Indonesia’s Picture Perfect Director
Like many of us, filmmaker Garin Nugroho recently returned to his hometown for Idul Fitri to rejuvenate after a year of hard work.
Last month, Garin released an illustrated autobiography in collaboration with the Djarum Foundation to celebrate 30 years of filmmaking.
Browsing through the 300-page, self-titled book with its beautiful examples of Garin’s cinematography, theater productions and art installations, it is clear that the filmmaker is entitled to a well-earned rest.
“Idul Fitri is a moment to return to one’s roots and realize one’s true self,” Garin said in a telephone interview, a week before the holiday.
Through the long-distance connection from his family home in Yogyakarta, quacking ducks and clucking chickens could be heard as the renowned filmmaker shared stories about his childhood, his late parents and the “maestros” who inspired him to follow his passion.
Born on June 6, 1961, Garin Nugroho Riyanto was the fourth child of Soetjipto Amin and Mariah. His parents both worked for the national postal service, moving around Java, from Bandung to Magelang, Semarang and Yogyakarta, before his father retired in 1965 to dedicate his life to writing novels in Javanese.
Garin’s mother, who continued to work for the postal service, was eventually elected as the deputy head of the post office in Yogyakarta.
“It was a rare position for a woman at that time,” Garin said. “She was a true career woman.”
Mariah also found the time to be a good mother to her eight children.
“Like Ibu Pertiwi [Mother Earth], she nurtured us and led us to our paths in life,” Garin said.
As a boy, Garin shared his father’s passion for writing. From a young age, he had short stories published in local magazines and newspapers in Yogyakarta.
“But my father, who was also a writer, was very critical of me,” he said. “So I thought to myself that I should find something else to excel in.”
Garin turned his fascination to the silver screen. As a small boy, he would often find a way into the movie theater without paying for a ticket.
“At that time in Yogyakarta, one ticket was valid for two persons,” he said. “So I persuaded people who came by themselves to the cinema to take me in with them.”
Like most boys his age, Garin’s favorites were cowboy and kung fu movies. The movies captivated the little boy’s heart. Garin’s fascination with the movies prompted him to join drama clubs at school. He wrote scripts and directed a number of plays while still at high school.
After graduating in 1981, Garin enrolled in the Jakarta Institute of Arts (IKJ) where he majored in television and cinema. He also studied law and politics at the University of Indonesia at the same time.
“My parents told me that we have to have both practical skills and intellectuality to excel in life,” he said. “That’s why I took both courses of study.”
Garin excelled in both areas. Due to his talents, he received a number of scholarships for short courses and workshops at renowned movie studios in Asia, Europe and the United States.
He also started filming documentaries and independent short movies in his free time.
Garin finished his studies at IKJ in 1985. Six years later, he graduated from UI with flying colors.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, only a handful of Indonesian horror, comedy and romantic movies made it to the cinemas. But in 1991, Garin surprised the nation with the release of his debut film, “Cinta dalam Sepotong Roti” (“Love in a Slice of Bread”). The movie featured an intricate love triangle, revealed to viewers through poetic dialogue and stunning cinematography. It was an elegant contrast to the cheap romances of the era.
The debut film earned Garin multiple Citra Cup awards at the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) in 1991, including Best Director, Best Movie, Best Editing, Best Music, Best Artistic Scenes and Best Cinematography. It also earned him the Best Young Director award at the 1992 Asia-Pacific Film Festival in Seoul.
Garin went on to show that the awards were not just the result of beginner’s luck. His second movie, 1994’s “Surat untuk Bidadari” (“Letter for an Angel”), captured the natural beauty of Sumba in East Nusa Tenggara, while also presenting the everyday dilemmas of the island’s inhabitants, caught between traditional ways of life and Western, modern influences.
“Indonesia is a long series of paradoxes,” Garin said. “It’s beauty versus violence, powerlessness versus resistance, evolution versus revolution, poverty versus affluence and tranquility versus chaos.”
The film won the award for best film at Italy’s Taormina Film Festival and the Tokyo International Film Festival, and also earned Garin the award for best director at the Pyongyang Film Festival and the Young Filmmakers Jury award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Garin went on to produce a string of internationally acclaimed films throughout the 1990s and 2000s, including “Bulan Tertusuk Ilalang” (“And the Moon Dances”), “Daun di Atas Bantal” (“Leaf on a Pillow”) and “Opera Jawa” (“Requiem from Java”).
“I could never have become who I am today without the guidance from the maestros,” Garin said.
He said his university lecturers, including director Teguh Karya and performer Djaduk Ferianto, inspired him with their creativity.
“Garin’s movies are surrealistic visual poems,” said Tommy F. Awuy, a philosophy lecturer at UI and IKJ. “Through his movies, he makes us see and realize the impending problems in our society.”
Garin also drew inspiration from traditional music composer Rahayu Supanggah and dancer Retno Maruti when filming “Opera Jawa,” released in 2006.
“Opera Jawa” was one of several films commissioned by American theater director Peter Sellars for the 2006 New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
The musical film, which was a modern adaptation of the “Abduction of Sinta” episode from the Ramayana Hindu epic, featured traditional Javanese dance and gamelan music.
“Garin was audacious,” said composer Rahayu Supanggah. “In 2005, he approached me to ask me to write gamelan compositions for his new musical film. Using gamelan for a film? It was unheard of. I told him it wouldn’t sell.”
But in the end, Garin’s audacity won Rahayu over. The composer’s gamelan score for the movie earned him the award for Best Music Director at the 2006 Indonesian Film Festival and Best Composer at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong in 2007.
Garin has collaborated with people from many different backgrounds to make his films, something that he said was often difficult to do.
“The essence of collaboration is to learn from one another,” he said. “Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. But as long as we’re willing to listen and discuss, we can get along and work together to create something great.”
Garin sees the release of “Opera Jawa” as one of the high points of his 30-year career. “Internationally, it’s probably the most-screened Indonesian movie that uses Javanese language and gamelan music,” he said.
Garin’s talents and career have extended well beyond filmmaking.
In August 2008, together with traditional dance choreographers Martinus Miroto and Eko Supriyanto, he choreographed “The Iron Bed,” a theater piece performed at an international art festival in Zurich. The production wowed the audience with its combination of langendriyan , a Javanese operatic style, singers and puppetry.
In June 2011, the filmmaker also collaborated with 10 Indonesian artists to present the art installation “Trans-Figurations: Mythologies Indonesiennes,” at the Espace Culturel Louis Vuitton in Paris, which is open until Oct. 23.
In life, we have to continue to make new maps to explore,” he said. “We have to go beyond our comfort zones and familiar territories to expand ourselves and our talents. As we expand, other people will also see and expand themselves And we’ll all grow together.”
“I’m thankful that I’ve been given a chance to experience the beauty of Indonesia during my career,” he added. “I have shot movies in many parts of the country, including Aceh, Bali and Papua. Every part of them was a journey into the cultural and natural beauty of Indonesia.”
With all of his achievements, it would be natural to assume that Garin was satisfied with his career so far.
“Not yet,” the 50-year-old said. “There are so many things that I still want to do and create in my life.”
His future projects include filming a number of documentaries and setting up workshops to support young cinematic talent in the country.
“I’ll continue to move and explore [new boundaries],” he said.
“But it’s also time for me to pave the way for other people to succeed in their lives.”