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: We'll go through your films. So we'll start with A Very Slow Breakfast. You made it in what year?
AT: And it's not a school project?
E: It's 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 it's about a dysfunctional family. And here in Indonesia I see a lot of couples— husband and wife— that are pretending. Something has happened in their life, and I think it's a problem, but they keep it a secret, as if it's okay. It affects the children, [who are forced to] just pretend that everything's okay, so the neighbors, the people, the parents of the couple won't know. Because divorce is not good in Indonesia, not allowed in Indonesian.
AT: . by 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) it's kind of taboo. So if theirs a problem, they pretend they can fix the problem, but actually it's become, the pretending has become, routine. That's the basic idea of A Very Slow Breakfast.
AT: Do you think it's 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, it's 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 depends.
AT: What makes it more complex in Jakarta, than in the village.
E: The society is. how can I say it. [pause]
AT: People mind each other's 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 important. image, face.
E: Image, yeah.
AT: And for this film, does it have a very personal aspect for you and your family?
E: [Pause] I've seen this kind of family in my childhood, in my own family. But I think it's the usual thing. that it happens like that. But now I realize that it's not the fault of the individual. It's 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 doesn't mind it. Is that something that's very strong, an important a mentality that's very prominent in Indonesian families, that the father really just works to provide, and if he does, he thinks he'd done his job.
E: Yeah, it's the image of leadership in family; the father should make money, and give the children money for their school, for their entertainment. It's 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 it's breakfast, its supposed to be the start of the day, and the brother puts the money in the jar, and he doesn't need it - because he has other money there— and he goes back to sleep. But this is after breakfast. Is that something you'd like to say?
E: It's 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, it's 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: It's just the way I want to end this routine. Sleep is like releasing, you can run away from your routine. And I enjoy sleeping, that's why I'm late [for the interview today].
AT: Me too. In Dajang Soembi, on one hand it deals a bit with family—father, son, wife— but on the other, you've told me previously that it was a bit of an allegory for Indonesia. And at the same time it's this fable that you're utilizing, and the fact that you use the silent film aesthetic—you've said that this is the first Indonesian silent film—to 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 I'm just interested in this story, Dajang Soembi, only this part of it.
AT: The story [of Dajang Soembi] is much longer?
E: It's longer. It's [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 we've never heard this before, but [also because] Indonesia has a very dark culture between father, mother and son. From this dark image, I'm 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] it's 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 it's 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 dark—I 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. It's like it is immortal. So maybe that's 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 it's a talkie, it's black and white and it's a talkie.
AT: What year was it made?
E: 1949 I think [Editor's note: the fallible imdb informs that it is 1950]. I haven't checked the independent side; I've just checked everything that's written. Maybe there are some silent films, but I'm 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 it's] 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 didn't do it with proper timing and [in a] proper place, so the processing self-destructed. So we didn't scratch anything, we didn't plan to destruct the image.
AT: You wanted it to be clean?
E: We didn't expect to have clean material, because this is hand-processed. But we also didn't 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 can't predict what will happen after shooting.
AT: What was on the reel that's missing?
E: You remember some still photos?
E: Those scenes.
AT: It's supposed to be those, but captured on film?
AT: That's 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 papers— 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: That's also part of the one reel that's missing?
E: Yeah, but I found a little—maybe about three seconds, and I put it in the flashback of Toemang and Dajang Soembi, and it's 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 the.
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, "this is the cheapest way to make a black and white [film]". 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 teach—this is the cheapest way?
E: Yeah. And we were ready for this. What are the chemicals, how many minutes is the developing time - everything is okay - but the teachers said we cannot do this, because it seems like a temporal [thing]. If you want to make it.
AT: . in 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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