We Talk to Ziarah’s Director About Death, War, and the Land

BW Purba Negara's first feature-length film is an arthouse journey through Indonesia's dark history.

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11 November 2016, 12:00am

Mbah Sri at her husband's grave. Image courtesy BW Purba Negara.

Celebrated Indonesian director BW Purba Negara is releasing his first full-length film, the beautifully complex Ziarah (Tales of the Otherwords). The film follows an elderly woman, Mbah Sri, on a journey through Central Java to find her husband's missing tomb.

The movie touches on the country's relationship with its history, war, soil and death. The director says he was motivated to make a film about life and death after flying to Aceh as a volunteer immediately after the 2004 tsunami that left more than 220,000 people dead or missing in countries across Asia. In Aceh, a young Purba found himself throwing hundreds of unidentified bodies into a mass grave.

It left a mark on Purba, who spent years contemplating the meaning of life and death in Indonesia before bringing the themes to the screen in Ziarah.

VICE: Ziarah covers a lot of topics. Can you tell me about some of the issues you focus on in this film?
Purba: The central theme here is a personal history. Ziarah follows Mbah Sri on her journey to find her husband's tomb, which she lost during the war for independence. Her objective is simple: She wants to be buried next to her loved one. You could say this is a love story, albeit one told from a very unusual point of view.

I deliberately chose an elderly character because I wanted to show the connections between our present time and the battle for independence. Wars always leave long trails [into the present], and it's important to talk about this.

Although the movie follows Mbah Sri's personal story, her pursuit opens the door to discuss a variety of important things that happened during the history of our country. For Mbah Sri, the journey to find her husband's tomb doesn't just trace her own romantic history, but also the country's historical wounds. Her journey ends with a very painful discovery: that history is one of humanity's toughest tests. No history comes without blood. No history comes without wounds. By talking about these wounds we can find a way to find meaning in what happened.

I'm aware of our need to learn from our history, but not just from the government's singular interpretation [of the past]. History is plural, not singular. We need other ways of looking into history. This movie attempts to capture that spirit.

Where did you get the idea of sending an older woman on this kind of trip?
I like going on adventures, and on a lot of my trips unexpected things often occur. I often meet elderly people who still possess amazing strength. When I talk to them they have a lot of fascinating stories about everything from the price of crops to tales from the Dutch colonial era. The elderly love to talk about the past. This inspired me to create a story about an older character. And through this character's journey, we can explore bits and pieces of our history.

I attempted to explore a story with Ziarah that is unmistakably Indonesia.

You avoid any big names when casting this film. How did you choose the right people to play these characters?
I wanted Ziarah to be a space for people who normally have no place in mainstream media to express themselves. When choosing actors, I looked for authenticity, for life experience, not acting experience. The characters needed to be portrayed by people who actually lived through periods of conflict to be more authentic.

Mbah Sri is played by Ponco Sutiyem, a 95 year old grandma living in Ngawen, Gunung Kidul. During the second Dutch military aggression, the Dutch caught her husband. At the time, she was pregnant and about to have a child. Her house was bombarded with mortars and bullets and she had to run, frantically moving from house to house to save herself from the gunfire. Luckily she always found a way to escape safely. Some of her experiences made it into this movie.

That's amazing. How did you find her?
I went to some villages looking for elderly people who could still act. We went house-to-house, talking to everyone one-by-one. This is how we met Ponco. Physically, Ponco is very interesting. Looking at her wrinkles and her posture, it's easy to believe that she lived through the war. She's also really talkative. Ziarah desperately needed a character like her — and even with no acting experience whatsoever she was able to deliver an amazing performance after some training. She was very authentic in front of the camera.

Your film spends a lot of time focused on the clash between traditional and modern concepts of the land. So many conflicts, evictions, and protests today are focused around issues of land tenure in Indonesia. What message were you trying to convey in this film?
I couldn't explain how the government chooses to manage our agrarian affairs, but one thing's for sure, there are definitely a lot of land disputes happening. Evictions happen left and right. A lot of farmers are powerless when powerful people or corporations take their land away. I've seen it since I was young, not far from where I lived farmers were forced to sell their land for almost nothing. They tried to fight, but in the end they lost. Now that land is a golf course and a five-star hotel.

Agrarian Javanese [beliefs] demand justice when it comes to land ownership. From this point of view, land needs to be fought for until one's death. The relationship between man and the land is the basis for a lot of things — when you talk about land, you are talking about the deepest emotions in life.

During her journey, Mbah Sri comes across people discussing, fighting, losing, and missing their land. It connects them. They discuss the land as a way to express their feelings ... and their histories.

You mentioned how heavy and heartbreaking Indonesian history is. How should we deal with this issue? How does it affect us now?
History needs to be torn apart through multiple interpretations. We need to look at it from various perspectives in order to really learn from it. All this time, our country has been extremely hesitant when it comes to accepting other versions of history. In my opinion this hampers progress. We fail to learn from history. We should be more open to other perspectives.

How does art and film help people understand and discuss this issue?
Art and film can encourage contemplation. Contemplation is a good start to in-depth comprehension.

A movie is a living picture of life. It helps us learn about life itself. We need to observe our surroundings. Observation makes us sensible, and being sensible towards life's problems is one of the biggest assets a director can have.

Dea Karina is a freelance writer based in Jakarta. Follow her at @D3KAAA.