In May 1998, what started as civil unrest in response to an economic and political crisis in Indonesia turned into violent riots. Looting, violence and rape were targeted at Chinese-Indonesian communities across several major cities in the country.
In the capital city Jakarta, Rani Pramesti, who was only 12 years old at the time recalls climbing on the top of her home’s water tower and watching as large plumes of smoke climber their way to the sky from different points in the city.
Deeply personal and provocative Chinese Whispers brings an exploration of race, violence and identity to the Melbourne Fringe Festival in the form of an interactive multi-sensory maze experience.
Lead creator Rani Pramesti tells Peril Magazine that the show has been a long time coming.
“It’s been about a year and a half in the making as a project. Really it’s been coming since sixteen years ago for me, since the riots happened. I just needed to grow into the adult I am now to make something of it.
“You know how a shift in your world view sometimes happens really quickly and sometimes it happens through a process, this project has really fed into my world view in a lot of ways.”
Rani trained as an actor at the Victorian College of the Arts, however she says that the arts weren’t a central focus for her till recently.
“Growing up, my mother was a social worker who was involved in micro-finance programs in Indonesia. That was around the time of the riots as well, so from a young age I guess I would say I had a very strong social justice drive. That’s what pushed me into social work.
“In retrospect I think a lot of it was reactionary to a lot of the guilt at seeing other peoples disadvantage and feeling like I had to do something to absolve myself.
“I was studying social work at Sydney University and auditioned for a youth theater company and got in. I like to finish what I start, so I completed my degree and worked as a social worker while taking up part time acting training.
“So I didn’t listen to that voice, that being in love with the arts, for quite a while, because I felt such a need to be useful to society. I was just like ‘pfft artist what use is that going to be to society?’
“So the interesting thing about Chinese Whispers is that it’s an amalgamation of those two. In hindsight now at this point in the journey I’m able to see that there is a strong social political motivation behind this project. It’s not just an art project it’s a about starting conversations.”
Rani had originally intended the piece to be a traditional theater performance. However after finding and working with the Chinese-Indonesian women involved, the project changed.
“When I started working with these women, because they have such busy lives, as workers, mothers and students, they found it hard to commit to coming along even once a month.
“I had to compromise my creative vision with what realities were there. So then I decided what if I came to your home and interviewed you? I started doing that and ended up with 14 hours of interview material and was like, what am I supposed to do with that?”
She says many of the women she interviewed were still very hesitant to discuss the May riots themselves and that it is a memory that is largely left unaddressed in Indonesia today.
“It’s still a very sensitive topic, because none of the people who have committed the violence have been brought into questioning, there’s just no justice process.
“Some of the women I interviewed would be really happily talking about their domestic lives, but when I mention the riots, one of them asked me to stop recording. There was another woman whose voice became a whisper when she started talking about the riots. There were things about it that I felt really reluctant to engage with.”
Rani says that she would love to take the work over-seas after the Fringe Festival, potentially for the large Indonesian diaspora communities in Canada, the US and also in The Netherlands. She adds that she is pondering whether she’s ‘crazy enough’ to take it to Indonesia.
The project has been developed as a part of the Emerging Cultural Leader program with Footscray Community Arts Centre and Rani has been mentored by artist Chi Vu, who she says has been a fantastic force keeping her on track.
“She’s very professional and generous with her time, also really rigorous; she won’t accept a random idea thrown at her. She always asks for sound rational to my artistic choices.”
While the work focuses on the May riots as a central theme, Rani says that there are important things she hopes Australian audiences will take away from the piece.
“I want people to really examine the questions raised during the piece. Yes they will come out of it learning about the May riots, but I really don’t want people to come through and think ‘oh isn’t that fucked up, this thing that happened to those other people over there’.
“I actually really want them to connect and think about how we have those kinds of paradigms here in Australia and what do we need to be reflecting on here.”
Disclaimer – Rani Pramesti has previously written regularly for Peril Magazine
Chinese Whispers will premiere as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival 2013 and will be showing from the 23rd till the 28th of September at Bluestone Church Arts Space, 8 Hyde St, Footscray.
Tickets available via Melbourne Fringe Website.