- - Wednesday, June 30, 2010

JAKARTA, Indonesia | A film about President Obama’s childhood days in Indonesia made its debut in Jakarta on Wednesday, promising a very different perspective on the man in the White House.

“Obama Anak Menteng” or “Obama the Menteng Kid,” is set in the upscale Jakarta neighborhood of Menteng, where Mr. Obama lived from 1967 to 1971 with his American mother and Indonesian stepfather.

Co-director Damien Dematra said it showed the president in a light that Americans might find strange.

“Viewers, especially Westerners, will see a different world. They’ll see Obama eating chicken satay, not hamburgers. They’ll see his neighbors and friends wearing checkered sarongs and Muslim caps,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Even so, producers skirted controversy surrounding the extent that Islam influenced Mr. Obama’s early years in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. A scene showing Mr. Obama, who is a Christian, praying like a Muslim was dropped as it was deemed “too political,” Mr. Dematra said.

“He was just imitating other kids when they were praying, but it didn’t mean he wanted to be Muslim. That scene wasn’t even shot because I didn’t want people to take it out of context and use it against him,” he said.

Mr. Obama has said his Indonesian stepfather was a nonpracticing Muslim, and his autobiography “Dreams from My Father” describes going to a “Muslim school.” News reports have since documented that the young Mr. Obama was listed as “Muslim” in Jakarta school records, though Indonesian law required one of five state-sanctioned religious listings.

For his entire life as a public figure, Mr. Obama has described himself as a Christian who had a spiritual awakening as a young adult. But conspiracy theories surrounding his religious background continue to swirl.

Based on his interviews with Mr. Obama’s surviving neighbors and friends in the Indonesian capital, Mr. Dematra claims the film is “60 percent fact and 40 percent fiction.”

Midwife Fitriah Sari, who was in the audience at the film’s debut, said Mr. Obama was portrayed favorably.

“He showed that sometimes saying sorry is actually more effective than using the fist in solving conflict,” Ms. Sari said.

Another who saw the film, Asmul Khairi, said: “Obama is shown to be able to get along with anyone, regardless of race, religion or skin color. He showed cultural or physical differences are no barrier to forging meaningful friendships.”

The film features a cast of little-known Indonesian actors and was filmed in just over a month in the West Java city of Bandung. Twelve-year-old American Hasan Faruq Ali plays the future president, who was known as “Barry” to his schoolmates.

Like Mr. Obama, Hasan — who had no prior acting experience — is the son of a mixed-race couple and moved from the United States to Indonesia as a toddler. He speaks Indonesian and English, just as Mr. Obama switched between his mother tongue with his parents and Indonesian with his friends.

Clips available on the Internet show “little Barry” learning to box with his stepfather after getting into a shoolyard fight, but ultimately learning to resolve conflicts through means other than violence.

“You’re from the West, but black. You’ve got weird hair and a big nose,” a neighborhood boy replies when “Barry” introduces himself.

“We have to stick together to achieve our goals and resolve our problems and fights,” Barry later tells his friends.

Mr. Dematra said: “When Obama first arrived, local kids rejected him, as he didn’t look like them. There was a scene where Obama was bullied, and he had to fight. He fought, and he won, and then they accepted him.”

The director said he wanted to give viewers a sense of how Indonesia’s cultural diversity — mostly Muslim, but with significant Hindu, Christian and other minorities — might have influenced “this pluralist and inspiring figure.”

The 100-minute film, produced by local company Multivision Plus Pictures, was due to debut earlier in June to coincide with a visit by Mr. Obama to his old hometown. But the trip was postponed owing to pressing issues in the U.S. Mr. Obama is now expected in November.

“I was disappointed about the delays. If Obama sees the film, I’m sure he’ll have a couple of minutes of reflection about his past. It will be a sweet memory for him,” Mr. Dematra said.

The makers are hoping to release the film internationally in September.