The Times BFI London International Film Festival showed two films from Indonesia this year. I managed to catch one of them -- Garin Nugroho's latest film, Under the treee (Di bawah pohon, 2008). I presented a paper comparing Garin's previous film, Opera Jawa, with the opera Attima at a conference on opera and exoticism in September, and had the opportunity to see Opera Jawa (2006) a fair number of times in various exhibition contexts in London as well as on DVD. I also spoke to Garin, Peter Sellars (who produced Opera Jawa) and the film's composer Rahayu Supanggah about Opera Jawa. My interests in Indonesia do not end with Java though - and I was thus very curious to see how Garin would treat Bali.
The comparison of Opera Jawa with Under the tree is not my own - it is Garin's. Garin said when he was in London for the British premiere of Opera Jawa that he was hoping to do something very similar in his 'Bali film' to what he accomplished in Opera Jawa. While Opera Jawa was based on the Ramayana, Under the tree would deal with the Mahabharata. In Opera Jawa Garin worked with many tradition-based contemporary Javanese artists, Under the tree would feature Balinese artists coming out of a traditional background.
Under the tree had for me a pleasure in recognition. I have not spent a lot of time in Bali in recent years - but have known a number of the actors -- including Ikranagara, Alit Aryani Kriegenburg-Willems, Bulan Trisna and others - and recognised easily their own biographies in their characters. I also enjoyed seeing the contemporary version of Calon Arang that is a centrepiece of the film. I was less interested in the unfolding stories - Nadia Saphira might be a beauty, but her suicide in a tatoo parlor seemed rather a melodramatic ending to a life with little purpose or aim. The film also lacked the deep resonances with mythology that gave Opera Jawa such power. But maybe I need to watch this another time. It was only the second or third time that I saw Opera Jawa that I finally 'got' the film.