JAKARTA— A film about US President Barack Obama’s childhood days in Indonesia made its debut in Jakarta on Wednesday, promising a very different perspective on the man in the White House.
“Obama Anak Menteng” or “Obama the Menteng Kid”, is set in the upscale Jakarta neighbourhood of Menteng, where Obama lived from 1967 to 1971 with his mother and Indonesian stepfather.
Co-director Damien Dematra said it showed the US president in a light that Americans might find strange.
“Viewers, especially Westerners, will see a different world. They’ll see Obama eating chicken satay, not hamburgers. They’ll see his neighbours and friends wearing chequered sarongs and Muslim caps,” he told AFP.
Even so, producers skirted controversy surrounding the extent that Islam influenced Obama’s early years in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
A scene showing Obama, who is a Christian, praying like a Muslim was dropped as it was deemed “too political”, Dematra said.
“He was just imitating other kids when they were praying but it didn’t mean he wanted to be Muslim. That scene wasn’t even shot because I didn’t want people to take it out of context and use it against him,” he said.
Based on his interviews with Obama’s surviving neighbours and friends in the Indonesian capital, Dematra claims the film is “60 percent fact and 40 percent fiction”.
Midwife Fitriah Sari, who was in the audience at the film’s debut, said Obama was portrayed favourably.
“He showed that sometimes saying sorry is actually more effective than using the fist in solving conflict,” Sari said.
Another who saw the film, Asmul Khairi, said: “This film was interesting.
“Obama is shown to be able to get along with anyone, regardless of race, religion or skin colour. He showed cultural or physical differences are no barrier to forging meaningful friendships.”
The film features a cast of little-known Indonesian actors and was filmed in just over a month in the West Java city of Bandung — which retains some of the sleepy charm of 1960s Menteng.
Its budget was a million dollars, Dematra said.
Twelve-year-old American Hasan Faruq Ali plays Obama, or Barry as the president was known to his schoolmates.
Like Obama, Ali — who had no prior acting experience — is the son of a mixed-race couple and moved from the United States to Indonesia as a toddler.
He speaks Indonesian and English, just as Obama switched between his mother-tongue with his parents and Indonesian with his friends.
Clips available on the Internet show “little Barry” learning to box with his stepfather after getting into a shoolyard fight, but ultimately learning to resolve conflicts through means other than violence.
“You’re from the West, but black. You’ve got weird hair and a big nose,” a neighbourhood boy replies when Obama introduces himself as Barry.
“We have to stick together to achieve our goals and resolve our problems and fights,” Barry later tells his friends.
Dematra said: “When Obama first arrived, local kids rejected him as he didn’t look like them. There was a scene where Obama was bullied and he had to fight. He fought and he won and then they accepted him”.
Dematra said he did not want the film to be political, but to give viewers a sense of how Indonesia’s cultural diversity — mostly Muslim but with significant Hindu, Christian and other minorities — might have influenced “this pluralist and inspiring figure”.
The 100-minute film, produced by local company Multivision Plus Pictures, was due to debut earlier in June to coincide with a visit by Obama to his old hometown.
But the trip, like another scheduled for March, was postponed due to pressing issues in the United States. Obama is now expected in November.
“I was disappointed about the delays. If Obama sees the film, I’m sure he’ll have a couple of minutes of reflection about his past. It will be a sweet memory for him,” Dematra said.
The makers are hoping to release the film internationally in September.