JAKARTA: 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 countrys history, from the time the Dutch colonised Indonesia to the 1942 Japanese invasion, the subsequent 1945 proclamation of Indonesias independence and the bloody struggles to keep the Allied Forces from reclaiming the country for the Netherlands.
About 40 re-enactors – men and women of different ages and from different walks of life – participated in the re-enactment on Aug 1 at the Declaration of Independence Formulation Museum in Central Jakarta. The museum wanted to produce a video to commemorate Indonesia's Independence Day, which falls on Aug 17.
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 World War II Allied Forces troop and Indonesias 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 wear.
The first re-enactor community in Indonesia was started in 2003 and since then similar communities across Indonesia began to spring 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, gears and props," he said.
APPRECIATION FOR COUNTRY'S HEROES
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 gears. 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.
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“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 preparations. “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.
“That is what makes me proud of being a re-enactor. It gives more values to the stories you heard or read in the history books. Its more than dressing up and wearing costumes.”
OBSESSION TO DETAIL
For re-enactors in Indonesia, sourcing uniforms and gear proved to be a challenge, particularly weapons which are illegal to own in the country.
“I have to custom make many of my uniforms, especially those worn by American and British soldiers which are not readily available here. If you are rich then you can order one from their military surplus stores. Not us though,” Iqbal said.
“Besides, I prefer replicas over the real thing. By wearing replica uniforms you dont care if you have to crawl or roll over in the mud. It allows me to act out my scenes better.”
To recreate one uniform, Rishananto said he had to look at old black and white photos of the real thing.
“For example, the Dutch East Indies Army uniforms have their pockets aligned with the third button. Meanwhile Dutch soldiers during World War II would wear the same uniforms as those worn by other members of the Allied Forces because their country was being occupied by Germany,” he said.
“Getting the colour and materials right is the hardest challenge of all, because you cant tell by looking at old black and white photos.”
Rishananto said he often goes to museums or talk to collectors to view the real thing.
For the Aug 1 re-enactment at the museum, Rishananto brought two replica rifles, one made to look like those used by the Dutch before the Japanese invasion and the other used during World War II.
“Fighters from the two eras not only wore different uniforms but also carried different types of pouches, belts and water canteens. “Even the bullets they used were different,” he said.
Meanwhile, Adi preferred to order his replica uniform from Japan. “Even though this is a replica, it is made from the same material as the real thing and sewn the exact same way,” he said adding that the rest of his gears are locally made.
“I would prefer to have everything locally made but for uniforms, none came close to the quality as those made in Japan.”
Adi said his helmet is genuine, salvaged by locals from a dead Japanese soldier in South Sumatra. His helmet, he claimed, is haunted.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Re-enactment in Indonesia is fairly new, said Rishananto, who was among the first re-enactors in Indonesia.
Inspired by movies like Saving Private Ryan and television series Band of Brothers, Rishananto, who has always been a military history buff, began sharing photos of him posing as World War II soldiers on Friendster in the early 2000s.
“The photos generated many praises but also many critiques as well. Some said: This is inaccurate, this gear is not of the period, and so on. I replied: How do you know all this? and they said they also have similar costumes and gear,” he said.