Pegang Tangan: A Tale of Eid al-Freebies

Originally published in Indonesian on Cinema Poetica, 14 May 2014

‘Freebie culture’ is an arguably common term for the writer’s local society—in Tangerang, that is. Exampli gratia: bringing the hotel’s toiletries and sandals home, grabbing slightly too many testers from the supermarket, or abusing the government’s budget for—nevermind. The point being, freebie culture is, to a degree, a euphemism for theft. One might argue that in theft, there were no givers, only takers. Therefore, a line is clearly trespassed. Meanwhile, in freebie culture, there are willing givers who facilitates, for free! Regardless of manners, the two remains distinguished.

Watching Pegang Tangan then brings the writer to quite an interesting discovery on how freebie culture is apparently a nationwide phenomenon. In the film, the freebie culture is explored and contextualized in the form of the salam tempel or pegang tangan (literally translated as hand-holding). Salam tempel itself is an Eid al-Fitr (or Hari Raya) tradition familiar in Kaimana, West Papua. Basically, guests come over to the hosts’ (typically neighboring) house, shake the hosts’ hands, and be invited for snacks or feast.

The film itself is barely about its titular tradition or Eid. Both are side dishes to the freebie culture, served two ways: the practicing party and the objecting party. Representing the practicing party are Debora and Ratna, two best friends wandering all day for free snacks and feast; representing the objecting party are the hostess and Debora’s mother. What then makes Pegang Tangan special is its stance. The film tells it like it is; here are the children and here are the parents. Even more suitingly; here is the practicing party and here is the objecting party. Both are told and shown without restraints nor subjectivity, allowing the audience to autonomously identify themselves in either parts.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the practicing party, Debora and Ratna. It is made evident in their conversation their intention to get free food by salam tempel. It is a sensible act; why the need to buy in a day full of free food? To think about it, the prepared feast are likely to come to waste without guests. The two decide which house to visit as they walk hand in hand. As the film progresses, the pair becomes more daring, more gluttonous, but less logical. Their hunger seems to increase as they no longer aim for snacks, but a feast. After three houses, the pair manages to find a house preparing for one. Their once solid logic is compromised by greed, rationalized by a simple ‘they won’t recognize us if we change.’

The objecting party is not any better in the logic department. The hostess, recognizing the pair, is not thrilled by their shameless manner. In another obvious conversation, she shares the contempt with Debora’s mother. Both decide that the pair deserved no more feast within their territory, but why, really? Is the shamelessness of the guests a valid consideration to forbid them from enjoying the feast in a day of forgiveness and sharing? There is no question that the hostess supplied abundant food for potential guests that day. With no financial or charitable loss whatsoever, only poor sentiment remains to explain.

This implies that those who objects the freebie culture are those who are ethics-bound, even when ethics is irrelevant. Ethics and etiquette should be considered greatly by the guests. However, as hosts, ethical supremacy can end up a miserly act. Audience might agree that Debora and Ratna were pitiable, but so what? At the end of the day, they are only jumping into a window of opportunity, albeit shamelessly so.

In the film’s climax, Debora is dragged home once her mother recognizes the shameless girl as her daughter. ‘Embarassing,’ cries the mother. Note how Debora’s mother act is steered not by logic, but prestige. It is not only her daughter who is feasting, but she as well. Blatantly speaking, their only difference is the visiting frequency. Ethical or not, who is to say? Each generation is bound to their own standards.

In Pegang Tangan, parents are flawed. They are not seen as a moral compass, but bourgeois misers hiding behind society’s convention of etiquette. It is poetic how that mimics the way children see their own parents. The climax does not play out as a defeat to Debora, but a twist of fate, a simple miscalculation. It seems more like a backfired plan, as if Debora’s mother has to pay the price for her previous scrutiny towards the pair. The scene incites more laughter than discontent. The filmmakers tell it frankly, with no effort to make a pity act out of both characters. Audience can easily laugh at the embarrassed mother and her unlucky daughter, instead of judging or picking sides. The reason is clear, the audience has known by then that both mother and daughter are wrong. If there are any attempt to make Pegang Tangan righteously moralistic, it might have been too subtle to detect.

This stance is what makes Pegang Tangan a standout. It does not lecture its audience with ideals. Most ethically-charged films have a hero, with which the audience is given a good example to follow. When in truth, even Paulo Coelho said, ‘I learn more by not following bad examples, not following good ones.’ Hero-centric films lend no room for the audience to interact, as their stance is preset. Pegang Tangan, in turn, is told from a youthful perspective, showing two conflicting sides of flawed characters. Audience are free to take their own course. Ethical (and unethical) matters are simplified to a tease, letting the audience to assess and act on them together. What a ride it was, to engage the audience and watch them laugh at themselves along the way.

It is a pity how this fun little lesson is stained by logic gaps in the narrative. The fact that the hostess fails to recognize her neighbor’s daughter and the other way around is quite off. Perhaps showing their children off (with accompanying photographs) during local gatherings is foreign to Kaimana. Debora’s and Ratna’s craving for a feast is equally peculiar. Isn’t dinnertime traditionally a family affair? Not to mention, Debora is openly carrying a plastic bag of ‘stolen’ free snacks when she excuses herself. What is the point of being nice upfront and gluttonous afterwards?

Technically, Pegang Tangan’s cinematography is as lacking as its overtly verbal narrative. Granted, the technology used has a limited dynamic range. Thus, assessing Pegang Tangan from a strict technical point of view will not be a fair trade. It is best to let Pegang Tangan stand tall with its stance. How fascinating, a cultural portrait of Kaimana is able to paint a clear picture of a long disputed national identity: Tangerang or Kaimana, does not matter. Indonesia’s culture is freebie culture. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity.

Pegang Tangan | 2013 | Length: 12 minutes | Directors: Yakobus Latulola & Pamela Kastanya | City: Kaimana, Papua Barat | Country: Indonesia | Cast: Eka Mury, Djulike Surbay

This writing is a result of Mari Menulis! Workshop Festival Film Solo 2014.

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