A Conversation with Faozan Rizal
Interview by: Eric Sasono
Faozan Rizal wears a lot of hats. He was the director of photography for the feature films Banyu Biru (Teddy Suriaatmadja, 2005) and Maskot (Robin Moran, 2005). He has shot for the National Geographic Channel and made documentaries for Channel News Asia, including one in which he directed the actress Susan Sarandon as the narrator.
Yet the Femmis (French School) graduate is most reknowned as an experimental filmmaker. In addition to his short films, his name emerged after his 48-minute film, Yasujiro’s Journey, was screened in several festivals such as the Pusan International Film Festival. Within the same year, this international success was followed by his first feature-length film Aries.In 2005, the Singapore International Film Festival unexpectedly screened the Unofficial Restrospective of Faozan Rizal, which included a selection of his films.
He recently finished the third part of his trilogy, Fugu, following Yasujiro’s Journey and Aries. An experimental-film video distribution company in France, re:voir has been expecting this movie, and are planning to produce a DVD of Faozan’s experimental films and distribute them in Europe.
Faozan is a teacher, both inside the classroom — he is a lecturer at his Alma Mater, the Jakarta Art Institute (Institut Kesenian Jakarta), and outside -- a janitor he once met and taught at a shooting location, has now transformed into a professional cinematographer.
In February 21st 2007, film critic Eric Sasono sat together with Pao (a nickname Faozan is fondly known as) in Jakarta, to discuss filmmaking and his films.
Eric Sasono: People know you as a DoP (director of photography). Some people are aware that you are a documentary filmmaker. Others know you as an experimental filmmaker. But how do you want people to see you?
Faozan Rizal: I would like to be known as an experimental filmmaker because the first time I entered the cinema world, I was working on experimental films. I was majoring in experimental animation at the Jakarta Institute of Art (IKJ). I was the only student of my teacher, Gotot Prakoso. We worked together for three years, just the two of us. We started by scratching films like Stan Brakhage did. In the 90s, experimental films were known as experimental animation. Therefore the term scratching film gave a different color for the film. Then we would process the film in the laboratory and finish it with a music score. I didn't realize that experimental cinema had divided itself between the experiment of process, cinematic apparatus on the one hand, and the experiment with narrative on the other. As I learned and read more, I began to understand what experimental cinema was and why this movement started. Now I know that you can experiment with the narrative. So the process of making an experimental film is similar to regular filmmaking, but we can experiment with the plot.
ES: Knowing this, where is your place in Indonesian cinema?
FR: I realize that experimental cinema has been developing in Germany and France since the 20s, and the cinema there has already matured. I started my work when Indonesian cinema was in its dormant state. From 1990 to1991 there were very few film productions. People only produced erotic B-grade films. The spirit we brought to our filmmaking at that time was to search for a new genre of cinema for people to watch. But truly, I still wanted myself to be called an Indonesian experimental filmmaker. Many filmmakers claimed that they are Indonesian independent filmmakers. Independent from what? If we understand the basic idea of independent cinema, what are we struggling against? Are we against film theory? We've done that in experimental filmmaking. Are we fighting the distribution system? Who are our enemies? Is Multivision (a film company) of the same level as the Hollywood system?
ES: Could we say that you have almost no ground in Indonesia?
FR: In Indonesia, almost none. The first person who made experimental films was Mas Gotot (Gotot Prakosa). With documentaries, we have Sardono W. Kusumo with Dongeng dari Dirah. But he only produced one film, that's it. There was D.A. Peransi with his French avant-garde experimental documentary. Mas Gotot still prefers experimental films which allow him to directly "paint" on cinema [note: Gotot stills prefers to be known as an experimental animator. He is now the president of the Indonesian chapter of ASIFAA (International Animated Film Association)]. I am through with that. Where is our audience? No one would come to see that kind of rhythmic editing. I have to move onto what has been developed in France by Luis Bunuel and Dali, to make surrealist cinema. I want to free my audiences with these kinds of perspectives.
ES: What does filmmaking really mean to you?
FR: From my point of view, I perceive Yasujiro's Journey, Aries, Fugu, as a way of expressing my work. Film is the only language I use to talk to people. But because I was involved with commercial cinema it might be so stupid to talk about commercial film as a way of expression as well. I could only say that about my own films. Let's say that it is my language to express my ideas to the audience.
ES: How do you see your films as a subject of the unofficial retrospective at the Singapore International Film Festival?
FR: At that time, Philip Cheah wanted to screen some Indonesian experimental films. He wanted to create his own experimental section. I was really scared. I thought we had no films for this purpose. At that time, Edwin had only one movie, A Very Slow Breakfast. If we take Mas Gotot's film, it will be strikingly different. Gotot Prakosa films were considered as fine art cinema. It is similar to abstract painting. Phillip decided to screen only my films. He wanted it to be called the official retrospective section, but it didn't feel right so he made the unofficial retrospective. I asked Phillip, what is the difference between this and the official one? The official retrospective includes films that were officially screened in the festival. But it is unlikely to call my film anti-cinema as well, right? Thinking from that perspective, he decided to use the term "unofficial". It turned out to be a positive thing. Many people attended the screening after reading the unofficial retrospective title. I became acquainted as well with an American professor who taught film philosophy. He wrote about me because he was interested in the term "unofficial retrospective".
ES: Were there many people watching?
FR: Twelve people in the audience came from Indonesia for the screening, but eight left in the middle of the show. In SIFF it was not too bad with many film students and Singaporean filmmakers. In Paris, I couldn't believe the audience. Yasujiro's Journey was attended by so many people. About 250 people came and watched the movie until the end. It was followed by a one -hour discussion. The questions were not only basic questions. I thought they would ask about the filmmaking process but they didn't. They asked about the essence of the movie and shared their impression after watching it. In my own country, I've never experienced anything like it.
ES: In other words are you saying that the appreciation of film in Indonesia is still low?
FR: For experimental films, it is truly difficult. I don't know why there is a lack of interest especially among friends at the campus (IKJ), I do not understand that. When I screened Yasujiro's Journey for the first time there were hardly any responses from the (campus) audience.
ES: Are you concerned about this?
FR: Very much. I had a very hard time starting my third film because I was burdened by the thought of the audience's expectations. I really hate depending on the audience. I changed my formula in Fugu. I asked Ale, or Ariansyah, to write the synopsis. Ale was absent during the shooting. I gave the footages to the editor, Kusen Doni, and he edited them with his own interpretation. Doni was already acquainted with my cutting style because he was the editor for Aries. As for the soundman, I chose a fresh crew. When the sound was added to the film, it became a realist film. The essence of the film is surrealism, but the combination between the image and sound made it realistic. We can't have two wives, where one is telling the other to commit suicide, can we? But when the style shifts into realism, then this film becomes an ordinary film. Why? I remember, ah, this is because I was thinking too much of the audience during the shooting. The shots were very pleasing (for the audience). So, they truly have a big influence.
ES: Do you feel troubled by this?
FR: Honestly, yes. We tend to measure our films through our audience. That's why I'm not really satisfied with Fugu, although in general people said it was good. But, what does "good" mean?
ES: When you consider the audience's point of view in making a film, do you feel hindered in using cinema to express yourself?
FR: Yes, more or less I am blocked. We become less creative. I remember how in the past, I was still "scratching" freely through my films without considering who would watch them. These were the times when I produced films such as Thank You, Fuck You, I Love You or Dian Sastro. But recently, out of the blue we have to think, for example in Singapore we found that the reaction was like this; and in France, it was like that. These considerations have burdened filmmaking.
ES: Has appreciation become a different temptation? How do you handle this?
FR: In the field during the shooting, I've always done long takes. We try to do rythmic editing. Luckily in Fugu, I shot in video so I could be free from the material's effectivity problems [i.e. the limitations enforced by film stock]. Besides, I still had editing to make the film more rhythmical. But when I returned home, I couldn't stand it. I couldn't sleep thinking about it, imagining why I didn't do particular things during the shooting.
ES: Do you have central themes in your films?
FR: Frankly, the central theme is about remembering. On loneliness and remembering precisely. Yasujiro's Journey is about memory. Aries is about nostalgia. Fugu is about remembrance. But all of them are coated by loneliness.
ES: Why did you choose this theme
FR: Back to my childhood period, I suppose. When I was in my village, I chose dancing as an extracurricular activity. Only girls joined dancing. There were only three options at that time: boy scout, karate or dancing. I hated boy scouts so much because we had to camp out and be scared of ghosts. I couldn't accept the logic. Let alone karate. Being a macho man? Dancing, which we rehearsed inside the hall, was really cool so I chose that. The other members were girls. I was the only boy. I learned female dancing. My experiences took shape from there. During the experimental film production of Mas Gotot, I felt lonely. We did everything ourselves, from making the films to preparing the screenings, everything. When we decided to make this kind of film, all my past experiences came back again.
ES: Don't you feel tired sometimes?
FR: When I visited Paris I watched other experimental films, and the impression was the same. The problem was similar. We all choose to film our personal experiences, don't we? When I watched Edwin's film for the first time, it was really personal. Experimental for me is more in that direction, personal. If we know the people, we know how sick they are. You could see it in Maya Deren's and Kenneth Anger's films.
ES: We could say that in Indonesia, this emerged from short films?
FR: In shorts it really emerges because the filmmakers could work without burdens. No producers can limit you as in the case of feature-length films.
ES: In Indonesia, who is your audience apart from the film students?
FR: We do know video art, and it's quite a relief. It is confusing but relieving. In Berlin (Art Center), they regarded my film as video art. They screened the film together with other video art. In Indonesia I am counting on the video art community, who are tired of watching current mainstream films, to watch mine. It is difficult to rely on people who get bored easily. They probably could stand it for 15 minutes, but my films last for about 48 to 80 minutes. In foreign countries, my audience includes students from film school and film critics. That's all, really. Here people still relate the idea of being a film critic with criticizing the processed image. They only criticize the filmmakers [and don't tackle the political or philosophical sides of the film].
ES: Where do you think the problem is, if for example we relate this topic to the art schools such as IKJ?
FR: We lack an analytical culture. Any university student has a hard time reading books. They only read what's important in their field. When I screened my film in French, many medical school students asked questions related to the religious symbolism in Aries. I told them, if I have people like you in my country, it'd be so beautiful.
ES: What influenced you when you made Aries?
FR: I had just finished reading Kaballah. Also the Balthasar's Odyssey by Amin Maalouf. You could also read The Madness of God. I had many questions in my mind. It is far into the human loneliness, man and woman. Gender. Why does Eve have to be the one who made the mistake?
ES: Why does the woman cry in Aries?
FR: In Italy, someone in the audience who saw the film said that this was a movie about the missing Madonna. No one has interpreted the film that way and it was delightful. In Aries, the one who touches the apple is Adam. I pose questions. What if it was Adam who took the fruit in the first place? Was the devil playing a trick on Eve, but who tricked the devil? The questions bother me constantly. Every culture acknowledges Mother (Ibu): Mother Earth, Mater Dao, and Isis, the highest-ranking Goddess. Recently, this position has been challenged. New ideas were addressed in the Christian era, weren't they? It was clearly eye-opening for the audience (when I was) in Italy. But when I was in Cyprus, I was doomed! Their tradition was rooted in the Orthodox Church. Aries had no power whatsoever. They are Orthodox Christians and truly patriarchal. They already had certain beliefs from the beginning. I was simply telling them the ABCs of what had been clear enough for them already. Like a storybook for children. When Aries was screened here (in Indonesia), it was very difficult to understand, it became dull. It made me wonder, what if Aries was screened in a Coptic Christian community in Egypt, for example? Or what if it was screened for Orthodox Christians in Russia or Georgia?
ES: Where exactly is Fugu heading to?
FR: It is still the same. The search. It is moving from religion to love. Here, love is abstract. The story is simple. It's about a married woman who disappears. Her husband re-marries. Shortly afterwards, the woman returns home and there are three of them. I'm not going to tell you the background of the story but I'll just jump into the middle. This is about love in question, divided evenly and legitimately. It is not really about polygamy. There is a scene where the first wife asks the second wife to commit suicide. The husband even ties the rope to hang her. They watch the first wife trying to commit suicide instead. This is somewhat of an experiment regarding the audience's emotions.
ES: Have you ever considered producing narrative cinema?
FR: Yes I've thought about it, but I haven't found a screenwriter. I've found a story. A true story. It is about my friend, a lesbian who lives in Paris. Her girlfriend wants to have a baby. She came home to Cyprus, taking her girlfriend to meet her father. She introduces her love to her father and asks for his help to make her girlfriend pregnant because they want to have children. She wants the baby to be a direct blood relation. My longtime scriptwriter-collaborator, Ale, was too lazy to write it. Beby Hasibuan, who acted in Fugu, might not be possible. I have seen her novel and I don't think she fits my style. You, perhaps?
Translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Carolina "Olin" Monteiro and Intan Paramaditha.