Beginning as a simple two-hander in which a young working-class caretaker comes under the spell of his returning boss — a charismatic military man who has designs on getting into local politics — Makbul Mubarak’s debut film Autobiography soon develops into a tense psychological thriller about the way populist leaders groom and abuse their people. It works on its own terms, as a simple yet dark father-son allegory set within Indonesia’s military culture, but there’s a universality here that’s hard to miss.
Speaking at Deadline’s Contenders Film: International award-season event, Mubarak described the inspiration for the film.
“The inspiration comes from my family,” he said. “My mom, my dad, my uncle, my grandfather, they all worked for the government during the military dictatorship. As you might know, Indonesia was a country which, for more than 30 years, was ruled by a military dictatorship. After the regime collapsed in 1998, I started to observe the changes. It inspired me to write about loyalty and the remnants of the dictatorship in our minds. What is the effect of dictatorship on the youth, even after the dictatorship has collapsed? So, it’s a film about loyalty and it’s also a film about legacy, I think.”
Since it bowed at Venice last year, Autobiography has had a surprisingly long life on the festival circuit, striking a timely chord in the run-up to Donald Trump’s bid for re-election next year. “People are seeing their own country in this movie,” nodded Mubarak. “Even in countries whose political systems I’m not familiar with at all – like Morocco, for example which is a monarchy — the audience come and say, ‘Y’know I see my country in this film as well,’ which is a very nice surprise.
“In Indonesia, people watch this film and for them it’s more than a reflection. For them it’s a horror film. It’s so real that it is horrifying for them. I think we’re living in a world where there’s so many versions of truth that politicians are always looking for the easiest way to [advance] themselves, which is by using the rhetoric of a strongman. I think that’s why the film speaks volumes to different people from different countries.”
Check back Monday for the panel video.