Everything Comes Full Circle in Monisme

By Crystal Yeo

Riar Rizaldi’s Monisme (2023) is a vicious cycle of destruction. Mount Merapi, one of Indonesia’s most active and deadly volcanos, is the film’s central symbol of both life and destruction. Deftly interweaving documentary and scripted narratives, Monisme investigates Mount Merapi’s terrains, uncovering its volatile beauty and awe-inspiring terror.

As the title alludes, Monisme is governed by monism and its rejection of duality and distinction. Cast members Rendra Bagus Pamungkas and Kidung Paramadita take on multiple roles throughout the film, at times playing a scientist, shaman, documentary filmmaker, and miner. Blurring the lines between these characters, they represent the many lives that find a home on Mount Merapi.

As an experimental documentary, Monisme is refreshingly unafraid of fiction. In one of the film’s longest scenes, shaman Puthut Juritno—the real life chief of the mystic group Jathilan Kudho Taruno Wonolelo—performs a ritual to communicate with the spirits of Mount Merapi. Simultaneously, another shaman, this time fictional and played by Pamungkas, performs his script and offers prayers to the spirits alongside the mystic group. In this scene, Monisme marries documentary and fable, and presents Mount Merapi’s terrain as one that holds space for both fact and fiction. Throughout the film, mysticism and science appear less like opposing forces and more akin to two sides of the same coin that co-exist on Mount Merapi.

Delving into the union of fact and fiction also allows us to deepen our understanding of human manipulation of nature as Rizaldi turns the lens on the documentary-making process. As the body of one of the shamans is possessed, others hurriedly bring him aside. Closely followed by Rizaldi’s camera, the crew is slowly revealed. Reflexive documentary-making techniques such as this typically challenge our perception of truth by revealing that documentaries can be a highly manipulated medium. Contextualising this idea in Monisme compels us to identify a common quality in both truth and nature as the latter is often seen as unspoiled and objective. By reflexively revealing this, Monisme thus gestures towards the human urge to manipulate all things natural.

Highlighting human activity on Mount Merapi, Monisme further unearths the mutually-destructive relationship humans have with nature. Signs of life line the road in a long shot leading up to Mount Merapi. CCTV footage reveal residents evacuating their homes in an impending eruption. Despite Mount Merapi’s capacity for destruction, the area surrounding it is home to almost 70, 000 whose livelihoods are dependent on—and comes at the expense of—the volcano.

An ominous backtrack plays against a close-up of earthworms squirming—a similarly unexpected guest in an inhabitable climate. Pamungkas now plays a volcanologist, comparing humans to the worms. In the same way earthworms “form the soil while tilling it”, the miners at Mount Merapi make a living out of collecting minerals for road construction. The key difference? The mining at Mount Merapi is often conducted illegally (albeit encouraged by paramilitary groups) and exceeds recommended limits on materials retrieved. This brings more damage to dams and consequently higher risk of downstream disasters from eruptions (Miller, 2022). In 2010, Mount Merapi experienced its largest eruption since 1872 and 353 lives were lost. The same eruption spews lava, ash and consequently, minerals to the surrounding area, making its land fertile and prime for mining. And so, the cycle continues; humans are encouraged to continue destroying nature to eke out a livelihood until we find ourselves victims of earth’s destruction.

Asserting that humans inflict destruction not only on nature, but also on one another, Rizaldi brings the audience’s attention to the human capacity for violence, beckoning us to recognise the monsters within ourselves.

In Monisme, one of the hardest scene to watch unfolds when a group of paramilitary men becomes sexually and physically violent towards the volcanologists conducting fieldwork in the area. As the violence crescendos, their faces morph into gravelled textures resembling the surface of Mount Merapi, smoke emitting from their bodies. If it was not already obvious from their acts of violence, monstrosity is now marked on their physical form.

Unsurprisingly, a film with thematic explorations as ambitious as Monisme shows some struggle with its overly explicit articulations. In a dreamlike sequence, Pamungkas’s shaman character walks through a forest littered with camouflaged humans while an omnipresent voice lectures the audience on our strained relationship with nature. Almost theatrical, there is a stark contrast to the immersive experience created through the film’s narrative and documentary styles. Here, the presentation is more jarring than mesmerising, even if it ultimately does not take away from the message that, as human forms are littered throughout the forest, Mount Merapi is tainted by us.

Rizaldi’s final assertion of this message comes in Monisme’s impactful ending scene. Standing in front of an illustration of Mount Merapi, the leader of the paramilitary group smokes a lit cigarette, its bright orange ambers and smoke emitted resembling the tip of Mount Merapi. A symbolic representation of nature overshadowed by man’s greed, Monisme harshly confronts us with the reality of human violence against earth. As much as we are often victims of nature, we too are very much guilty of causing its destruction.

Monisme’s final and first scenes are not two ends of the film. Rather, it is connected in an endless cycle. We only realise this now, as we discover that the man being dragged through the forest and assaulted by a group of paramilitary in the first scene is in fact the Pamungkas’s shaman. Looping the binaries of start and end into union, Rizaldi’s Monisme is a vicious full cycle of destruction.