Indonesia: A Woman from Java

(2016; writer/director: Garin Nugroho; language: Bahasa Indonesian; original title: Nyai)

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Set entirely on the titular Javanese woman’s porch in Yogyakarta 1927, and filmed in a single 90-minute take, the film uses a series of visitors to explore the gender, economic and religious politics of Indonesian society at a time of burgeoning movements for independence. As she deals with each new visitor, the oppressive nature of Nyai’s past, present and future are revealed, as is the steely resolve underlying her prim composure and outward air of acceptance.

As A Woman From Java itself makes clear, the Indonesian film industry has a long history. Two of the film’s characters excitedly discuss the 1926 film Loetoeng Kasaroeng, the first to be produced in the Dutch East Indies (the colonial name for Indonesia), based on a Java-Sundanese folk-tale and featuring an indigenous cast. Although that film is now lost, more recent post-independence classics have emerged such as Usmar Ismail’s Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew), and Eros Djarot’s 1988 war epic Tjoet Nja’ Dhien which won big at Cannes. More recently the industry has achieved a different sort of renown with low-grade exploitation flicks and occasional cult hits like The Raid. Each of these would probably teach me something about Indonesia and I hope to see them one day. But in the meantime the opportunity to attend the European premiere of celebrated film-maker Garin Nugroho’s latest offering felt too good to pass up.

Nugroho’s films have been described as political, artistic and exploratory, but also incredibly varied stylistically, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect beyond my curiosity about the one-take format.  And after viewing it I’m still not really sure what to make of it. Artistic it certainly is, with elegant set and costume design and sensitively composed shots revealing an assured eye for beauty.  In fact, in spite of the restrictions of a single take, the camera work was excellent, moving smoothly from mid-shot to close-up, from corner to interior, allowing even the most subtle of colours and textures to breathe: the muted greens and tans of the house, the carved wooden screens, the batik shawls and sarongs and Western lace, the bright outfits of the dancers.

Perhaps my main reservation is the film’s theatricality – it felt to a certain extent like watching a recorded play. The camera’s consistent position on the far side of porch created a distinct fourth wall, but even aspects of the set design felt theatrical, such as the use of different entrances and exits as characters alternated their time on the porch. This theatricality was echoed in the somewhat stagey performances, as well as other aspects such as the use of soliloquy, the lighting design of the final seconds (a spot on Nyai while the rest fades to black), and the incorporation of song and dance as emotional symbols. Even the characterisation of the two servants, a man and the woman known only as “Maid”, felt like Shakespearean comic relief staples.

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Against this stagey production design, for me it was actually the sensitive camerawork that demarcated it from filmed theatre; shots like the opening one that starts at Nyai’s feet while her servants pray before panning up to include her whole body neatly use film’s ability to selectively frame as a way to establish her authority. And while the theatricality wasn’t necessarily immediately to my taste, the film’s narrative is so symbol-driven anyway that it’s hard to imagine the director taking a more naturalistic route. An unusual way to make a film, but it worked.

In an interview from 2007, Nugroho states that “in Asia we have a more symbolic relationship with narrative than you do in the West.

Certainly, A Woman From Java makes heavy use of symbol in order to encapsulate an entire Javan society (past, and, one suspects, with nods to the present) on one porch over the course of an hour and a half. It is ostensibly the story of Nyai (Annisa Hertami), a woman from Java, welcoming visitors on the occasion of her sickly older Dutch husband’s birthday. But each set of visitors represents a section of Indonesian society, and in turn reveal more about Nyai (and her husband’s) place in it. In fact, as the film reveals, Nyai herself has had her identity and individuality revoked; although born Asih (‘love’), she was sold by her father at age 15 into marriage with a Dutchman. As a consequence, she became Nyai, originally a term for married woman it became a specific and derogatory term for the mistresses of European men.

And what a pig of a European she was sold to. Willem is now aged and sick, falling asleep in between groping the young virgin dancers he ordered for his birthday, and pulling a gun on any native he doesn’t like the look of. I think his infirmity was a wise decision from the film-maker. Nyai’s overt sexual exploitation is presumably largely in the past, and yet her economic and social freedom is still curtailed by her forced relationship to a man. Willem himself is shown to be so weak in body and pathetic in character that it I doubt any one would want to identify with him. Thus, the risk of Nyai’s sexual slavery being titillating is mitigated, and the film is able to focus on Nyai’s pursuit of economic and legal emancipation against patriarchal and colonial structures.

It also means Willem can largely be kept in bed and out of shot so that Nyai is the one to greet all the guests that trickle in. Dancers and musicians (gamelan players!) come by for Willem’s birthday, but also visitors with other agendas. Nyai is visited by Muslim religious leaders keen to reclaim her from the infidel status her relationship to Willem confers, and they promise, unsuccessfully, to stop the local kids throwing dung at her. But it’s not religious or moral approval Nyai wants. That is revealed by a visit from her lawyer, paid for by Nyai’s dwindling stash of jewellery, who is finding a way for Nyai to legally inherit Willem’s estate. The lawyer proposes that Muslim law, rather than Dutch, might be a better way to go, but generally seems more interested in his project to unite Muslims, Communists, labourers and Indonesian nationalists to join forces and overthrow the Dutch. One wonders how much attention Nyai’s jewellery is actually buying her.

Another round of visitors are striking labourers from Willem’s plantation, who demonstrate the economic as well as physical brutality of colonialism. The labourers want some of their land back, being unable to subsist off what Willem pays them (some, on other plantations are paid in tin discs instead of real coins). What’s the difference, they ask, between this and the recently abolished slavery? Instead it has given way to new oppression at the hands of foreign capitalists, despite the lofty promises of liberalism and rights promised by the Western rulers.

Nyai is even allowed a rare moment of genuine pleasure with a surprise visit from a man from Surabaya. For reasons unclear, Mr Sastro is writing a book about Nyai and has been corresponding with her for years. His extravagantly sensual mustaches make the intent of this particular visit all too clear. His suggestion of narrative possibilities for the book: “one is about Nyai feeling guilty for marrying a European and then she runs off with a Muslim man, which ends tragically.” Rather than running away with Sastro, Nyai has her eyes on the prize. After the humiliation of being sold to Willem, she has gained back her dignity by educating and polishing herself – simultaneously improving her ‘worth’ as a woman, but also her self-worth and self-determination. But ultimately the arrival of the Dutch accountants put paid to all her efforts, and the camera finally enters the house as it is literally being taken from her piece by piece. And for the first time Nyai’s composure fractures, and she unleashes her fury on Willem before the film ends with Nyai dancing a chillingly slow Yogyakarta pistol dance, desperate but also triumphant.

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All in all, an intriguing film that successfully incorporates aspects of the theatre medium while also being beautifully shot. The one-take format worked well stylistically with the film’s theatricality, but also thematically – reinforcing the rigid borders of Nyai’s physical existence. Even if the theatricality isn’t completely to my taste, it was effective in conveying the message that the film wanted to achieve. This is unsurprising, given director Nugroho’s views on style and substance:

I never think about ‘Third World Cinema.’ For me every person or community of filmmakers develops their own style to make a statement… The real issue has to do with the relationship of cinema with social and political problems. European cinema was so dynamic in the 1940s through to the 1960s because of its relationship with political problems. Today, even though the quality is very good, European films are voiceless. By contrast, in Asia today we have so many crises. Political and economic life is so full of suspense and surprise. You can see Asian films reflecting this instability. This is my opinion: the cinema runs parallel with the political, the social and the cultural.

Suffice to say, watching this film I learned a lot about the political, the social and the cultural in pre-Independence Indonesia, and from a female protagonist’s perspective. I also learned that while Indonesian dancing is impressive and potentially violent, Indonesian love songs from the 1920s seem as cheesy as the ones that turn up on Indonesian karaoke today. I was a little disappointed not to see much of the Indonesian landscape, even if various aspects of Indonesian (or at least Javanese) culture did get a good showcase. In locking the action to a single take on one porch, it made the film feel insular in the same way that Laos’ Chanthaly did, and both films share a focus on isolated women shut up in a house that is both a refuge and a source of patriarchal control. I guess if I want to see an Indonesian female protagonist kicking ass outdoors I’ll need to find a subtitled version of Tjoet Nja’ Dhien somewhere.

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Comoros: Kwassa Kwassa

(2015; director: Tuan Andrew Nguyen; writer: Tuan Andrew Nguyen/SUPERFLEX; language: Comoronian; production of Denmark and Vietnam)

Comprising a series of islands in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, Comoros is one of the smallest (and poorest) African nations. It is also a country I despaired of ever finding a film from. Diaspora film-makers such as Hachimiya Ahamada (Ashes of Dreams, The Ylang-Ylang Residence) and Ouméma Mamadali (Baco) have pioneered film-making in the country, but these are difficult to find (especially with English subtitles) now that their debut on the festival circuit is past. So when I saw Kwassa Kwassa listed in my local film festival, I thought – well, close enough. Kwassa Kwassa fails almost all the criteria I have for this blog: it’s a short film (19 mins), a documentary, and produced entirely by foreigners – helmed by Vietnamese director Nguyen and Danish art collective SUPERFLEX. And yet I include it here because it is perhaps the only film I will ever get to see that is filmed in and about Comoros.

The film opens with a boat alone in a blue sea, and a voice that says (in Comoronian): “you will listen to our voice, our voice will take you to the edge of Europe, and beyond. Two islands, same people, one European, and one not…”

‘Kwassa kwassa’ is the local word for the small open fishing boats used to ferry passengers from the Union of Comoros islands to Mayotte, a French territory in the Comoros archipelago and the farthest outpost of the European Union. The journey from Anjouan (where the film takes place) to Mayotte is only 70km, and yet this span of sea is the border between Africa and Europe, and (according to the film, at least) between penury and wealth, between despair and a future. Although only a short journey between two Comoronian islands, it is a journey forbidden by migration law and thus fraught with danger. The film states that more than 10,000 people have died trying to cross.

Against this background, the film focuses on the Anjouan-based makers of the kwassa kwassa boats. Exquisitely detailed montages of the boat-building process are overlaid with narration (by Soumette Ahmed – a local, one hopes?) detailing the geopolitical situation (historical and present), the dangers faced on the crossing and the reasons for attempting it, as well as ruminating on the mythical and incongruous nature of borders, nations, and Europe itself.

An art-film at heart, Kwassa Kwassa is beautifully shot. Detailed close-ups and snappy editing render the messy labour of manually crafting the fiberglass vessels into a work of art, simultaneously showing up the boat-makers’ craft and helping the viewer to experience the process on a tactile level. I was captivated. Also stunning are the aerial shots of Anjouan and the surrounding ocean, both visually effective and a testament to the artistic potential of drone-based camerawork. The clear turquoise of the Indian Ocean as it nears the shore, the glittering indigo of the deep open sea, and the run-down concrete bunkers of the settlement on Anjouan, studded with green explosions of palms.

However, I was less taken with how the film delivered its political and philosophical content – a desperately relevant challenge to conceptions of what and who is ‘Europe’ and the material violence necessary to uphold the demarcation between European and Other. But I felt that the film, in exploring the short and deadly journey between ‘African’ Anjouan and ‘European’ Mayotte, got that message across vividly without the slightly hammy disembodied whisper of the narrator pointing this out, or recounting the myth of Zeus and Europa (the point that Europa herself was an immigrant carried across the Mediterranean was also made, perhaps better, in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Supplicants).

For me, the comparison with the myth was a distraction, and served to focus the film on Europe and its aura of hope and security, bolstered further by the narrator’s description of Mayotte as “a sleeping beauty surrounded by thorns”. Both of these metaphors draw on a European fabular lexicon and make Mayotte out to be a prize, without dwelling on the stories and contexts of Anjouans who are willing to risk everything to claim it. For the film-makers, apparently, kwassa kwassa are not merely a literal means of conducting a dangerous and life-altering journey, they are also symbols of “a carrier of dreams of reaching a better life on the other shore”.

I would have preferred a little less symbol and a bit more detail about the lives of the non-Europeans – the Comoronians and others (the film shows a Vietnamese family also making the journey in the kwassa kwassa), and perhaps the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that have prompted them to take to the boats. Hints are dropped: there have apparently been 20+ coups in Comoros since independence from the French (many, according to the film, orchestrated by the French government); and poverty and injustice – “you can’t eat identity, but identity will always eat you, like the ocean”.

Nor do we get much insight into the motivations of the passeurs – those who ‘traffick’ the emigrants to Mayotte. Are they exploiting their desperate passengers, or are their charges fair compensation for the risks involved? If they have the capability to take themselves to Mayotte, why don’t they remain? And what indeed happens to those passengers that make it to Mayotte? I understand that as a short art film these details might have distracted from the concentrated motifs and parable that the film is going for, but I can’t help wondering if a film more grounded in the lives of the people it depicts would have provided more nuance and insight.

Despite these qualms the film is still powerful, partly through its shared intelligibility with the horrors currently unfolding on the shores of mainland Europe – a comparison the film makes overtly. Effective also is the stunning cinematography, and the contrast between the beauty of the Indian Ocean and its deadly potential. But really, the power is in the harrowing journey the passengers must undergo, and the film wisely gives its last few minutes over to this. The emigrants board the boat and it sets off. The only sound is the waves, the passengers are silent, intent. And then we see the boat alone, white and bullet shaped, on a dark blue sea.

In conclusion, though visually stunning, philosophically it’s an elevated and unsubtle film, with a European focus and little detail about the lives of everyday Comorians.  However, as an example of the incongruous violence that colonialism and current inequalities entail it is a powerful film, and one that makes me want to learn more about what leads a country to divide itself so harshly.

Algeria: Chronicle of the Years of Fire

(1975, dir: Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina; language: Arabic, French; original title: وقائع سنين الجمر or Chronique des Années de Braise)

Chronicle of the Years of Fire is an epic 177-minute film set in the lead-up to the Algerian War of Independence against colonial France. The film follows Ahmed, a peasant, through his frustrated attempts to make a life for himself in a country devastated by brutal colonisation, to being unwillingly conscripted into World War II on the side of France, to joining a resistance movement against the French colonial regime.The film focuses on the gulf between the drought- and famine-stricken Algerian peasants and the wealthy and sheltered French colonists, as well as the power of colonialism to divide and conquer.

In selecting this film, I was torn at first between this and Rachida, another highly-regarded Algerian film. While my desire to support the work of female directors was initially pushing me towards the latter, it being Easter I felt like giving a full-blown epic a go. Other points in Chronicle‘s favour were it being made in the 1970s, in contrast to many of the more modern films I’ve got lined up, and it being the only Arabic language film (or film from the African continent) to haven won the Palme d’Or. (Rachida remains on my to-watch list, however.)

The film certainly was epic – cast of hundreds, guns, horses, sabres, costumes, lingering wide shots of the forbidding and beautiful desert landscape – and yet like many older epic films the pace was quite slow. Over three hours (and 15 years in narrative time) the viewer sees Ahmed turn from an aimless peasant into a revolutionary leader. As well as allowing for this gradual and natural maturation (a metaphor for Algeria itself?), the slow pace allowed the repeated abuse from the French colonial system to build up for the viewer, at the same time as we watch the Algerians debate amongst themselves about what action to take. I liked how the barbarism of colonialism was portrayed as larger effects on the individual and society, rather than focussing too much on one particular French “baddy”. The typhoid outbreak was particularly gruesome, where French citizens were evacuated immediately and the rest of the Algerian city just left to sicken and die. But perhaps more interesting to me was the building up of the resistance movement, from a divided peasantry fighting over the few resources left to them by the colonisers to a full-blown revolutionary war. Certainly the take-home message, other than that violence begets violence and violence is needed to free oneself from violent oppression, seemed to be the need to reclaim and construct an Algerian identity separate from French control. These are not messages I necessarily agree with, but watching them build and unfold was an interesting insight into the history of a particularly bloody colonial occupation and war of independence, which can also some shed light on the mentality of occupied people today.

As an epic polemic, the film works well, I think. But the director’s use of archetypical, and predominantly male, characters made it harder for me to get into it. I’m the kind of viewer that likes watching people more than fight scenes, gorgeous landscapes, and rousing instrumental score (this is not to say that I don’t enjoy these things); so I didn’t personally feel very engaged with the film. The strong pastoral and domestic focus of the film and its cinematography especially made me want to see and hear more from the few women in the film, particularly as the hasty research I did about the Algerian war of independence suggests that around 11,000 women were involved as active participants in the resistance. To be honest it was the character of Miloud that kept me going with the film – a madman in the style of the Shakespearean fool, who guides the viewer with exposition and the other characters with the cutting truths that you’d have to be crazy to say out loud.

In sum, a landmark, well-constructed and epic film with a lot to say. It’s well worth seeing to get a small sense of the devastation caused by colonialism, and an introduction to a significant but under-discussed chapter in African and colonial history.