Friday, June 17, 2011

Leonard Retel Helmrich's Post-Reformasi Trilogy

Yesterday, I attended the screening of a trilogy of films by Indo-Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich at Open City, a festival of documentary film currently on at UCL.

The trilogy follows the fortune of an extended family living in a small house in a Jakarta slum, roughly over the years 1998 to 2010 - a micro-history of change in politics, economics and religion.

These three films Eye of the Day (2001), Shape of the Moon (2004) and Position among the Stars (2010) are remarkable in the intimacy with their subjects. The grandmother Rumidjah, who owns the house, is a practicing Christian, long widowed, who comes originally from a small village in Central Java where Helmrich's own mother was born.

In the first film, set against the demonstrations that led to Soeharto's downfall and the first post-reformasi election, her son Bakti, who still lives with her mother, is a bit of a lay-about, addicted to gambling without career aspirations. We see in the trilogy Bakti drifting away from Christianity and converting to Islam and marrying a Muslim woman (who starts up a small warung in front of the house). Bakti takes to raising fighting fish (which are fried by his wife after a quarrel), and also is elected RT.

Also living in the house is Tari, Sudjinah's grand-daughter who was orphaned at age 6. Over the years, we see Tari transform from an imaginative and spunky kid to a somewhat jaded and diffident adolescent. In the third film, Sudjinah is forced to take out a mortgage against her house in order to pay for Tari's tertiary education in Komunikasi (Media and Communication Studies).

We also see Sudjinah herself in the second film make a go at returning to her natal village Kalimiru (in Purworejo, Jawa Tengah), renovating a house and trying to find day labour in rice fields. She returns to Jakarta in the third film though to help with Tari, who has been having trouble with her high school studies.

Helmrich in all this is both a documentarian and an instigator of scenes, observer and participant. Though never seen on camera, he is on intimate terms with the family. Camera work is extraordinary - never before has daily life in under-class Indonesia seen such exposure.

I first encountered Helmrich from his remarkable documentary about Dutch experimental puppetry, Moving Objects (1991) - which I saw at the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre, and reviewed his documentary about Indonesian puppeteer Agus Nur Amal, Promised Paradise (2006), for Asian Theatre Journal.

I had hoped to meet Helmrich at the opening of the festival last night, at which Position among the Stars was shown. Unfortunately he had to go to California, where his film is being promoted by HBO for an academy award nomination.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Ecological Body Open Day

I attended the Ecological Body Open Day yesterday. This was the final day of a five-day workshop titled Ecological Body run by Suprapto Suryodarmo and Sandra Reeve at Sandra's house in West Dorset, on the south coast of England. The 16 people who attended the workshop were joined by about a dozen spectator-participants. It was billed as one of Prapto's last workshops in the UK and there was reportedly a lot of crying at a 2 hour long 'processing' session that ended the day. (I took a long walk along the beach with Hannah, looking for fossils, during this session, which was open only to workshop participants.)

Workshop participants were divided into three movement groups - daily life (identified by wearing a red thread), healing/therapy and performance. Each participant performed a solo piece set in different niches around Sandra's garden, and then a series of group pieces. After the group pieces, there was an opportunity for visitors to move together with the participants in the settings that groups had identified for showing daily life movement (a vegetable garden), healing/therapy (a group of trees) and performance (a little grassy hill backed by some bushes, which functioned as a kind of backstage area).

After lunch supplied by a local organic food vendor, there were a series of somewhat improvised performances by participants and visitors (some of them authorised teachers of Suprapto's method). This included a piece by Suprapto called Sea Song, in which he addressed a wire sculpture titled ManChild created by Greta Berlin through movement, chanting, incense and a flower offering; a piece called Settling by Sandra Reeve which combined pantomime gestures with dance; a piece by Alex Crowe called Time for Words, in which he danced with an ax (handled in the style of a pencak silat artist) as Simon Slidders improvised a text about time and the garden; and a series of English folk songs (somewhat improvised, again) sung with gusto by Keith Miller- all of which related to the local topography and the history of the house.

Suprapto was mostly quiet throughout the performances - as he was busy documenting the presentations with a handicam. But he spoke a couple of times, mentioning how the visit of a number of monks to the workshop reminded him of how shocked people in Indonesia were initially that he would involve monks in performances; how in the past workshop participants did not appreciate that male monks cannot be touched by women (miming a gesture of horror at being touched); the transformation from ecology to logos and back to ecology; the importance of connecting to mythos via storytelling.

After the processing session, and before Sandra drove me back to the local train station, I was able to have a short interview with Suprapto about art for ritual vs. art for arts sake; the post-1998 re-emergence of ritual art; and connections between his own practice and that of his daughter Melati. All themes I hope to take up in my new book on theatre and performance in modern Indonesia.