When I think of empire, I mostly think of the British Empire. There are several very good films that cover the subject of withdrawal and the ending of British rule. This film is interesting, though, because it is Dutch and shows that other European countries also had a colonial past. ‘Oroeg’ is about two boys who are friends, growing up in the Dutch East Indies before the Second World War. One is the son of the plantation owner while his friend is a native boy, called ‘Oroeg’. As they grow up they inevitably grow apart as the life mapped out for each of them is dictated by the rules of colonial life. This is seen most poignantly in a scene at the cinema where the two friends, older teenagers by now, go to see a film. They cannot be admitted together; seating arrangements are such that natives sit ‘behind’ the screen. Agreeing to give the film a miss rather than be separated, the embarrassment of both is clear when Oroeg discovers that his friend went back on his word. This small betrayal shows that, whatever they say, they will be forced apart by the restrictions or expectations on them both. The Second World War changes everything. After the war, Indonesian nationalists declare independence and the two friends find themselves on opposite sides in a struggle for freedom from colonial rule. The fracturing of their friendship mirrors the relationship between the two countries. It is clear that, while children can seem oblivious to the inequalities of their races, as they grow up these differences affect any friendship they may hope to maintain. In the end, Oroeg makes the choice of dignity over subservience, even though a friendship is the casualty. There is a touching flashback towards the end of the film which comes after we know the paths they have chosen have forced the two men apart. The boys are once again children and playing together in a river. It is sad because we know what the children on screen do not, that no friendship will flourish where one country tries to rule another.
‘Oroeg’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?