The biography of Indonesia –according to Garin Nugroho
Cynthia Webb, Brisbane, QLD, Australia
When the Head of Griffith Film School, in Brisbane, Australia, was planning a week of Master-classes for his senior students, Garin Nugroho was the name suggested. Professor Herman Van Eyken’s colleague in film, Philip Cheah, a Singaporean cinephile, curator, and expert on South East Asian cinema has known Garin since 1991, when he watched Garin’s first feature film, “Love on a Slice of Bread”. He knew Garin was the perfect person to help the students in the special area of pre-production and location shooting.
Garin Nugroho was invited for the event in 2014, but as he was so busy with his newest film, that his visit was postponed until early March, 2015.
Garin had flown direct from Thailand where he was working with the producers putting the finishing touches to “Guru Bangsa: Tjokroaminoto” which will open around Indonesia on April 9th. A premiere screening will take place in Jakarta on 31st March.
Philip Cheah was also in Brisbane for the week of the event. Philip selected a mini-film festival at the Film School of Garin’s past works, all of which show the amazing experience that this director has had, with working on location, and in often very challenging locations. The titles were:
Opera Jawa, Birdman Tale, The Poet, And the Moon Dances, Letter to an Angel and Soegija.
I asked Philip why he chose this particular five, of Garin’s films. “Just because they were my favorites,” he answered, however, it is also an interesting selection which demonstrates that Garin’s body of work over about thirty years of film-making is a unique collection. In fact, his films are an anthropology and history of the nation. Garin has worked from West Papua, to Aceh, including Sumba, Bali, Central Java, and Jakarta.
“I chose places where socio-political problems of our Indonesian multi-culture are revealing themselves,” Garin told me. “This gives a situation of tension and the story is bound to be interesting, taking place within this setting. I research the local community very carefully over an extended time. I often make several visits there, and get to know the people and especially the influential local people. It is very important to get their understanding and trust.”
Garin has more recently started making films on the modern history of Indonesia, tackling the tragic times after the overthrow of Sukarno – the lingering pain of the 1965/66 killings in Bali, (“Under the Tree”) oppression in Aceh, (“The Poet”) and Islamic fundamentalism in current times, (“The Blindfold”). Then he went on to look for historic moments – such as in “Soegija” which is set throughout the 1940s, (including colonial times, Japanese occupation, and the declaration of freedom) and now there is his newest film, “Guru Bangsa: Tjokroarominoto”.
Tjokroaminoto was the teacher of Sukarno, a man of vision, leader of Syarikat Islam – the first political Islamic Organisation. The setting is 1906 and Tjokroaminoto had a profound awareness of a changing world outside Indonesia, then a colony of The Netherlands.
Garin has also examined with an un-flinching eye, the problem of poverty in the way that it creates street-kids, (anak-jalanan). (“Daun di atas Bantal”).
More recently, his interest in music and theatre and his strong political and social conscience is revealed loud and clear, through his creativity in film and theatre, and his writing in Kompas.
In spite of his busy schedule and many activities, Garin told me that (when in the city) he goes over to play with his first grandchild, one year old Rintik, every day. She is the daughter of Kamila Andini ( Garin’s daughter) and Ifa Isfansyah, who are both well known film directors. Last September, Garin joked, “Rintik doesn’t have a film project yet”, however it seems there’s a film-making dynasty emerging in Indonesia.
All of his cinematic work has involved location shooting, and a lot of historical and/or anthropological research. Garin’s own Javanese culture was gloriously explored in his “Opera Jawa” (2006) which was seen around the world, and made him Indonesia’s most internationally recognized film-maker. This film was screened as the closing film at Venice Film Festival (2007) – a huge honor.
Garin Nugroho has also made about around thirteen documentary films. Here is a man with a strong spirit, a lust for life and a strong artistic sensibility, across the disciplines. He closely observes the people of Indonesia, his beloved country, whoever, and wherever they may be.
Gerard Mosterd, a Dutch choreographer and frequent visit to Java, who played a supporting role in “Guru Bangsa: Tjokroaminoto” told me in a report from the location, that working with Garin was an absolute joy. He said that the entire company was like a family and there was a lot of intuition and inclusiveness employed by the director. Gerard explained that Garin worked from draft scenario but would be open to discussion, and improvisation. Therefore, the entire company felt included and willing to give their best.
Supporting Gerard’s experience, in an interview with Philip Cheah, Garin explained that Asian culture is largely an oral tradition and that spontaneity is a strong characteristic of Asian culture. Garin told Philip Cheah that film is the medium for change and to resist stereotypes which create prejudice, or banality.
From this statement and from his body of work, it is clear that Garin is working, in his own way, on the unification of Indonesia, just as much as were Sukarno and Hatta back in 1945. He is creating an incredibly valuable filmography which will speak to future generations, telling about the struggles, the difficulties and the commitment and love which made a country great. His own love is a powerful contribution.
photo: Left- Garin Nugroho, and right – Philip Cheah
(Photo of me (Cynthia Webb) with Garin, taken by Philip Cheah
(text and photos by Cynthia Webb – copyright March 2015)