The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, December 20, 2006



To pad out programs telecasters everywhere screen station promotions.

Favored are clips of jolly industrious people in clean and colorful costumes smiling as the camera pans landscapes of loveliness. Flags flutter with pride. Clean-limbed youngsters look upwards and ahead through clear skies; satisfied oldies smile in contentment. Stirring music leads to a climax of achievement.

The idea is to create an image of one big happy family with the TV station an integral part. It’s all part of the quest for national identity.

Angst-driven Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho likes to try his hand at catching that slippery concept, but takes a different approach.

The same sort of people fill his frame, but their ragged clothes are as faded as their hopes, their blemished faces seldom joyful. Instead they’re angry, sad, resigned, gutted by grief or exhausted with frustration. Some have passed through the pain to find a level of resignation. There’s a leavening of humor.

“What’s it like to be Indonesian?” he asked. “Trying to express identity in a country of so many islands, regions, languages and ethnic groups is difficult.

“Film can let us discover what it’s really like. Listening to sobbing is being Indonesian. The human face is the face of our archipelago. See the face and you understand the family.

“All the clichés of pluralism and multiculturalism can be made honest through film.”

Though only if you point the lens into places where most dare not go. Nugroho has done this by, among other things, traveling to Papua and documenting the independence movement.

He got away with it by exploiting the window of tolerance briefly opened by fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid – and by being himself.

For the cherubic Nugroho comes across as a naive philosopher rather than mad plotter determined to dismantle the Unitary State. He’s just one friendly little man, not the rabid leader of a mob – seemingly more dreamer than devious.

He must have driven the security apparatus in Papua mad; here was this gentle Javanese importing 400 Morning Star flags and encouraging people to sing the prohibited anthem for his camera, yet claiming all the while to be a nationalist who didn’t want to cause trouble.

(This was to make Bird Man Tale, dedicated to murdered Papuan leader Theys Eluay.)

“I don’t want separatism,” Nugroho said. “I feel rich if we have Papuan culture. If we lose that, we lose a beautiful thing. This is neither about the economy nor about losing access to natural resources. It’s about losing someone from the family.”

All very reasonable, but unlikely to soften the hearts of the hard men wearing wrap-around sunglasses and bulky objects in their waistbands.

These guys and their bosses tend to take the George Bush line – you’re either with us or against us. Nugroho’s middle way confuses. So does his language. He thinks a chat, a laugh and a smile are the ways to solve problems when the policy seems to be that only force speaks sense.

“I’m not harming anyone,” he said. “So why should anybody want to harm me? I respect anyone who doesn’t use violence.”

Nugroho comes from a cultured Yogya family. His siblings are artists or academics. His father published books and Mum ran the post office. In 1965 when the military came and demanded lists of communists in the area Dad refused to oblige.

That made him a fellow traveler in the black or white reasoning of the guys with guns, but another factor confused this simplicity; Dad was also a national hero having fought the Dutch for Independence.

For two months he was under house arrest. The tension eventually passed and the family survived the bloodletting that followed the rise of Suharto. This ghastly period was recalled in Nugroho’s film A Poet – Unconcealed Poetry.

Young Nugroho went to an Islamic primary school and a Catholic high school – though he remains a Muslim. When he wasn’t in class he was in the front stalls saturating himself in the possibilities of cinema.

He went to university and studied filmmaking for four years - and law for a similar period. He graced the courtroom for only a twelvemonth before abandoning the security of profiting from people’s misfortunes to showing them on the screen.

Though not to his own profit. One of his first films was about street kids. Making gritty documentaries is no sure road to a fortune in Indonesia. Nugroho has nine films to his credit – he says only two have made money. His topics have been the poor, the marginalized and the brutalized – unpopular issues in his homeland where audiences overloaded with their own problems prefer escapism.

When he’s far away Nugroho, 45, gets the accolades for leading Indonesia’s new wave cinema. A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country.

He’s won numerous prizes in Europe, Singapore and Japan – and enough cash from overseas to open an independent studio in Jakarta where he employs 20 people.

In Perth, Western Australia to show his work at an international conference on media policies and culture in the Asia-Pacific region, Nugroho spoke to The Jakarta Post.

“I always chose difficult issues,” he said. “I’m not opposed to films with happy endings. There are plenty of these, but we also need films to discuss social problems.

“Tragedy also raises questions of what it’s like to be human. If it bleeds it’s alive! That’s why I choose open endings for my films.

“I love oral traditions and poetic language. Song is an important part of narrative. Song is prayer.

“Indonesian television is about the rich and glamorous, the vulgar gossips. It’s the language of violence. Consumerism is commercialism without ethics.

“When I was making films during the Suharto period I was up against the military. Now the opposition is materialism and centralism. This is a pluralist society, a multicultural country – how can we understand this nation from Jakarta?

“I don’t belong to anyone. I’m free. My responsibility is to give people room for non-violent freedom of expression. Many politicians don’t want to hear the anger, the crying of the people.

“The problem now is not the military but market forces and censorship by society. Hindus and Muslims have opposed my films. The ultimate censor is loss of sponsorship.

“I’m not against globalisation unless it’s delivered on other people’s terms. It’s good when different communities can get the best out of each other for each other.

“My films tend to be shown only in universities and abroad. The early 70s were the golden years for Indonesian cinema before it was killed by censorship and pop culture.

“There are now around 40 films a year made in Indonesia. Most concern horror or teenage love. Very few are good.

“I’m pessimistic about the future of film. The archipelago is rich in stories, but there’s no money to get them made. Cinema is only surviving in the shopping malls for the middle classes.

“It’s not that film is important by itself. The importance is because it’s the medium of dialogue, the way we can understand each other.

“Indonesia doesn’t have a regional cultural strategy – this shows we don’t respect multiculturalism. Yet this is the only way that we can define ourselves.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 6 December 2006)