Interview: Garin Nugroho
Over the last year, through the support of the British Council's Connections Through Culture programme, we've had many zoom conversations getting to know Sahabat Seni Nusantara, a collective of curators and producers based in Jakarta, Indonesia. One of the outcomes of those conversations is an upcoming screening (Wednesday 17 November) of Memories of My Body, one of the most acclaimed LGBTQ+ films of recent years, directed by the great Indonesian filmmaker Garin Nugroho.
We're partnering with SHOUT Festival (which runs throughout November) to present the screening, and a couple of weeks ago, one of SHOUT Festival’s Creative Producers Adam Pushkin – who lived in Indonesia from 2015-19 – sat down to talk to Garin. Below is both a recording of the interview and a transcript.
More information and tickets to the screening of Memories of my Body can be found here.
There’s so much to talk about in Memories of My Body: the theme of masculinity and feminity, same-sex love and attraction; there’s Indonesian cultural traditions and political history; and at times it feels like a dance film. So what was your original motivation for making Memories of My Body?
The issues of masculinity and femininity, and lesbian and gay lives, have become a sensitive issue in Indonesia: but it’s also important to have public discussions about these issues, as part of freedom of expression. Without public discussion, we’ll never develop a mature civil society in my country with its 270 million people, 70% of whom are Muslim. That was the first reason for making the film.
The second reason is that [the questioning of] masculinity and femininity are part of the history of Indonesian civil society, especially in the history of dance, for example. It’s part of our history and part of our everyday life. That’s why I made this film through the perspective of art, and from a more ‘low-class’ perspective – the gender issue has always been treated as an upper class issue in Indonesia.
I was in Jakarta during the moral panic about all things ‘LGBT’ in 2016, 2017, and one of the common tropes during that time was that LGBT was a Western import. Do you have a sense of what lies behind that moral panic, the way in which anti-LGBT rhetoric became so widespread in Indonesia?
Moral panic is a big issue in the world now because the world has become more black and white in many aspects of life. When I was a child, we could see that homosexuality was part of our life: but when radicalism came to Indonesia, the world became more black and white. LGBT became something that is “not from Indonesia”. In Yogyakarta in central Java, there is a pesantren, a traditional Islamic school, that was specifically LGBT– but it was closed by a local radical Islamic group. [The pesantren is mostly for waria or trans people, and happily reopened in 2019]. As radicalism spreads, people’s perspectives become more and more driven by stereotypes, and more people become prejudiced and not open-minded to see what actually happens in life.
Your film Setan Jawa was described as exploring “pre-orthodox Islamic stories”, and you have spoken about the value of specifically Indonesian Islamic traditions
If you see the history of Islam in Indonesia, there has always been orthodoxy and Sufism. Over time they’ve developed different perspectives. After September 11th, orthodoxy has grown stronger and stronger – for example over the question of jilbab (hijab). But there have always been traditional beliefs in Indonesia – such as belief in the environment, and traditional religions in many islands. It’s important for religions to appreciate all the elements of culture and religion that already existed in Indonesia, not to use violence to try to suppress those.
We’re promoting Memories of My Body in Birmingham, which has a large and vibrant Muslim population – mostly from South Asia, and to some extent the Middle East and Africa, with only a tiny proportion from Indonesia. Do you think there is something valuable that we in Birmingham can learn from Indonesian Islam?
Yes, the history of Indonesia is of a mixed culture – between Hinduism, Islam and many other religions. When Memories of My Body was screened in India they loved it, they said it’s part of our history too. It would be great for the film to create room for discussion among the diverse communities in Birmingham.
Of course Memories of My Body was quite controversial when it was released – you had protests and condemnation. Did you expect it to be so controversial?
I always look at sensitive issues, don’t I? (laughing) – for example, although I am a Muslim, I made a film about the first Bishop in Indonesia. So many people on social media or on my phone said they will kill me, etc. But Indonesia is a diverse country, and in more than 70 years as an independent country, we haven’t had enough films about minorities. So it’s our duty to develop an atmosphere of diversity: and film is a medium to help develop public discussion. So when this film was banned in several districts in Indonesia, I figured this is part of the process of creating a mature civil society. We must have courage to develop our civil society.
You’ve made quite a few other films that address controversial themes. When I was in Jakarta it was always clear that there were a few issues that were sensitive: the mass killings of 1965, the Papuan independence movement, and LGBT issues. You have made films about all of them! Do you specifically seek out themes that other filmmakers are too nervous of touching?
Every country has its traumas. In Indonesia we had 500,000 people killed in 1965: and we never made room to deal with that trauma. If you never discuss the big traumatic issues, the trauma will lead to violence, and be reborn over and over again as violence. That’s why we need the space to discuss our trauma, as part of the process of healing.
And in Memories of My Body, Arjuno’s family history is tied in the 1965 killings. Do you feel that year continues to cast a shadow over Indonesian society, that the legacy of that violence still affects Indonesia today?
Yes, in Memories of My Body, every sequence in the film ends with violence: it’s a cycle of violence. His whole life is about trauma. This is a theme of humanity: trying to survive the trauma of violence.
Memories of My Body is also a story of a dancer: and I know you’ve recently released a short dance film, Sarung; dance features prominently in a number of your films.
I had been working with Rianto for about three years as a dramaturg, and travelling around the world together, including on the project Hijrah. In Indonesia, dance and song are very important: dance and song are the catharsis of life, they are history itself, they connect the community and the personal.
Returning to the LGBT issue, there were a number of mainstream films with LGBT themes in the 2000s. There’s a school of thought that it’s much more difficult to get gay films made nowadays – is that your experience?
Most of those stories were about upper-class characters, not low-class. I wanted to show that LGBT is part of our freedom of expression and part of our history, not only in the city but in villages. The story has become a mirror to everyday life: but some people don’t want to see a mirror.
In Padang, they banned my film: but the community wanted to screen it. I went there and discussed with older people in the community: can you remember when you were young, that so many men danced as women? The older people responded, “yes, Pak Garin, it’s true! Sometimes my wife became jealous because she thought I would be falling in love with a man!” They recognised that this is part of their history and their life in Padang.
In Semarang the FPI came with over 50 people to try to close the film, I said no: so I whatsapped the Mayor of Semarang, I said the film’s passed the censors; but in 20 minutes we will be fighting and I will lose! The Mayor said ok I’ll send in the police, but please don’t start fighting! The police came and protected the screening. I followed the rule of law in this country. No-one can stop my film.
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