Garin Nugroho’s Rindu kami padamu (Of Love and Eggs, 2004) is a warmly utopian picture of Indonesian village life that stresses a supportive community with the mosque – literally and figuratively – at its centre. His new film, Mata tertutup (The Blindfold, 2012), might be seen as the reverse side of this coin with its indictment of an impersonal urban space in which religious fanaticism seizes its opportunities in a frighteningly plausible fashion.
The film is built around three loosely interwoven stories of young people who fall prey to a banned extremist Islamic sect called Negara Islam Indonesia (NII). The stories attempt to come at the phenomenon from different perspectives of wealth, age and gender, showing that this is a problem that crosses all these primary social distinctions, and hence has a salience for all major social groups. Lower class Jabir is a young man who can’t afford to stay in school and drifts into NII for the simple solutions it offers to his most obvious problems. Asimah, a relatively wealthy matriarch, searches for her daughter, who we surmise, has turned to Islam for an escape from maternal domination. Rima, an ambitious young middle class girl, buys into the NII’s claims that it offers a way of remaking society that will be more inclusive of women.
Various motifs, such as maternal influence, link the stories. Jabir is led into extremism by concern for his mother who must work at menial jobs to support her deadbeat partner as well as her son’s studies. Women’s self-sacrifice is an accepted part of lower class life, and the logic of Jabir’s actions in becoming a suicide bomber is to embrace his own form of self-sacrifice in the most literal of ways (and religious extremism is nothing if not literal in its visions of damnation and salvation.) He is persuaded by the offer of syafaat – a fast-track ticket to paradise – for his mother. If Jabir’s story tells of maternal relations from the point-of-view of the child, the story of Asimah and her daughter reverses this, making the child a barely glimpsed presence. The mother is considerably higher on the social scale, a small entrepreneur who dominates all those around her. Her husband is long gone and her employees defer to her, with a mixture of affection and resentment, as a mouthy matriarch. Insecurity typically forces her to assert herself verbally. In one scene she falls asleep on a bus, and on waking at the end of the line, immediately launches into an attack on an unseen bus driver as a reflex response.
The theme of women’s vulnerability in a patriarchal society is taken up by Rima’s story. She is a smart young woman and her family is rather intimidated by this. Asked to question her about her activities, her father can merely offer her an envelope of cash as a way of assuring her of his affection. The exchange rate between happiness and the rupiah is one that religious fanatics understand only too well, and Rima’s fundraising efforts gain her the admiration of NII’s leaders. But their admiration will only take her so far in an organisation built on the hypocrisy of those who denounce corruption while grasping for money, and who offer hope to women while treating them with implicit contempt.
Within the context of Indonesian cinema and Indonesian society, it is significant to see a stand being taken against radical fundamentalism. The Blindfold was produced with the assistance of a moderate Islamic organisation, the Maarif Institute. The irredeemable sin of the NII extremists is to attack the state. They seize on the way that, in the new democratic environment, everyone has the luxury of grumbling about the government as the source of all forms of discontent. A woman who gets dropped off at the wrong bus stop has her outrage whipped up by covert recruiters, who turn her personal distress into a broader social one through the idea that women aren’t safe on the streets anymore. They sell people spurious solutions to personal problems as well as political ones. An insecure young man is fed the proposition that buying a promotion within the NII will make him more forceful and confident.
For those outside of Indonesia, where the case against Islamic extremism is more easily made, the question remains of the ways in which a filmmaker might bring something to the urgency of his politics through the accomplishments of his style. It is easy to agree with the positions that Nugroho adopts, but this can also be seen as a challenge. In what ways does he keep his film from falling into the trap of facile propaganda? He has long been an interesting director on this front. Daun di atas bantal (Leaf on a Pillow, 1998), with its picture of the life of street children who will not be in the world very long, was an undeniably forceful film. It sustained and deepened its emotional impact through Nugroho’s use of deep space staging to such effect, in a way reminiscent of Francesco Rosi’s beautifully assured political cinema.
In a similar vein, my lingering appreciation for The Blindfold stems from the variety of stylistic means that Nugroho employs to give nuance to individual scenes. An early example from the film might illustrate this point. Jabir and his companion are preparing to vacate their dormitory. A characteristically high-angle shot taken with a wide-angle lens situates Jabir and his buddy on bunk beds. Those satisfied with easy symbolism might notice that Jabir’s bunk is decorated with the American flag. The high-angle implies no form of judgement on the characters. Nugroho uses it consistently throughout the film to situate characters in relation to as much of the clutter of the background space as possible. The depth of field inherent in the wide-angle lens underlines the harshness of the interior, and the emotional wrench that they are undergoing as they are ejected from this space.
When the pair leave the dormitory, there is a cut to an extreme telephoto shot that places them in front of the exterior doorway. The lens flattens the space and radically decreases the depth of field, creating an immediate and startling contrast between the inside and outside of the building. There is a strong, yet understated, sense of the change that the pair have undergone simply through walking through the door. They are immediately estranged from the students, a fact underlined both by the shallow focus and the range in exposure values in the image as Jabir pauses in a shaded area, leaving the background significantly overexposed.
Nugroho is clearly a filmmaker with a range of styles at his disposal, and with no commitment to a single way of doing things. The scene where Jabir first encounters the NII recruiter is done in a long take lasting four minutes, but sequences such as this set up the variations in relation to montage-based scenes.
Another example demonstrates this stylistic versatility. Rima is a silent witness to a trial at which the NII chiefs sit in judgement on a young woman recruit who has confessed to the “sin” of masturbation. The scene is covered in three set-ups: (a) a high-angle shows a NII elder (who says nothing in the whole scene) beside a whiteboard, (b) the young woman is shown in extreme close-up, though posed in the left-hand side of the frame, allowing for the inclusion of a radically de-focussed background plane, which serves to demonstrate her isolation and vulnerability, and (c) a medium shot framing Rima and the NII judge. Rima is in the foreground so that the shots differentiate her and the judge by means of rack focussing.
It is a scene of which any Soviet montage director would be proud. There is no master shot at all. The space has to be constructed from cues such as the eyelines and the spatial overlap of the whiteboard in two of the set-ups. The delicious detail is that at one point the judge calls for a reading from the Koran. An off-screen male voice starts to read, and we assume it to be the man we have seen standing on the other side of the whiteboard. However, a cut back to him shows that this assumption has been mistaken, as he remains silent. There has been another man, who we never see, present in the scene. There is a play with space here reminiscent of contemporary masters of spatial manipulation like Hou Hsiao-hsien. At the very least, the scene has been thought out in a way that underlines the deviousness and lack of trust that is at its dramatic core. The scene immediately enters into another set of contrasts with the one following it when Rima and the NII chief sit down together and he compliments her on the amount of money she is bringing in, simultaneously ignoring his wife who is seriously ill. This scene is done in a single handheld shot, where the mobile camera physically moves through the positions of shot-reverse shot. It is a much showier form of construction, just as the action of the scene is more obviously important in making clear Rima’s disenchantment with the NII.
The Blindfold is a cheap film and a quickly made one, as it was apparently shot in nine days. It is an urgent film in addressing a pressing social issue within the society from which it came. It is also a film of remarkable stylistic sureness and variety. Its triumph is to show that these things are by no means mutually exclusive.
The Blindfold is screening as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.