An Interview with

Garin Nugroho

by Ishizaka Kenji

Rising Indonesian director Garin Nugroho’s fourth film, Leaf on a Pillow, brought him to Japan in June 1999. Nugroho had been making documentary films even before his debut as a feature film director in 1991. Nugroho’s films give a glimpse of Indonesian history in the midst of political conflict and change, and bring renewal and new realizations to Indonesian film history. Documentary Box asked Ishizaka Kenji of The Japan Foundation’s Asia Center to interview Nugroho about the state of documentary production in Indonesia today and about his own documentary works.

Ishizaka (I): Documentaries are distinctly divided into two types: propaganda films made by governments or those on the side of authority, and anti-authority documentaries made to counter such forces. If you look at the film history of any country you’ll find that documentaries fall into these two types. The latter anti-authority, social type has a strong tradition in Japan; this is a highly unique characteristic of Japanese film history. During the War, however, Japan produced many government propaganda films. How do you see the history of documentary film in Indonesia, especially within a larger framework of film and image history?

Nugroho (N): The division is correct. Ninety percent of documentary films in Indonesia are government propaganda. Documentary film is closely related to Indonesian history. Apparently, Christian missionaries brought documentary films to the Nusatenggara region around the turn of the century. Unfortunately, there is no tangible remnant of these films, so the history of documentary films in Indonesia tends to start with the Dutch colonial era, when documentary films were screened at night bazaars in Jakarta. I heard that some of them were about the Dutch queen.

When the Dutch established plantations in Sumatra, documentary films were used as propaganda to entice Javanese peasants to migrate to the plantations. The same thing happened under Japanese rule, when the Japanese used film as propaganda to advance the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” Even Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, quoted Lenin: “Film is a tool for a nation, and is to be nationalized, for it is a tool for revolution.”

During the “New Order” years of the Suharto reign, documentary films followed two routes. First, documentaries used mainly for educational and informational purposes extolled the good results of the New Order’s national development. The Departments of Agriculture and Forestry might make films about their programs, for example. Second, a small fraction, only about five to ten percent, were ethnographic or environmental films made for general educational or scientific purposes.

Indonesian documentary film from the era of independence through the 1990s has had only two dimensions: development propaganda and scientific knowledge. Even the latter has been very limited in both approach and variety. For example, ethnographic films on Irian tribes have been heavily influenced by 1970s television like the BBC or NHK [Japan Broadcasting Corporation]. So even in the 1990s, television documentaries will be made in the style of the 1970s. If you go to a locale, say Irian Jaya, first you must always show a map, then an airplane en route and the journey to the location, followed by narration about the people’s daily life and invariably some major tribal ceremonies. Also, because so many documentaries are co-produced by local filmmaker and major foreign television companies like NHK, personally initiated documentary filmmaking has disappeared.

The situation up until the 1990s was exacerbated by the fact that Indonesia had only the one government television station, TVRI [Television Republik Indonesia]. Consequently, television documentaries feature the development successes of a village, complete with images of government officials cutting ribbons and so on. There are also the popular documentary dramas, usually made by ministries like the Department of Agriculture. The format is uniform: a new agricultural extension worker dispatched by the central government arrives in a village bringing new information. He meets a beautiful village girl who falls in love with him, and a love affair—usually involving a love triangle—ensues. The new information is rejected at first but inevitably accepted by the villagers. From the 1970s through the 1990s, about sixty such documentaries must have been made. At the time, I too was working with a well-known company that made documentary films, and made many such documentaries for them. Comparing Indonesian documentaries with documentary film in the rest of the world, our films tend to be outdated in content, format, and approach. After I realized this, I came to revolt against all forms of propaganda.

I: Did well-known feature film directors also make documentaries, or were there filmmakers who specialized in documentaries?

N: Some, like Jaya Kusma, did both. He was one very famous feature film director who also made documentaries. Most directors are offered and accept at least once the opportunity to make a documentary drama for propaganda purposes. But truly independent documentary makers usually find their own circle.

I: So many productions were sponsored by the government or the various ministries?

N: Yes. There are three types of sponsorship: UN agencies including UNICEF and the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization], governmental departments, and foreign television companies. The last sponsors about ten percent of productions.

I: Garin, you started making documentaries in the mid-1980s. It sounds like you weren’t very influenced by the work of other Indonesian filmmakers. Did you receive a lot of inspiration from overseas?

N: That owed more to my training at film school. I became aware of the numerous varieties of documentary, everything from poetic to social approaches to much more. It angered me that documentary films in Indonesia were all so propagandistic, when documentaries elsewhere varied so in style and approach and addressed the social and political. What would you call a film like Flaherty’s Nanook of the North? Also, we were assigned to watch Dutch documentary films on a weekly basis in film school. We watched films by Joris Ivens and others. There were so many documentary films to see, and all of them were usually very good.

I: Of your films, I first saw Water and Romi, Kancil’s Tale of Freedom and My Family, My Film, and My Nation. In these films, I was very surprised to see that there’s hardly any difference in eye level between you as filmmaker and the filmed subject of your gaze. As you said, if you make a documentary badly, then be it propaganda or enlightening, it will still be about those on top teaching the weak at the bottom. Your work has an exceedingly level gaze, and features society’s weak and oppressed. I have never seen anything like this in other Indonesian films from the Suharto era.

N: Comparing Indonesian documentaries to other documentaries made me furious. In terms of camera work, our cameras have always been mounted on tripods and always maintain a distance, as if observing a detached subject. There is also always the unspoken assumption that the public has no choice but to pay dutiful attention. There is no effort to involve the audience’s emotions. It’s all nothing but propaganda. This reduces documentary film to less than a language, and treats it like a sealed phenomenon, not a language of the ordinary. Whereas really, documentary is such an open language. For what? For whatever purpose it may serve.

To me, documentary is life itself, an everyday life open to anything at all. It can explore far ahead into the future, or dig deep into the past. It can also freely change its own configuration. Watching existing documentaries intrigued me to create something that would “swim against the current,” so to speak. Unfortunately, Water and Romi, Kancil’s Tale of Freedom and My Family, My Film, and My Nation were all deemed “unfit for screening” on television. These documentaries have sold quite well since I made them. They are highly in demand at schools, mosques, and universities.

The 1990s brought a trend toward more openness in television news broadcasting. There are now six private television channels. I saw this as the beginning of a new era for documentaries, thus I created Children of a Thousand Islands (“Anak Seribu Pulau”). I directed two of the thirteen segments, and supervised the concept of the rest. The series was shown on all six television channels to high public acclaim, judging from the many letters we received. The series is even being sold on video. This may be the first time documentary film has sold so well.

I: Could you give a brief introduction to Children of a Thousand Islands?

N: The thirteen segments concern the daily lives of children on various islands in Indonesia. For example, the one screened at Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival ’97 was about a child singer in Aceh [The Little Gayo Singer (“Ceh Kucak Gayo”, 1995), dir. Nan Triveni Achnas]. Others depicted three children hunting kangaroos in Irian, children being initiated into the life of deep-sea fishing, and child elephant trainers in Sumatra. The series let people talk again about the many regions of Indonesia.

I: You often talk about “multicultural Indonesia” and “Indonesia as a country where various cultures co-exist.” Children of a Thousand Islands seems to have taken these phrases and made them into images.

N: Yes, I think that documentaries can be a type of popular archives. They can archive bitterness or knowledge, in a positive way, without having to be propagandistic.

I: I hear that students of yours made Children of a Thousand Islands under your supervision.

N: Yes. It’s difficult to come up with the human resources to make a good documentary. More precisely, it’s difficult to find people who know anything about documentary film. They’re all used to nothing but propaganda. So we have to find people who have worked for other entities like foreign television netwoks, or young people who have enough skills or talent—basically anyone with basic knowledge of documentary filmmaking.

I: I’d like to ask you about several films in particular. What was your motivation for making Water and Romi?

N: The Goethe Institut in Jakarta offered to fund an environmental seminar on water and the environment, and I agreed to make a documentary for the seminar. At first, there was pressure to have a cabinet minister as a narrator, but I refused, and said that I wanted to be free to make this documentary myself. After all, it was to be a social documentary—on an environmental theme, but that of the social environment. For years, Indonesian documentaries have had narrators so I was tired of the format. So for perhaps the first time, the film’s subjects speak for themselves. This technique has since become quite popular in Indonesia.

In those days, documentaries were obliged to address something immense or far away—for example Irian Jaya—or exotic and strange. These films may not be so bad, but they don’t document our lives. So for the documentary on water, I focused on the workers who must wade in the filthy rivers of Jakarta to clean them, and allowed them to talk for themselves.

I: Depicting everyday life seems easy but is actually very difficult. I was especially surprised to see that you had made something like that during the Suharto era. The scenes where Romi and his son are in the river collecting garbage were particularly striking; the camera is positioned at Romi’s eye level, in other words right in the river with them. What were your intentions in shooting from that camera position?

N: It was never easy shooting from that position. The river smelled foul, and overflowed with garbage. After several weeks of shooting, I felt like I was bathing in and with garbage every time I took a shower. But for me, the camera in a documentary film should be versatile. Rather than always representing the eyes in our head, it should be able to assume different perspectives, be positioned on our legs, our knees; those “eyes” must be all over the body. The camera must be able to look up, to look on the level, to pry from above. It must immerse itself into the subject’s sphere of life, and the rest is up to us. Do we wish to peep in, to level with, to corner the subject? We may choose any of these, but there is a limit. The camera should never be so close that it is disturbing to the filmed, and a documentary should never disturb the psychological state of the subject.

Making a documentary about daily life means mustering all parts of the body and the whole film crew to enter into the subject’s atmosphere, taking care that the subject does not feel the presence of the filming. We construct the “macro,” an atmosphere critical to balance, to enliven the “micro” subject of the documentary.

I: To have such an open relationship, you have to be able to communicate with the subject, in this case Romi. What process did you go through before finding Romi and deciding to make him the subject of the film? How did you approach Romi, and how did you persuade him to let you film him working in that incredibly dirty, polluted river?

N: That’s a difficult question. To build intimacy, a documentary filmmaker must vacate the mind, empty it in a Zen sense, make it a mathematical zero. Drinking saké in Japan, we use only a small cup, and let the other person keep filling it up. Yet our body language can never be devoid of meaning. By presenting ourselves to the subject, even wordlessly, we impose our values, and this may cause the subject to reject us.

In Water and Romi, there are three characters: a water vendor; an ice-cream seller, who adds chemicals to his wares; and the river cleaner. Romi is ironic, an implicit criticism of the Indonesian government. The government appears to be giving him a job, but the job is absurd because the garbage will always be in the river, and this worker will most probably die prematurely from exposure to a score of diseases. Such governments pretend to offer hope, but in reality forces its citizens to commit suicide. Like Zen or the paradox of a Japanese garden, Romi emerges as a strong composition. Powerless, he represents the futility, the whole chaos and confusion of environmental problems in Indonesia.

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Garin Nugroho

Born in Yogjakarta, Indonesia in 1961. After graduating from the law department of Indonesia University, entered Jakarta Institute of the Arts (IKJ), where he studied filmmaking. Since finishing his degree in 1985, has made numerous short films and documentaries. His four feature films have all received high acclaim internationally. . . . And the Moon Dances (1991) won the Special Jury Prize at the Festival de 3 Continents in Nantes, and Leaf on a Pillow (1998) was an official selection at Cannes in 1998. One of Indonesia’s representative young directors, Nugroho is currently fully active in the filmmaking world. His three documentaries discussed in this interview are as follows:

Water and Romi (“Air dan Romi,” 1991)
Water and Romi introduces inhabitants of Jakarta whose lives are closely intertwined with water. Nugroho follows a water salesman, a shaved-ice street vendor, and a river cleaner to look at the current situation of life by a severely polluted river. Water and Romi won the Mayor of Freiburg’s Prize at Öcomedia, the 1992 Environmental Film Festival in Freiburg, Germany.

Kancil’s Tale of Freedom (“Dongeng Kancil Tentang Kemerdekaan,” 1996)
Kancil’s Tale of Freedom follows the daily life of Kancil, a street child with the same name as a small but strong rascal character that appears in an Indonesian folktale. The film depicts the dreams, worries, and family problems of Kancil and his friends, children who leave their homes to live on the streets. The children in Kancil’s Tale of Freedom inspired Nugroho’s 1998 feature film Leaf on a Pillow, and also appear in it.

My Family, My Film, and My Nation (1998)
My Family, My Film, and My Nation consists of scenes from Nugroho’s previous works, cut, re-edited and interspersed with Nugroho’s own comments. Extremely personal, the film also widens its scope to address the present and future of Indonesia.