Of Lilies How they Grow

The work of Faozan Rizal, a young and prolific independent Indonesian filmmaker who was recently the subject of an unofficial retrospective at the 18th Singapore International Film Festival in 2005, is difficult to classify. He has made several short films that would easily count as experimental or fringe works, in which he explores the properties and textures of film, highlighting the regions of overlap between cinema and photography. He has also made a series of three longer works (roughly 30 minutes each) in collaboration with German-born dancer Katia Engel, in which dance, photography and film are so effectively united that it would be a mistake to describe them simply as experimental films. They are, at least equally, records of dance performances that are essentially tied to specific places in much the same way that photographs or video of nature artist Andy Goldsworthy’s projects are records of artworks. Still, there is something distinctively cinematic about the performances, which makes it difficult to imagine the performance apart from the manner in which it is captured in these films.

The films convey meaning through the gestures of a robed and masked dancer, accompanied to music and set against the backdrop of a landscape that gives the dancer’s movements the feel of an ancient but mysterious iconography. It is the immediate expressiveness of each movement combined with the shape and colour of the land – as in one of the most stunning and emotional images of the film, Of Lilies How they Grow (2004), when dressed in white and barely appearing through a mist she edges downward, bent against a line of trees – that suggests an almost perfect blending of photography with cinema and dance.

The overlap of different art forms is unsurprising in the work of a man who studied and practiced traditional Javanese dancing in his youth, who studied painting before attending film school at La Femis in Paris, and has worked as an actor, director of photography, screenwriter and director. He has been somewhat puzzled by the regular description of his work as “poetic”, in spite of the fact he dedicated his most recent work, Aries (2004), as a “poem for Katia”. The term fits, as his longer works tend to operate on a level beyond straightforward narrative. They express feeling and convey ideas through the juxtaposition of concrete and highly specific images, through the repetition of movements, through the use of long and leisurely panning shots. If the films of Andrei Tarkovsky or Sergei Parajanov, or even of early Jim Jarmusch, are considered “poetic” because of what happens on screen, over and above the narrative, then Rizal’s work should also be considered such. What his works lack in transparent narrative drive, however, they make up for in the distinctiveness of images and the evocative use of sound. It is not that Rizal has given up on storytelling, but that he is telling stories that leave out what it is unnecessary to get at the essential core of his narratives, a core that is in fact essential to every narrative. In the first two parts of his so far unfinished trilogy, for example, he is exploring the question of how one becomes who one is by seeking out one’s past, and the question of how one becomes oneself by binding oneself to others in the present.

Yasujiro’s Journey (2004)

Yasujiro’s Journey

There is a telling scene in the midst of Faozan Rizal’s first (roughly) feature-length film, Yasujiro no jinsei (Yasujiro’s Journey). The film portrays the fictional wanderings of Yasujiro Yamada (Suzuki Nobuyuki), who in 2002 travelled to Indonesia in search of the grandfather after whom he was named. His grandfather had apparently been a Japanese soldier who survived a plane crash in Indonesia on his way to Pearl Harbor in 1942, but had never made it home. The younger man’s journey, as it is portrayed in this impressive and atmospheric début film, is not so much a literal quest to find an older man but a spiritual quest to find himself in the foreign landscape his ancestor had wandered. The fact he never does find what he is looking for, and is himself never found again, is relevant to a reading of one of the more peculiar scenes in the film, in which the younger Yasujiro meticulously stacks a series of stones into a pillar that fills the height of the screen, then moves away, shows dissatisfaction, knocks it over, and then builds again.

The scene opens on an image of what could just as easily be a rocky ridge or boulder or small stone, standing out against the backdrop of what appears a mountain wall. The proportions of the ridge are not yet established, and we are prepared to expect that what we will next see is the wanderer’s head and body trudging up to the ridge as if to a summit. He emerges, instead, from screen left and the ridge turns out to be a mere rock no bigger than his torso. He sits down beside the rock, and begins to pile smaller flat and jagged stones on its surface. The pile is precarious and it takes some care to raise it to a height that satisfies him, before he moves his arm and backs away. At that moment, the sounds of wind that establish atmosphere throughout the film are overpowered by a harsh whisper, a motif that appears in other Rizal films and appears to operate as something of a warning, as if the Socratic dæmon is telling the protagonist something has gone wrong. Yasujiro responds by knocking over the stones, rebuilding with the same care but in a different configuration, and then moving on, this time without the warning whisper.

The peculiarity of the scene, in the context of this film where there is much that is not simply explicable in terms of a plot structure, is that it shows the protagonist engaged in what is perhaps his only deliberate and sustained action. By that I mean an action that has an expected outcome and the possibility of satisfaction: the tower he builds has to look and feel appropriate. Otherwise throughout the film he wanders, he searches, he sits, he runs his hand through dirt, he looks around, he picks up a plant and runs it through his hand; but here the building of a rock pile is a deliberate action and one that suggests a great deal about what the filmmaker is doing with this work.

The theme of journey that carries throughout the film also has bearing on Rizal’s project: he wants to say and find out something about his own homeland – and especially to discover something of the way this land would or could have been experienced by earlier generations who had not grown up in an urban setting. He also wants to explore this landscape from the eyes of an outsider, and for this it is significant that the protagonist of his wanderings is Japanese. This particular scene, though, helps to think about what one has to think through to make a film like this one. To make a film involves more than just wandering, more than a journey without end. Like his makeshift rock tower, a film has to be built together, organized into a coherent whole that works. It must be balanced – and Yasujiro spends some time getting his pile of uneven stones to balance – and it must look and feel right. That he feels he must rebuild it, even when it does seem to stand on its own, provides an appropriate metaphor for the intuition of the filmmaker. Since this is not a film primarily driven by a classical narrative structure, one can imagine it could have been sequenced in any number of different ways, and can infer that it probably was sequenced in various ways throughout its development and yet this way, the way we have it, is the way it worked. This way did not summon the whispers of doubt that are captured so effectively in the soundtrack, overpowering for a moment the pervasive noise of wind.

Yasujiro’s casual but deliberate construction of a rock formation is an appropriate metaphor for the making of this film, and not only in the sense that it suggests the precarious and yet vital role played by editing for coherence in a film not driven by story. It is also appropriate insofar as the primary motifs of the film are geological. What gives unity to the film is not so much the character of its protagonist, but the character of the land. The land through which Yasujiro journeys is a land whose features are moulded and folded by the persistence of wind and the flowing of water. In fact, it is wind, occasionally interrupted by other natural but sometimes mysterious sounds and rhythms, that forms the soundtrack to this film. The wind that always blows, however, does not always blow with the same sound through trees as across sand or over water, and the soundtrack conveys such differences quite effectively. The land this wind traverses and pummels is a land that invites wandering, as its openness and empty spaces cannot invite one to remain in place, and its eroded and blown surfaces suggest incessant change without transformation. The organization of images in this film, drawing upon the similar yet diverse landscapes of the region, is thus one that establishes a peculiar topology more than a distinctive chronology. The journey across this space is not one that gets somewhere, but is a personal journey of transformation through discovery of connections to the past, and of the personal deepening and acceptance of loss that comes with age that ravages the body like wind, while the self persists like a timeless region.

Aries (2004)

Aries

The first film of Faozan Rizal’s projected trilogy depicts a man’s solitary journey of discovery in search of a past, a journey in which, whatever ends up being found, the searcher himself is lost to others. The second film, Aries, shows a man and a woman who cannot achieve presence. They cannot find their way to make contact, suggesting the impossibility or at least fragile possibility of the present: of being present with another, of inhabiting the same space in such a way to achieve intimacy or union. So far, then, the theme of the trilogy is time, and the personal struggle to situate oneself in time: either the effort to connect with the inherited past of an undiscovered ancestor or the attempted making-present of longing, the perpetually frustrated desire to achieve a lasting presence with another.

The film opens upon two hands, standing out against the background of dry and cracked ground. One holds white grain, possibly rice (or sand) and possibly cooked (or moistened). The other holds dry, black seeds. It is an intriguing and lovely opening, suggestive of the polarities the film will go on to explore, which is followed by a more ancient and conventional symbol: a painting of a female head on a winged horse drawn from ancient Javanese mythology, a symbol of purity. The image is not entirely fixed, and appears to flutter as if not merely painted into the sky but actually hovering. The voice-over that accompanies this image (and it is almost the only voice we hear throughout the film, apart from a chanting whisper that may be the voice of a deity) intones: “Aries is a code for living in heaven until temptation comes and forbidden fruit fall onto the earth.”

We are prepared to expect a retelling in some fashion of the story of a fall from an earthly paradise, a story of the archetypal woman and man. At the same time, we are prepared from the opening credits to expect something that is highly personal: a love poem for Katia. Over and above the mythical quality the images invoke, there is a highly personal, and hence to us inaccessible, message reflecting the relationship between the filmmaker and the dancer Katia Engel, with whom he collaborated in the creation of three remarkable and lush films exploring and celebrating the forces of nature. Rizal himself has described the film as a kind of meditation on relations between man and woman.

As with the first film, Aries makes heavy use of landscape and its diverse textures to convey its message. The characterization of the man and woman and of their relationship to one another is almost exclusively captured in terms of how they are placed with respect to one another geographically, and how they move about these spaces. Facial expressions, gestures, and looks also convey feeling, but, while the man and woman are at the centre of this film, their faces are given no more prominence than the face of the landscape that often dwarves them. The textures and movements of their faces are recorded by the camera with the same attentive patience as is given to textures of wood in the glade or the flowing of sand in the wind or of stone on the mountain.

The film is the record of a kind of slow dance, whereby a woman and a man come together, touch briefly and are unable afterward to maintain contact while they cannot escape an undeniable connection. The man appears first, alone in a glade full of trees, lying naked in fœtal position at the roots of the most prominent tree. We hear the pleasant sounds of animal life in the background. The woman appears next, also alone, but clothed and crouching on a beach. The only sounds are of wind and crashing waves. She brings sand to her face, tasting and touching.

Their separation is at first a matter of incompatible places, a matter of real distance; this distance, though, is maintained throughout the film, even when they stand together, almost touching. Even when, later in the film, the woman finds her way to his place of origin among the trees, it is no longer hospitable. When she lies down in his spot, in what appears a kind of effort at understanding, it is clear that she cannot find herself at home there. Instead of the singing of birds, we hear the howling of unseen monsters. At the same time, he also cannot return to his place of origin after they have momentarily come together; he is warned away by the same whisper that called Yasujiro to rebuild his stone pillar in the earlier film. The contact between the man and woman has not overcome their distance, but something has changed: they can no longer go home.

Aries

The woman and man appear together for the first time in a rice field, separated from one another by a wooden windmill. She stands silent and alone while from a distance and from behind he looks upon her. When they do come together, we are shown only a brief touch: hands meeting to clasp together a single fruit. The moment has an archetypal feel, a moment of contact symbolized by touch, and recalls the famous image from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, where God and Adam make contact. What follows can be described, but probably not in such a way as to convey the sense of what happens as a result of their coming together. Directly following their union, they sit awkwardly apart, divided by rocks or by water, and a woman’s laughter sounds in the background (the laughter of the god? of Aries?). In a variety of settings, they will sit or stand or wander, mostly apart, rarely attending to the other directly and never face to face.

What is intriguing is that the manner in which they sit or stand or wander conveys the different character of their aloneness, suggesting that woman and man are not merely separate but differently alone. He stands apart or walks away purposefully, as if feeling the need to demonstrate an independence. At the same time, he cannot help but look towards her, both longing to overcome and resenting her separate existence. She, on the other hand, wanders freely and at ease, picking up small objects to observe them, but always returning into a proximity with the man. In many ways, the film as a whole intimates as profound, even if contestable, a meditation on the nature of man and woman in relationship as can be found anywhere. The achievement of intimacy or contact (which is not necessarily the same as sex) precludes the possibility of a simple return into anonymity. They are bonded to each other, but, while the man alternates between a desire for unity and a longing to escape, the woman moves freely (although not without sorrow) within the range she allots to herself.

What remains to be seen is how the issues raised by the first two films of the time trilogy will be complemented by his currently unfinished project, titled River Floating on the Stone, for which he will be collaborating with Indonesian poets. If his work so far is any indication, the future of this artist is extremely bright. He is without a doubt a filmmaker to watch, and one more reason to celebrate South-East Asian cinema.

About The Author

Nathan Andersen teaches philosophy and film studies at Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida. He also runs a very successful International Cinema series for the Tampa Bay region. He has published for the journal Film and Philosophy.