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Between the Village and the City Representing Colonial Indonesia in the Films of Saeroen

Christopher A. Woodrich


Following the Great Depression, colonial Indonesia underwent a shift in societal make-up, which influenced various forms of popular culture. Writers and other creative professionals used popular culture to express their opinions on the cultural shift. The reporter turned screenwriter Saeroen was no exception. Attached to four film production houses in his four-year screenwriting career (1937–1941), Saeroen’s oeuvre included some of the biggest commercial successes of the period, and often involved the theme of migration from the villages to the cities. Though the majority of Saeroen’s films are now thought lost, enough evidence survives in the form of film reviews, novelizations, and promotional material for a textual analysis of his works and the views contained within. As will be shown, Saeroen’s works represent a testament to the experience of abandoning the villages and embracing the cities. Using post-colonial theory and Upstone’s concept of space, we argue that Saeroen represented colonial cities as both full of the possibility for further development and replete with dangers not found in the villages, and villages as stagnant and rarely changing with few intrinsic dangers. We further argue that cities and villages in these films become embodiments of the oft-contrasted concepts of modernity and tradition. Ultimately, we conclude that Saeroen’s representation of colonial Indonesia is intended as both a warning against embracing modernity at the expense of tradition, as well as a call for further modernization.

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