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Space is the Place: 10 Questions with Garin Nugroho

System Administrator Wednesday October 21, 2015

If you have ever been caught in a Jakarta traffic jam, you would know that it often takes a few hours to clear. All these years of knowing Garin Nugroho, I've never been fearful of getting caught up in traffic. The reason is that Garin loves to talk...about anything. He talks about Indonesian society, world politics, crazy people he has met and of course, about his cinema. Sometimes I think that he talked to me all those years because he knew that he would one day ask me to co-edit his film biography - And the Moon Dances, the Films of Garin (2004).

Even when I'm half-awake, I know that Garin is still talking. His memories are embedded in my subconscious. I recall fragments, confessions and diatribes all flowing in a long unedited stream of passionate chatter. Sometimes I would visit Indonesia and go find out about a memory fragment remembered from Garin's conversation. That's how I ended up inside the Royal palace of Solo about five years ago, to see the actual location of And the Moon Dances (1995), and to talk to members of the royal household about the time when a young director entered the inner sanctum.

Garin's curiosity about people and how they behaved was a hallmark of his cinema. He often spent weeks or months in a film location just for research and observation. How else could he depict the sexual undercurrent between the elderly gamelan maestro and his young dance protégé in And the Moon Dances? It was a tradition known only to the initiated.

Decades later when he shot Bird Man Tale (2002), the first Indonesian film set in West Papua (an area that was agitating for independence from Indonesia) he symbolically portrayed Indonesia as the minority, by representing it with only one solitary Indonesian protagonist, played by Lulu Tobing (though there was one other Indonesian in a supporting role). The film then forced Indonesians to imagine themselves as the minority.

To illustrate the cultural and religious clash, Garin shoots Lulu Tobing interrupting a tribal ritual ceremony (a Penis Dance, no less!) that women are forbidden to participate in. To set up that shot, Garin had to have an intimate knowledge of his location, as the scene was a taboo breaker. To overcome the barrier, Garin covered Lulu's head with a white cloth marked by a cross, to signify her as the Virgin Mary. As the majority of Papuans are Catholic, they allowed her intrusion.

As always, we can imagine ourselves back in an Indonesian traffic jam, the perfect moment to have 10 Questions with Garin Nugroho:

Philip Cheah: You have just finished shooting a new feature, Tjokroaminoto. What is your interest in this figure?
Garin Nugroho: Tjokroaminoto was the teacher of President Soekarno, and the founder of Syarikat Islam, the first political Islamic organization that had two million members from 1912-1921. It was the time when Islam was not the only influence in Indonesia (during the era of Dutch East Indies when the country was not yet proclaimed as Indonesia), when there were so many ideologies dominant at the time. For example, the 1911 revolution that gave birth to modern China, the power of the Arab world during the Ottoman Empire and also the Russian revolution when the communists took power in 1917. All the students who lived at Tjokro's house became political leaders in Indonesia from Soekarno who became president, Semaun who was the first chairman of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) and Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosuwiryo, founder of Darul Islam, the original organisation that is today linked to radical Islam. It is a melodramatic film in terms of narrative and good for the Indonesian audience. I want to say that every ideology is good, even Communism, socialism or nationalism.

Philip: It's interesting to note that your early career was marked by cultural anthropology, with films shot in different locations, for example, the island of Sumba for Letter to an Angel (1994) or West Papua for Bird Man Tale. Yet today, it seems that political anthropology drives you in your recent work.
Garin: Three of my recent films represent my political statement of Indonesian history - Soegiya (2012), the first Catholic bishop who played an important role during Indonesia's independence, Blindfold (2011), a film that shows the contemporary radical Muslim period that started during Tjokroaminoto's time and Tjokroaminoto (2015), the latest film that depicts the first decade of Indonesian politics and the people who shaped it. My films are always related between politics and culture. In some ways, a multicultural society needs an anthropological approach. I always try to elaborate every single visual with an anthropological perspective in terms of local body language, local language, local issues, etc.


P: But why is it important for you to show the political map of Indonesia now?

G: Indonesia has so many islands (over 17,000 islands) and so many ethnicities, with many problems deriving from the different ethnic perspectives, religion and social politics. If people can read the map of the social-cultural-political multicultural Indonesia, then they can understand the country better. Understanding it needs an elaboration of the problems plus criticism. The map can help people to journey tthroughout Indonesia with a detailed elaboration of problems and criticism. This is the reason why I made A Poet (2000), which spoke of the 1965 tragic massacres in central Aceh, Blindfold, that explains Islamic radicalism in Java, Under the Tree (2008), that explored magic realism in Bali, Serambi (2005), that documented the humanity after the terrible tsunami that devastated Aceh, or Birdman Tale, that exposed the politics and issues of human rights in West Papua. Film is medium for activism. Film is expression but also statement for our point of view about politics. After 1998 (the downfall of President Soeharto), it became a paradoxical period when freedom was challenged by radicalism. So many films showed history as never before, the majority of films were about Islam showing loyalty to religion and power of religion, about morality, about religious transformation and religious education. Film is the medium for change and to resist all stereotypes that make people vulgar, banal and prejudiced. I made Soegija, to show another side of history, the role of a religious minority leader (a Catholic bishop) during Indonesia's independence that was never published. I also made Blindfold, to criticise religious radicalism that the goverment did not try to expose. Now I've made Tjokroaminoto (leader of Syarikat Islam, the first political Islamic organisation). I just want to say that Tjokro, as an early political leader, had been influenced by all religions and ideologies. This is the reason to put the map of Indonesia's history in film.


P: Pluralism seems to be an ideal for you. In the past, you believed in cultural pluralism but now it seems that you believe in political pluralism. Why is it important to have so many choices?

G: There are two important things to understand and think about when you make a film. First, you need to research the system of culture: artifacts, social signs, body language (acting), local sounds (music, dialogue). I try to elaborate every idea in that system of culture (every different ethnicity). Second, everything in the world is Homo Narrans (the role of narration in the emergence of the human language) and Homo Symbolicum (the understanding of humanity through the symbols man has created) so everything can be used to tell a story - animation, text, photographs, etc.


P: During the filming of Letter to an Angel, you took many chances in terms of shooting schedules. Most of the time, you had to wait for the right weather or when your local contacts granted permission to film. In contrast, the shooting of Opera Jawa (2006) was highly controlled. You had over 300 artistes all rehearsed and ready to be filmed. You were like a commanding general deploying your troops. Have you thought why both these films succeeded so well even with such different approaches?

G: Every idea needs a different approach. Every idea is like how every tree needs different types of earth and water, or different methods or concepts for planting it in the earth. I like journeys. I like suspense and surprise. I like becoming zero and starting from zero. It is the reason I like different ideas, different places, different film crews, different ethnic cultures, etc. It is like a journey. If I go to the sea and mountain, I will need a different team and method, to have a different experience and discovery.


P: In the past when your films focussed on multiculturalism, it felt as if there was then too much emphasis on politics in Indonesia and NOT enough culture. Today, your position seems to be that there is not enough political memory. Is this what you perceive?

G: Yes, we did not have enough political memory with criticism or with free intrepretation. There was always just one perspective given to the people. We need the freedom of intrepretation of our history. It is basic to democracy. It is our human right. It is a method for recovery, discovery and also dialogue. This era is the era of migration. I am sure we cannot build walls to stop the migration of people. This means that we must have the capacity to help people go on the journey towards a multicultural society.


P: In some ways, Soegiya and Tjokroaminoto are about digging up and re-enacting the past. Comparatively, how traumatic/painful is this experience of reliving the past compared with A Poet?

G: Everything dealing with religion and sensitive political issues has consequences. When I made Soegija or Blindfold, many threatening text messages were sent to my mobile: "I will kill you one day with my sword on your body". It was dangerous and surprising, a paradox. But it is my film so it is my risk, my journey of suspense and surprise, of dialogue and radicalism, of enlightenment and resistance.


P: Locations seem to be very important for you. In fact, they seem to be more important for you than having a script. Is this your normal way of working?

G: The majority of my films are shot without a script, only a draft scenario. The majority of Asian directors always shoot without scenario (Wong Kar Wai or Hou Hsiao Hsien). There are two reasons for this. First, Asian culture is largely an oral tradition (60-70 per cent). Second, improvisation, spontaneity, the style for art happenings and communal dialogue are characteristics of Asian culture. I have different ways of developing a story. For example, in Under the Tree, I made a draft concept of the story. Then I asked each main actor and actress to write and develop his or her own story. In A Poet, the narrative was recontructed scene by scene from the true story told by the main character (the poet, Ibrahim Kadir, who played himself in the film). My method was to use the local oral tradition, the didong chant and musical performance, native to Central Aceh. For Leaf on a Pillow (1998), the story was developed from research into the lives of the street children in Jogjakarta.


P: Does the understanding of a location or the closeness to the place determine how well the film succeeds? Can you give some examples from your previous films?
G: Location for me is the system of culture for the story and all characters. Each location brings the multiculture of different types of body language that is particular to every ethnicity - people who live in the savannah behave differently from mountain people. So the multiculture affects your mise en scene. The architecture of a location also represents the nature of the people. So for Bird Man Tale, I chose their most important public spaces: church, football stadium and market. But the research method for each location is different. For example, as West Papua was a conflict zone, it needed special careful attention. Before I start shooting, I would make several trips to the location. In some cases, I would also make a documentary first. For Bird Man Tale, I started going to Papua in 1989. I went there seven times and even shot a documentary about the Papua Congress in 2001 before the feature film. Some Papua locations were very tense as the military were controlling the guerillas or independence movement. Papua also had many different ethnic groups. So an anthropological approach and political perspective were needed. First, we had to make good balanced relationships with both military and local leaders. We also needed to know well the heads of the independence movements in both the city and inside the jungle. Second, we had to establish trust with the different religious leaders: Catholic and Protestant, who were very influential. Third, we needed the goodwill of the traditional ethnic leaders as well. It wasn't easy, not when you are meeting in the middle of forest, with many guerilla fighters holding guns, and asking you: "do you agree with Papua's independence?" It was not easy either to bring 200 Papua independence flags (for one of the scenes) through airport customs because it was forbidden to even bring in one Papua freedom flag.


P: It's been said before that the media has often existed only as a tool of those in power. What has been your guiding idealism in making your cinema?

G: I'm obsessed with promoting dialogue and more dialogue, to make journeys and facilititate your journey. My films are for my statements, ideas and personal expression. If not, there is no reason for me to make a film. For example, Opera Jawa expressed the fusion and spontaneous art happenings for many art disciplines - installation, dance, music, film, fashion, and sculpture. Leaf on a Pillow (1998) showed the social problems that were suppressed during the Soeharto era, or A Poet discussed how Communism and Islam co-existed. I always believe that God has a plan. Everything on the earth has its role and function. Films are like trees in the forest, with multi-species, yet every tree has its own function and role. Every tree has its own root looking for water. This means that every film is like the tree with its root. It has its own way to find money and find its audience.


Note: This essay was first published in Aku Ingin Menciummu Sekali Saja! (I Want to Kiss You Just Once!), Showcase Cinema: Griffith Indonesian Film Festival, March 1-8 2015, at the Griffith Film School, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia.

-by "Philip Cheah"

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