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Obama film's focus: The 'Barry' years

A tale of childhood in Indonesia set to debut.

BANDUNG, Indonesia - Young Barry Obama is struggling with his Ping-Pong shot.

Or rather, 12-year-old Hasan Faruq Ali is struggling to play lefthanded in imitation of the character he is portraying in a new Indonesian film, Little Obama.

"Hasan has the walk, he has the posture of Barry," said Slamet Djanuadi, a consultant on the film and a childhood friend of Barack Obama's when the president lived in Indonesia from 1967 to 1971.

"But Barry was a better Ping-Pong player," he laughed, watching Hasan hit the ball off the table.

The movie, produced by Multivision Plus, Indonesia's largest production company, will premiere in Indonesia on June 17, the week of Obama's anticipated visit to the country. He postponed a visit in March to push through health-care legislation.

The film tells the story of Obama's childhood in Jakarta, where he lived with his mother and Indonesian stepfather from age 6 to 10.

"It's about his friendships, his hobbies, just a childhood story," said screenwriter and codirector Damien Dematra. "It's not about politics, it's just the story of a boy."

Hasan, who was born in Questa, New Mexico, but has lived in Indonesia since he was about 2, was an obvious casting choice to play the young Obama. Fluent in English and the Indonesian language, and the son of a white mother and African American father, Hasan fit the bill.

Improving his Ping-Pong game was his focus during breaks on the fifth day of filming last week. Day four's challenge was boxing, a childhood pursuit that Obama has said he learned from his stepfather and one that Hasan, with three years of karate training, felt more comfortable with.

"It feels great to play Obama," the novice actor said with a grin. "I was shy about it at first, and there are some new difficulties that you have to work to get over, with intense practice, like this," - gesturing toward the Ping-Pong table on the lawn - "and just learning the lines, practicing the scenes.

"But then it became easy and fun, especially acting as a very important character who left here to become president," Hasan said.

The movie set is a colonial-era house on the outskirts of Bandung, a city famed for its colonial architecture amid lush hilltops 110 miles southeast of Jakarta.

Directors John de Rantau and Dematra chose the city because it resembles Jakarta in the 1970s. Obama's old home in the Jakarta neighborhood of Menteng is now surrounded by tall apartment blocks and is too urban.

The movie is taken from Dematra's book Obama Anak Menteng" - "Obama, the Menteng Kid" - a fictionalized biography based on interviews with about 30 old friends and neighbors. It is the first in a planned trilogy about Obama in Indonesia. The second book is to focus on his education at a Catholic school and the third on his relationship with his mother.

Dematra said he was a Hillary Rodham Clinton fan until he researched Obama.

"I just felt that this guy is an extraordinary person," Dematra said. "The reason I'm doing this is, I want people around the world to know that Obama can become who he is because of his background in Indonesia. The different religions and races, the pressures that he had. I want the film to inspire people."

Two of Obama's old friends, Djanuadi and his brother, Yuniadi, whose family shared a house with Obama's, are coaching Hasan on everything from sports to Obama's relationship with his mother and stepfather.

Now in costume - muddied shorts and T-shirt and a bandage around his leg from a fictional playground scuffle - Hasan waits for his next scene to be filmed, dribbling a soccer ball like a basketball and pretending to shoot at an imaginary basket.

"President!" the director calls out, amid laughter.

Shakur Ali, Hasan's father, said the first time he saw Hasan act, it brought tears to his eyes.

"I was shocked to see the change, to see him become this person," said Ali. He doesn't follow U.S. politics and said it doesn't matter to him that his son is playing Obama, just that he is following his dream of being a performer.

The directors hope to finish shooting June 3.