By Kevin W. Fogg, Oct 7 2017 01:12PM
Sunday night, 10 September 2017, I attended the UK premiere of director Garin Nugroho's silent film Setan Jawa, accompanied by a live gamelan orchestra. The event was sponsored by the Indonesian Embassy in London as part of the International Gamelan Festival.
The film was impressive not just for its tremendous artistic value (the film expert I was sitting with was in awe of the use of light in this black-and-white movie) but also for its historical echoes. I chaired a panel in the festival a day earlier in which Garin Nugroho spoke about his acute awareness of the early years of moving pictures in Indonesia. Where the first film actors were pulled from the Komedie Stambul stage tradition, Pak Garin also conscientiously wanted to bridge between stage acting and screen acting (this is even more apparent in his work Nyai / A Woman from Java). The black-and-white, silent film form was more than just a stylistic choice, it was also explicitly pushing the audience to think back to spiritual practices from a century ago, traditions now sidelined in Indonesia. The form effectively and pointedly furthered the director's goal of evoking the past into the present.
The incorporation of traditional arts was also beautiful. This was found, of course, in the live gamelan accompaniment, which was tremendous! I have been to lots of gamelan performances, shadow puppet plays, wayang wong, etc., but I don't think I had ever heard such a wonderful gamelan orchestra. On top of this, though, the actors in the film were also dancing in the classical Javanese tradition, and by the end of the movie (not to spoil it) the line between dance and non-dance-acting on screen was thoroughly blurred.
There is no doubt that this movie was aesthetically amazing. I would watch it again in a heartbeat. I am less convinced that it fulfilled the director's other mission, though, to challenge radicalism by showing other, more traditional spiritual forms on Java and demonstrate how conservative, Arabizing interpretations of Islam are new in the Javanese context. The story was thoroughly abstract, and (despite the director's own ideas as discussed in the previous day's panel) any connection with Islam was not just understated but unclear. I also was unable to grasp the connection of the "Prolog", which had a small boy punished by Dutch authorities, to the greater arc of the story.
Despite my own limitations when it comes to watching and understanding art films, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and would recommend it to others for its mesmerizing aesthetic power, above and beyond its more conteporary messages.