While West Papua (Irian Jaya) is part of Indonesia, no director has made a feature there, not until Garin Nugroho's Bird Man Tale, which is in competition for the Silver Screen Awards at the 16th Singapore International Film Festival (Apr 17-May 3). The film sets out to understand this Indonesian province through the infatuation of a young Papuan boy for a beautiful Indonesian woman. In the process Garin also covers the mysterious death of Papuan Independence leader, Theys Hiyo Eluay, in 2001, with documentary footage. But what the film brilliantly does is to invert the roles of Indonesia and Papua. Because there is only one Indonesian actress, Lulu Tobin, in the entire film, Indonesia inadvertently becomes the minority culture here. What it then does is confront the Indonesian audience to put themselves in the place of the minority. Garin Nugroho regales Philip Cheah with his tales of the bird man.


Bird Man Tale screens on April 25, 7 pm at Prince 2.
Tickets at $8.80 from www.filmfest.org.sg.

 

Bird Man Tale is a brave film on two counts — its confrontation of culture and religion. How did the Jakarta audience react to seeing black Papuan people as part of the Indonesian cultural diaspora?

Yes, the film is more about Christianity. I know that I might make a confrontation of culture and religion in my film with the reality of the condition in my country, which is a Muslim majority. But, I'm doing this because we have to practise acceptance with living in harmony. I believe we have to teach others about the freedom to know, to understand other people's religion. And also, the film is against the stereotypical theme in Indonesian film that never mixes the religious theme with love and passion. And I also think that we have to give space to the minority.

When Lulu accidentally interrupts a tribal ritual ceremony, it was a clash between Christianity and tribal faith. What did the actors feel about it?

How Lulu felt when she interrupted the ceremony? I know that she was scared and full of anxiety because she didn't know that we were going to shoot that scene. I know for sure that her crying was not acting at all. For the shoot, as you can see in the film, we put white tissue on her head so that Lulu will look like the Virgin Mary. We knew that since the Papuans are Christian, they will not be against the Virgin Mary. That's how Lulu got into the ceremony even though it's forbidden for women.

In a way that scene goes against the stereotype that Indonesia is just Islamic fundamentalism — that religion in its many forms is always sensitive until more understanding is achieved.

The respect of the Islamic people for those of other faiths is far away from anything negative. Many people have asked me the same question. I let this scene happen to make and to create a new discourse among the cinema community and the public in general. The response is OK and they can accept this scene. Even in many discussion groups, Christian friends gave me the freedom to interpret their religion so I think the Islamic people (as the majority) has to give this space too.

 

The main criticism of the film is that the Lulu character is too undeveloped. She is almost a phantom that drifts through the film. We never get to understand her.

Not just you, but many people never get to understand Lulu's character in this film. At first, I did question myself but the creative team decided that we should allow her to be without any motivation. We wanted to let the audience decide and to figure out for themselves what is Lulu's motivation. It's just a way to inspire others to think of other things. For example, a Vietnam War photo will inspire a certain imagination and a certain emotion.

In many ways, the main theme of the film is loving the "other," that it's very difficult, almost near impossible but absolutely essential in a truly global world. What did you intend for the film's theme and what did other critics read into the film?

The main theme of the film is loving the "other." I know it is difficult. But I believe, in film we can discuss almost everything in a peaceful way. In Bird Man Tale, we presented something sensitive without violence in it. For example, although I brought 200 flags of Papua, for the shooting scene, still there was no violence during the actual production. So, with this film, I try to develop a mutual trust. That's what counts.


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