Focusing on Garin Nugroho is perhaps overdue, since his ouvres have left indelible mark in the Indonesian film trajectories. Moreover, several of his contemporary works (such as art installation, dance performance and the like) transgress cinematic boundaries, even entering into, using his term, the ‘post-cinema.’ Many of the active Indonesian directors in the current film scene were Garin’s former assistants or at least involved in his film productions. By involving young filmmakers in his film production, Garin has nurtured the next generation of Indonesian cinema.
When Garin Nugroho’s first feature Love in a Slice of Bread (1991) appeared on the silver screen, it marked a new era in Indonesian cinema. This is because there was no precendence and distict from mainstream films in the market. Influenced by the French New Wave, Garin’s first film echoed the angst of the youth during Soeharto’s repressive New Order regime. This film received Best Film at the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) in 1991 and later won the Best Young Director in Asia Pacific Film Festival. In 2015, the film received a special award for the Masterpiece category in the Indonesian Film Appreciation (AFI).
The importance of Garin’s films can perhaps be seen as how his films serve as a microcosm of Indonesian history since they are set from colonial to contemporary eras. While he did not make his films sequentially, all his films clearly reflect iconic time periods in Indonesian history. The Javanese Devil (2017), A Woman from Java (2016) and Hijra (2015) were set in the Dutch Colonial period, while Soegija (2012) was set in the interregnum period (Japanese occupation) prior to the Indonesia’s independence declaration in 1945. A dark side of Indonesian history in 1965 is also visible in Garin’s Poet (2000).
Meanwhile, Chaotic Love Poems (2015) and Love in a Slice of Bread (1991) dwelve into the flourishing pop culture from the 1970s to 1990s, while Leaf on a Pillow (1998) and The Blue Generation (2009) were set in the late 1990s prior to the collapse of New Order regime. Following the rise of religious radicalism and terrorism in a post-9/11 world and the American-led war against terrorism, Garin responded by making Blindfold (2013). His recent film Memories of My Body (2018) is paralleled to the current struggle of sexual minorities in fighting for their rights.
Prior to the 1998 Reformasi, Garin’s films were concerned with aesthetics through the exploration of signs and symbols rooted in Indonesian culture and society. But following Reformasi, Garin’s films have been become increasingly political. His films passionately engaged with the ramifications of tremendous social and political upheavals. This is inseparable from Garin’s involvement in various coalitions of civil society organizations.
Leaf on a Pillow (1998) reflects the conditions under the New Order militaristic regime characterized by rampant corruptions and socio-economic injustice. A Poet (2000) is perhaps the first film dealing with the 1965 mass killings which remains to leave deep imprints on the survivors and an impunity within the perpetrators. In the Blindfold (2013), Garin dealt with growing religious extremism which lead to violent and terrorism acts. Meanwhile, in Memories of My Body (2018), Garin tackles the theme of a body which should not only be understood physically but rather as a site of power struggle within a heteronormative societal context.
Furthermore, Garin’s films also can be perceived as a cultural map for Indonesia stretching from Aceh in the tip of Sumatera Island to the West Papua. In collaboration with three directors (Tonny Trimarsanto, Viva Westi, Lianto Suseno), Garin intimately portrayed five Acehneses in the aftermath of devastated tsunami in Serambi (2005). A Letter to an Angel was shot in Sumba (East Nusa Tenggara), where no Indonesian filmmaker had dares to undertake film shooting beyond the outer island of Java. He even went further in making a film entitled The Bird Man Tale (2002) in a conflict-ridden Papua.
Despite thematic and artistic explorations, Garin’s films clearly show the technological experimentations. He is truly a trailblazer in employing new technologies in Indonesian cinema. In A Poet, Garin shot in a Betacam video and then ‘blew up’ (transferred) into celluloid (35mm). Some young filmmakers later followed Garin’s path in making the shooting process less complicated and more efficient. Garin employed one take and one shot in A Woman from Java while bringing back the traditional performance tradition in Indonesia. Likewise, inspired by F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), Garin made a black-and-white silent film The Javanese Devil in collaboration with gamelan ensemble and modern orchestra from various countries where the film is shown.
Given the experimental elements and avant-garde spirit, some Indonesian film critics lament that Garin’s films are too symbolic or poetic and their narratives are seemingly incomprehensible for general Indonesian audience. Cynical critics accuse his films only serve jury members in the circuit of international film festivals rather than audiences in his home country. However, other critics with more positive tones viewed that Garin’s films are ahead of his time. In fact, Garin’s films are always in tune with the local as well as global development and embracing the new technolgy in film production. Unsurprisingly, a renowned film critic Tony Rayn called Garin as a “21st Century Cineaste” since he combined different creative muses from many sources. Perhaps Garin’s short film Railway Coaches 1,2,3 (1989) has foretold his relentless artististic and cultural sojourn.
This article is first appeared in the catalog of the 13th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival ( 27 November-04 December 2018)
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