the thousand voices of garin nugroho

tom redwood talks to the indonesian filmmaker

Garin Nugroho

Garin Nugroho

Garin Nugroho

Garin Nugroho

Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho is, in the truest sense of the word, a pioneer. Peerless in his nation, he has since 1991 produced and directed eight features and five documentaries that have established him as one of the most interesting filmmakers of our time. His films are beautiful, unusual and politically active statements, each expressing a unique vision of Indonesia and its place in the world. And yet to describe Nugroho as an auteur is problematic, for none of his films are obviously alike. They all look, sound and feel different. Indeed, it is as if with each production a new Nugroho steps forward, one with his own sensibility, his own language and his own history. Nugroho was recently in Australia to promote his latest film Opera Jawa. Sandy Cameron wrote: “In a timely reminder that Western narratives often dwell in narrowly confined spaces and that there are many alternative modes of storytelling, comes a dazzling musical from Indonesia in the form of Opera Jawa…How the story is presented via gamelan music, acrobatic dance and puppetry is unique in global cinema…its sheer spectacle is continually impressive” (RT 78, p18). During Nugroho’s stay I was keen to find out if any constants underlie his radically changing vision.

Your films reflect a fascination with textures, colours and shapes. Were you artistic as a child?

I grew up in an artistic family. My family’s house was like the traditional Javanese house in Opera Jawa. We hosted dance rehearsals there every week. Two of my brothers are painters and my father is a publisher. He used to be a writer. He wrote a very famous modernised adaptation of a traditional Javanese puppet story. My artistic sense grew up in that atmosphere, in a traditional house surrounded by contemporary activities.

So why did you choose filmmaking?

Well, I couldn’t become a writer because my father would criticise me. I tried painting, but my brothers criticised me. I ran away to make films so that no one in my family could criticise me! Actually, my father told me in 1970 when television was introduced that for my generation the role of the book would be transferred to visual media. This influenced me very strongly.

Each film you make is always very different from the last. Is that a conscious choice that you have made?

Firstly, this springs from my personal desire to do something new with each film. But the second reason is that I believe in developing a multicultural perspective. If I say the word ‘yes’ in Japanese, this means something different to the word ‘yes’ in English. Every idea will be different in a different culture. Every culture has their own language and psychology. And each new perspective leads to a new style. In Indonesia we have so many different cultures: 400 tribes speaking 500 languages! So with each film I try to enter a new perspective. If I make a film in Java, for example, this will be totally different to making a film in Nusa Tenggara. These differences push me to come to totally new concepts. It’s very scary and stressful! Every time I start from zero. I feel stupid and inferior, like a blind man with each new film. But, if it works, it is beautiful, because I didn’t know the product before I started.

Despite their differences, all of your films seem to be concerned with problems of class division. This is especially evident in Opera Jawa.

In Asia we have a more symbolic relationship with narrative than you do in the West. And yes, Opera Jawa can be seen as a political allegory. The character of Rawana is like a big rich country. He assumes he can just take what he wants. Rama, on the other hand, is more of a traditional, religious type. He is at odds with economic forces. He doesn’t know how to develop and becomes angry and possessive, which leads him to violence. The two males’ struggle over the female character Sinta is also a struggle over earth. That’s what Sinta means in Javanese: “earth.”

Your films are sometimes described as examples of ‘Third World Cinema.’ Does this term mean anything to you?

No. I never think about ‘Third World Cinema.’ For me every person or community of filmmakers develops their own style to make a statement. And every generation makes a new statement. Look at the differences between the Chinese generations, between Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhang-ke for example. 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.

How have the political changes of Indonesia’s past decade affected the cinema?

It’s too simplistic to equate the fall of Suharto with positive consequences for Indonesian cinema. The cinema was an important tool of propaganda for Suharto during the first fifteen or so years of his reign, and at that time Indonesia produced almost one hundred films a year. When the new globalism came in 1985 Suharto could no longer control the influx of international product into Indonesia and so the local film output declined massively; down to one or two films by 1998. My films! Back then we knew our enemy, Suharto’s militarism. But now we face new problems. The forces of global consumerism, consumerism without ethics that you can see in violent mass appeal cinema, have become so strong. This is a serious problem. On the other hand we have the forces of censorship from minority religious groups. Another problem. I think the filmmaker today has to survive in this paradox: between freedom of expression and consumerism and between freedom of expression and the censorship of tribal groups.

Finally, there’s an interesting recurring line in Opera Jawa: “Cleverness becomes power.” What do you take this to mean?

Clever people, religious people, use knowledge to dominate and demean others. More knowledge means more power, and humans have always tended to attack those who have less power. It’s always like that. The clever become dominant. Their knowledge doesn’t liberate their humanity. It imprisons it.

Produced with financial support of the New Crowned Hope Festival Vienna 2006, the Goteborg Film Festival Fund and the Hubert Bals Fund of The International Film Festival Rotterdam, Opera Jawa screened at the 2007 Adelaide and Sydney Film Festivals and is distributed by Pyramide International.

RealTime issue #80 Aug-Sept 2007 pg. 29

© Tom Redwood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2007