Bringing history back to life

Nivell Rayda

JAKARTA (CNA) – With a wooden practice sword in hand and dressed in the manner of a World War II Imperial Japanese Army officer, Jasen Purwa Adi walked into a sun-baked yard of an early 20th Century home.

On the other side of the yard, a makeshift outpost made out of plywood sheets had been erected, fortified by barbed wire fences and sand bags.

The outpost was guarded by seven men in Dutch East Indies Army uniforms and armed with replica rifles and a reproduction machine gun.

Adi and three of his men may be outnumbered and outgunned, but within minutes, they seized control of the outpost and took their opponents as prisoners.

They were re-enacting the significant moments in the country’s history, from the time the Dutch colonised Indonesia to the 1942 Japanese invasion, the subsequent 1945 proclamation of Indonesia’s independence and the bloody struggles to keep the Allied Forces from reclaiming the country for the Netherlands.

ABOVE & BELOW: Indonesian re-enactor Russell Alexander Yim dressed in Imperial Japanese Army uniform; and Indonesian re-enactors in Dutch East Indies Army uniforms recreating a battle scene. PHOTOS: CNA

A re-enactor in Dutch East Indies Army fatigue posing in front of a makeshift outpost
Re-enactors recreating Indonesia’s declaration of independence
Replica and genuine helmets and caps belonging to Indonesian re-enactor Okie Rishananto

About 40 re-enactors – men and women of different ages and from different walks of life – participated in the re-enactment on August 1 at the Declaration of Independence Formulation Museum in Central Jakarta. The museum wanted to produce a video to commemorate Indonesia’s Independence Day today.

Some wore period-correct civilian clothes while others dressed in military fatigues of varying eras and countries.

To act out these scenes, some re-enactors had to play multiple roles.

One re-enactor, Okie Rishananto, brought three sets of costumes that day as he had to play a pre-World War II Dutch colonial soldier, a member of the World War II Allied Forces troop and Indonesia’s first Vice President Mohammad Hatta.

“We tried to be as accurate as possible,” the 44-year-old graphic designer told CNA, adding that re-enactors like himself would obsess over tiny details of what fighters from different eras wore.

The first re-enactor community in Indonesia was started in 2003 and since then, similar communities across Indonesia have sprung up. It is estimated that there are now at least 2,000 re-enactors in the country.

Rishananto said that the re-enactor community in Jakarta gets together almost every month, particularly around anniversaries of famous battles, events or birthdays of historical figures.

Most of the re-enactments are private events among the re-enactors, held in remote locations or private properties to keep bystanders with modern clothes away from the final photos or videos.

However, the community is often engaged by museums and city governments across Indonesia looking to stage re-enactments for the public to see as part of their celebrations and events.

“The Yogyakarta government recently invited us to stage re-enactment of their famous battle. They provided us with train tickets, meals and a place to stay. Participants have to provide their own costumes, gear and props,” he said.

Being a re-enactor allows him to better appreciate the struggles of the country’s heroes, Rishananto said.

“By re-enacting, you experience first-hand the things that they went through. We get to feel their hardship, their tiredness and their pain. These things were not mentioned in history books.”

It is this appreciation which drives re-enactors like Rishananto to portray the battles as accurately as possible.

“You have to do your research. If you are recreating a specific battle scene then you have to know exactly who were involved in it. Different branches of the military have different uniforms. Different divisions and units were issued different types of gear. Even if they were from the same country,” he said.

Which is why it can take up to one year to prepare one mock battle scene, another re-enactor Mohammad Iqbal told CNA.

“We consult local historians, read history books, dig up old maps, newspapers, photos and so on. We even talked to people who were there at the time, including the Independence fighters who might still be alive,” the 45-year-old said.

“We then establish how many re-enactors we need, what types of gear and uniform should we use and decide who gets to play what.”

But there are re-enactments of better known battles which require less preparation. “Because we commemorate those battles every year, we spend less time on research,” Iqbal said.

Iqbal said being a re-enactor is more than donning period-correct costumes and staging mock battles.

“By becoming a re-enactor I get to talk to veterans who shared many of their personal stories. I get to find out that there was once a battle near where I live and another near my parents’ hometown,” Iqbal said.

The birth of the re-enactment scene in Indonesia also coincided with the craze on airsoft guns in the early 2000s, re-enactor Sonny Cavalera said.

“In the world of airsoft, there is this thing called ‘geardo’ which is to dress in the style of the military units which use the type of weapons we own. That’s how I became introduced to these history enthusiasts and that’s how I joined,” he said.

“I like history, but it is more fun to learn history by recreating it, particularly in places where such historical events occurred.”