Last month saw the world premiere of Garin Nugroho’s Setan Jawa, a silent Indonesian film with a live gamelan orchestra by Rahayu Supanggah and in collaboration with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, at the Asia TOPA (Asia Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts) at the Melbourne Art Centre, Australia.
Inspired by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s classic Nosferatu (1922), Setan Jawa is a black-and-white silent film that blends dance, fashion and visual arts in which it addresses mysticism, colonialism and history.
The film was released last year as part of Garin’s 35th anniversary celebration in the film industry and gained rave reviews in Indonesia, and now from international peers as well. Setan Jawa is scheduled to be screened in Amsterdam in June, Singapore in July and the UK in November.
Indonesia Tatler got the chance to sit down and chat with the award-winning director about his directorial journey, sensational films along with his future projects and much more.
What made you want to become a film director in the first place?
I was born into an arty family in Yogyakarta. My dad was a novelist in the late 70s and two of my siblings graduated from performance arts while I went to pursue law and later studied film and TV industry at Jakarta Institute of the Arts (IKJ). However, I didn’t find the legal industry appealing as it involves a lot of money manipulation, so I steered into filmmaking, as it’s also the only profession none of my family member has ever pursued.
Where do you find your inspiration for your films?
I believe inspiration can be found all around us in poems, novels, daily events, painting and even history. Artists need to be open-minded and use their senses to capture the phenomena behind everything from the things I mentioned above and translate it into their arts.
What was the experience like to work on Opera Jawa in Austria?
Opera Jawa is inspired by wayang puppet shows that was played by the best dancers and musicians from Java. And I am proud that my movie Opera Jawa was selected to be part of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth in which it was sponsored by three different countries: Austria, the UK and The Netherlands, and was screened to a wide range of acclaimed artists from all around the world.
Throughout this moviemaking process, I learned numerous things, one being that in order to reach a global audience one need to have a deep understanding about local knowledge to compete globally. Many artists have succeeded to go international with this exact perspective and fortunately so have I. [Smiles]
Your films have been stated as ‘too difficult for the general public to understand’. What is your comment on that?
I believed that any society will try to implement these three principles in every field: preserving their heritage, fostering popular culture in order to gain huge economic output, and presenting new creative alternatives that will bring breakthroughs and new mindsets. Out of these, I opt for alternative creativity because watching alternative movie will force audience to see the mystery and think harder to get the essence out of the movie. If we only develop one out of the three principles, the society will fall backwards, and without alternative world the society will also be stagnant.
What made you want to make a silent black-and-white film like Setan Jawa?
I wanted to make a new innovation in this digital era that highlighted the importance of live performance and getting to know your history. Inspired by wayang puppet show as well as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, Setan Jawa combines three major performance arts: silent and black-and-white, a gamelan orchestra and a symphony orchestra. Moreover, Setan Jawa is the first live gamelan orchestra in the world and I am proud of it.
Most of your films are inspired by Indonesian culture. What do you want to convey to the audience?
I want my movies to be Indonesian multicultural statement that carries diverse themes, locations (Papua, Jawa, Bali, and more) and important issues, along with historical backdrops that range from 1900, 1927, 1940 - 1949, 1965, 1970 - 1990, 1998-2000 and post-2000. You can see my movies as Indonesia in micro scale to a global vision. However, the last 10 years I have returned to Java with my movies but still implement Indonesia as the whole picture.
You tend to make films with socio-political messages. Do you think films as a medium can educate the mass audience?
Films have their own way of influencing the audience in every perspective compared with formal education, for instance. For me, films contain three elements: information, aesthetic values and dramatic effect (sadness, joy, surprise, and so on), and this is why films don’t need an accurate vision as compared with political speeches. Let the movie’s vision not only be thought about, but also felt by, the senses, as there is a palpable mystery that can only be experienced by watching movie—this is the beauty of movies in my eyes.
What are your takes on Indie films and how to make them widespread in Indonesia?
Indie movies are an important genre to explore as they bring new media and attract new audiences. For the Indie movie genre to grow, we need to ensure that democracy is there to give access to the freedom of expression, and the youth community needs to grow and be able to express themselves visually, not literally. I believe when these aspects are reached we will see a growing numbers in indie movies in the country.
What genre haven’t you explored? What are your next projects?
My movies have always revolved around two aspects: the composition of aesthetics, such as Opera Jawa and Setan Jawa, and socio-political statement about one’s identity. However, now I focused more on radicalism. In conjunction with my 35th anniversary in the film industry, I made two new innovations: Nyai, which is an 85-minute movie that was made with one shot and one take! And, of course, the other movie is Setan Jawa.
(Photo credit: Garin Nugroho)