A Programmer's Chronicles 19
by Gertjan Zuilhof
Garin Nugroho is a film maker who makes his films as he shoots them. You could get that idea if you see the scenes of Opera Jawa, which occasionally seem to be bursting out of their seams, and certainly if you hear and see his latest docu-feature-music film Teak Leaves at the Temples. But now I’m sure. He invited me to visit the set of Under the Tree, a new film he is shooting on Bali. From Singapore to Jakarta wasn’t far so I accepted the invitation. And I certainly didn’t regret it. The reception was hearty and the set was a real experience. You could almost say that almost as much happens behind the camera has in front of it with Nugroho.
By the end of the second day of my visit, I asked an assistant when she thought the shooting day was going to be over. “No idea,” was the answer. Nobody knows what Garin is planning. Never. One just waits until he says what we are going to do. I had already reached the point that I knew there was no point in asking Nugroho himself. That’s not how he works. But how does he work?
Like this, for instance: a special moment. On the very first day and I’d only been there about 10 minutes. I hadn’t managed to orientate myself in the confusion of people and wires in the garden of a small villa, lent out free of charge by an ageing German artist. A mother and a daughter in the film had to play an emotional scene, but the tropical garden was relaxed and cheerful.
The daughter Dewi (played by Ayu Laksmi) has heard that the child she is bearing will only live two hours after birth. The mother Ni Ketuit Arini (played by the singer Ibu Ayu) is going to have to cry in this scene. Ibu Ayu makes it clear that she isn’t an actress. She can’t cry on command. Nugroho takes her to one side. Later he says he asked her when she got emotional. She replied it was when singing a certain song. So he asked her to sing the song during the scene. And it worked. It worked a little too well actually. The woman cried and cried and couldn’t stop. You see it happen on the photo above this piece. The singer sings and cries. The director, with a Balinese headscarf in the foreground, has crept up to the camera to indicate they should keep rolling. It becomes nerve-wrackingly quiet on the set. Did even the ever-audible chickens and roosters keep their beaks shut? There’s a liberating applause after the “cut” by the film maker and everything is messy and relax again at once. On the photo, you can also see that the intensity of the moment is completely lost on the kid with the film clapboard.
That nonchalance was also typical for the mood on the set. It was a small production, but they were regularly about a hundred people hanging around. In the case of about 80 of those people (including myself) it was totally unclear what they were doing there, but nobody seemed to mind and it was all fairly quiet. Even at the moments when complete song and dance companies were invited onto the set and all the local kids were hanging around the camera, everything still went remarkably quietly. Maybe one or two walkie-talkies could be heard. The instructions were whispered. Apart from that everybody seemed to do their own thing. The motto seemed to be: “I’ll hear if it’s not right.”
After this experience, I can imagine a little about how the latest completed film by Nugroho that is having its world premiere in Rotterdam came about. Teak Leaves at the Temples resulted from a commission by Toni Hauswirth, an eccentric Swiss businessmen who once sent a skier from Fiji to the Olympic Games. Now he’s sent a Swiss free-jazz trio to the Indonesian Borobudur Temple. Nugroho had to make a documentary about it. Nugroho smelled his chance. Free-jazz is freedom and improvisation and he was going to do the same. It looks as if he managed to whip up enthusiasm among all the singing, dancing and music groups based anywhere near the temple about joining in. Almost indescribable scenes take place in front of the camera and I wish I had been around back then.
But the magic I suspect can also be seen in front of the camera.
Not long before the end, there’s a moment like that when swinging children are dancing during a night-time concert and then turn the jazz to their own hand and a hundred traditional percussion players teach the Swiss what a jam session really is. This is directly followed by a mysterious ritual to indicate that a magician is at work here.