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.