Short Film Review: Berlabuh (2020)

 Cinematic depictions of sailors have existed as far back as the medium itself, and continue to find new life today. These depictions range from Sergei Eisenstein’s pioneering piece of agitprop Battleship Potemkin (1925), which traced the revolutionary struggle of sailors aboard the titular ship, to more recently, Pietro Marcello’s Jack London adaptation, Martin Eden (2019) which traces a lower class sailor who refuses to fight against the exploitation of his peers in favour of a life of individual decadence. It’s clear that there is something irresistible about using the profession to cross examine the state of modern society, with sailors themselves being characterised as transient beings, both intensely alienated from the outside world due to long journeys and intensely exploited due to the demanding nature of their work. The same ideas that come to define the cinematic utility of the sailor are also the ones Haris Yuliyanto explores in his short film, Berlabuh (2020), which was selected for the 2021 Oberhausen International Short Film Festival.

While Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Martin Eden (2019) both reflect a time wherein violent communist revolution was seen to be the key to breaking cycles of exploitation, Yuliyanto’s film instead reflects the reality of today, namely the neoliberal capitalist order that has infiltrated almost every aspect of human life, even in Indonesia. The adherence to this system being all the more apparent when you take into account the modern utility of sailing, to transport people and cargo to facilitate trade, providing the backbone of interconnected global systems which keep local governments afloat. In the past you needed to overthrow your masters, today you struggle to push against faceless structures resistant to change. While the aforementioned films use sophisticated cross cutting to represent the fervour of revolution, Yuliyanto’s film feels downright listless, with washed out colours and an emphasis on still shots. The film centres on Pleng, a sailor who has just returned to his hometown without a paycheck, eschewing a clear plot to instead illustrate the financial strain he feels and the ways his life is controlled by the forces of capital.

The film begins with shots that survey the interior of the ship, systematically moving from the passengers on the top, all the way down to the mechanical guts of the film being serviced by Pleng, the only question ringing in his head being “Did we get paid yet”, of which the answer his friend reveals to be “You’ll get paid after two or three more sailing”. The life of a sailor appears to be an oppressive cycle, you need to work to get paid, and if you want to get paid you need to work more. The only motivating factor for Pleng seems to be the idea that he will one day be promoted to Captain, coasting on the myth of meritocracy modern life sells us. Pleng’s desires are made all the more ironic through a later interaction with the bureaucracy he wishes to ascend through, entering their offices and being allowed to extend his contract, yet still being denied his pay.

Throughout the film you can feel a wave of complete unenthusiasm wash over. Pleng’s mother, a minimart owner, shows no excitement in her son's return from the ship, instead focusing on pestering him for money for renovations for her store. Pleng himself, after a long time away from home, shows no inclination to fulfil any burning desires. Instead, a prolonged shot features him silently eating on the floor of his room. Pleng’s dreams themselves also appear comparably dull, his idea of liberation for his crewmates when he’s Captain would be to provide them free WiFi, a kind gesture but a far cry from any sort of revolutionary change, indicating the ways worker’s rights these days depend on incremental benefits within a fixed system, made all the more damning by his friend’s later suggestion that sailors would rather have healthcare.

While Yuliyanto’s film succeeds in showing the emptiness of modern life it stumbles in other areas, mainly due to its complete lack of subtlety. An activity Pleng is seen to indulge in is karaoke, where he and his friends sing a song that blatantly literalises their struggle, with lyrics such as: “the company owes me three months paycheck”,  “I’m not rich yet”, “The sea waves will take me home”, “Really I want to go home”. An arguably inelegant way to drive in this point. From the song one is reminded of the brilliant ending of Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasure (2002) where the disaffected Bin Bin in custody of the police is forced to sing a song about finding freedom through love. While that ending drives in the similar concept of the malaise of modern life it does so while also stripping down its protagonist and revealing his truly pathetic state, mining an uncomfortable sense of humour from it. The song in Berlabuh (2020) does nothing but make an implicit point loudly explicit.

The film ends with successive still shots of the ship while the song from before plays, acknowledging that nothing on board fundamentally changes. Ultimately, despite its shortcomings and various fumbles, Berlabuh (2020) is a welcome entry into the canon of cinematic sailors, presenting the unglamorous and listless reality of sailing in the modern neoliberal age, in a world that presents neither any clear opportunities for change nor any vision for the future whatsoever.

By Matthew Chan


Berlabuh is shown as part of the International Short Film Competition Oberhausen 2021.
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