Sunday, February 5, 2012

SE Asian films at the Rotterdam International Film Festival

I spent two days last week at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam. This is the Netherlands' biggest film festival, with a long history of supporting the work of emerging film artists in Asia. While there was much on the programme of interest, I focused my viewing on new Southeast Asian films, and also saw one film from India.

Garin Nugroho, the Yogyakarta-based film maker best known for his Opera Jawa, was at the festival to show his new film Mata Tertutup (The Blindfold in English). This was a probing account (even a diagnosis) of Islamist indoctrination. The film follows two sets of people who get drawn into Islamic extremist organisations (referred to as 'aliran sesat'). In one storyline, an attractive university student, a reader of Goenawan Mohammad, is frustrated by poverty around her and becomes a fund raiser for a Negara Islam Indonesia (NII), an organisation which aims to establish an Islamic state and alleviate social injustices. She becomes distanced from her family, but eventually realises that the funds she is raising are supporting the organisation's leaders and not reaching the poor. In the other storyline, two ex-santri living on society's margins are attracted to an Islamic terrorist cell. One becomes a suicide bomber, but is shot by the police before he detonates the contents of his knapsack. The film is told with humour and humanity. I especially appreciated the saluang playing of one character (a Minang living in Yogya) and the use of pesisir Javanese dialect (perhaps bahasa Brebes?) of another. Garin continues to show Java in an interesting light.

I also attended a test screening of Garin's film currently in progress, Buah dan Perang, which concerns the critical decade of the 1940s. A central character is Mgr. Albertus Soegijapranata, SJ, who became bishop of Semarang in 1940- the first Indonesian to become a bishop. Much of the action is told through song and music - Dutch songs, songs blending Dutch and Indonesian, revolutionary songs, church songs, keroncong. In conversation, Garin said that much of the pleasure he gets in making films comes from observing the display of talents by his actors. Indonesia terlalu kaya - it is too easy for him as a film maker to tap into the cultural creativity of Indonesia's many ethnic groups.

I saw two debut films by Thai directors: 'In April the Following Year, There was a Fire' (about an out-of-work young man who returns to Thailand's northeast province, combined with autobiographical aspects of the director's life) and the more impressive 'I Carried You Home' (about two sisters who escort their mother's corpse from Bangkok to southern Thailand where funeral rights are administered).

The final film I attended was Bunohan, by Malaysian writer-director Dain Said, concerns three children of a former tok dalang and is set in a town on the border of Thailand. In some ways this is a genre film -- in a q&a that followed the screening the director mentioned specifically the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah -- and as it was privately financed needed to make money for its backers. (Thus lots of violence- with an emphasis on Muay Thai and knife fights.) The director also wished to show how the old 'animist' culture (the world of bomoh, wayang kulit, main peteri, traditional herbal medicine) was ecologically sensitive. He said this was politically difficult though - he described himself as walking a tightrope.

Cultural traditions live throughout the region, and film is increasingly a privileged vehicle for understanding tradition in modernity.