An Interview with Garin Nugroho (2/2)

I: Now I’d like to ask you about Kancil’s Tale of Freedom, an important work in that it led to the making of Leaf on a Pillow. I first saw this when it aired on NHK. What surprised me the most was that one of the street children goes home but then leaves again right away, and no solution is ever reached. It’s very similar to the problem in Water and Romi, in which the amount of garbage only increases, no matter how much Romi collects. Of course the themes in these two are different, but also, in light of the themes you pursue in documentaries, quite similar as well.

N: Yes. Life comes in cycles, and some cycles are just not self-correcting. In the beginning there is balance—an overall harmony—and then there is disturbance or imbalance—disharmony. Ideally, balance would be rediscovered in a kind of newly-found harmony after the tempest. This would evolve perpetually in subsequent cycles, as is usual in life. But the subjects of my films find no such new equilibrium, and some even regress to previous cycles. Such an effect could only come from a government that has no real resolve to help its own people.

Even when my theme is tragic, it must affect people as though they have been stabbed and shake them to the core. Not surprisingly, critics have often accused me of selling misery, of cashing in on tragedy. I always reply that tragedy is important to us, like bloodletting with a knife. Only so can we realize that there is blood in our body, and know what life is all about. Tragedy is the blood we need to awaken and to empathize with others.

The Indonesian government reacted to Water and Romi and Kancil’s Tale of Freedom by having an intelligence officer call on me. I was also summoned to the Department of Information. When they demanded I turn over the tape, I gave them a copy of the video, and explained that it was not a film, but a “sampler for a seminar.” To make a documentary film, you have to secure permits, submit the screenplay for scrutiny, approve the title with the government, and report the names of all crew. But I never did any of these, particularly not for those two projects, and there are no regulations for “samplers for seminars.” Another way I showed these films during the Suharto period was to screen them at international forums such as The Japan Foundation, foreign embassies, and showings sponsored by other powerful entities. Even if the government wished to censor the film, they had to back down because strong, neutral foreign agencies were involved. In other words, showing the films at such forums made screenings immune from government intervention.

I: I’m very happy that we were able to show your films at the Indonesian Film Festival in 1993 [organized by The Japan Foundation ASEAN Culture Center]. As you said, the films are made so as to avoid censorship. Rather than announce your message with great fanfare, you make documentaries that zoom in on the subject and follow them, closely and quietly. This is true even in Water and Romi and in Kancil’s Tale of Freedom. There are only real, true images.

N: Dealing with a lawless government, one can never just opt for a head-on confrontation. And yet something must be done, however indirectly. Where a grand revolution is not feasible, a documentary film like Children of a Thousand Islands can function as strategic opposition. Its encyclopedic format was not seen as too political, and it was loose enough for it to air on television. We intensified our statements of opposition gradually, knowing that it always takes time for the public to become familiar with our ideas. This involves various social figures, including religious personalities. I supervised five new documentaries about street children, documentaries with themes like prostitution and street-girls that are sensitive, particularly in religious spheres. But I am confident that they will be accepted simply because people have become familiar with my work since the 1990s.

In 1999 now, we are shifting to a new political regime. It is during particularly chaotic times like this, when the system has yet to stabilize, that we ought to dare to be revolutionary, to advance subjects with sensitive themes like religion, communism, or sex. We need an ample dose of these, as long as they are composed so that truth and strategy are inseparable.

I: Censorship is very strong in many Asian countries, and it’s been very difficult up until now to make documentaries that portray the truth. But now, in Indonesia for example, the rules are loosening and everything is becoming unstable. In technology, light-weight, inexpensive video cameras are spreading. Does this mean that we’ll come to see more and more personal images, in other words documentaries that deal with the self or social issues near to oneself, made in Indonesia and other Asian countries?

N: 1999 marks the end of a millennium, and we will embark on a new one by the end of 2000. The 1990s have been the era of private television stations, but they were still dominated by politics, precisely anarchic ones. As the news shows, documentary film emerged when economic matters forced politics aside. Previously, only the government set the agenda through news broadcasts on the government monopoly station. Then the six private stations were established, each with their own news shows. And from these a new basis for documentary films emerged.

When students brought their protests to the street in 1999, the government promised that private stations were free to do their own coverage. But when they did, the government was terrified, so this new freedom was rescinded and news once again was completely dominated by the government. Prominent military figures even went straight to the television editing rooms, and fired some individuals on the spot. However, popular anger against the government monopoly on news frightened the government into deregulating news broadcasting. Now, news programs regularly receive higher ratings that those for dramas, quiz shows, and other usually more popular programs.

This chain of events has provided a launching pad for the coming era of documentary filmmaking, as long as we are determined to keep developing it. We must commit ourselves to a new openness and produce documentaries that are open to a whole range of issues. At the same time, we must be increasingly vigilant against new problems forcibly advanced by anarchic forces, for example the spread of hate based on ethnicity, religion, and so on. The new millennium promises to be a most potent era for documentary film if, and only if, our filmmakers are daring enough to seize the opportunity presented.

I: Right, your film My Family, My Film, and My Nation brings together pieces from your earlier documentaries and then comments on them. In other words, you avoided commenting on the films when you first made them. When I saw how you commented on My Nation, I thought the work was definitely made possible by changes in the political climate. Is my interpretation correct?

N: You are right in a way. Indonesian people and critics alike kept asking me the same questions, and that irked me. Some questioned whether making films outside of Java was too “costly,” or whether it makes sense to make films with certain themes at considerable expense and then not distribute them. People wondered why go to all the trouble. I reached the point where I was so irritated I decided to answer them on my own terms by summarizing my previous work into a single film.

On the one hand, this is my way of letting anyone know that “these are my works, this is the way I see it.” On the other hand, it is also a way of saying that I have been harboring certain fears about my country, and that what I feared is now coming true. When I create a film, I am sending signals: “Look, something is going to happen, see . . . .” The compilation is my way of elucidating that “making film” is not merely making film, but that it sends signals about the contemporary situation.

We call this era the era of the audio-visual, but if certain ethnic groups hardly appear on television in my so-called multicultural nation, we will face destruction. People revolted in Irian, and Solo was burnt down. I am no politician, and can make no oration. What I can do is to make something that stirs people’s understanding of the prospects of that destruction unless something is done to avoid it.

There are so many islands, each with their own diverse ethnicities, but television is commercially driven and provides programs only for those who are thought to have the power, money, and inclination to purchase the products advertised. Consequently, Irian and other islands in eastern Indonesia with considerably less economic affluence are invisible on television, and have been so for the past thirty-five years. If we are now seeing destruction, dissatisfaction, and anger from those regions of Indonesia, it is totally understandable. If television is an embodiment of the nation, and people in Irian and eastern Indonesia never appear on television, why should we wonder that they don’t feel part of the nation?

This is why I persisted in making documentaries in the outer islands even if it meant high expenses. The money was meaningless compared with the future of my nation. What is a million rupiah compared to the prospect of losing Irian Jaya, along with their gold, forests, and oil?

I: You talked about going to shoot on remote islands. Now that conditions are changing and inexpensive video cameras become more and more widespread, wouldn’t these ethnic minorities also be able to have video cameras for themselves?

N: Like Coca-Cola slogans? (laughs) The camera and film technology can be used wherever, whenever, and by whomever. It follows that documentary film at this juncture should be for anyone, from anybody, and by anybody. The dawning millennium introduces new digitalization, and with it, new ways of dissemination, storage, and creation. Systems of surveillance and censorship are also losing their roles in this digital era. At the moment, I am supporting a group of young friends who are trying to launch a video festival with the theme “Video for All.” We hope that ethnic groups will have their own videos as important channels for defying the oppressing power. Only thus could video accomplish its role as a weapon in the digital era.

I: We’re almost out of time. In the 1960s, a group of filmmakers from the so-called Third World who proposed “the camera as weapon” led a movement in film history. Listening to you, I have the feeling that the next movement will occur on a more micro level and center on “the video camera as weapon,” which I find very stimulating and exciting.

N: The remaining problem for video as weapon of the opposition is the challenge of getting videos into the living rooms of general households. Bear in mind that the television industry has already been adopted into the life of most ordinary families. Television has managed to deliver politics, economics, and social systems right there to the living room.

If this era is multicultural and multimedia, it follows that television is multi-channel. Television’s many channels should foster multicultural themes, fulfilling the promise of multimedia and multiculturalism through a variety of programming. Television has mutated into a giant with many arms, legs, and mouths, but sadly with only one brain. To use an example, many roads have been constructed to link rural and urban areas. It was originally hoped that rural people could provide for their urban counterparts’ needs, and vice versa. In reality, however, urbanites have siphoned off the wealth of their rural fellows, and the construction of the roads let to rural dwellers’ dependence on urban areas. We have witnessed the “uniformization” of rural areas. Like these roads, television’s many channels are supposed to foster multicultural themes, but in reality favor only the powerful. Technology embodies the themes, but its content— its soul—is uniform monoculture. The challenge, then, is how to employ the new digital technology of video as a weapon for opposition that finds its own channels penetrating a majority of households. I see this as the hardest part of our task

I: Thank you very much for such an interesting and enjoyable conversation. I didn’t ask you anything about your feature films.

N: Thank you. Many of my documentary films have been lost. Out of thirty I now have only about seven. I hope that soon, documentaries on politics can make it to the television screen. I hope make one myself in November. Arigato gozaimashita.

—Translated by Pujiono