We all know what topics interest me most, and one of them is Indonesia. So it feels frustrating when I miss the arrival of significant films, books, and other important contributions to the expansion of intelligent discourse about Indonesia. Only today, I discovered The Act of Killing, a newly released film that is of major significance in Indonesia’s evolution, and in the evolution of cinema itself.
Werner Herzog, who I consider the most impressive director in the known universe, put it this way, “I have not seen a film as powerful, surreal, and frightening in at least a decade. It is unprecedented in the history of cinema.” He clearly meant what he said. He stepped in as the film’s executive producer, financing its completion and release.
The Indonesian Human Rights Commision issued the following statement about the film: “If we are to transform Indonesia into the democracy it claims to be, citizens must recognize the terror and repression on which our contemporary history has been built. No film, or any other work of art for that matter, has done this more effectively than The Act of Killing. It is essential viewing for us all.”
The film is a documentary about present-day Indonesian gangsters who are given the opportunity to create and appear in a movie that will incorporate their reminiscences of the mass killings of 1965-66 in Indonesia, which are only recently emerging in public discourse. These present-day, real Indonesian gangsters happen to be huge fans of rock-em-sock-em Hollywood action movies, and have been their whole lives. What’s more, these particular present-day gangsters also happened to be doing a lot of killing themselves during the 1965-66 reign of carnage.
The Hollywood pictures that filled their hearts and heads back then, bled over into their acts of killing (lending subtle ambiguity to the word “act” in the film’s title). And now (how exciting for them!), they get to take a break from their “relax and Rolex” lifestyle to make a real movie! And by gosh, they do! With hotshot director Joshua Oppenheimer, no less!
All the while, unbeknownst to them, Oppenheimer has in fact, set a huge trap by inviting them to make the movie of their dreams. And they swagger right into it, with excruciating enthusiasm. THAT phenomenon (not the “movie” the guys are making), is in fact the subject of Oppenheimer’s film. It’s a documentary about THAT. Sound complex? It isn’t so complex, actually. It’s simply brilliant.
Deeper truths are revealed by documenting the making of a fictitious fiction film, than any normal documentary ever could do. The Act of Killing is beautiful, as a work of cinematic art, too; every frame, every shot, every prop, every set, every costume, every meticulous stroke of editing, all of it.
I urge you to visit the film’s website, view the trailer, and be alert to the opportunity to attend a screening. And also to ruminate on these reviews discussing the film and its significance, published a few weeks ago:
For me, the most resonant words of the Jakarta Post review are these: “The Act of Killing unravels a tapestry of impunity that suggests Indonesia’s inability to accept responsibility for past crimes may be related to its inability to curb present lawlessness. It is a critique that is relevant to all countries where the powerful are not held accountable for the laws they break.”
The film is an apotheosis of postmodern cinema, built on the structure of a real-life drama, contained within a faux fiction film project, contained within a real non-fiction film called The Act of Killing. The Indonesian actors and crew, with some exceptions (whose names have been cloaked by the word “Anonymous” in the credits), believed they were participating in a rather kitschy action-fantasy-historical-drama-romance movie with a completely different title (and purpose). And they were. Plus something more.
At a time when the permeability of the membranes dividing documentary, drama, reality and fantasy, is something most audiences now accept without even noticing (e.g. Sacha Baron Cohen, reality shows, innumerable works of contemporary art and performance, etc.), The Act of Killing does something even more complex, more revolutionary, more courageous . . . and more relevant. It is confusing, cathartic, disturbing, awe-inspiring, horrifying, and paradigm-shifting, not only in terms of pushing the frontiers of the whole “movie” form, but more importantly, in terms of transforming the way we apprehend the most entrenched, unparseable, and seemingly unsurmountable problems we face now in Indonesia. And everywhere else.
While the multi-headed serpents of “gangster capitalism” and politicised Islam continue to torture our hearts and minds, we should ponder deeply these comments of Ariel Heryanto, TEMPO magazine’s historian and cultural critic:
“The Act of Killing is the most powerful, politically important film about Indonesia that I have ever seen. The arrival of this film is itself a historical event almost without parallel.
It witnesses the bloody destruction of a foundation of this nation at the hands of Indonesians themselves. On top of a mountain of corpses, our fellow countrymen rolled out a red carpet for the growth of gangster capitalism and political Islam. In documenting this, The Act of Killing exposes the hypocrisy at the heart of this country’s notions of ‘patriotism’ and ‘justice.’ The film achieves all this thanks to the director’s genius and audacious choice of filmmaking method.”
Jokowi is a phenomenon. Funny how his miraculous and idiosyncratic ascendancy has gone unheralded by the world press. They should be all over it. And they will be. They’re just a few hundred sluggish heartbeats behind you and I and the rest of us who live in the big world, and aren’t blitzed on Vicodin in a condo on a culdesac in benefit-rich America. So, for the nerve-numbed victims of American and UK and European TV and newspapers and web-news, let me explain that “Jokowi” (his familiar nickname), is Joko Widodo, an arrestingly normal unassuming Javanese person, a simple citizen of Indonesia, who almost unwittingly, by saying what he actually thought, and sparing his time and energies for earnest efforts to make his simple visions manifest, became Mayor of Surakarta (Solo), a very large city in Indonesia. His mayorship worked out very well indeed, and Solo (already a very interesting and ancient and thriving city), became a much better place for pretty much everyone.
After that, oddly enough, Jokowi has suddenly become Mayor of Jakarta, one of the very largest and most complex cities in the world. When he took office last week, he did so as only the second Mayor of Jakarta ever to have been elected by the people. And let me tell you, there are a heck of lot of those people (around 11 million), and almost all of them are textbook examples of today’s “urban poor”. The “urban poor” in Jakarta, are by no means poor in the sense of being naive, craven, criminal, or huddled masses; they’re a spirited lot. They read, and they talk (a LOT), and they have (now) very broad and well-defended freedoms of speech and expression (thanks, in the first instance, to President Habibie and a cloud of smart people around him, but that’s ancient history now, it all came to pass quite smoothly way back in 1998).
OK, the point is, I’m saying that the people of Jakarta are a force to be reckoned with, not a seething violent mass of yobs, and certainly not a hotbed of fanatics of any persuasion. They’re kind of unique in that regard. They’ve been so numerous, and so disenfranchised, for so long, they’ve developed (over a millenium or so), a very pragmatic esprit de corps, and effective ways and means of getting on with their lives and building webs of community that sustain them individually and collectively, through all manner of challenges. Just start with the inevitable septic and massive floods that occur every single year and get worse and worse. Other challenges have been the contrasts and frictions of impingement on their relatively peaceful and well-entrenched (albeit crowded) community spaces, by a tide of development and brutal new wealth marching its stiletto-heeled Jimmy Choos across their accustomed turf. Leave the rest of their challenges to another post, let’s get back to Mas Jokowi.
I am impressed by his courage and humility. He kindles a new flame of hope not only for Jakarta and for Indonesia, but for the world. Ok, I know . . . we’ve had high hopes many times in Indonesia, only to see them dashed to the ground yet again. But there’s a fundamental difference in the form of leadership Jokowi embodies . . . and Obama . . . and certainly Aung San Suu Kyi . . . and others who are stepping forward in service to humanity. They are motivated by a calling, rather than an ambition. They are motivated by being of benefit, rather than accumulating benefits themselves. What distinguishes such exceptional leaders is this: They don’t persuade us to get behind them; instead, they expect us to walk beside them, and they call upon us to step out in front of them, to go further than they ever have or will. Their courage, therefore, is not a mere inspiration, but a mandate. That’s the difference.
I googled around looking to see if and how the world press had cheered on Widodo’s modest and self-effacing rise to altruistic servitude (and inevitable conflict, with martyrdom not ruled out ever), as the new Mayor of Jakarta. Hardly a single whisper anywhere. I guess the world has (once again) failed to pay adequate attention to Indonesia. If there were a game-show buzzer I could hit to make a nasty “ZHNNGGHAAAAHK” sound signalling their losing round, I’d hit it right now. Team World Press totally muffed this round. Good luck on the next one. The people of Indonesia had the right answer, and go on to the next round in the lead, with an Amana fridge-freezer, $500 bonus money and a chance at an all-expenses-paid trip to Cancun in a pink Cadillac. They’ll enjoy the trip. But only if their in-laws and kids and cousins and uncles and neighbours can come along, too (that’s very much the urban Jakarta style of holiday). A few extra tikar on the hotel room floor, and believe me, everyone will be happy together in one standard double deluxe, no problem sharing the bath. One question: Can Jokowi go, too?
Yipes stripes! This book will be released on tuesday, a massive work of investigative journalism by exposé addict, kathryn bonella detailing the intricate, insane, and suicidal tricks of international drug dealers trafficking in bali. put that in your windsurfer boom, and think about it a bit.
somehow, it makes me nervous. will the book trigger others to risk their sanity, their liberty and their lives for a quick buck (or a room on death row)? will it glamourise drug trafficking? or will it just put more egg on bali’s already egg-festooned face? i’m feeling uneasy . . . see the ninemsn news story about the book here . . . and weigh in with your comments, please. (just click the word “comments” above this post).
Opening in Hong Kong this very minute (vernissage tonight) is Fine Art Asia, a fair that seems to get more interesting every year. Stands to circle on your fair map include: Galerie Christian Deydier (we are lusting after his enigmatic mat weights, above, in gilded bronze, created two millenia ago).
Exhibition on now at SFO of fine old Italian rides, called Moto Bellissima: Italian Motorcycles from the 1950s and 1960s. If you’re changing planes in San Fran, skip Starbuck’s and feast your eyes on these bikes instead. That’s a ’55 Moto Rumi “Raid” above, and a ’52 Motor Devil “Gobetto” below. (Gobetto means “hunchback” in Italian.) SFO really does contain a museum, btw. A real, good one.
A bike can be a thing of beauty, and nobody figured that out faster than the Italians did (surprise surprise). After WWII their motor industry was in ruins, people were short of money and raw materials, but mobility was a MUST! Enter, a generation of bike-making entrepreneurs and designers who sped in to fill the gap. Just five years after the war there were 220 (!!) Italian motorcycle makers showing their steeds of steel at the 1950-51 Milano Motorcycle Exhibition. Tons of taste, and innnovation were unleashed and the thrill lasted all the way through the 60s, and what a thrill. Still. These rides are art.
Synaptic Strap™ No. 1: HMT Bali. I hadn’t considered the virtues of vintage motors ’til I moved to Bali in 1995. While writing an article on the Bali Classic Motorcycle Club (Himpunan Motor Tua or HMT), I went on a two-day club ride encircling Bali, and fell hard for the sight and sound and indescribable magic of their classic bikes (from a 1926 Harley to “Frankenbikes” cobbled together with bits of Indians BSAs Nortons and plumbing equipment). Read more…
The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) just acquired the greatest single collection of Indian trade textiles in the world: The Roger Hollander Collection. The museum has 70 important pieces from the collection on show now until 3 June, in a blockbuster exhibition entitled “Patterns of Trade: Indian Textiles for Export 1400 – 1900″. If you’re changing planes in Singpore soon, seize the opportunity and see this show.
Synaptic Strap No. 1: Indonesia. A tremendous number of truly ancient Indian trade textiles have been discovered in Indonesia during the past 30 years. With improvements in carbon-14 dating techniques, a number of examples (notably, from Torajaland and Timor) have turned out to be at least 600 years old. You can see some of them at the ACM now. Think about that a second. These cloths (with still-beautiful patterns and colours) were made during the Majapahit era, when Java’s ancient monuments were new, kings were rolling in gold, and legends were being lived and written.
Synaptic Strap No. 2: Roger Hollander. Roger, who personally gathered together the textiles now in ACM’s collection was a dear friend. See my previous blog post about the sale of his ranch in Wyoming to Bill Gates (who lives just a paddle down the beach from my parents). Some of the textiles in the ACM collection were formerly in mine and have made their way (via Roger) back to the region where they were valued and displayed as prestige pieces for centuries.
Synaptic Strap No. 3: Macan Tidur Textiles. I still have quite a number of ancient Indian trade textiles in my collection, and this exhibition has spurred me to review them now, and to photograph them.
Synaptic Strap No. 4: Typography. If you are hypersensitive to typography and its influence, as I am, and can “hear” the type in a book as a voice when you read, you’ll appreciate this. Through my exploration of the Patterns of Trade exhibition and its catalog, I stumbled upon a stronghold of typographic talent, in Relay Room, the Singapore studio that designed the identity, typography, print and other media for the exhibition. They did a truly fine job. Respect.
Big news. Donovan is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and (Marketing) Museum on April 14th. This pixie troubador out of deepest Glasgow enchanted the world in the sixties with his psychedelic naif persona and almost childlike sing-along songs. He was seminal (if I dare use that word), in introducing the soft side of masculinity to a post-war world of cold, distant, “manly” men (e.g. Don Draper). Donovan’s elfen self and his approachable songs were prominent in the soundtrack of my childhood and adolescence and remain unforgettable.
So, all praise the pixie prophet! Celebrate cuteness on 14 April, and watch the live simulcast of the ceremony, concert and party as Donovan gets inducted while fairy cults the world over (Ubud being a centre of such shenanigans), dance in rings flinging flowers and off-gassing patchouli essences far and wide.
What’s this got to do with Bali? Easy answer. Bali as we know it, love it, and dream it runs on an operating system that’s a synthesis of archaic Hindu mythology and Tantric Buddhism, plus a handful of hairy hardcore folklore and superstition thrown into the mix.
Would Donvan be all over that? Of course. We’ve seen him with Mia Farrow, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, getting great satsang with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi the founder of Transcendental Meditation (above) in India. And we’ve got him covered by the repected British daily, The Independent, under the headline “Donovan: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Buddha and Me“. Read it and find out how Donovan recalls that he “taught Lennon and McCartney a thing or two, prompted the Pop Art movement” and instigated the Summer of Love. Oh, and the Rolling Stone has validated the presence of Buddhist monks in flowing robes at his concerts, notably a recent one where Jimmy Page joined him onstage. (Don’t you love the way my dinosaur generation clings so faithfully to its fossils?)
Second reason Donovan is all about Bali: The Ubud Spirit Festival. It’s going on, like, right about now, ish. I’ve been in Bali approximately two decades, and was rooted in mildew-coated Ubud for seven years, but I’ve never attended one single moment of an Ubud Spirit Festival yet. Read more…
The planet is pinching itself to make sure that it’s not dreaming, with this six-meter sculpture by Turkish artist, Mehmet Ali Uysal. The work was installed as part of Festival Cinq Saisons at Chaudfontaine in the Liege district of Belgium. Yes. Belgium. Whether I want to or not, I will continue to spend a lot of time in Belgium this year. What might seem a rather bland land, however, is saved by its innate sense of surrealism. Giant clothespins, for instance. And Magritte. And Horta. And Hergé. And . . . it’s endless.
Back to Uysal, the clothespin pincher. (The sculpture is fully functional as a clothespin, btw.) Uysal participated in this year’s Art Dubai fair, which was on last week. And “on” is the operative word here. This hot fair in a hot land is getting even hotter and more sophisticated. Young collectors (wish we had more of those here), are now a driving force in the Middle East art universe. Watch an interesting newsreel by the BBC about that here.
Now . . . how do we here in Indonesia cultivate a more aware and active population of young collectors? Let’s get going on that, kids, right here in Bali. My hunch is that Biasa Artspace, Bali’s go-to gallery for emerging artists, will lead the way. Rumours of innovative outreach and in-gallery programs at Biasa have been heard in certain circles. This must have some connection to a new driving force at Biasa, my dear friend and art dealer, Pierre Nachbaur. Pierre did Art Dubai last week on behalf of Biasa, which was one of only five Indonesian galleries participating. Can’t wait to hear Pierre’s impression of the fair. Biasa’s update about their entrance into the Emirates is here, on their site. Read more…
BRUNO PIAZZA: MASTERPIECE
My beloved husband Bruno Piazza died at home in Bali, at dawn on Friday the 28th of October, 2011 after a long and courageous battle with cancer.
Bruno lived an extraordinary and beautiful life, and (not surprisingly) he died a remarkably beautiful death. He was not an artist, he was Art. His life was his masterpiece. Now he has completed and signed that masterpiece, with a flourish, and it is beautiful indeed. It is perfect.
Please forgive me, and forgive Bruno, for our shortcomings, and for any oversights or mistakes we may have made in the past, and for anything we ever did or said that caused you or anyone else any pain or suffering. The evening I dispersed Bruno’s ashes in the Indian Ocean, I saw a new crescent moon. That bright sliver of a smile in the sky was the sign of a clean, happy, new beginning for us all.
Hic et nunc was Bruno’s mantra. I am beginning to understand it better and better.