'Little Obama': Indonesia premieres movie despite Obama's absence

'Little Obama,' the movie, was originally scheduled to open during a presidential visit to Indonesia that was later canceled. In the film, a young Barack Obama battles bullies, confronts his first crush, and shows signs of a now-familiar confidence.

Tatan Syuflana/AP
A mother and two her children walk past a poster for the movie 'Obama Anak Menteng' before its premiere in Jakarta, Indonesia, Wednesday. 'Little Obama' is the creation of Damien Dematra, who became interested in President Barack Obama after learning about his Jakarta childhood.

It was a premiere fit for a president – attended by ambassadors, movie stars, and media, though minus the Indonesian meatballs little Barack Obama once enjoyed. And while the film, “Obama Anak Menteng,” or Little Obama, is unlikely to become a cult classic, director Damien Demantra said he hopes it teaches children to aim higher.

Produced in just 25 days, the film, which was screened at the XXI Theater in Jakarta, tells the story of Mr. Obama’s childhood in the city. In it he battles bullies, confronts his first crush, and shows signs of the confidence and bravado for which he is known.

Mr. Demantra rushed the film’s production to coincide with Obama’s June 17 visit to Jakarta. And like many here was sorely disappointed when the president canceled his trip – the third no-show in a year.

But what really matters, says Demantra, is the message the film sends. “The main purpose is to promote pluralism and hope. Obama is an icon of pluralism.”

Project grew out of a dinner conversation

Obama Anak Menteng is based on Demantra’s book by the same title. Demantra does not know Obama personally, and says he actually supported Hillary Clinton during the 2008 election. Many Indonesians thought Obama’s election would benefit their country, since they said his childhood experience here had given him a “soft spot” for Indonesia. Demantra was more pointed. “I would have preferred to have the first American woman president. I thought that was a great achievement.”

His conversion came when he started research for the book, which includes interviews with 30 people who knew Obama during the four years he spent in Indonesia, from 1967 to 1971. Demantra says he knew virtually nothing about Obama before starting. Even his decision to write about the president’s childhood was impulsive – the result of a dinner conversation at the US Embassy.

About 60 percent of the film is factual, including controversial scenes of Obama riding a bike with a male transgender nanny. But those are facts, Demantra says.

The film has already stirred discussion here over how US politicians will react to it. Demantra says Democrats are likely to see it as inspiring, while Republicans may try to use it for political ends.

'Dare to have dreams'

A scene that shows Obama entering a mosque and trying to imitate friends as they prayed did not make it into the final production. But many scenes seem to show how much of who Obama is today was formed during his time in Indonesia.

The relationship Obama has with his Indonesia stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, is a focus of much of the film. And it is Lolo’s stern guidance of Obama that eventually provokes Obama’s mother to send him to live with his grandparents in Hawaii. In the film, he teaches Obama to box so that he can defend himself against bullies. And he takes him out one night to talk about how men needed to be tough and rational – not always kind-hearted, like Obama's mother.

Aldrin Sayangbati, whose 12-year-old daughter Monica stars as Obama’s childhood crush, says he connected more with fact that little Barry, as he was known, was picked on for being different.

“In Indonesia we have been educated in such a way that we’re told to just accept things and live with them. But little children should dare to have dreams,” Demantra says.

Obama Anak Menteng opens around Indonesia July 1. Negotiations are currently under way to screen it in the United States.

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