REVIEW— On Five Short Films by Wregas Bhanuteja


Wregas Bhanuteja became (social)-media sensation in Indonesia this year because of winning a Cannes 2016 award with his Prenjak (2016). His 12 minute story about a young woman sold overpriced matches to her fellow male worker in a noodle restaurant. The matches were for light so he could peek her vagina under the table. But after the transaction, the guy reversed the situation. He paid her to slip under the table, and watched his penis erected. The short movie ended with a thoughtful gaze into the penis of that young woman’s son when she bathed the little boy.

 Clearly the story –inspired by seedy street-sexual-trade practices in Yogyakarta– is not as important as the actual footage of vagina and penis in the screen for some of its’ audiences. Riri Riza, one of the most respected Indonesian working directors today, hailed Prenjak in one of his Path posts after watching its first screening in the French cultural centre in Jakarta, as “a celebration of freedom”.

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That sentiment seems to be shared by many netizens that can easily labeled as a bunch of Indonesian young urban middle class that posited in the opposite side from the other Indonesian young urban middle class who are religiously inspired in their aspirations for “good life” (mostly good Islamic way of life). One could understand perfectly the elative feeling of freedom after watching a close up of hairy vagina and slow erection of a penis in the screen while outside, the likes of Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI) and their infamous records of “defending Islamic values” with violence.

But I won’t deride this review into that polar division raging today in Indonesian big cities. Instead, I would admit that the explicitness of genital footage in Indonesian “art house movie” such as Prenjak is important. Even, to some point, historical.

The explicit footage of genitals is an effective shout out to Indonesian public, indeed to the world also, that this is the new generation of Indonesian filmmaker: bold, post-nationalistic (if we agree that the social construction of “Indonesian identity” nowadays is somewhat dominated by moralistic, religious, and emotional view of the nation –then, Wregas and his peers are the representative of the post-nationalistic generation in Indonesia) and very articulate in its artistic technicalities and visual vocabularies.

Prenjak is a seamless work of a highly proficient visual crafter. The editing has perfect timing; the image composition is very proper, the dialogues are just right. But beyond that explicit genitals footage and a good delivery, what would we have?

I watched Prenjak as a compilation in Kineforum (Jakarta Arts Councils’ owned screening room) last July, as part of the venue’s program to focus on Wregas works. I have the privilege to compare Prenjak with other works by Wregas: Senyawa (2012), Lembusura (2014), Lemantun (2014), and The Floating Chopin (2015). Of course, this compilation wasn’t really enough to capture his portfolio entirely. Even when he was in high school, he had already made 12 short movies.

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But his other shorts in that compilation unintentionally created a contrast for me. Prenjak felt like it was aware of its’ audiences. While the other four are simply created as personal artistic vehicle, aimed to be some form of visual poetry.

Senyawa is understandably the weakest piece in this compilation: it is an amateur work for student assignment in Jakarta Arts Institute (Institut Kesenian Jakarta, IKJ). But it is full of good idea, 12 minutes of gentle respond to religious sectarianism and bigotry in Indonesia. A father and a daughter with their different religions paid tribute to their deceased wife/mother by making a recording of Ave Maria.

Next, a leap into experimental camera exploration of a natural disaster. Lembusura, a short film that showed amateur moviemaker and his crew/friends tried to make movie about the volcanic explosion of Kelud Mountain in Eastern Java. Wregas told Muvilla that he woke up one day in 2014 to found that the mountain erupted and the volcanic ashes covered the whole town like a thick fog. Not knowing what to do, he began to use his cameras and take footages of leaves, houses, streets of the foggy-like town.

After several days, and the volcanic ashes are still there, Wregas and his friends tried to reenact the folklore of Kelud Mountain. It’s a story about a demon-monster that lived inside the volcano named Lembusura. The mountain coughed or erupted whenever the demon-monster angry. “Tried” is the operative word. Wregas and friends stumbled, laughed a lot, absurdly playing what seems to be clueless theatrics and movie making. But he also smartly combines all that with footages of eerie but visually arresting scenery of the volcanic aftermath in his town.

He then created in his editing desk from two hours of footages a ten minutes symbolic commentary of movie making. What is the meaning of movie in the face of natural disaster? Wregas choose to make poetic imageries out the disaster with his film.

The volcanic dusts in his town became dream-likes element for his pictures, evocative images of human endurance in the face of nature’s enormous power. The awkwardness of the corpulent actor with his mask became an absurd and light rebellion toward the monstrosity of the mountain. All the laugh and playful activities captured by the camera became something that really matter, and push the disaster into the background.

Wregas Bhanuteja, Jakarta - 2016 (Photo IMDb)
Wregas Bhanuteja, Jakarta – 2016 (Photo IMDb)

His penchant for visual poetry is really apparent in Lemantun and The Floating Chopin. The later is more intellectual in its approach. Two lovers went on vacation in an isolated beach. They talked about many things with lover’s discourse: every meaningless thing became meaningful; everything is intimate. Or rather, everything became meaningful because everything is done intimately.

The sun, the soothing sound of waves, the composition from Chopin, the scattered footages of Paris, mainly the Père Lachaise Cemetery, with the lovers’ commentaries outside the frame. “I don’t know what The Aztec doing in Paris…,” said the young man at one point. And then, amid the waves, the male lover sung Chopin Larung, a single from 1970s Indonesian Progressive Rock band “Guruh Gipsy”. The song was composed by Guruh Soekarno Putra and first sung by the legendary singer, Chrisye. This is not a movie about love. It’s a gaze to European civilization by a pair of outsiders, by the other.

Great images in The Floating Chopin. But I was completely taken by Lemantun. The 23 minutes short initially appear to be structured in a straightforward storytelling. It’s even masked as a comedy movie in the beginning. Five children (four sons and a daughter) and a simple yet stern mother gather in a very Javanese setting. They are old. The mother wants to inherit her five old wooden chests to each of her children.

Gradually, the seemingly warm traditional family unmasked as a group of six completely different strangers that had completely different lives. What is so beautiful for me is that the unmasking is done in a very subtle and completely non-judgmental way. We simply witness all the good intentions and little gestures and little remarks unfolded the way each character thought about the situation and, especially, about Tri, the one who still lives with the mother.

Tri is a man with earnest and child-like smile who carries a mark of the cast out because he still doesn’t have proper job and proper home of his own. His sister and brothers look so natural to order him around while secretly eye him as a “no-progress” and deeply flawed character. Even his mother thinks so. In Indonesian (or, more accurately, Javanese) traditional big family, it seems that there is always one child who is always left behind, in the empty house with his/her parents.

Gardika Gigih Pradipta wraps this entire simple tale in a sad and meditative piano composition. The music contributed significantly to the perfection of this movie as an ode for human loneliness. This little gem is a poem about how everyone is practically an island. In fact, throughout these five shorts, Wregas consistently painted this notion of solitary life. Sometimes, those islands do communicate. Sometimes there are bridges. A mother and a son. The eyes in the dark and the genitals. The playful activities of creation. But eventually, the loneliness, bigger than the bridges, descends into all islands.

Even in The Floating Chopin, the male protagonist ends up hanging alone above the waves and the rocks. Where is “the imagined community” in those islands? As Indonesians, we are taught in our schools to unquestionably believe that “the imagined community” of Indonesia as a nation is the absolute reality. Wregas apparently, and softly, beg to differ. ***

Reviewed by: Hikmat Darmawan
(Head of Film Committee in Jakarta Arts Council, Creative Director of Pabrikultur)

Issue 20, Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia, September 2016

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