After Two Musicals, Director Garin Nugroho Looks Back at 35 Years in Film


SEPTEMBER 19, 2016

Jakarta. Ten years after the world premiere of his first musical film "Opera Jawa" ("Requiem From Java"), director Garin Nugroho is finally able to look back at his work and continue to find ways to create a breakthrough.

"Opera Jawa," which features Javanese traditional dances, songs and music, is a dramatization of the abduction of Sita, wife of Prince Rama in the Ramayana. The story follows Siti (Artika Sari Devi), a Javanese woman who is married to Setio (Martinus Miroto), and who is later abducted by Ludiro (Eko Supriyanto). The film was produced by American actor and producer Peter Sellars for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna in 2006, an event to commemorate the birth of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

The musical was screened at Kinosaurus in Kemang, South Jakarta, on Sunday (18/09), as part of the micro-theater's Venice Film Festival program. Garin, who attended the screening, said Javanese culture is his endless source of inspiration. The Yogyakarta-born filmmaker told the audience that "Opera Jawa" stood out in his portfolio because he felt it was well made at that time. It stars maestros in art performances and installations.

Over the years, he also felt that the musical is worth a revisit. Especially after he felt upset with his own work.

"Looking back [at 'Opera Jawa'], I can say now that it was too much. There were too many exhibitions. It's an exhibit of the dances, the installations, the costumes and colors," he said. "I finally learned that I wanted to make something simple and elegant, but it took me ten years to get to this point."

On Sept. 2, Garin released a silent, black-and-white film titled "Setan Jawa" ("Javanese Devil") in Jakarta. "Setan Jawa" features contemporary dances, but is inspired by Javanese mythology as it follows Setio (Heru Purwanto), a poor man who falls in love with Asih (Asmara Abigail), a Javanese princess. After she rejected his marriage proposal, Setio turns to black magic and makes a deal with the devil (Luluk Ari) in his efforts to win Asih's love.

Even though "Opera Jawa" and "Setan Jawa" are both musicals and feature a story that is set in Java, they stand next to each other in contrast. For Garin, it is important do things differently.

"As a creator, I have to be able to live a newer life, and I have to kill my own work," he said. "[Setan Jawa] is very simple. There were only seven actors, but all of them are very good, very mature, and we used no substitute. You need to work with great people in order to make a great work because, as rebellious as they get, they will never want to kill their own career."

Accompanied by a live gamelan performance, "Setan Jawa" had a public screening at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Cikini, South Jakarta, on Sept. 3 and 4. Even though the format of the film limits the size of the audience, Garin claimed that the shelf life of the silent movie could last for years. He also plans to create a play based on "Setan Jawa."

"I plan to have at least two or three big shows every year. We will perform with the Melbourne Orchestra in February [2017], and with a mix of gamelan and orchestra at Esplanade [in Singapore] in June or July," he said.

The two musicals serve as a returning point for Garin because, as the director said, his aesthetics are always influenced by the theatrical world, including all of its absurdities and surrealism aspects. The 55-year-old admitted that he often receives comments from people who wish he would make films that are easier to understand, but Garin said he knows he cannot make movies for all types of audiences.

"I feel like my talent does not lie in an area where I can communicate with a lot of people," he said. "Some things are meant to be small segmented and I'm very discipline about it."

When Garin directed "Mata Tertutup" ("Folded Eyes") in 2011, he told the producers not to expect big numbers from the box office. The film stars Jajang C. Noer is a study in religious tolerance in Indonesia.

"Cinemas give a certain pride but for me, it's just like a [national] flag. The important thing was we were able to find 100 schools to screen ['Mata Tertutup']," Garin said about the movie.

His background as a director who began his career during the repressive New Order era also shapes his priorities in filmmaking, especially in terms of content and his target audience. Ever since he released the Citra-winning drama "Cinta Dalam Sepotong Roti" ("Love in a Slice of Bread") in 1990, Garin said he has been aiming for his work to be screened at prestigious film festivals.

"I was aiming for competitions in Berlin, Venice and Cannes," he said.

International film festivals offer a sense of freedom in expression and storytelling that local screenings could not provide at that time. Garin recalled his experience of participating at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996, where he had to submit his work through the help of the Goethe Institut in Jakarta.

"Back then, it took a month just to hear from them. We communicated via letters. I also got a call from the intelligence agency, asking why I didn't get a permit before sending my movie to Berlin," he said.

He eventually reached his goals. "Bulan Tertusuk Ilalang" won the Fipresci prize, an international film critics' award at the Berlin film festival in 1996. "Daun di Atas Bantal" ("Leaf on a Pillow") was screened in the Un Certain Regard section in the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. "Opera Jawa" was screened in film festivals in Venice, Toronto and Rotterdam, among many others.

Garin's next film is "Nyai" ("A Woman From Java"), a 90-minute picture that is filmed in a single shot. The comedy about Indonesian women, set in 1920, is currently waiting for a release date.