Last night I attended the opening night of an Indonesian film series Spotlight on: Indonesia, part of the 5th Terracotta Far East Film Festival , at the ICA in London.
The film was Sang Penari (The Dancer), released in Indonesia in 2011 and Indonesia's official Academy Award entry for 2012. The film is set in Banyumas (and actually shot on location in Purwokerto and Tegal) and is a romance set against the backdrop of the traditional art of ronggeng and the political upheaval and mass killings of 1963-1966, inspired by Ahmad Tohari's celebrated trilogy Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, which has been translated into English by Rene Lysloff and published by the Lontar Foundation.
The director Ifa Ifansyah, who I met at the Rotterdam Film Festival, was present and answered questions during a Q&A after the film led by my colleague Ben Murtagh of SOAS.
He explained that what we saw what was the director's cut, which included scenes cut in Indonesia, one where the dancer's stomach is massaged to prevent pregnancy and her breasts are briefly visible, the cutting of throats by Indonesian army officers, her vagina being 'smoked' before her ritual deflowering. The censors also stood in the way of including PKI emblems - though there is a brief flash of sickles in a market place. When the film was shown on Indonesian TV and as in flight enter
Ifa spoke about how it was hard to finance the film - the novels are very well known but the Indonesian film market is dominated by horror and teen romance - and it took him 3 years in all to produce the film. It garnered critical acclaim in Indonesia but attracted only 100,000 viewers. (His previous film Garuda di Dadaku or 'Garuda on My Chest' about teenage soccer players had 1.3 viewers.)
I found the film to be somewhat predictable and overly melodramatic. While other dance films such as Garin Nugroho's Opera Jawa and Riantiarno's Cemeng 2005 (The Last Primadona) cast actual dancers in lead roles, Ifa cast a Jakarta actress in the ronggeng part, which meant that dance scenes were rather brief and not very exciting on the whole. The best ronggeng from Banyumas are truly amazing to behold. He did, however, work with the Banyumas-based multi-arts group Banyu Biru for the music (all the on-screen musicians with the exception of the drummer were part of this group), and many of the villagers were played by people from Banyumas.
Admirably, the film script was translated from Indonesian into the Banyumas dialect of Javanese, which I enjoyed hearing very much, due in part to its similarity to the Cirebon dialect which I speak. Although the Jakarta lead actors struggled a bit with this (they had only 1 month of vocal training), the extras and minor actors added much authenticity in their dialogue.
Ifa spoke also about who the Tohari novels focused mostly on cultural background and politics, and that he wished to make a romance film about the love affair between the ronggeng and a soldier. I wish there had been a more systematic exposition of the way that the Communist party utilized the folk arts for propaganda purposes. There is a token Communist agitator in the film who gives villagers a radio to keep them abreast of news, has them paint slogans on their roofs, sponsors the ronggeng troupe, and occasionally talks about the bourgeoisie and 'tanah oentoek rakjat' (land for the people). But the ronggeng and other troupe members appear totally ignorant of the politics (and are enticed to perform under the PKI banner only because the agitator promises they will 'panen' or harvest gigs from this), there is not a single mention made of LEKRA, and there are no songs or jokes in the performances referencing Communist ideas or ideals. The Tohari novels have much more in them about the politicisation of the arts that could have been fruitfully mined, and there are people out there who remember this period well and are willing to talk. Something perhaps for another film to explore. Or a monograph.