Jalanan: Busking and dreaming in the city

By telling the stories of Boni, Titi and Ho, Jalanan brings to the screen the hardships and precarious lives of marginalised people in one of the most economically promising Asian countries. Courtesy of Jalanan Movie Team

Daniel Ziv‘s documentary feature Jalanan (Streetside), currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, is a film that seeks to move its audience.

Documentaries sometimes invite viewers to social and political engagement. To do this, they might put viewers into uncomfortable situations. Jalanan, the story of three Jakarta buskers, Boni, Titi and Ho, is this kind of film.

Ziv, an Indonesia-based Canadian filmmaker, filmed the three street singers for six years. He pointed his camera at their reality and homed in on the social and political forces that shaped it.

By telling the stories of Boni, Titi and Ho, Jalanan brings to the screen the hardships and precarious lives of marginalised people in one of the most economically promising Asian countries. Jalanan presents the three as aspiring individuals with self-actualisation needs amid the hardship they encounter on a day-to-day basis.

Everyone is looking for something

Boni, an illiterate “singer-songwriter”, has been living in a canal tunnel with his wife, Rita for ten years. He dreams of a proper home yet all he can do is paint the word “Hyatt” on the tunnel wall.

Titi is a mother of three. Her children are scattered in three different cities. She sends money for her sickly father’s medication and for her child’s education in the village. Titi stresses how important it is that her children “not be a busker” as she is, signifying the importance of making the leap in social class.

The other busker, Ho, sings his political songs with a rugged voice, suggesting that his listeners “hang the corruptors”. He lives alone and tries to find true love.

Jalanan is screening at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.

With these aspirations, the documentary subjects qualify as protagonists in a neo-classic Hollywood story: an individual tries to achieve something and faces obstacles in the process. Jalanan benefits from this model of storytelling. It avoids didactic forms and, rather, asserts some kind of audience self-identification. Wanting a better place to live, improving social status and finding true love are universal aspirations.

Just like in Hollywood, Jalanan also brings closure to the protagonists’ venture, keeping the audience from seriously questioning what happens to them after the screening.

Beyond the film, the filmmakers have started a crowd-funding initiative to provide houses for the buskers.

Watching poverty in luxurious malls

Viewers in Indonesia won’t escape the irony when they go to cinemas in luxurious shopping malls to watch Jalanan. But filmmakers have no choice but to screen their work in this way if they want their films to reach a larger audience in Indonesia. Gentrification of Indonesian movie theatres since the 1990s has seen small cinemas fold and mega-cinemas thrive.

Jalanan provides enlightenment and entertainment, of some sort, for the middle and upper class of Jakartans who are willing to spend their money on a diverting spectacle. In Indonesia, it has a limited distribution in 21 Cinepelex, the cinema chain that dominates the country’s film distribution.

From the screen to public policy

Despite its limited distribution, Jalanan has benefited from its status as a documentary film. Audiences often perceive arguments presented in a documentary as undeniable truths. Sometimes, the documentary form can prompt viewers’ social and political engagement.

Jalanan managed to do this when acting Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama watched the film with his staff (the governor, Joko Widodo, now president-elect, was taking leave for his presidential election campaign). Ahok saw many things that fell under his responsibility go wrong in the documentary. Seeing the “jail”, which is actually a social rehabilitation institution where Ho was locked up, disturbed Ahok. In the film, Jakarta public order officers arrested Ho for busking and for not having his identification card.

According to Rolling Stone Indonesia, Ahok immediately discussed with his staff what he saw in the documentary. He instructed them to close down the “jail”, expedite the development of apartments for the poor and ease regulations for newcomers to get their Jakarta ID card. He also ordered his staff to eradicate corruption in public offices, especially the religious affairs agency responsible for providing marriage certificate.

Jalanan’s influence on public policy in Jakarta might be a one-off. It’s hardly a typical outcome for a documentary, after all. Documentary films work hard to promote social or political engagement – or at least an awareness – with their subject. For the next level of engagement, it helps to have “reformist” public officials in the audience.


The Melbourne International Film Festival 2014 runs until Sunday August 17. See all MIFF 2014 coverage on The Conversation here.