The international jury of three overlooked this engaging and provoking film however, preferring to give the prize for best national film of the year to John De Rantau’s Denias Senandung Di Atas Awan, whose theme – a Papuan New Guinea boy’s determination to go to school - is more appealing than the treatment, which is a mixture of the naïve, contrived, and over-decorated. The best director award was given to Rudy Soedjarwo, for his film 9 Naga, a lively and visually inventive crime drama.
The most prestigious and the most problematic Indonesian film of the year remains Garin Nugroho’s Opera Jawa, which the jury honoured for its ‘outstanding artistic value and for the metaphorical and spectacular visual story’. Nugroho has become the most internationally visible of Indonesian directors, and as such a festival favourite: OPERA JAWA has shown up at a number of international festivals this year, including Venice, Toronto and Nantes, where (admittedly faute de mieux) it took prizes for best actress and best music. This film was one of a group of five films supported by the Austrian New Crowned Hope project, to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, and overseen by Peter Sellars
Opera Jawa is a bold idea - a kind of folk opera rooted in various national musical, dramatic and dance traditions, and mixing a myth from the Ramayana with a modern story. A potter and his wife, both former dancers are happily married. The machinations of a wicked rich man, who schemes to seduce the wife, are paralleled with the legend (which the couple used to dance) of how evil King Ravana defiled the love of Sita and Prince Rama. The idea is fine: the cruel truth is that Nugroho, though a very able film-maker, has here delivered a sloppy piece of work. The musical sequences, beautifully staged in large ensembles, are persistently filmed too close, so that the mise-en-scene is lost. The structure and editing are slipshod: it looks like a two-hour rough-cut of a film that should be 70 minutes long. The inevitable result is a narrative that lacks focus and coherence. The peril is that festival selectors admire, like the Emperor’s new clothes, the kind of obscurity that Nugroho has made a dubious virtue - and even written a manual to help the viewer interpret his films. The film will continue to make its festival pilgrimage, but it is unlikely to win an audience, even (maybe especially) in Indonesia. This kind of “festival film” really does little to help a national cinema looking for an identity, or for a director as potentially gifted as Nugroho.
A second jury awarded a money prize to assist the distribution of an outstanding film with a human rights theme. The candidates ranged from the brothers Nick and Marc Francis’ BLACK GOLD - showing the contribution of the World Trade Organisation and the US coffee market to creating famine and mortality in Ethiopia - to more optimistic documentaries like Zach Niles and Banker White’s SIERRA LEONE’S REFUGEE ALL-STAR (musicians open a road of hope and return for fellow refugees). Adrian Belic’s BEYOND THE CALL sheds a kindlier side-light on America, with an account of three dogged and crotchety old eccentrics dedicated to raising funds and taking spot-help to remote regions of the world where they see need. The title of DEATH IN GAZA refers to the director James Miller, who was shot by Israeli troops while filming this moving portrait of the effects of the Arab-Israel conflict on Palestinian children: Miller had planned to include in the film a parallel study of children in Israel.
One film was withdrawn from competition at the demand of the country’s stern censorship board, which represents the police, the army and all appropriate religious denominations. Leonard Retel Heimrich’s PROMISED PARADISE centres on a well-known Indonesian clown and puppeteer, Agus, whose self-appointed mission is to help enlarge children’s awareness of intolerance and terrorism. The problem for the censors is evidently a central sequence in which Agus apparently “interviews” Imam Samudra, the mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombing (the scene is in fact concocted with a police interview with the terrorist). The censors had also suppressed (for the second year in succession) three documentaries dealing with the history of Indonesia’s former occupation of Aceh and East Timor; while their influence was elsewhere evident in the gauze that descended in front of the projector lens for any overly sexy scene. Paul Verhoeven’s melodrama about Dutch resistance fighters in 1944, Black Book, was one of several films that were mainly seen through the censors’ soft mist.
The human rights prize went inevitably to Grace Phan’s A HERO’S JOURNEY (Singapore), whose presence made the 2006 Jakarta festival a truly historic event. This is a phenomenon much bigger than a film or the recounting of a single piece of history. It is a document which, without exaggeration, can change people’s beliefs and lives. Here, astoundingly, the world’s newest, smallest and poorest democracy proclaims a lesson and a philosophy which could and should be studied with spiritual profit in every nation of the 21st century world.
East Timor (Timor-Leste) was a Portuguese colony until 1975, after which it was invaded and occupied by Indonesia, often with a brutality that amounted to genocide. The occupation was tacitly supported by the USA and Australia, influenced by President Suharto’s proclaimed anti-communist stance. Indonesia relinquished control in 1999, following the fall of Suharto and a UN-sponsored act of self-determination; but genocide continued thanks to pro-Indonesian militias. On May 20 2002, however,Timor-Leste became the first new country of the 21st century.
Grace Phan’s A HERO’S JOURNEY (the title may be changed) is dominated by the charismatic President of Timor-Leste, Xanana Gusmao. Now 60, Gusmao began life as a fisherman and became a leader and inspiration for the guerrilla resistance during the years of occupation. He was captured and imprisoned in Jakarta from 1992 to 1999. Gusmao is a dazzling personality, handsome, giving total expression to every emotion, a writer and poet, and as passionately articulate in English as in Portuguese.
He sees his fundamental task as convincing his countrymen that, despite all the suffering and slaughter their strength for the future lies not in seeking vengeance, but in the courage to forgive and be reconciled to their former oppressors. Perhaps no-one with a lesser presence than the magnificent Gusmao could make this messge convincing, not just to his people, but from the screen. In the film Gusmao is seen not only meeting the current Indonesian President, but cordially receiving the former Indonesian military chief in East Timor.
Gusmao came to Jakarta for the festival premiere of the film, and carried his message further by embracing on stage the former Indonesian politician who had been personally identified with the occupation policies. The most remarkable and moving moment was when the man declared, “This is a film which I want every Indonesian to see”. This statement, the festival screening in the presence of the visiting President, and the universally enthusiastic reception of the film apart from all else represented a dramatic disarming of the censorship, and a mark of Indonesia’s own coming to terms with this troubling piece of her recent past.