7 June 2017

NEWWAVES • A Way of Living: Filmic Iterations of Javanese Thought • Wregas Bhanuteja X Jeremy Fernando

By Alex Foo

As part of SGIFF’s New Waves dialogue sessions, we invite an alumni from our Youth Jury and Critics’ programme to respond to the the conversation and provide their perspective into the filmmaker’s works.

SCAPE 1200x900 NW1A filmmaker and a writer meet, and a dance begins.

Wregas Bhanuteja is a filmmaker from Java, Indonesia whose interests lie not in the grand narratives of History but in scenes from the everyday which he appropriates and recasts. At the age of 15, he stumbled into filmmaking as an actor in a short film competition in school. Eight years later, at the age of 23, his short film Prenjak (In the Year of the Monkey) was awarded the Leica Cine Discovery Award at Cannes. Widely recognised for being at the forefront of a new generation of Indonesian filmmakers, Wregas captures the Javanese way of life with a young, bold and fresh sensibility.

Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School where he is also a Reader of Contemporary Literature and Thought. Wearing many other hats that include teacher, poet and researcher, this multi-hyphenate intellectual views himself most fundamentally as a reader, where reading constitutes “an event of an encounter with an other”. Influenced by the works of philosophers Jean Baudrillard, Helene Cixous and Avital Ronell, Jeremy’s erudite and discursive approach to writing is never closed or pedantic; it remains constantly open to new comparisons, new sites of encounter, new tributaries of thought.

Prior to their tête-à-tête, Jeremy envisioned this conversation to unfold like a dance, in the etymological sense of the two being with (con) each other and turning around (versare) to address each other. And indeed, it did. In place of a flurry of fleet-footed movement was a babbling brook of ideas and personal reflections on art, cinema and philosophy, not unlike the free-flowing sensibilities that percolates through Wregas and Jeremy’s works.


Jeremy Fernando and Wregas Bhanuteja (Photo by Dean Koh)

The chief subject of Wregas’ films is his birthplace, Java, and its inhabitants, which he portrays with great reserves of compassion. Wregas revealed that nrimo is the bedrock of the Javanese way of life and it is this attitude (Wregas objects to the term “philosophy”) that informs his films. Nrimo means acceptance, an acceptance of one’s suffering, pain or station in life. It is a belief so deeply ingrained in Javanese society that the extended phrase nrimo ing pandum — to accept what God has given you — has rooted itself in common parlance. The basis for nrimo in the Javanese worldview stems from a moral responsibility of the individual to accept his or her destiny. Beyond just being at peace with one’s circumstances, nrimo involves the more metaphysical rila, to let go, to abandon worldly concerns that will eventually be immaterial, for the individual is ultimately subjected to God.

As an astute observer, Jeremy surfaced the Greek notion of eudaimonia, meaning human flourishing, which might be considered a distant cousin of nrimo. Unlike nrimo which manifests itself more as a state of mind or a disposition, eudaimonia is instead the constant pursuit of living a better life. According to Aristotle, achieving eudaimonia rests on the cultivation of practical wisdom — the ability to deliberate well and to act on these deliberations. It is to be flexible and to make judgments about how to achieve what is good in one’s current situation.

There is the English phrase “to make do” — to manage with limited or inadequate means available — a phrase that combines the creative pursuit of “mak[ing]” something with the forward thrust of the imperative “do”. Akin to nrimo, eudaimonia involves Man’s agency in creating the conditions that allows one to flourish. Nrimo is neither a placid submission to harsh realities nor is it an excuse for the characters to accept their situations as they are. If anything, adversity engenders a spirited improvisation and resourcefulness.

Lembusura is based on the 2014 Mount Kelud eruption which blanketed the whole of Wregas’ hometown in volcanic ash — in fact the film opens not with a whimper, but a portentous bang. Waking up to a dramatically different landscape, Wregas’ immediate reaction was to head out to record his surroundings, and he later asked a friend to enact the myth of lembusura, an ancient warrior trapped in a mountain who wreaks havoc on Java. As a self-professed “experimental film”, Lembusura jettisons narrative convention right from the point of its conception. Everything is spontaneous. Having filmed the documentary and fictional scenes without a script, it was in the editing room where Wregas started to create meaning by interspersing his documentary footage with comical scenes of the mountain demon. In the final shot, drawing inspiration from Edwin S. Porter’s The Life of American Firemen, a slumbering mountain demon is superimposed on a village enshrouded in a miasma of powdery volcanic ash. Imagined cause meets real-life consequence; an ancient mythological explanation is yoked to present weather phenomenon. And yet the muezzin calls with the constancy of night and day, children are heard frolicking in the background and a cloud of dust settles — life goes on.

In Prenjak, nrimo presents itself once again in the character Diah, a single mother in desperate need of money. In this instance, Diah’s practical wisdom extends to her making productive use of her lunch break and letting her colleague, Jarwo, view her genitals for cash. The mode of transaction is simple: the woman charges per matchstick and the man views in a dark room for as long as the matchstick will allow. Prenjak marks a formal departure from the freeform spontaneity that one finds in Lembusura, particularly with its linear narrative. Foregrounded and foreshadowed by a table that has Diah and Jarwo seated on opposite ends, Prenjak’s contrapuntal structure is buttressed by the heavy use of shot reverse shot, the juxtaposition of male and female genitalia and the striking tenebrism in the scenes under the table.

Wregas casts Rosa Winnegar as Diah for her eyes and it is not difficult to see why. In the second half of the film when Jarwo offers Diah money to view his member instead, one feels the weight of her gaze acutely, freighted with desperation, fear and desire, all struggling for ascendancy. What’s riveting about Diah’s character is that there is no moral dilemma about whether she should proceed with the impending transaction or not. It is Diah who drags Jarwo away from his work at the start of the film; her mind is made up and she knows what she needs to do.

Perhaps nrimo has its roots in the very geography of Indonesia, which lies on the Pacific Ring of Fire. Surrounded by some ten active volcanoes, Java is no stranger to caprices of Mother Earth. One would imagine that it demands a certain fortitude to be able to weather the savagery of nature, particularly when such eruptions have become such a regular occurrence — most recently in August 2016, in which three volcanoes erupted in the span of a single week. Nrimo is the recognition of the futility in seeking to change the immutable. Yet emerging from this tragic catastrophe is creation and creativity, the topology of the land is reshaped, the soil enriched and farmlands renewed — an ineluctable give and take in what Wregas repeatedly refers to as the “circle of life”.

But how else does one deal with these eruptions and ruptures in our daily lives apart from acceptance? The Javanese do it with an eruption of their own — laughter. Wregas regaled a tale where he visited a neighbour whose house had been torn asunder by the 2006 earthquake, only to be greeted by a warm smile and an invitation to go on a house tour. As Jeremy pointed out, the laughter within Wregas’ films and the laughter that emanates from the audience is a respectful one, where we laugh at the absurdity of the various situations and not at the characters. When filming Lembusura, Wregas made it a point to enjoy himself in the filming process despite the torrent of volcanic ash — one hears the laughter of the crew members as they quip about the lead actor’s “big boobs” and bovine features. It is joy that comes into sharp focus in the foreground as the hazy indistinct landscape recedes into the background. The sheer physical comedy of Yohanes Budyambara, the actor who plays the mountain demon, further saps this mythological creature of all symbolic terror. Wregas doesn’t just make do; he makes merry. Humour in Wregas’ films thus serves as a “transformative gesture”, a means through which the characters can regain a semblance of agency, by turning their sorrow into mirth.

Beyond the cultural specificities of nrimo, one would think that the idea of acceptance is not a foreign one. It is a muted recognition of the inevitable and the unchangeable, the final stage of the Kübler-Ross model and it evinces itself as sangfroid in the face of suffering. More crucially, when faced with the vagaries of life, one makes do and (re)creates meaning and that is precisely what Wregas celebrates and crystallises in his films.

Alex Foo is an aspiring arts writer whose interests lie in art, film and theatre. He will be heading to Columbia University this fall to study art history.