‘Sekala, Niskala” (The Seen and Unseen) directed by Kamila Andini, 2017, Indonesia Review by Cynthia Webb

Dini with her award at APSA 2017

The island of Bali in Indonesia has become a tourist magnet of powerful attraction, but probably the majority of tourists just enjoy their holiday, and don’t know very much at all about the unique culture and religious lives of the Balinese people.

The Javanese film maker, Kamila Andini comes from a mainly Muslim culture in Java, however she has been raised by a father who is also a film director, and one who appreciates and makes films about all of the varied ethnic groups on the many islands of this archipelago that the Dutch called ‘the emerald necklace’, when they were the colonial power there.

So Dini, as she is known to her family and friends, (aged only 31, and who is now a young mother of two daughters) has a rich inner life and wide understanding of her country. She has now won two major awards at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, the first Indonesian to do so. In 2012, her film about the Bajo people, or “Sea Gypsies” of the Wakatobi region of South Suluwesi won the Best Youth Feature Film Award. Now she has done it again, by winning the same award category, with her film about Balinese twins, entitled “Sekala, Niskala”. “The Seen and Unseen”, is the best English translation, referring to the hidden ‘world’ the tourists don’t know about, that the Balinese also live in. For the Balinese, the Unseen is just as real and relevant as is the material world. (For those who would like to know more about it, refer to the book “Bali – Sekala and Niskala” by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr which was first published in 1990, by Periplus.)

At Tokyo Filmex, two days after the APSA Award was announced, the Jury couldn’t choose between Kamila’s film and the film of Mouly Sourya, ( also from Indonesia), entitled “Marlina the Murder, in Four Acts”, so they awarded both films the Jury Grand Prize. “Sekala, Niskala” has been screened in the Platform section, of the Toronto Film Festival, and at Busan too, and received a lot of comment and good reviews.

Rare films from Indonesia showing the richness of the culture, and the variations from island to island, are often totally fresh and new to the eyes of Westerners. “Marlina” is shot in the remote island culture of Sumba and is quite unique. “Sekala, Niskala” is shot in Bali, (a vastly different culture from Sumba’s). Mysticism and spiritual power that runs strong beneath the visible world of Bali. It comes from a mixture of Hindu/Buddhism and Mysticism. Seen through the eyes of the young, who are still pure and undamaged by the tourism aspect of life in Bali and the realities of adulthood, that world is revealed to us in Kamila’s delicate film.

We meet village-dwelling twins, a boy, Putra and a girl, Putri, aged about 10. The names are the male and female version of the same name. Their village is in close proximity to the holy mountain, Gunung Agung, which is often seen in the background of night-shots, and is thought of as “the navel of the world” by the Balinese. Babies and young children in Bali are seen as still connected to the Niskala, the unseen world, and these two are no exception. They run freely in the rice paddies, and play imaginative games, and can read each other’s heart and soul.

But, catastrophe strikes. The boy becomes ill with a brain tumour and must go to hospital. His sister is quite terrified at this turn of events, and is afraid to even enter the strange white and sterile room, where he has been settled on a high bed and attached to a drip. They have been so at home in Nature, and now have to go to the city and are now in an unfamiliar world.
Putri finds a way of coping by removing herself into the world of Niskala, where she puts on costumes and dances with him, she plays games with him and is often accompanied on her night time walks by the ghost-children. Her dreams of happier times together when he was well, wake her. The ghost children are also surrounding Putra in this strange between-worlds place, the hospital. He is in the slow process of leaving the real world, he is not yet in the Unseen world, but he has access, through his sister’s imagination, love and connection to it.

The passing of the months is communicated to us via the phases of the moon in the night sky.

There is very little dialogue between them, and we do not miss it, we do not need it, and neither do they. The film is all about feeling and visions of mystic life that the sad little sister enters, and allows us to experience with her. She does everything she can to hold him to her, as he is her other half. She tells him, after one of their duo dances, in wonderful bird costumes that she has created from grass and paint, that she would trade places with him, if she could. She collapses to the floor, and he collapses to the bed – it has been his final effort in this life. He soon descends into a coma.

Balinese spiritual life is linked to the Saka Luna calendar that came to Bali from Java, with the migration to the island of Hindu people from Java’s Majapahit culture, in the fourteenth century. The calendar is organized around the moon’s cycles, still also observed in Javanese culture. The new moon is the beginning of a new cycle.

Duality (represented by the male and female twins) is potent in Balinese culture. Balinese religious activities, offerings, ceremonies are directed at attempting to keep the balance of good and evil. Their traditional black and white checked “poleng” cloth represents the two opposites.
The eggs, that appear several times, during the film, tell us that these two are really ‘one’– an egg that divided in the womb. How will Putri carry on in the Sekala world, without her brother? Putri will only eat the white of the egg, and Putra eats the yolk. In the opening scene, as the boy is being wheeled into the hospital room, she symbolically crushes the last ‘whole’ egg in her trembling hand. Later she is eating lunch with her mother. In her hard-boiled egg, there is no yolk.

A lot of “Sekala, Niskala” is filmed at night by Anggi Frisca, who captures the shadows against a sky often lit up by a full moon, and the silhouettes of mysterious children in the long grass. Night magic is abroad on the island some know as the Island of the Gods. The sounds of nature are also evocative in experiencing this unique film. The scene of Putri dancing for the moon silhouetted against the night sky, and in full Balinese traditional dance costume is particularly beautiful.

Kamila Andini’s primary achievement is in the concept, and it’s in her realization that words are not necessary, and that this sad story can be fully told visually. Only the scenes with the adults have dialogue… her mother talks to her a reassuringly, and she witnesses one scene where the village men discuss the crucial to life matters of planting the rice paddies, and sharing the water. We also see Putri make an offering at a simple rice-field shrine to Dewi Sri, the Rice Goddess. On Dewi Sri, and on water, all of Balinese life depends.

In a film about a death, these scenes about life, are also about the ‘duality’ and give meaning and balance, so important to the Balinese ways.

Kamila does everything to keep the subtlety, the delicacy and the sweetness, and she succeeds. There is no story, except that a fateful time is passing quietly in the timeless pace of Balinese life, so closely linked to the sacred world and to nature. We are privileged to be watching through the eyes of the brave little Putri.

Kamila has a quite miraculous ability to see and share with her audience, the innocence and beauty of childhood, in both of her APSA Award winning films. Her gift to Western audiences is to show us how to see and feel beyond the material world.
Copyright, Cynthia Webb – November 2017

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About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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