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TIFF: Autobiography questions the value of loyalty in the name of tyranny

Autobiography

Makbul Mubarak’s debut Autobiography delves deep to examine loyalty & family under dictatorship.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival)

Makbul Mubarak’s first feature Autobiography is only truly autobiographical in terms of the larger questions his upbringing in Indonesia under the Suharto regime raises about loyalty vs. fealty and whether “loyalty [is] still honorable if and when it is pledged to something monstrous”.

Rather than cast a surrogate version of himself, Mubarak tells the story of Rakib, a young caretaker for an empty mansion. But when its owner Purna (known chiefly as “The General”) returns home to kick off his mayoral campaign, he unexpectedly takes a liking to the young man. Suddenly Rakib, whose family is either dead, abroad, or in prison, has not just a powerful new father figure, but a sense of purpose his life had clearly been lacking. As The General takes Rakib under his wing, it isn’t long before he gets a front-row seat to the ways power and violence are inextricably linked.

As we watch their relationship evolve, Mubarak films Autobiography in a way that emphasizes the things unseen and unknown, lurking just below the surface. More often than not, the camera peers at them through windowpanes, or in reflections, or constantly keeps one of them just out of frame. It acts as a constant reminder that whatever we’re seeing, it isn’t the whole picture.

Kevin Ardilova shines as Rakib, in a film that places a heavy emphasis on silence. His expressive doe eyes can’t hide his adoration for the General, his shame over his father’s imprisonment, or least of all his horror at the price of the General’s power. The wide smile that spreads across his face the first time we hear the General tell him “Nice work” is perfectly heartbreaking.

Kevin Ardilova shines as Rakib, in a film that places a heavy emphasis on silence.

Similarly, Arswendy Bening Swara as General Purna seamlessly strides the line between fatherly affability and terrifying control. He is measured and calm in nearly every moment, making him all the more foreboding when it becomes clear how far he’s willing to go to win.

Autobiography’s whole purpose is to highlight how and why someone like Rakib would be so easily pulled into the General’s orbit. He’s a man who feels larger than life, larger even than the massive campaign posters he has put up all over town. More importantly, he’s returned to this town — a place where most of their power comes from generators that fail more often than not, a place that feels forgotten in the depths of the jungle — full of promises. He hasn’t merely returned, he wants to bring progress, development, and the future with him.

Rakib and other young men just like him are all skating by or floundering. Their fathers absent (though it’s made clear this is not by choice), they have only each other and the likes of shady figures eager to funnel them out of the country to find work elsewhere. A promise like the General’s is more than enticing, it feels like a life raft. And if you think you’re drowning, how discerning will you really be before climbing aboard?

Mubarak’s dramatic clarity and keen sense of tension make his debut a standout. Autobiography is not to be skipped.

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Sarah Gorr

Sarah Gorr is a film critic and copywriter based in Los Angeles. In her spare time she's crafting cocktails and working on her k/d. You can find her on Twitter at @sgorr and read more of her work at www.sarahgorr.com.

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