By Nuraini Juliastuti
(1124 words, 12 minute read)
Satan Jawa (Garin Nugroho, 2017) a silent movie, in black and white (inspired by Nosferatu and Metropolis), had its world premier with the ‘live’ performances of Gamelan Garasi Seni Benawa and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of AsiaTOPA (Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts) in Melbourne recently. To combine a Javanese gamelan ensemble with an orchestra sounds intriguing; it is avant-garde and traditional at the same time. According to the director, Garin Nugroho, the ‘live’ music is an essential element to distinguish the unique quality of the film.
A day before the premiere of Satan Jawa at the Hamer Hall, Arts Center, Melbourne, 24th February 2017, a conversation to specifically discuss the film was held in the Asia Institute, Melbourne University. At the forum, Garin shared that each of his films may not depict the perfection of his art, but instead is his attempt at creating a certain kind of map about Indonesia. What kind of Indonesia does Satan Jawa try to represent?
My experience in watching it, accompanied by the voices from sinden, the singers who support the gamelan group, that mingled, and sometimes mixed with the orchestra, was akin to watching a shadow puppet or wayang kulit performance. The on-screen scenes appeared as the theatrical condition directed by the dalang (puppeteer). Traditional performances for the masses such as wayang were appropriated by the elites as tools to build political leverage during Suharto’s New Order regime (1966 – 1998). To be a dalang in the New Order era was to struggle for autonomy in political and creative expression (Kayam 2001). A dalang needed to think of his performance concept strategically, so that he did not lose his personal expression entirely. To imagine Satan Jawa as a shadow puppet performance is to perceive Garin as a dalang, within the context of contemporary Indonesia.
The film depicts pesugihan setan, a mystic practice of seeking wealth by making pacts with Satan. Set in early 20th century colonial Java, the film uses a love story and fate to entwine the lives of a poor villager, Setio (Heru Purwanto) and Asih (Asmara Abigail), a beautiful woman from a wealthy, aristocrat family . The moment when Asih’s family rejects Setio’s marriage proposal highlights not only unrequited love, but also the humiliation for his poverty. Asih’s mother grabs her daughter’s jeweled hairpin and stabs his palm. Setio runs home in pain. But his heart is even more hurt. Determined to improve his lot at all costs, Setio turns to Satan for help.
He performs a Javanese black magic ritual to make himself instantly rich. As expected, Setio’s ill-gotten wealth wins him Asih. The lovers live happily in a massive house, filled with servants to attend to their needs. That is, until the day Satan falls in love with Asih and is determined to take her away from Setio. Satan makes Setio severely ill and the house falls into disrepair. Setio reveals his pact with Satan to Asih. She tries to placate Satan, without success. Instead Satan successfully seduces her. Satan and Asih make love while Setio is at the brink of death.
The word ‘Satan’ seems unable to capture the multi layered signification and interpretations attached to it within the film’s cosmology. Satan might signify different matters, and appear in different forms. I can relate with the representation of Satan in the film because it is in accordance with the established vocabularies to narrate setan—pocong, kuntilanak, wewe gombel, gendruwo, and tuyul. They live in everyday urban legends, and haunt my childhood memories.
Indeed, in the context of contemporary Indonesia, Satan is never about Satan per se. While the film can be perceived as an attempt to monumentalize the construction of fear, it also emphasizes Satan as a kind of resources. Many local politicians have allegedly tried their luck at using mysticism to achieve political power and position, and Garin comments on this via the film.
But Satan Jawa also tries to suggest another meaning of Satan. Set in the Dutch colonial era, the opening scene of the film pictures an inhuman Dutch prison. The inhabitants of the jail endure tremendous torture, suggesting that Satan could symbolize the angry-oppressed soul. It could be any one of us who has been trying to resist unjust practices – like the treatment of Setio by Asih’s family. Satan cares about the wounded feelings, and is waiting to offer help.
Satan Jawa provides complexity around the idea of Satan. It is couched in a conventional pattern of film mistik, mystical film, and film klenik, superstitious film (van Heeren 2012: 137). In attempting to dramatize traditional Satan stories, the film uses humorous scenes, through the depiction of Satan attacking humans and sensuality, in the sex scenes between Setio and Asih, and later between Asih and Satan, to excite the audience. Compared to the usual film klenik, however, Satan Jawa can claim to an aesthetic high ground, aided by the use of live Javanese gamelan ensemble and a classical music orchestra.
Another aspect to differentiate Satan Jawa from the conventions of film mistik, and this is significant, is the absence of the religious figures, — a kyai or Pak Haji– in the film. These religious figures represent the power of the good to demolish Satan. Satan Jawa indicates that what is good does not always receive a reward, implying that it’s only an illusion to believe so. It demonstrates the conquests of humans by Satan.
That is the message, as plain, and as dark, as is. Satan Jawa intends to stage the darkness as a warning of the present moment. The darkness and the resourcefulness of the past haunt the now and the future. The progressive initiatives to remember the atrocities of the New Order era have been interrupted by a movement to bring the regime back to power. This is evident in various movements on social media, through the hashtag #rinduORBA (#missNewOrder) and with musings on how good life could be under the regime’s promise of economic and security stability. I am not sure whether those who support the views would uphold the stability perspective on learning about various threats, intimidation, and oppressive treatments that human right activists, or simply anyone with progressive ideas, received during the New Order period.
So what kind of Indonesia does the film map? The darkness offered by Satan Jawa resonates with the current situation in Indonesia and I think that Garin would not mind much my interpretation of the film as being about Indonesian-Metropolis, with dashes of a dark love story.
Satan Jawa (dir: Garin Nugroho), Hamer Hall, Arts Centre, Melbourne, 24 February 2017 as part of AsiaTOPA, in performance with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and a 20-piece Indonesian gamelan orchestra. Satan Jawa’s soundtrack was co-written by award-winning Australian composer/conductor Iain Grandage and renowned Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah.
Guest Writer Nuraini Juliastuti is a co-founder of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Learn more about KUNCI’s works here.
Selected reviews and articles
“The Power of Collabration” in Real Time
“Satan Jawa Garin Nugroho” in buset
“Iain Grandage on getting to grips with a Javanese Faust” in Limelight
Satan Jawa (Melbourne Symphony Orchestra) in Australian Book Review
Kelir Tanpa Batas. Yogyakarta: Gama Media
Van Heeren, Katinka. (2012). Contemporary Indonesian Film: Spirits of Reform and Ghosts from the Past.
About the author(s)
Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.