At first I only had a photo of Opera Jawa, a high-res production still of a bejeweled female dancer imprisoned in a cone of billowing gold lace. Ignoring the floral-patterned glitz of the praying statue beside her, she points her fine-tuned eyebrows downward, resigned to the fate that resides just outside of the frame. Agitating my degenerate cinephilia, the uncanny beauty of the image spurred me to mount a shimmering masterpiece in my mind, the brief festival raves crystallizing my obsession with this cinematic coquette, too shy to unspool in New York City theaters.
The facts, presented to me like sacred runes, are thus: Opera Jawa is a Javanese musical directed by Garin Nugroho, and was commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival in honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday. When this dream-work finally hit a local screen (for a whopping one-day run), it easily trounced the feeble shadow play I had constructed in my head, tossing up a whole island’s worth of cultural history, peaking with a revolutionary war staged as puppet theater. To channel my mania I burrowed into the life and work of Mr. Nugroho. Who was this Indonesian iconoclast who had taken over the majority of my gray matter?
He was born into a middle-class family in Yogyakarta, Java, on June 6, 1961. His mother worked in the post office, his father as a publisher. In 1965, after a failed coup attempt by communist forces, the military (possibly aided by the CIA) engaged in a brutal series of retribution killings (estimated deaths range between five hundred thousand and more than 1 million), during which General Suharto was elevated to power. Garin’s father was placed under house arrest after refusing to name names to the military, but was shown leniency for his service in the war for independence against the Dutch.
Nugroho delves into this nightmare in A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry (2000), a black-and-white dirge (which ends in color) that eschews political explanations for individual traumas. It’s the most formally rigorous of the eight Nugrohos I’ve been lucky enough to see. The story unfolds entirely behind bars, where the poet Ibrahim Kadir reenacts his experiences as a prisoner through didong, an Achenese form of sung poetry that uses humor and wordplay to satirize the upper classes. The film is structured around Kadir singing these pieces solo against a black screen, bursts of mournful performance that act as counterpoint to the rest of the film, where haunted prisoners mark time until their name is called for execution. Shot in grainy DV over six days, the film never leaves the cell block, ranging nimbly to capture the untrained actors (many of whom are relatives and friends of massacre victims) singing their own songs as prayers or as howls of desperation. Music suffuses every frame, even in the complex sound montage of nervous tapping, off-screen beatings, and the crack of the executioner’s sword.
The turning point in Nugroho’s career came five years previously, however, with the diptych of Kancil’s Tale of Freedom and Leaf on a Pillow (1998). The first is a 1995 documentary about street kids in his hometown of Yogyakarta, a devastating portrait of the lost children of Suharto’s three-decade-spanning New Order (1967–98), a policy that promoted the cosmopolitanism of Java to the exclusion of the rest of the country’s 17,508 islands. With the state-owned media erasing the growing underclass from the nation’s screens, Nugroho allows these children to speak for themselves, and places Kancil at the film’s pranksterish heart. With disarming charm and a cig dangling from his lips, the smirky tween chats about making shoe polish, stealing tape decks, and the joys of jerking off on white chicks. They huff glue and eat sweet rolls, exuding an impish decadence that can only end in tragedy. Three years later, with all the principals miraculously still alive, Nugroho cast them in the fictional Leaf, which was made possible thanks to the participation of Indonesia’s “national actress,” Christine Hakim, who produced and starred in the film.
Virtually plotless, Leaf follows the kids as they wander the streets in long takes of aestheticized degradation. Nugroho started with a general story idea, and then improvised the details. He intended for Kancil to be the lead, but after working with the children, focused on Heru, a brooding bully who spikes his lips with safety pins. The film shifts the focus from the kids to their circumstances, draining the children of their mordant wit and softening the censorable aspects of their existence (no huffing or jacking off). They become static symbols for the film’s social message, their deaths registering more like bullet points than emotional traumas. (Ironically, the film was Nurgroho’s biggest hit, released soon after Suharto’s downfall.) With its lush cinematography and precisely choreographed framings, Leaf shows the beginnings of the radical shift in Nugroho’s style, which would later become more self-consciously artificial and almost entirely studio-bound.
All of which brings us back to Opera Jawa, Nugroho’s largest canvas and greatest accomplishment. Rehearsed over eight months and filmed in two weeks, it’s a grand spectacle shot with amateur fervor, as well as a battle royal between tradition and modernity—listen to classical gamelan music as wax heads melt all over the set designs of seven modern artists. Nugroho takes the “Abduction of Sinta” story from the Ramayana and sullies it up for the post-Suharto era. The original tale tracks the travails of the golden couple, Rama and Sinta, princely lovers broken up by the lusty King Ravana, who kidnaps Sinta before fleeing to his fortified kingdom. After Rama rescues his gal, he tests her virginal purity with a trial by funeral pyre. She miraculously survives, and order is temporarily restored.
Nugroho’s version kicks off with a grotesquely fat ukulele player setting the narrative stakes. Before he sings the story proper, he lilts, “Everyone thinks their version is right,” warning of subversions to come. Plucked from the grip of myth and hurled into the fraught present, Jawa presents the story of Siti (Artika Sari Devi) and Setio (Martinus Miroto), long-limbed dancers who performed the Ramayana as Sinta and Rama before they married and promptly hit the skids. With the help of some candlelit groping, the brooding Siti is charmed by Ludiro (Eko Supriyanto), a ruling-class rogue who specializes in playing the role of Ravana. Supriyanto, trained on tour with Madonna, is a sinewy athlete whose sharp limbs stake out precise patterns in the air, equally adept at soft-shoeing to the blues or vogueing to traditional gamelan. Ludiro’s garish seductions are the inverse of Setio’s self-obsessed neuroses, but both are driven to conquer Siti’s body to fulfill the ideal of manhood set out in the Ramayana.
They battle for dominance in a series of stunning set pieces, including a violent ménage à trois boogie in Siti’s bed, in which Ludiro clings to her skirt as Setio attempts his own clumsy come-on. They jockey for position as Siti toys with their desire, angling her body in poses of readiness and recoil. The Muslim Nugroho has infuriated the small Hindu community in Indonesia by his rendering of the traditionally virginal Sinta as a willfully erotic being who literally breaks out of the clay mold Setio traps her in, singing, “I’m not mere earth, but earth quickened with life.”
The poverty-stricken Setio stirs up resentment against the ruling class of Ludiro and his family, eventually igniting a pitched battle that Nugroho stages like a wayang, or shadow-puppet performance. Violence overwhelms everyone, including the obese narrator, the dueling choruses of working-class women and middle-class men, and the tragic trio of doomed lovers. Superficially a requiem for the victims of violence and natural disasters around the world, the film has as its subterranean concerns the damaged fates of liberated women, the toxic brew of poverty and violence, and the way endless sheaves of red fabric parry the evening sun. Opera Jawa is one of those rare, thrilling instances for a cinema-mad romantic like myself, where the action on-screen surpassed the dream-film in my head, a secret masterpiece to crow about until the canon-makers come to their senses.