What I Think About When I Think About (Javanese) Culture

Culture, for me, is a tricky word. Let me try to explain why.

I was born and raised in Indonesia, by a family of ethnic-Chinese origin. I went to an international high-school with a majority of fellow ethnic-Chinese kids, in the suburbs of Jakarta. None of my parents or immediate family members speak Mandarin; instead, we communicate daily in a mix of English and Bahasa Indonesia, the nation’s official language. Though Jakarta is geographically located on the island of Java, it is significantly different from other Javanese cities and provinces in terms of urban structure, levels and scale of infrastructural development, and cultural as well as social values. Growing up — and unfortunately, to this day — I didn’t get to visit and experience these other Javanese cities and their cultural products as much as I would like to.

Jakarta at Night

After high-school, I went to the United Kingdom to pursue further education for the following five and a half years — a time which I would argue is the most crucial period for my coming-of-age into the adult I am today. Nowadays, I reside and work in Singapore, and I can honestly — and also, unfortunately — say that I currently don’t feel strongly towards any of the above culture, roots, or place, be it the U.K. or Singapore. When I think of home, I still think of Jakarta, not because I feel a personal attachment to its imposing physicality and myriad cultures, but more because the relationships I built and that have built me happened within the premises of Jakarta. Home really is the ground beneath my feet. Now, am I rootless or am I free? Perhaps it’s just a matter of perspective.

East Java

For the purposes of this article, I’ll go with the term ‘rootless.’ We could go on and on about how and why I feel this way, unattached to certain places and cultures, having or not having a sense of belonging. But, as a self-proclaimed arts enthusiast, one question that always comes to mind is: How does my conception of cultural roots (or lack thereof, in the form of rootlessness) affect my processing of cultural consumption?

Case in point: I recently saw a screening of Setan Jawa (literally translated to as ‘Javanese Devil/Satan’) at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore. My identity struggles aside, this silent black and white film truly was a pleasure for the eyes — and ears. Written and directed by acclaimed Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho, the screening was accompanied by a live collaborative performance between a traditional Javanese gamelan orchestra (with a score written by notable Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah) and a classical Western symphony orchestra (with a score written by Australian composer Iain Grandage).

Pesta Raya 2017 | Setan Jawa (21 Jul 2017) | Source: © Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay/YouTube

But first, a little bit about the film.

Setan Jawa is set within the context of early 20th-century Central Java. Setio, a poor man living in an unnamed village, falls in love with Asih, a young aristocratic woman. He asked for her hand in marriage and, unsurprisingly, was rejected quite cruelly by her mother. Frustrated and heartbroken, Setio went to seek the aid of a witch doctor, who suggested that he ask the help of the Devil. They agreed to a deal and went through the process of pesugihan’ — a supernatural mythical tradition whereby a mortal man bargains with evil powers in exchange for an abundance of wealth (in the Javanese language, the word ‘sugih’ means wealth, so ‘pesugihan’ means the attempt to gain wealth). These supernatural exchanges are known to always require sacrifice and rewards/gifts from the hopeful mortal — not unlike the Western Faustian myth.

There are many different kinds of pesugihan in the Javanese mythical tradition, but the particular one depicted in Setan Jawa is ‘Pesugihan Kandang Bubrah.’ In exchange for an abundance of wealth, those who agreed to this deal are required to renovate their house every year or so, even when the house is still in pristine condition. As such, the film sees Setio’s lavish house in a constant state of decay (as he tries to fulfill the requirements of this deal), and — spoiler alert — the story ends with the suggestion that he eventually became one of the pillars supporting the house, doomed to the cruel stipulations of this transaction.

Though the overall cinematic atmosphere of Setan Jawa is eerie and would perhaps fall under the description of a ‘horror’ film, Nugroho managed to visually present this spooky supernaturalism in a suspenseful yet poetic manner. Scenes slowly unfold against the idyllic background of a rural Javanese village, as we follow Setio’s struggle to attain love, which eventually ended with his own demise. It helps that all of the cast members are actors who came from a dance background, evident in the way their delicate yet dynamic choreography silently narrate the story from one scene to the next. Each character portrays their emotions not only through facial expressions but also the movement of the body.

Setan Jawa (Source: Cosmopolitan Indonesia)

Source: © Cosmopolitan Indonesia

Depicting fantastical and otherworldly characters, the film utilizes no special camera effects. Much like a Javanese ‘wayang kulit’ or shadow puppet performance, the different characters depicted — falling into thematic categories of good vs. evil, rich vs. poor — are distinguished by costumes, physical props, and recognizable visual motifs. For example, the three devil characters in the film were portrayed by actors wearing intricately carved masks, depicting the evil face of a demon. Their movements were harsh and sturdy, their presence dominating the composition of the screen.

Setan Jawa (Source: Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival)

Source: Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival

Aside from the masks, physical props, as well as costumes, play a prominent role in the story. For instance, members of the aristocratic household which Asih belongs to adorn their bodies with expensive fabrics. They wear long sleeved kebayas and batik sarongs. The peasants and farmers in the village, on the other hand, wore kemben (sarongs wrapped around the body, shoulders left bare), and the men are mostly bare-chested. These visual elements distinctively point out the specific social classes to which the characters belong. Interestingly enough, Nugroho stated that the inspiration behind Setan Jawa came from the centuries-old Javanese tradition of wayang kulit, which he considers a form of silent movie — a tradition which, in return, help shaped the history of cinema in Indonesia. A Javanese man himself, Nugroho’s associations to the themes explored in Setan Jawa came from aspects of his own childhood, where his father worked as a publisher for Javanese horror novels. He then combined these recollections with inspirations he encountered from Western classics such as Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Centered around spirituality and mysticism, Setan Jawa definitely offers a fresh and different perspective, as well as a clever and efficient way, to introduce people to different forms of performance, such as film, music, and dance — and, in doing so, expose viewers to a living and multifaceted experience of Javanese culture.

Going back to the film screening, I was accompanied by my colleague (let’s call her A) and an ex-colleague (let’s call her B). A was born and raised Singaporean and went to university in Singapore, where she now lives and works. She does not consider herself a third culture kid. B was born and raised in Singapore to a Malay-Chinese-Singaporean father and a Javanese-Indonesian mother. She spent some of her childhood years in Indonesia and nowadays would visit Jakarta once every year. Like myself, B realizes she is living in some sort of cultural martini; roots, culture, tradition, home — these are terms she ponders about a lot and has yet to find a definition to. B considers herself a third culture kid.

How does my experience of Setan Jawa differ from those of A and B, you may ask?

How does my conception of cultural roots (or lack thereof, in the form of rootlessness) affect my processing of cultural consumption?

Being the “most Indonesian” out of the three of us, many would assume that this mesmerizing and culturally pregnant film would give me the feeling of being back home and that the various mythical and cultural references would align to my sense of identity. I don’t think ‘cultural ignorance’ is the right term to describe this, but I felt that I discovered and was captivated by as many valuable insights as A and B throughout the screening of the film — which is to say that my being the “most Indonesian” did not lead to a more profound experience. Furthermore, what I valued the most out of this experience was its visual qualities, more than anything else. What does this imply about my sense of identity vís-a-vís the film?

Setan Jawa (Source: Holland Festival)

Source: © Holland Festival

A was constantly seeking my clarification on cultural references in the film — asking questions like, “Is this myth widely believed and practiced by modern Javanese people? What ritual is Asih doing to maintain her beauty and sensuality? Why is their house constantly crumbling even though Setio has become a rich man?” — as the film, whilst providing short narrative texts before every scene, did not provide detailed descriptions of the cultural references depicted. I told her that my knowledge of Javanese culture is limited, and the bits and pieces I have retained were from encounters with popular culture — social media, fashion magazines, modern literature, and television. Hardly academic in nature.

B, on the other hand, said that she is fairly aware of Javanese tradition and customs through regular communication with her Javanese grandmother — though she doesn’t necessarily feel an inclination to explore this side of her heritage. While unfamiliar with the particular mythical tradition of pesugihan as highlighted in Setan Jawa, B could nevertheless identify that the motifs featured on costumes and masks worn by the characters are distinctively Javanese.

It seems, then, that the varying levels of understanding all three of us have towards Javanese culture — and, hence, Setan Jawa — are mostly based on our exposure to Javanese visual culture. Having had the most exposure to “Java” — though in its most diluted version, which is to say, Jakarta — I had come across these visual motifs that represent Javanese culture occasionally in my daily social activities. Incidentally, I have also visited (as a tourist, nonetheless) the location depicted in the movie as the devil’s abode, an experience of which I directly correlated to my visual familiarity with this film.

Growing up — and unfortunately, to this day — I didn’t get to visit and experience these other Javanese cities and their cultural products as much as I would like to.

Given the contextual limitations inherent to these visual elements, the sonic elements presented a more universal appeal, possessing the ability to cross cultural barriers. All three of us noticed the distinct yet harmonious presence of the Javanese gamelan orchestra and the Western symphony orchestra serenading us in tandem for 70 minutes. This ‘distinct yet harmonious’ co-existence was evident through various dichotomies: that members of the Javanese orchestra were sitting down on the stage, whereas members of the Western orchestra sat on chairs; that the Javanese musicians wore an elaborate and colorful traditional Javanese costume, while members of the Western orchestra wore classic black tuxedos; that musicians of the Javanese orchestra conducted themselves, whereas the Western orchestra had a separate conductor. This latter distinction was noticed by B, and she informed me later that she noticed it because she participated in both the Western symphony orchestra and the Javanese gamelan orchestra while in school — not because of the Javanese influence in her upbringing.

Satan Jawa: Rehearsal Sneak-Peek – 24 Feb at Arts Centre Melbourne | Source: © Arts Centre Melbourne/YouTube

After the film ended, we came to the unanimous decision that Setan Jawa highlighted an aspect of dualism: of Javanese vs. Indonesian culture; of Eastern vs. Western culture; of mysticism vs. popular beliefs, and of live performance vs. screened performance. This dialectic is one which is universally relevant and uniquely personal to members of the audience. It exists and belongs to any culture or scale of association to those cultures. It is, in a way, the very essence of cultural rootlessness.

It is ironic that I (and I know many other Indonesians) saw this screening of Setan Jawa all the way in Singapore, as well as in many other cities outside of Indonesia. Maybe it is this distance between the venue and Setan Jawa‘s homeland that makes it so mysterious and unfamiliar. Maybe it’s my being away from Jakarta, Java, and Indonesia. Either way, it’s this kind of peculiarity that I have begun to value from this endless cycle of contradictory cultural consumption. Either way, it may be that I start to find a home in this at-times confusing circle of rootlessness.

Setan Jawa premiered in Jakarta on 3 September 2016. It has since been screened in Melbourne, Amsterdam, and Singapore. The next scheduled international screening of Setan Jawa will be in London on 10 September 2017, and Glasgow on 14 September 2017.


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