street singer finds enormous pride in passing her exam in a later stage of her life when she already has three children from several husbands.

    Titi cries when I talk to her. "I am a housewife but also still struggle like this, playing for money on the streets. I just want to make my family happy." I feel her sadness in my stomach. Titi moved to Jakarta from East Java when she was still a teenager so she would not burden her poor parents any longer. Living a life on the streets ever since.

    In other circumstances her beautiful voice could have easily provided her with a proper living.

    "Indonesian films and series always portray poor people as objects, in Jalanan they turn into heroes, even superheroes and rockstars carrying with them enormous wisdom," explains Ziv.

    The film not only shows the lives of those in Jakarta's darkest corners but it reveals Indonesia's reality of rampant corruption and painful inequality in a confrontational way.

    "Gradually over the years it became a story much wider than just the life story of three marginalized people," Ziv says. "It turned into a portrait of Indonesia today, post democratization, post globalisation and it gives an intimate look on the effects of all this on the lives of three poor people in Jakarta."

    One of the most hilarious scenes shows Boni going into a toilet in an expensive shopping centre speculating about mixing rich and poor people. Because what comes out at the toilet "clearly mixes easily".

    Rich country

    "Reforms, its all nonsense," sings Ho in a crowded bus. We travel with him on his daily work trip. With a loud and snaring voice he confronts his audience with Indonesia's main problems. "If you want to be corrupt be prepared to be hanged. If you don't want to be hanged, well don’t be corrupt," he shocks passengers with his lyrics. 

    He still collects a few dollars. "In one day I aim to collect around ten dollars so I have enough to feed my children. This means I have to go from one bus to the other for at least five hours," he says.

    Despite economic growth of more than six percent in the past few years the gap between rich and poor has only increased. Only a small minority has profited from booming coal and palm oil exports among others. Millions have flocked to the capital to try their luck and pursue a dream to realise it was not more than just that.

    "I want rich people to see the life I'm living," says Ho. "I want to tell them we are the flowers of the streets and if we are given water we'll become very valuable. If you treat us like rubbish we ll be useless."  Although its rare for an Indonesian documentary to make it into the cinemas, Jalanan can be seen next to Hollywood blockbusters in Jakarta.

    The three unlikely movie stars hope the success of the documentary will finally bring real change to their lives.

    So far Boni is still living in his tunnel dreaming about a house of his own. "I am proud and sad to see myself now on the big screen but I am still not happy," he tells me.

    Ho seems to be the only character who has moved to a slightly different way of living. Instead of spending his days on the public bus he makes public appearances and sees himself more as an artist than a busker. "I really hope that my life will be more artistic from now on and that there will be finally justice in Indonesia. Because this is a very rich country," he says.




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