Indonesian, German Puppetry Groups Transcend Borders With 'Senlima'

Indonesian theater group Papermoon collaborated with Germany's The Retrofuturisten to bring the captivating story of 'Senlima' to life. (Photo courtesy of Goethe-Institut Indonesien/Ramos Pane)

By : Jaime Adams | on 9:58 AM October 05, 2015
Category : Life & Style, Arts & Culture

Jakarta. The constructed, auxiliary language Esperanto, which was developed by physician and linguist L.L. Zamenhof in the late 19th century, aimed to build a bridge between people with different backgrounds and languages; as a politically neutral language, Zamenhof’s goal was to transcend nationality and encourage mutual understanding and peace between the various cultures of the world.

It is only fitting that “Senlima,” a word from the universal language of Esperanto that roughly translates as “without borders” is the title of a co-production of two artist groups that come from different countries.

Papermoon Puppet Theater from Yogyakarta is Indonesia’s best-known and most-loved contemporary puppet theater. Founded by Maria Tri Sulistyani, or Ria, and Iwan Effendi, Papermoon often experiments with visual and performing arts by using puppetry as its medium.

The Retrofuturisten are an independent theater and puppet collective from Berlin founded in 2011. The group consists of director Roscha A. Saidow and puppeteers Magdalena Roth and Franziska Dittrich, who first met while studying at the renowned Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Art.

Together, they developed “Senlima,” which premiered last Thursday in Yogyakarta and was performed at Teater Salihara in South Jakarta on Sunday evening. Earlier in the day, media representatives were invited for a special viewing of “Senlima.”

The collaboration between Papermoon and Retrofuturisten is part of the German Season, a festival that celebrates the friendship between Indonesia and Germany and is organized by Goethe-Institut Indonesien, the German Embassy Jakarta and Ekonid. The co-production will also be presented in Germany and at international festivals later this year.

The unique project was divided into multiple working phases that took place both in Berlin and Yogyakarta over the course of several months. The relatively long preparation gave both groups enough time to get to know one another, to come up with an interesting storyline revolving around the topic “borders” and to finally create the puppets.

“At the beginning, we figured out a theme that inspired both parties,” Saidow is quoted as saying in an interview on the official website of the German Season. “The theme ‘borders’ is strongly connected to the human being. We discussed and are constantly thinking about the different perspectives and meanings of the topic: its cultural, philosophical, religious and social meaning.

"Based on a tale that was created together by Papermoon and Retrofuturisten, we then began to create different forms of puppets.”

The final result, “Senlima,” is an achingly beautiful story about an elderly man whose parrot – whom he keeps in a cage – is freed by overly enthusiastic clowns who do not understand the repercussions of their actions. Although they mean well, they leave behind a devastated owner, who is then embarking on a long journey to find the lost bird.

“The characters actually are trying to overcome their borders, whether it’s an inner or a concrete, outer one,” Saidow explains.

Skillfully combining conventional puppet theater with animation, video projections and pop up props, there is a baffling paradox to “Senlima." It’s not that the puppeteers act behind the scenes and remain invisible, as is often the case with puppet theaters. Here, they are seen on stage, carefully handling the puppets’ heads, their legs and their arms.

Yet, the puppets develop such an impressive life of their own that just a simple movement, like the old man scratching his forehead or slightly tilting his head out of exhaustion, evokes extremely strong feelings within the audience. The puppets and the puppeteers seem inseparable: they have become one and the same.

The puppets – exquisitely made in painstaking detail from the weary look on their faces to the clothes they wear – may be the stars of the show but when one sees the almost tender look in the puppeteers’ eyes as they handle their “children,” it becomes clear that their attachment to them is real.

Papermoon always had a reputation for not shying away from difficult or controversial topics in its productions. While “Senlima” carries the overall topic of borders, it also deals with coming to terms with one’s past – a message that is especially significant for Indonesia this time of the year as its people reflect on the anti-communist purge and mass killings of 1965.

At the same time, “Senlima” also forges a link to the current refugee crisis in Europe. In one dramatic scene of the production, the old man finds himself in the middle of the sea, struggling to reach the safety of a nearby boat. With pedaling legs and almost out of breath, he collects all the strength left in him and finally gets a hold of the boat, releasing a deep sigh of relief.

“Senlima” is, in all regards, a deeply moving experience: from the sheer setup of the stage and the excellent production and handling of the puppets, to the poignant story and the important key message.

After the final curtain, Ria thanked the audience for spending one hour with Papermoon, the Retrofuturisten and their “Senlima” characters. Instead, it was the audience who seemed the most grateful – for the fact that these exceptionally talented performers brought “Senlima” to life.

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