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Opera Jawa: The Discovery of a Secret Indonesian Musical Masterpiece

In the beginning, the only thing I had was a high-resolution image of Opera Jawa, featuring a woman adorned in jewelry and tightly-bound in a cone of yellow-hued lace.

Her facial expression was one of acquiescence, as if she was aware of the destiny lying just beyond the picture.

This captivating image activated my passion for movies, and I became driven to create a vivid mental recreation of the praised short film that was never shown in NYC cinemas.

The data I was made privy to is as follows: Opera Jawa, a Javanese musical, was directed by Garin Nugroho and commissioned for the New Crowned Hope Festival to commemorate Mozart’s 250th anniversary.

During its single-day run in the cinemas, it far exceeded the meager expectations I had concocted in my mind, bringing forth a plethora of cultural history, climaxing in a puppet theater-style reenactment of a revolutionary war.

To quell my enthusiasm, I decided to delve into the life and achievements of Mr. Nugroho. Who was this Indonesian who had taken control of the majority of my mental faculties?

Garin was born into a middle-class family in Yogyakarta, Java, on June 6, 1961, with his mother employed at the post office and his father as a publisher.

In 1965, a coup led by communists failed, and the military (possibly aided by the CIA) responded with a campaign of retribution, with the death toll estimated to be between 500,000 and 1 million.

Garin’s father was arrested for refusing to give names to the military, yet was granted leniency due to his part in the struggle for independence against the Dutch.

In his 2000 film A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry, Nugroho dives into a nightmarish world with no political explanations for individual traumas.

This is the most formally precise of his 8 movies I’ve seen. It takes place entirely within a prison, where the poet Ibrahim Kadir utilizes didong, an Achenese form of sung poetry, to mock the upper classes.

The primary structure of the film consists of Kadir singing these pieces alone on a black screen, with sorrowful performances acting as a contrast to the rest of the movie, where anguished prisoners wait for their execution.

Filmed in grainy DV over 6 days and never leaving the cell, the film showcases the untrained actors (many of whom are relatives and friends of massacre victims) singing their own ballads as pleas or cries of misery.

Music saturates each frame, even in the intricate sound montage of anxious tapping, off-screen beatings, and the crack of the executioner’s sword.

Five years ago marked a major milestone in Nugroho’s career with his two-part work, Kancil ‘s Tale of Freedom and Leaf on a Pillow (1998).

The first, a 1995 documentary, brought the issues of the neglected and overlooked street children of Yogyakarta, a city in Suharto’s three-decade-spanning New Order (1967-98), to the forefront.

The media of the time refused to acknowledge the existence of the poverty-stricken youth and Nugroho gave them a voice.

Through the lens of a cheeky preteen, Kancil, viewers are exposed to the lives of the street kids, from making shoe polish to stealing tape decks to the thrill of masturbation.

The trio were all still alive three years later, allowing Nugroho to cast them in the fictional Leaf with the help of Indonesia’s “national actress,” Christine Hakim, who was a producer and star in the film.

In Leaf, there is no obvious plot and the story is mostly improvised. The primary focus of the film is on Heru, a troubled child with safety pins in his lips.

The film’s main intention is to show the harsh realities of the children’s life and to highlight the social message, as opposed to concentrating on their mordant wit or any censorable behavior.

This was Nugroho’s most successful film and likely coincided with the fall of Suharto. This film is the first hint of the director’s style which later became more stylized and enclosed in a studio setting.

With that in mind, Opera Jawa stands out as Nugroho’s greatest work. Every scene was rehearsed over a period of 8 months and then shot in two weeks.

The movie is a grand spectacle that amalgamates tradition and modernity, with classical gamelan music playing in the backdrop of seven modern art set designs.

Nugroho reworks the story of “Abduction of Sinta” from the Ramayana to suit the post-Suharto era. The original plot follows the troubles faced by the princely couple Rama and Sita, who are separated by the lecherous King Ravana when he kidnaps Sinta.

Rama eventually rescues her and tests her chastity by subjecting her to a trial by fire. She miraculously survives and the balance is restored.

The narrative of Nugroho’s version begins with a comically overweight ukulele player who croons “Everyone believes their rendition is right,” implying the story to be unveiled will be full of surprises.

Siti (Artika Sari Devi) and Setio (Martinus Miroto) were Ramayana dancers, who married, only to soon experience difficulties in their relationship. In the flickering light of a candle, Siti is enamored by Ludiro (Eko Supriyanto), a wealthy rogue who portrays Ravana.

Trained by Madonna on tour, Supriyanto’s incredibly agile body is skilled in both blues and traditional gamelan. Ludiro’s flashy advances stand in stark contrast to Setio’s self-centeredness.

As the Ramayana portrays, each man is determined to conquer Siti’s body to prove their manhood.

A series of dramatic moments are played out as Ludiro and Setio compete for dominance, with a violent three-way encounter occurring in Siti’s bed.

Each man attempts to win Siti’s affections as she teases them with her body language, portraying a mixture of readiness and reluctance.

Muslim director Nugroho has sparked controversy in the Hindu community in Indonesia by depicting Sinta as a sensual figure who escapes from the clay mold created by Setio, singing, “I’m not mere earth, but earth quickened with life.”

Setio’s poverty inspires resentment among the ruling class of Ludiro and his family, thereby leading to a clash which Nugroho orchestrates like a wayang, or shadow-puppet show.

Everyone involved, including the portly narrator, the two groups of working-class women and middle-class men, and the trio of doomed lovers, are all overwhelmed by the violence.

On the surface, the film serves as a tribute to those who have been victims of violence and natural disasters, but on a deeper level, it addresses the plight of emancipated women, the hazardous combination of poverty and violence, and the manner in which red fabric blocks out the setting sun.

Opera Jawa is a unique and enthralling experience for someone like me, who is a movie enthusiast – the action on the screen surpassed the imaginary film I had in my mind, making it a hidden classic that I will brag about until the canon-makers regain their wisdom.

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