What does a savanna in Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara, and the Western desert in the US-Mexico border have in common?
For Mouly Surya, the similarity lies in the people—strong people in no man’s land. The people in Western films are cowboys with guns. They represent modernity—men who try to conquer barbarism and the lack of justice. Meanwhile in Sumba, the strongest "characters" are women, who have to face obstacles deeply rooted in patriarchy, which is another form of barbarism in everyday life. This idea pushed Mouly to create Marlina: The Murderer in Four Acts. The film follows a Sumba woman who decides to fight back against the men who have wronged her. The film is her Indonesian spin on the Western genre. Maggie Lee, a chief critic at Variety, called this the “satay western” as an antithesis of Spaghetti Western, popularized by Sergio Leone in the '70s. Marlina has taken Mouly to multiple film festivals this year, including Cannes Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.
Mouly made her directorial debut in 2008 with Fiksi, which earned her four awards from the prestigious Indonesian Film Festival that year, including best director and best screenplay. Her second film, What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love, followed five years later.
We recently visited Mouly at her office in South Jakarta to talk about her motivation to direct Marlina, her cinematic approach, and how she mixed feminism and the Western genre.
VICE Indonesia: How was Marlina first conceived?
Mouly Surya: The original idea came from Garin (Garin Nugroho, another renowned Indonesian film director). He told me about a Sumbanese woman who was robbed and raped. She decapitated her abuser and carried his head to the police station. At that moment I felt like there’s this barrier between me and Marlina that I can’t explain. When I tried to write it down, my lack of ability to relate to her created a fresh objectivity.
All of a sudden I found a new way to relate to the film, I mean because I thought, should I make this Western? When I first came to Sumba, I thought, 'This is so Western.' So these elements helped me relate to Marlina. It’s more like slowly falling in love.
Marlina is a revenge fantasy set in a patriarchal society. What does it reveal about the Indonesian social and political reality?
This is a very extreme situation in a society that is very rural. Maybe now it’s not as bad as, I don’t know, ten years ago when access and fair justice system were limited. At the end of the day, the fight for survival is very important, especially for Indonesians. Most of us would say, 'Oh OK, let’s just live with this.' This film, I think, is trying to say the opposite. It’s about not accepting your 'fate', but about changing it. I see this film as a celebration. With the current issues in the world, with all the sexual assault allegations, it makes us think back. When I read how these women fight back, it reminded me of Marlina.
How does the background society of Sumba particularly influence the film narrative and form?
Garin once told me, 'You’ve got to see how Sumbanese women are like.' I understood later that what he meant was that they’re blatant. I remember being in a hotel room and heard middle-aged women shouted from across the street, scolding someone. Honestly, I tried to look for that essence, the essence of the reality. I didn’t want to turn it into a stereotype. So yeah, I do some mix and match and try to relate these female characters to the story. The pastor that I talked to explained that it’s very patriarchal out there. And it’s an inherent system in their culture.
But I think, it’s the same here in Java. If we’re talking about the systems, almost all of them in Indonesia is like that. Women are expected to be in the kitchen, and that they come into the house through the kitchen door, meanwhile men are expected to be the head of the family. This is very patriarchal. It’s about the power of a woman in her daily life. You don’t have to study abroad and then come home to become a minister. This is a story about a regular woman in the rural area, uneducated but trying to survive.
There are many ways to tell Marlina’s story—why did you specifically choose Western?
It’s not that I found the genre first and then the story second, it’s the other way around. There’s this story, and then I thought of a way to convey it to the audience. Especially to those who live in the big cities, like myself. The story Garin gave to me was so very local. Not that it’s not good, it’s just still very local. When I applied it to the logic of people in general, it doesn’t make much sense. How could this happen? How could I explain this setting, that this thing is possible here, how do I explain it to people without making a long documentary? How do I tell the story for people so they can accept the logic?
So I thought, OK, I’ll apply it to the Western genre. In the middle of nowhere, somewhere very rural, where there might be just one sheriff. This logic that doesn’t seem to make sense for people in general, suddenly starts to make sense. When you put it in that box, OK, that makes sense. I mean, you can see it as some kind of fable, perhaps. Maybe less realistic, but at least for an hour and a half, you’ll buy it. It’s impossible that in an hour and a half you go to Sumba and return and resume the film.
With the help of the Western convention, I’d like the audience to know more about the characters. This influences our experience when watching it. So we knew it’s going to happen, and we need only to wait for it to happen. Even Marlina herself didn’t know if she was going to have to kill someone.
So you’re trying to convey a local narrative into an universal one by using the convention?
Yes, although I also play with the convention. I mean, people will call it feminist western. It’s western and anti-western at the same time, so it’s something familiar but it’s not. The Western genre itself is very masculine and [inherently] misogynist. So Marlina is trying to reverse the convention.
In male-directed films, women are often sexualized even during sexual violence sequences. How did you handle rape differently in Marlina?
When I started writing, I knew I had to do it right. I read a lot on what constitutes as rape—I mean, legally speaking. I didn’t try to make the rape scene different. I was in fact trying to make it authentic. I tried to do some stuff in order to make it authentic and to say what I want to say.
It’s worth noting that two Indonesian women thrived at Toronto International Film Festival this year. Is this woman’s year in the Indonesian film industry?
Dini (Kamila Andini) and I, we are both very different filmmakers with different backgrounds who create very different films. I never see myself as this 'female director.' Instead, I only see myself as me, I just want to be a director. I’m usually made more aware of my being a woman after my film is released. I didn’t feel that way during production.
In the end, it’s a label that people put on me. Maybe this is their way to relate to our work, or a way for them to put us in certain boxes. Maybe, like Marlina, I keep thinking of ways to survive in the industry, to survive making this film. When I’m not being compared with male directors, I take it as an insult. Are you trying to say that I’m in a different competition from them? I don’t think so. So why should other people think so?