Any film by director Garin Nugroho is a must-watch for many Indonesians. The filmmaker got his start back in 1991, when his debut, “Cinta Dalam Sepotong Roti” (“Love in a Slice of Bread”), won six Citra Awards for best director, movie, editing, music, cinematography and artistic scenes.
During the next decade, Garin continued making films and earned praise for his documentary “Anak Seribu Pulau” (“Children of a Thousand Islands”), produced by Mira Lesmana and Riri Riza. The 13-episode documentary followed the stories of children from cities around the country, and it helped solidify Garin’s reputation here as a renowned director.
Garin also earned a reputation abroad, even as former President Suharto’s repressive New Order government tried to censor his work. To avoid domestic censorship, he sent his work for screenings at foreign film festivals, making himself known in cities from Tokyo to Berlin and even winning an award for best young director at the Asia Pacific Film Festival. It wasn’t always easy to pursue an international presence; Indonesian filmmakers sometimes had to sneak their reels out of the country to join outside festivals.
With strict censorship, some of Garin’s films never made it to Indonesian cinemas, including “Bulan Tertusuk Ilalang” (“And the Moon Dances”) and “Surat untuk Bidadari” (“Letter for an Angel”). Nevertheless, Garin amazed local filmmakers in 1998 with “Daun di Atas Bantal” (“Leaf on a Pillow”), which was chosen as an official entry by the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Though Garin has always been interested in covering a wide variety of subjects, much of his filmmaking revolves around the topic of identity.
He focused on communism in “Puisi Tak Terkuburkan” (“A Poet), Hinduism in “Di Bawah Pohon” (“Under the Tree”), and religious fundamentalism in “Mata Tertutup” (“Closed Eyes”).
This year, he’s back with “Soegija,” a film about Albertus Soegijapranata, the first Indonesian Roman Catholic bishop during the Dutch occupation. He spoke with the Jakarta Globe about the film.
Why did you decide to make this film?
This film is not about religion — it actually speaks to humanity, to nationalism. Some of Soegija’s ideas about humanity and nationality are relevant even today, especially today. I think multiculturalism is a big challenge for us as a nation, and the government must address the issue as soon as possible. His [Soegija’s] ideas, such as how ‘humanity is one’ and ‘it’s useless to be free if we fail to teach ourselves’ are relevant in Indonesia today.
How did you want to approach this film?
I wanted this film to communicate a message. I’ve heard people say that my past films were difficult to understand, so this time, it was really important to be clear.
If you read short stories from the revolution era, you’ll see a lot of humor, and back then there were a lot of leaders who were illiterate. When we make films about war, we tend to display the hero as if he’s No. 1, but I wanted to show the human and comical side of our heroes. That’s what I get from reading those stories.
I also adapted [Indonesian painter] Sudjojono’s perspective in the film. A lot of scenes were aesthetically inspired from his paintings, like the poster of Indonesian soldiers hanging out.
Nirwan Dewanto isn’t an actor, and he’s also not Catholic. Why did you think he’d be suitable as Soegija?
He looks very much like Soegija. Physicality is really important — we can’t use someone who looks very different. And Soegija was a writer and a thinker. Nirwan is like that, and he is well-known in literature. That’s why I asked him.
The film looks into the idea of motherhood. Did this become an interest for you while making the film?
That’s true. I’m kind of obsessed with the figure of a mother. My own mother’s name is Maria. But I always make characters who can deliver the message. Soegija is that kind of character.
The title of the film is ‘Soegija,’ but it doesn’t focus on his personal life. Can you talk about the angle of the film?
Soegija appears as a guardian of values. Even though he was a bishop, he never wanted to be served, and he always put other people first. That’s why I added fictional characters.
This is a film about people, and men, during the war. Everybody is somebody, and everybody in the film has their own struggles, even the enemies. There were values, and I think it’s important to reveal these values. I don’t want this film to be like other Indonesian films that only show how our leaders suffered during the occupation. I wanted to tell about the historical events, even though it’s difficult to illustrate these characters.
Some critics have said ‘Soegija’ was an effort to convert people to Catholicism. How do you react to that?
When a film is out, it belongs to the people. When people say bad things about ‘Soegija’ on Twitter, they’re still mentioning the film, so it’s free promotion.
We heard you sent the film to the Academy Awards to represent Indonesia. Is that true?
I don’t know about that. I think ‘Soegija’ has a real Malay feel about it, so I haven’t put much thought into sending it overseas. It’s about Indonesian history, but it’s not overly dramatized. There’s humor, not just sadness, because it’s all there in our research and we wanted to show that in the film. Yes, it was a hard time for Indonesians. You can cry, but you can also laugh with the music and the singing.