Originally published on 21 March 2012 at Cinema Poetica / Translated by Ninus Andarnuswari
Edwin’s short films represent a historical passage often forgotten in contemporary Indonesian cinema. The 1998 Reformation brought about resurgence in the nation’s cinema, which was in deep slumber for several years toward the end of Suharto’s Orde Baru (New Order). The local media tends to associate this resurgence with three feature films: Kuldesak (Cul-de-sac, 1997), Petualangan Sherina (Sherina’s Adventure, 2000) and Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? (What’s Up With Love?, 2002). Those three proved that Indonesians can still make films and fill up the theaters. Unfortunately such historical reading only covers one side of the story: the laying of the national film industry’s foundation. Outside the industry and the coverage of local media, a vibrant film scene was growing within a network of public screenings and film festivals initiated by youngsters.
There were Indonesian Independent Film-Video Festival 1999-2000 and Konfiden’s Short Film Festival 2006-2009 that served as gathering points for videographers and filmmakers. There were also Jakarta International Film Festival in 1999 and Yogyakarta’s Festival Film Dokumenter (Documentary Film Festival) in 2001. These festivals provided alternative space for filmmaking and filmgoing, in a film culture gripped by commercial theater chain, Hollywood film imports, and state censorship. In this period, short films emerged as a format favored by the local cineastes, either as a narrative medium or a channel for audiovisual experimentation. The format’s independence from commercial interest and censorship has allowed filmmakers to, as veteran filmmaker Gotot Prakosa put it, “try to pursue artistic options other than the available ones”.
Edwin was one of the major players during this period. Through his short films, he brought up issues that were deemed morally unacceptable and politically incorrect before 1998, such as family disintegration and sexual tension. Edwin sewed these issues into collages of sounds and images, half-real-half-unreal, bringing forth a set of subversive implications (within the context of Indonesia) on our daily relations as human beings. A similar approach has also emerged in his long features. It can be concluded that Edwin’s development as a cineaste stemmed from his exploits as short film cineast. Forgetting his short films means seeing his recent achievements, such as FIPRESCI Award 2009 for Babi Buta yang Ingin Terbang(Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly) and Golden Bear Berlinale 2012 nomination for Kebun Binatang (Postcards from the Zoo), merely as manna from heaven.
This essay aims to review the visual forms, motifs, and themes of Edwin’s short films. It is from there that we can map Edwin’s trajectory as a filmmaker. At the time of writing, Edwin has made seven short films: A Very Slow Breakfast (2002); Dajang Soembi, Perempoean jang Dikawini Andjing (Dajang Soembi, the Woman Who Was Married to a Dog, 2004); Kara, Anak Sebatang Pohon (Kara, Daughter of a Tree, 2005); A Very Boring Conversation (2006); Trip to the Wound (2007, part of omnibus 9808: Antologi 10 Tahun Reformasi/9808: An Anthology of 10th Year Indonesian Reform); Hullahoop Soundings (2008); and Roller Coaster (2010, part of omnibus Belkibolang). Edwin’s other works include two features (Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, 2008, and Postcards from the Zoo, 2012) and three documentaries (Nyanyian Negeri Sejuta Matahari/Songs from Our Sunny Homeland, 2006; Misbach: Di Balik Cahaya Gemerlap, 2007; and Nairobi Notes, 2010).
Family is disaster
A Very Slow Breakfast commenced Edwin’s exploration around family institution. The film portrays the behavior of an ideal family in the manner of Keluarga Berencana (Family Planning, a government program during Suharto’s Orde Baru regime which encouraged married couples to bear up to two children) through a montage of breakfast scenes. Throughout the film, audience are demanded to confront a collage of sounds, some kind of domestic sounds catalogue, distorted so that certain emphasis for each character is created.
The film opens with a close-up of a cup of coffee. There is the sound of the son scratching his head. Every bit of his dandruff that falls into the cup creates a sound of explotion. Cut to a close-up of a tip of a cigarette that father is lighting on. The rustling of the match and the cigarette’s tip being lighted on sound like rumbles. Cut again to a medium shot of the daughter who’s doing gym in front of the television. The sound of a cartoon character from a sport video then dominates.
Edwin wants us to pay attention to these banal sounds. The family in A Very Slow Breakfast has been so immersed in routines that all kinds of interaction become mechanical. The affective function of a family is disregarded, so that each member becomes alienated among each other. It is reflected by two things: the absence of dialogue throughout the film and the reciprocal nature of father-children’s interaction. The father shoves money to his children as if a mafia boss does to his henchmen. For the son, money is a payment for the cup of coffee full of dandruff that he gives to his father. For the daughter, money is a sort of trigger for erotical moves in gymnastic that she performs for his father. All of this is happening in a series of slow-motion scenes that are constantly decked by a diagonal line, placing all family members in the bottom corner of the frame. It is as if there’s an unspoken force pressing all of them, whatever that is.
Khoo Gaik Cheng interpreted A Very Slow Breakfast as a form of “capitalistic urban family’s social alienation, not having time for each other, much less intimate relationships”. Meanwhile Eric Sasono said that the family in the film is “intact in form, but their communication is like a nightmare”. These two opinions are rooted from the same idea: the word “family” only refers to a form of collectivity, but not the human interactions within the institution. The very word is not a holy mantra that liberates family routines from all human evils. It doesn’t prevent the members from maltreating each other.
This is interesting. The cinema of Orde Baru, the audiovisual regime preceding all Edwin’s works, often portrays family as a miniature of the state. Family is regarded as a collective facing threats from the outside, be it communists, heresy, or horror films’ demit—a kind of ghoul. The interaction within the family itself is not defined. It is no wonder that there’s a set of values that we associate then with Orde Baru family: piety, law-abiding attitude, and righteousness. It is the same set of values underlined by the ruling class for its people during Orde Baru. On the contrary Edwin chose to focus on the internal family conflict first, delving into the kinds of interaction form that can alienate a family, before moving on to factors outside the family.
The rotten roots of a family tree
Edwin’s thesis about family as a troubled institution was further developed in his two next films: Dajang Soembi and Kara. Those two gave name to the unarticulated force that pressed the family in A Very Slow Breakfast. If the latter film came as a fragment of a family’s daily life, Dajang Soembi and Kara spoke in a timeline consists of the formation of a family, conflict within the family, and the destruction of the family. This kind of plot composition allowed Edwin to inform his audience that a family is actually a problematic concept.
Let us begin with Dajang Soembi. This film narrates the travails of Sangkuriang, a legend popular among Sundanese people in Indonesia. Edwin constructed Dajang Soembi as if it’s a silent movie that’s lost and rediscovered. It is designed in black and white, illustrated by orchestral songs, and fixed with intertitle text in colonial fonts, in addition to a number of visual defects (scratches, creases, tears, etc) intentionally done by the filmmaker by damaging the celluloid. Story-wise, Dajang Soembi leaves out many parts of Sangkuriang legend, focusing instead on the sexual tension among Sangkuriang, his mother Dayang Sumbi, and his father Tumang (a half-god human cursed as a dog).
A story is important not only because of what it tells, but also because of what it doesn’t tell. By minimalizing Sangkuriang legend only to its three main characters, Edwin makes his audience confront the fact that our folklores are full of things deemed deviant today. There is bestiality, underlying Dayang Sumbi’s marriage with Tumang. There is incest, motivating Sangkuriang to kill Tumang and make Dayang Sumbi his lover. There is cannibalism, constituting the climax of the film as Sangkuriang presents Tumang’s liver for his mother’s dinner. Orde Baru’s propaganda about ideal families were only the ruling class’s fabrication to cover up deviances originated from our tradition.
The modern depiction of troubled families are manifested in Kara. The antagonist is Ronald McDonald statue, a symbol of the 20th century capitalism, which crashes down on Kara’s mother right after she gives birth. The existence of this McDonald statue has double implications. First, it is the only thing able to penetrate the pristine world portrayed in the film. Kara lives in a world of lakes, hills, trees, and green lush plains that is sterile from humans. By penetrating this Eden-like environment, the statue replaces the mother figure in Kara’s life. This parental substitution doesn’t disrupt the comfortable environment Kara lives in, which means capitalism is actually quite capable to act as a parent figure. Thus we are all the children of McDonald. However, Kara’s birth is also her mother’s death. The murderer is the Ronald McDonald statue. Kara can’t get over this horrible memory. If she wants to avenge, then capitalism itself has to be quashed down. Is it possible?
Edwin portrays Kara’s revenge in the second half of the film, in a branch of McDonald in a big city. Kara strikes the Ronald McDonald statue using a long machete, but capitalism doesn’t budge. That event is preceded by a montage of McDonald’s visitors watching Kara. They seemed distant and indifferent toward Kara’s confrontation. Somehow, there is an implicit comprehension that everything will end in vain. As the narrative marches towards the finish line, Kara sits down helplessly by her eternal enemy, gulping a drink offered by one of the McDonald’s visitors. She has to accede that she is among the children of modern capitalism.
Desire in a glass jar
A Very Boring Conversation marked Edwin’s exploration to a more fundamental element: desire between a man and a woman. Interestingly Edwin realized it through a visual framework. A constant pattern repeats itself: a male character is in an observing position while a female character knows that she’s being observed and acts accordingly. Both are connected erotically not through touches but gazes.
Edwin’s approach is in line with John Berger’s thesis about human visual culture that tends to place men and women in different planes. Most cultural artefacts like paintings, photographs, and films are produced by male while the objects are female. This has been done in recurrent ways through all our civilization so that it has become a part of our subconsciousness. When a woman is born into the world then she is also born into men’s gaze. That is why parents often advise their daughters on how to behave politely and dress up properly in front of other people, especially men. Seeing (and watching) becomes an act of sexual politics. Men observe and women observe herself being observed.
In A Very Boring Conversation, this male and female dialectics based on gaze materializes itself through an affair between Andit and Eva, a male adolescent and his girlfriend’s mother. They come upon each other to listen togehter to a composition made by Andit’s girlfriend. In the beginning of the film, both listen to the music together via a headphone while conversing on exploration of senses through art. This conversation is banal and virtually doesn’t matter because at the same time Eva was more occupied in watching a bowl in front of her, sucking every inch of noodle erotically. Eva was at the right field of the frame, a little more up front than Andit. It’s as if Edwin asks the audience to take Andit’s position as Eva’s observer, the real center of attention in this opening sequence.
The sexual tension between the two gets more intense as the film rolls on. After watching the lamp blinking all of a sudden, and Eva giving a short course on how to make an email account, she confesses to Andit that she used to be a Garuda Airways stewardess. He challenges her to prove it. Therefore Eva performs a safety procedure demonstration before a plane takes off. As the lamp keeps on blinking, the camera highlights Eva’s detailed body parts, at times placing Eva’s head outside the frame. What is actually a demonstration of safety procedure comes to resemble a sexual education and mating invitation from an adult woman to a young adult man. Outside, the sound of rain gets louder. When the lamp is finally off and they can’t see each other anymore, Eva says, “Rokok deh. Semoga nggak banjir ya.” Though the nuance might be lost on non-Indonesian viewers, this dialogue ranks as one of the most obscene in Indonesian cinema history. In English, the line literally means, “Cigarette then. Hope it won’t flood.” In local slang terms, rokok or ‘cigarette’ often refers to oral sex, and banjir or ‘flood’ to the fluid produced in sexual activities.
Similar symbolic expression takes place in Hulahoop Soundings. The film is a ballad on phone sex, an activity that Edwin likens as hulahooping. In the opening scenes, the film displays two women shaking their bottoms for the sake of a man’s eyes and satisfaction. The hulahooping causes a rhythmical buzzing, like a lover’s breathing during sexual intercourse. Again the blinking lamp motif emerges. It occurs near the end of the film, at the same time as the end of the relation between the man and his dream call girl. Watching is no longer possible and the dream girl is gone.
A simpler expression shows up in Roller Coaster. The story begins from a hotel rendezvous. On their friendship’s ground, a woman asks a man to play. The rule: both close their eyes, then take turns to take off each other’s clothes one by one. When both are naked already, the man opens up his eye, the woman doesn’t. She is not ready to be the observer of her counterplayer. The pattern of sexual relations formulated by Berger is again apparent.
Identity is absolutely relative
To sum it all up, self-identity is never a sure thing in Edwin’s short films. It is absolutely relative and rewritten perpetually through every social interaction. This is important when one considers that throughout Suharto’s Orde Baru, whose political imagination is still felt to this very day, many films tried to internalize the idea of what and who is an ‘Indonesian’ according to the ruling class’s interests.
Edwin forged a different path. He puts the formulation of self-identity back to human being themselves, within the context of their daily interactions. There is a gaping chasm between the social and the personal. What has been promulgated in the social landscape does not necessarily apply to the personal. In his first three shorts, Edwin contested self-identities through family relations, regarding to each family member’s interests and power. In the other three films, Edwin reflected the relation between sexes in a visual culture where the male defines the female. Human’s identity will always be relative and never be whole since it will always depend on others. Through his short films, Edwin repackaged existentialism in bite-sized portions.
In Trip to the Wound, Edwin expanded his exploration on human’s identity to the spheres of social trauma. Made in a bus trip to Surabaya before the shooting of Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, Trip to the Wound tells about a pair of man and woman’s interaction. The woman opens the film by greeting the man, asking him about the wound on his shoulder. Before the man could answer, she rants about the wounds of people close to her. Every wound has its story, so she concludes. The man could not recall the story behind his wound. On the contrary the woman can’t explain her wound. The man tries to find out about the woman’s story by groping her crotch. She can only look at the camera and cries. The touch that’s supposed to bring them together separates them in unarticulated bitterness. When Trip to the Wound is exhibited along with nine other short films in 9808: Anthology of 10th Year Indonesian Reform, the woman’s silent bitterness is implicitly linked to the mass rape suffered by Chinese-Indonesian women in 1998.
Trip to the Wound serves as an intriguing intro to watch Edwin’s two feature films. The theme of social trauma around discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians is developed into a feature film in Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly. One can see how the characters in the film are so alienated not only from each other but also from themselves. There is a doctor who intentionally hurt his own eyes, a badminton player whose nationality is questioned, and a Manadonese who was often ganged up on during his childhood. There is one same problem: they have slanted eyes and their surroundings cannot accept them. This portrait of alienation is strengthened by the fragmental structure of the film, as if there are imaginary partitions separating the characters.
In Postcards from the Zoo, Edwin reflects about human touch. He presents a girl born without family, growing up in a zoo, never having contacts with other human beings during all her life. Alas, the only pure touch she experience comes from an ethereal creature, a magician in a cowboy costume who can disappear as he pleases. There are only three possibilities to the touch she experiences with other human beings: artificial, exploitative, or economic-driven.
Conclusion after watching Edwin’s short and feature-length films: searching for a stable self-identity is akin to looking for blind pigs in a zoo. It is vain and nonsensical.
Berger, John. 1977. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books.
Khoo, Gaik Cheng. 2011. “Menyoroti Film-Film Edwin.” In Mau Dibawa Ke Mana Sinema Kita?, eds. Gaik Cheng Khoo and Thomas Barker. Jakarta: Salemba Humanika.
Prakosa, Gotot. 2006. “Investasi Besar Untuk Film Pendek.” In Kamera Subyektif Rekaan Perjalanan Dari Sinema Ngamen Ke Art Cinema, Jakarta: Dewan Kesenian Jakarta, Yayasan Seni Visual Indonesia.
Sasono, Eric. 2008. “Katalog Keluarga Milik Edwin.” rumahfilm.org (March 17, 2012).
This essay is originally written for the 2012 National Film Month (15-30 March) organized by Jakarta Arts Council’s Kineforum.