A Conversation with Edwin
Interview by: Alexis A. Tioseco
Interview recorded November 26, 2006 at Brew & Co. Menteng, Jakarta during the Jakarta Slingshort Film Festival.
Refined yet playful in aesthetic, often with leaps in logic, Edwin has carved out a unique place - and represents a unique voice - among filmmakers in Southeast Asia. Hailed by many as one of the finest short filmmakers in the region (he has exhibited his work in Rotterdam, Oberhausen, and the Director's Fortnight at Cannes respectively), there is a force to his aesthetic, a punch to his imagery and use of sound, and a certain degree of modernism in his insistence on working with celluloid. I sat down with Edwin in November of 2006 to discuss each of his major short films, not receiving his film degree, his collaborators, and finally, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, his eagerly anticipated first-feature film.
Alexis Tioseco: Weíll go through your films. So weíll start with A Very Slow Breakfast. You made it in what year?
AT: And itís not a school project?
E: Itís not a school project.
AT: You shot it on what format?
AT: When we spoke previously, you talked about it having to do with the family, specifically the Asian family now. What is it you want to say?
E: Actually itís about a dysfunctional family. And here in Indonesia I see a lot of couplesó husband and wifeó that are pretending. Something has happened in their life, and I think itís a problem, but they keep it a secret, as if itís okay. It affects the children, [who are forced to] just pretend that everythingís okay, so the neighbors, the people, the parents of the couple wonít know. Because divorce is not good in Indonesia, not allowed in IndonesianÖ
AT: Öby law can you be divorced? Because there is no divorce in Philippine law.
E: Actually yes, but the culture and religion, especially in Muslim and Catholic (religion) itís kind of taboo. So if theirs a problem, they pretend they can fix the problem, but actually itís become, the pretending has become, routine. Thatís the basic idea of A Very Slow Breakfast.
AT: Do you think itís something that happens more in Jakarta, or also in all parts of Indonesia?
E: In all of Indonesia I think. Though in big cities like Jakarta, they are still pretending, in smaller cities or villages, itís more complicated. But maybe in the city the problem is more complex. People in the village, they have problems but not as complex, I think, that people here in the capital city. It dependsÖ
AT: What makes it more complex in Jakarta, than in the villageÖ
E: The society isÖhow can I say itÖ [pause]
AT: People mind each otherís business more?
E: People like to hear good things about you, and if your image is bad, it affects your job.
AT: So it becomes very importantÖ image, faceÖ
E: Image, yeah.
AT: And for this film, does it have a very personal aspect for you and your family?
E: [Pause] Iíve seen this kind of family in my childhood, in my own family. But I think itís the usual thingÖthat it happens like that. But now I realize that itís not the fault of the individual. Itís because of the situation, the society, and even because of our history.
AT: In the film, one thing I thought was quite striking was how the father just gives the money, and is not minding anything else. The son has his dandruff problem, but he doesnít mind it. Is that something thatís very strong, an important a mentality thatís very prominent in Indonesian families, that the father really just works to provide, and if he does, he thinks heíd done his job.
E: Yeah, itís the image of leadership in family; the father should make money, and give the children money for their school, for their entertainment. Itís kind of a responsibility, but it becomes a routine responsibility.
AT: And the mother is fairly absent in the film?
E: In this film I want to portray a family where this the major authority is in the father, and [the] mother usually can not do anything even [if] she knows that something bad is happening in her family. She tries to respect her husband and it happens quite frequently in Jakarta also.
AT Also, one of the things that I thought was most important, was that itís breakfast, its supposed to be the start of the day, and the brother puts the money in the jar, and he doesnít need it Ė because he has other money thereó and he goes back to sleep. But this is after breakfast. Is that something youíd like to say?
E: Itís just the end of the routine. When we are with a group; we are with family, but [it is] when we are by ourselves that life actually starts. But this group thing, these family gatherings, itís always in our life. You can sometimes that you are bothered by these things, but it happens in our lives, you cannot do it alone, individually, and not care about your family.
AT: The act of him going back to sleep? Or going to lie down?
E: Itís just the way I want to end this routine. Sleep is like releasing, you can run away from your routine. And I enjoy sleeping, thatís why Iím late [for the interview today].
AT: Me too. In Dajang Soembi, on one hand it deals a bit with familyófather, son, wifeó but on the other, youíve told me previously that it was a bit of an allegory for Indonesia. And at the same time itís this fable that youíre utilizing, and the fact that you use the silent film aestheticóyouíve said that this is the first Indonesian silent filmóto express it..
AT: How do you combine these things, how do they connect with what you want to say? So you are using a fairly tale, or a fable, and a silent film, to say what you want to about Indonesia.
E: To be honest I think its coincidence. Because Iím just interested in this story, Dajang Soembi, only this part of it.
AT: The story [of Dajang Soembi] is much longer?
E: Itís longer. Itís [the film] is only the introduction in the book. The focus actually is only on the love story of the son and the mother. But I chose this, because weíve never heard this before, but [also because] Indonesia has a very dark culture between father, mother and son. From this dark image, Iím translating into the medium, and we agreed that this is [a] silent film, black and white, gritty material. It also speaks for our political situation. I realized later -- after a long talk with friends -- [that] itís like our situation now, when [this] younger generation is not yet ready to take over the country. And the country is not safe. Still not safe. So itís like a coincidence.
AT: Did you have this conversation before you made the film or after you made?
E: After I edited the film. It [the short story] happened a long time ago, but its like history repeats [itself].
AT: What was your main reason for wanting to make it as a silent film?
E: The main reason is, besides the fact that the image that you see when you read the story is darkóI always see silent film as a pure cinema form. And it speaks for that period. If you make a silent film today, with contemporary issues, it still has a feeling that it happened long, long ago. Itís like it is immortal. So maybe thatís why we realized that these political things happened at that time also.
AT: And you mentioned also that there are no Indonesian silent-films?
E: Yeah, we checked our books, we have Indonesian silent-films but they were made by [the] Dutch or Chinese, with the point of view of a foreign culture. [The] Dutch made silent films, [gave the impression that] Indonesians are bad. So we have no silent films that are made by Indonesians, with a pure Indonesian point-of-view. And if you read, the first Indonesian movie, that is Darah Dan Doah (1950). We all agree that this is the first Indonesian movie; all made by Indonesians, and it gives a strong statement that this is the Indonesian situation. And itís a talkie, itís black and white and itís a talkie.
AT: What year was it made?
E: 1949 I think [Editorís note: the fallible imdb informs that it is 1950]. I havenít checked the independent side; Iíve just checked everything thatís written. Maybe there are some silent films, but Iím not so sure that people wanted it to be a silent film as a silent film. I treated Dajang Soembi as a silent film; we are pretending we are living in that year, so we designed all the shots, we designed all the posters, the form, the music [in the vain of a film from the silent era], we even premiered at JIFFest with string quartet. We are pretending like we did not make this film, we just found the footage, we edited it, and we made the film [as if itís] real.
AT: When you screened it, was it on film or projected video?
E: Projected video, because the material is not quite strong. We developed it by hand, not machine, because if you run it many times in a projector, [there will be] scratches, and the image will fade.
AT: So you developed the film yourself?
E: Yes, with the cinematographer.
AT: And then to get the look, you used expired film, or you scratched the film yourself?
E: No, we used good material, black and white [stock] that we bought from the Internet, we developed it with photochemicals for slide film, black and white. We did it in a bucket, but we didnít do it with proper timing and [in a] proper place, so the processing self-destructed. So we didnít scratch anything, we didnít plan to destruct the image.
AT: You wanted it to be clean?
E: We didnít expect to have clean material, because this is hand-processed. But we also didnít plan to destruct it; but it happened. Actually one reel is lost, we over-processed it and the image got very faded, [it was] white only. So we thought the film wanted to be made like that. We canít predict what will happen after shooting.
AT: What was on the reel thatís missing?
E: You remember some still photos?
E: Those scenes.
AT: Itís supposed to be those, but captured on film?
AT: Thatís the part which introduces the characters?
E: Yeah, and also the scene where Dajang Soembi is drawing pictures, and the paper flies because of the wind, and she swears that anyone who helps her get the papersó if he is a man, she will marry him, if she is a woman, she will be her sister. And the fucking scene, the making love scene between the dog and Dajang Soembi.
AT: Thatís also part of the one reel thatís missing?
E: Yeah, but I found a littleómaybe about three seconds, and I put it in the flashback of Toemang and Dajang Soembi, and itís intercut with Sangkoreiang.
AT: But you intended for the lovemaking scene in the film?
E: Yeah. So the scene is Dajang Soembi posing as a dog, and Toemang comes in through her skirt, and makes doggie style.
AT: But he is there also in theÖ
E: Dog costume.
AT: Was Dajang Soembi made for school?
E: No, not for school. Me and [cinematographer] Sidi [Saleh] felt we needed to learn black and white cinematography, but the materials, the processing, they [the school] could not afford it. They have no access. So I researched on the Internet, and I proposed, ďthis is the cheapest way to make a black and white [film]Ē. But they were not sure that it should be made into an important thing to teach in class.
AT: You mean you proposed it to the school, this is how you can teachóthis is the cheapest way?
E: Yeah. And we were ready for this. What are the chemicals, how many minutes is the developing time Ė everything is okay Ė but the teachers said we cannot do this, because it seems like a temporal [thing]. If you want to make itÖ
AT: Öin the commercial film industry?
E: They are not saying [anything] about commercial films but they just refused [because they see it] to be complicated, I think. Black and white is quite complicated.
AT: For what class were you proposing this?
E: For cinematography.
AT: The class of Faozan [Rizal, experimental filmmaker and teacher at IKJ]?
E: No, I didn't propose it to Faozan because Faozan was not making the decisions for the curriculum or workshops, so I proposed it to the higher-level, the Head of Film Department.
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