Bonding for Peace in the Palace of Dreams
Most of the under 40s couldn’t feel the enchantment. Bemused, they wandered around and questioned why so many of their older friends were getting nostalgic and wistful.
What could possibly be romantic about an industrial site? All that the young could see was a vast yard of fractured pavers. This was flanked by a concrete two-storey of awesome ugliness, its overhang shedding soggy sheets of plywood.
Round the sides collapsing steel fences and an invasion of vengeful vegetation determined to recover its domain. At the other end a tall screen. In a time far away it may have been white and pure, like youth. Perhaps not. Everywhere decay and filth. Yuk! Not even worth an Instagram.
Who’d linger for more than a moment?
Yet on a hot Sunday in January hundreds stayed for almost four hours to reminisce, for this mess was once the Kelud open-air cinema, Malang’s palace of dreams and open to all.
Here for a few hours every week teenagers with a few rupiah, or more if they wanted to sit undercover upstairs with the upper classes, escaped from reality and into a world of weird fantasy, daring adventure and love that knew no end.
Here magic happened. The Warkop [warung kopi – coffee shop] comedy trio of Dono, Kasino and Indro was widely recalled.
In 1980 the comedian Freddy Aris, better known as Gepeng starred in Untung, Ada Saya [Fortunately I was there], but few Indonesian films were available.
Former actor Djathi Kusumo, who spoke at the event on the need for community cohesion and celebration of indigenous culture, said the local film industry suffered from heavy censorship during Soeharto’s New Order government and was swamped by imports.
Consequently a generation of filmgoers was raised not on archipelagic fare that might have nurtured pride, but an international cinematic diet of Indian romance, Hong Kong kung-fu and American Westerns, though not everyone came to cheer the cowboys.
For Kelud was also hormone heaven.
“Some found their life partner here; boys and girls watched films together and you could meet people from different districts and schools,” recalled architecture lecturer Budi Fathony.
“In those days going to the cinema was a shared communal experience. Not like now where people see TV alone or with a few friends and family, or watch videos on tablets and smart phones by themselves.
“In the 70s we shared our entertainment. It was a boisterous, democratic experience, mainly enjoyed by the lower classes, and it bonded us together in the dark.”
This theme was picked up by organizers of the Sunday morning event and splashed across a big banner reading: ‘It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. Here we are all one.’
“I wanted to bring people together so they could understand how we lived and behaved in the days before television and smartphones,” said Imam Muslikh who sees film going of the 70s and 80s as a metaphor for a harmonious society that must be revived to save the nation.
He heads the Neolath Community, named after a nearby street but spelt backwards and corrupted with additional letters, all for reasons obscure. He’s also a travel agent who arranges pilgrims’ journeys to Mecca.
“I’m worried about the way our country is breaking up through politics and religious differences,” he said. “It’s so important that we stay together and live in peace. I want to preserve and promote the spirit of Gus Dur [Indonesia’s fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid who died in 2009] because he preached tolerance and pluralism.
“That’s the message I hope people will take away from Kelud. We used to live in agreement, enjoy things together and we must do so again. I want Malang to be a Peace City and to show Jakarta how to behave.”
The projection equipment has long gone to its cinematic grave so films could not be shown. Even if the gear had remained coupled to the clunky switchboard the rusting stairs would have been too unsafe for operators to tread.
Instead there were speeches, mask dancers and an energetic routine by a student group in multi-hued feather headdresses. They could have come straight from Bollywood or the Folies Bergere in Paris, except that the ogglers saw black tights rather than pink skin under their flamboyant costumes.
Writ large on the screen behind the swirling performers were words that translated as: ‘Don’t stand behind me because you’re not my follower. Don’t stand in front of me because you’re not my leader. Stand alongside as a friend.’
The theme linked to the experience of those who packed Kelud twice a night three decades ago. Hundreds [some claimed thousands] sat on the cold concrete, though later bamboo seats were provided. The cinema was named after a nearby volcano and the old rooftop sign, now minus its neon, has been rescued.
Veterans said viewings often turned into audience participation as the crowds cheered the good guys, booed the baddies and wolf-whistled the lovelies.
“You always had to remember that there were people behind and they might get mad if you blocked their view,” said historian Dukut Imam Widodo (right). “When it rained the foodstalls were happy. If it was only drizzling and the pictures could push through the raindrops, then the show would go on.”
Stuck on one wall upstairs is an ancient poster advertising beer. As with all explorations of the past, those who lived there have different recall. However it seems alcohol was available, at least to the elite. Now it’s hard to find a drink in the East Java city outside the upmarket eateries.
Radio announcer Hari Wijayanto lived next door as a child and was able to watch films over the wall. “We got used to the noise,” he said. “It didn’t matter, it was always fun.”
According to Widodo, Kelud was owned by Brimob, the army’s mobile brigade which barracked nearby.
Soldiers were allowed free entry and helped keep order should fans get unruly. This was most likely when the sole projector changed reels, ruining continuity in the same way that advertisements upset viewing on commercial TV today. They also had to watch out for kids seeking free entry by scaling the fences during distracting moments on screen.
The cinema opened around 1970 and closed about 13 years later after color TV was introduced in 1979. Till the late 1980s only the government controlled TVRI was allowed to telecast bland programs and formula news that did little to excite audiences.
After Kelud closed the place fell into disrepair. Now one corner is used as a vehicle workshop and another as a parking space for dead ATMs from a nearby bank. Employees park their cars in the space between.
“It was a golden era that obviously won’t return in this form,” said Budi Fathony.”However the spirit of those times can be recovered.”
(First published in J Plus (JP) Sunday 15 February 2015)