I Can Watch Films with My Eyes Shut!

Jakarta, June 10, 2010

Om Pao, how are you? Do you realize that we rarely meet and so we talk awkwardly every time we do? I hate that awkwardness. I hope that this letter can be a replacement for a conversation, even if it’s only from my side.

I haven’t given you any comments about your film, Yasujiro’s Journey, have I? I watched it at JIFFest 2005 and I remember that you were angry after the screening, saying that it hadn’t finished when it was replaced by your other film, Aries. I was surprised. But I think the projectionist couldn’t tell whether it had ended or not. Don’t you think the sequels look the same whether it is in the middle or the ending of the film?

I was joking, Om. 🙂

I believe that every second you put on the screen matters, regardless what you said about the film before you shot it. I remember you said, “I want to make a film, 62 minutes long, but what matters are the first and the last minutes. The audience can leave the cinema and do something more important with their lives during the rest of the film. After the first minute, they can go to prayer, or eat outside, or do whatever they want to do, and then return for the last minute of the screening.”

You laughed when you said it. I also laughed.

“What is the film about?” I asked.
“Here it is,” you said, “The film will begin with a caption: ‘In 1942, during World War II a Japanese airplane crashes in Indonesia. The pilot—Yasujiro Yamada—survived but has never been found’. At the end of the film, there will be another caption: ‘Forty years later his grandson, also named Yasujiro Yamada, went to search his grandfather. He is also missing’. So what matters are the captions at the beginning and the end of the film.”

Again, you laughed after that. I know you were teasing me.

Om Pao, you are an avid admirer of the Japanese filmmaker, Ozu Yasujiro and your film may refer to him. At least, I gather that the name Yasujiro in the title is a homage to that Japanese master. After seeing your film (this time complete from caption to caption), I realized that Ozu’s credo is the underlying premise of your film. Yasujiro’s Journey shows: whatever is off-screen has the same importance as the picture on the screen. Would I be wrong if I concluded: cinema (what is on the screen) is of no more importance than non-cinema (what is off the screen = life itself)?

I know that you make films because you value life above everything else. I feel that we share that. I also believe cinema is as beautiful as life itself. But you said this belief has made your life lonely, Om Pao. How could that be?

Well, we might have friends and acquaintances from our involvement in cinema, but what do we really share with them? I remember your statement when I interviewed you: “My film is about a search that is full of loneliness and memories.” Then I recall our conversation when you gave me the proposal for your film after Yasujiro’s Journey (the proposal was written as a three page poem). “Why is it also about searching?” I asked. Your answer: my life’s theme is “let me know if you have already found God”.

I don’t know you too well, but you seem like a person who looks at something clearly in the distance yet you miss the things nearby. It is similar to how Yasujiro Yamada (Nobuyuki Suzuki) looks at the world in your film. You walk and leave traces but at the same time you seem to search for belonging somewhere far away.

Don’t you think that is a privilege, Om, to be able to stare at something in the distance without thinking about how to get food for your family, like most people of this country? Do you think this has made your loneliness become something that belongs to the elite? I know you feel lonely as an experimental filmmaker. But look: filmmaker + experimental. Don’t you think one is not enough to keep you away from the crowd in this country?

The ‘cinema narrative’ is not very developed in Indonesia. You said that if we look at the cinema in Europe, there’s been experimentation since the 1920s when cinema had already developed. I believe your decision to be experimental surely alienates you from your own people.

And look at your films: what is exactly the meaning of the candlelight dancing in your short film, Poem/Light? Why do you shoot an extreme close up of a poster of famous actress Dian Sastro and then you developed the film in particular way until the picture became an abstract painting in your other short, Dian Sastro?

That is your risk, isn’t it, Om? Who do you think watches your films? You told me that in Europe there were 200 people in the cinema and they stayed until the Q&A session while in Jakarta, there were 8 people in the cinema and half of them left in the middle. I remember when I saw Yasujiro’s Journey more than half of the audience walked out.

Look again at this one: what is the meaning of Yasujiro searching for his grandfather from desert to desiccated forest? Who understands those pictures besides yourself, Om?

Maybe even you don’t know the meaning of your shots. Maybe you do it instinctively, or maybe you feel those particular shots just fit perfectly into these scenes, who knows? But you know what, I don’t give up on your films. I don’t know why but I feel something inside me when I see them. Moreover, I even enjoy it. That’s what matters, isn’t it?

What I like about Yasujiro’s Journey are a few strong images. The most captivating moment is when Yasujiro reaches a black water lake which occupies two-thirds of the screen. In that scene, Suzuki who plays Yasujiro, shifts his body a little bit as if he’s hiding from some other person’s view. Who is he hiding from? Is he hiding from the owner of the whispering voice in that lakeside? Who is the owner of that whisper? Was it a supernatural being? Yasujiro’s Journey is not a horror film or a mythical film, but Yasujiro’s search becomes mythical in that scene. Maybe that black water has made him look at the other side of life, the supernatural side. Maybe that black water has made him look at his ‘dark side’, hidden under the bright daylight of the desert and desiccated forest where he belongs.

This lakeside scene haunts me, even when I watched the film again recently. It made me ask myself about my own searching. Have I also heard ‘whispers’? Was there any moment I reached that dark lakeside and asked a huge question about myself and then I heard a whisper?

This is how a ‘cinema narrative’ is established, isn’t it Om Pao? Narrative does not exclusively belong to the film’s construction but also to the audience’s perception, since you and I believe an audience is always active in watching film, right?

I thought that lakeside scene was the final scene of Yasujiro’s Journey. Then I realized it was the turning point where the Yasujiro’s search changes from being self-assured (Suzuki’s gestures seem to say “Soon I will find what I’m looking for, I just need to find the correct place.”) to become more uncertain (“What exactly am I looking for here?”). Yasujiro then becomes more relaxed with himself.

After that shift, Yasujiro sings Kimigayo, the Japanese National Anthem, facing sunset rather than sunrise. I easily understand this kind of symbolism, Om Pao. You’ve played around with a belief that this anthem (and the construction of Japan as a nation) is based on worship of the god of the sun. By putting the song against the sunset, you de-glorify the concept of that worship. That’s quite predictable. However, Suzuki’s voice makes a totally different impression on the song. The sound of desperation rather than glorification.

I don’t know why but that scene reminds me of the story about the Japanese soldier found in Morotai Island, Indonesia, long after World War II ended. My father told me the story. This soldier, Nakamura, was found in 1972. Cut-off from civilization he had forgotten how to interact with other people. He was found naked by a rescue team, cutting bamboo trees, ignoring anybody who approached him. Then they sang Kimigayo. Hearing the song, Nakamura responded. He stood up for the song. This shows how big the love of a Japanese soldier is towards their national anthem.

My father told me the story to make me love the national anthem. I found it quite moving at the moment I heard it. But now, I perceive it as part of the success of Japanese propaganda during their occupation of Indonesia. This is the thing about Kimigayo in Yasujiro’s Journey. It made me recall a childhood memory, which also I believe to some extent, becomes the nation’s memory, at least to my generation; to our generation, Om Pao.

Om, all the impulses that appear after watching Yasujiro’s Journey, I believe, belong to middle-class people like ourselves, right? We are people who believe that consciousness is important to be stimulated with these type of amusements. While for commoners in our country, they have different impulses to be catered for—at least according to the film producers. Those producers provide emotional manipulation, and instant gratification through carnivalesque shows, that generate a response similar to seeing freak shows in the 18th century. So, film is utilized in the same ways, displaying people with ugly faces or weird body shapes or transvestites. I don’t say this just to make myself feel better, Om. I am still grateful that Indonesian films are watched by Indonesians. More than 50% of the box office sales come from Indonesian movies. Those freak shows sell and have a financial logic.

I believe that cinema works on different levels. Some films attempt to manipulate emotion (the majority of films we see), some films try to target our cognitive faculty (didactic and propaganda films), some films try to engage in a dialogue with our intellect, and some films try to reach our subconscious (maybe this is Yasujiro’s place), and some try to challenge our gut (for this type, you must see Christopher Gozum’s Surreal Random MMS Text for a Mother, a Sister and a Wife Who Longs for You: Landscape with Figures. A short film that will really challenge you. Gozum has a long-take extreme close-up of eye surgery. This is perhaps the most visceral scene I have ever seen. Gozum pays homage to Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and at the same time—I feel—he ‘teases’ Bunuel about being too restrained in delivering a scene of violence towards a human eye).

Sometimes cinema works on several different levels at the same time. Why must cinema be limited to ‘drama’ or ‘story’ as an Indonesian senior film critic told me recently when he commented on how “hollow” experimental films are? Why is image, the essential element of cinema, not sufficient for enjoyment? Why must observation and shared-experience be shown in a conventional opening-conflict-resolution construction?

So, I don’t want to limit myself before watching film. The loss will be mine if I give up. Cinema is all about possibility and I don’t want to shield myself from possibilities. It’s similar to a story in Dr. Seuss’ book, I Can Read with My Eyes Shut. It’s impossible to read a book with your eyes closed isn’t it, Om? Yes, but that’s not Dr. Seuss’ point. He just mentions a bare fact that the character in his book can read with his eyes closed. If he can read with eyes closed, it would be much better if he read with his eyes open, wouldn’t it? I think this also applies to cinema. If I can watch a film with my eyes closed, it would be much better if I watch it with my eyes open, wouldn’t it? 🙂

That’s my letter for now, Om.

I’m thinking about working with you again someday, like when you helped me shoot my short film. You think it’s possible to help me once again since now you are one of the most sought-after cinematographers in this country? Ah, you can always make time for this kind of request, can’t you Om? The question is for me rather than for you, right?


Om Pao is the nickname of Faozan Rizal, Indonesian cinematographer and filmmaker. Om is Dutch word for ‘uncle’. But sometimes people use this word to address someone they admire and respect.

First published at http://www.criticine.com

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