Sumba From Java: Notes on Garin Nugroho, Ifa Isfansyah, and Mouly Surya Films

At a glance, Garin Nugroho, Ifa Isfansyah, and Mouly Surya depict Sumba as lacking – there is no certainty regarding to the law. They use different narratives and approaches to tell Sumba condition. Nugroho emphasizes on the Sumba who have two Name-of-the-Fathers, two kinds of laws, the tradition and the state. Letter for an Angel (1994), follows a kid name Lewa who questioning his identity on being Sumbese (the Sumba). While in the case Ifa Isfansyah, he brings silat (Indonesian martial art) and warrior story in the synchronic mode, uses Sumba only for setting for the shot. The Golden Cane Warrior (2014) shows hierarchy between warrior and common people. The main characters are the actors from Java, while the figurants are people from East Indonesian. The last one is Mouly Surya, female directors, who made Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017). Marlina tells about a woman seeking justice after she should defending herself from perpetrators who raped then steal her belongings.

Garin Nugroho (b. 1961) belongs to the generation of filmmakers who still experiencing tight control from the State. His first film was made in the 1984 entitled Wagon 1,2, – film that questioning position of the Father in the state. Most of Nugroho films have an aim to criticize New Order. He used different style, ranging from film inspired by Truffaut style entitled Love in a Slice of Bread (1991), to the dramatic one like Guru Bangsa: HOS Tjokroaminoto (2015). Letter for an Angel is a unique one. It was funded by Pusat Produksi Film Negara (State Film Production Center), which is known producing propaganda films. The film is ambivalence, pointing on how the State couldn’t see and answer the complexities of the fusion of identity in Sumba area. Nugroho is sharpening his criticism toward New Order in this film.

Ifa Isfansyah (b. 1979) and Mouly Surya (b. 1980) belong to the generation after Reformation. Both of them started making film after the “short” dead of Indonesian cinema. Isfansyah debut on commercial theatre could be traced in the film Garuda di Dadaku (2008). He made The Dancer (2011), which based on Ahmad Tohari novel Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, when ronggeng dancer get impact after 1965 events. While Mouly Surya debut can be traced since Fiction (2010), a film about a young woman deeply in love with a plumber told through the main character’s view that couldn’t differentiated between real and fiction world. She goes further in directing What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love (2013), a very fresh film, imagining how the disable characters could have normal life using juxtaposition in the narrative. Isfansyah with the Dancer in 2011 and Surya with Fiction in 2008got Best Director in Indonesian Film Festival, a prestigious annual awards in Indonesia.

The emergence of initiatives to make films that focus on the East Indonesia has a long history. It is not only seen as an attempt to uncover the unexplored, but also became an effort to see how decentralization carried out by the State. Comparing with the economic growth, between the East and West Indonesia is very different.

Before 1998, economical growth and access to education in East Indonesia was different. No wonder if there was no filmmaker emerged from the East. On the other hand, Indonesian directors, mostly living in Java, who interested to make film in the East Indonesia were few. One of the biggest factors is the tight supervision carried out by the New Order, based on the themes raised in the film. And if there were filmmakers made a film about East Indonesia, they were trapped, became an extension of colonialism seeing the region as the exotic one.

After Reformation, when the issue on decentralization and regional autonomy began, a hope is emerged. It enabled the growth of economic and raised access to knowledge. In the past few years, several directors from the East have emerged. Meanwhile, several directors from Java and West Indonesia become aware that there are still very few films that talks about East Indonesia. In addition to the shifting paradigm in looking at the Eastern Indonesia, the presence of foreign donors to support film production in another area outside Java. This opened up a lot of interest and encouraged the emergence of initiatives to make films to explore the culture and situation in East Indonesia.

Through deployment of the gaze, my writing compares the three films on how the filmmakers from different generation seeing Sumba. I attempt to answer these following questions: How Sumba was fantasized, and how the fantasy could bring enjoyment for the spectator – does it make the viewer questioning ideology or submitting ourselves to the dominant ideology. My research focuses on the close reading, on the way the film texts articulate Sumba identity. I will show that each filmmaker conceptualizes the identity differently and in the end I will categorize from the way their films deploy the gaze.

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Garin Nugroho
Taken From Golden Cane Warrior (2004). Courtesy Miles Film
Garin Nugroho
Marlina the Murderer. Courtesy: Cinesurya

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