Januari 17, 2015

I Love You

THIS FILM was shot over a year among the people of Sungai Sepi in the Barisan mountains of Central Sumatra. Kathrin Oester, who wrote, directed and produced the film, assisted by Heinzpeter Znoj who took sound and did the interviews, takes as her subject the activities of her adopted family and friends as they plan and strategize in the nine months leading up to a mass wedding. Although the subject of the film is marriage, its content is a series of perspectives and from the point of view of the subjects of negotiations. Their anticipations and expectations are set against an important area of contestation in the society, the uneasy relationship between matrilineality and Islam; in particular, traditional inheritance practices in which land and houses are transferred from mother to daughter which men are contesting with reference to Islamic law in order to gain inheritance rights for their sons.

The story is organised as a search to learn about marriages and how they happen—or do not. A commentary guides us through the complexities of the situation, but instead of using the normal didactic tone, it is done in a questioning, personal way. Early on, we hear the words "As I try to separate fact from fiction, the film slowly emerges". The commentary is established as an element which will provide a reflexive dimension to the experience of filmmaking and researching social relations and practices.

The significance of this statement emerges as the difficulty of untangling speculation from gossip from fabrication becomes established as a central aspect of village life; the opacity of information; and the vexatious process of trying to understand what is going on in the fieldwork experience. Devices are introduced to give a sense of order. The rice cycle, from planting to harvesting, provides a visual narrative as well as establishing the time scale and tempo for marriage planning, since marriages take place after the harvest when there is money to spend. The pattern of the Islamic year is also shown: as the rainy season begins and gardens are planted, Ramadan begins; the wedding in this particular year coincides with the feast of Id ul Fitri which ends the month of fasting.

Although the natural cycle provides coherence to the film and regulates social practice, it also puts pressure on the aspiring participants and their families. The film focuses in particular on a young man, a young woman, and a matchmaker. The subtitled interviews with these people are done formally but contain extremely frank discussions about gender relations and personal expectations. They catch very well the mood of Indonesian villages and styles of interaction. The combination of formality, bluntness, and reticence will make a vivid impression, and will be very familiar to anyone who has spent time in Indonesia.

Another strength is the way in which the film depicts the emerging sense of uncertainty, the chaos behind the order of the edited film. Much of the negotiating goes on behind the scenes, and discussions gradually focus on secrecy, the role of allusion in communication, and joking as a form of secrecy. The commentary reveals the filmmaker's growing awareness that much cannot be shown on film: there are limits to what can be observed or described literally. The women especially provide insight into language, gender, and the importance of not being too direct, but the film gives place to both male and female viewpoints. For instance, after the harvest, there are scenes of men talking together about inheritance, and women talking together about divorce and polygamy. These issues are also explored in the interviews with the main characters, along with sex, attraction, abortion, infidelity—this last being the occasion for a Sumatran version of the Bobbit story. The interviews with the young male protagonist contain the material which will be the most provocative and discomforting to a Western audience. And around these varied scenes and confidences, we hear the filmmaker's reflections in the commentary, sometimes presented in the form of an address, as if off-screen, to the participants, as she tries to come to terms with challenges to her own assumptions and experiences in what they have told her. Early in the film, she explains how she has been adopted into a family, and later she talks of the controlling gaze which is such an important factor in village fieldwork; the commentary situates the researcher clearly in the narrative, and allows the viewer to understand very well how she has come to gain the trust which is evident in the interviews. So the film becomes a weave of voices and perspectives, male and female, Sumatran and Swiss, old and young, while individuals remain uncertain about what negotiations are happening in secret, and what the final outcomes are to be. It becomes clear that we do not know the full story, that those seeking partners are also not clear, and that the outcome is by no means certain. Films which focus on an event do not necessarily have time to present the experience of the processes which produce that event. The marriage scene in this film is not the focus; it is almost an anticlimax, although the dance sequences are very pleasurable to see; but given the importance of a growing suspense for the storyline, I will not divulge the ending.

The film is refreshing and effective, but its cinematic qualities do not always match the quality of concept. The camera is rather choppy at the beginning, and the editing and sound levels are occasionally rough. Songs are given an important place in the rice cycle scenes, but would have benefitted from English subtitles, to better illustrate allusive language and bring together the cycles of natural fertility and human reproduction. Any technical unevenness is the result of this being a research film, and is more than compensated for by the closeness of the filmmakers to their subjects, and the vividness of the stories it allows the people of Sungai Sepi to tell us. It shows both the temporality constraints on human choice and experience, and a study which also gives place to the individual experience in the context of those constraints, representing the indeterminacy of everyday life in an unusual way. By the end you learn much about men and women in this society, even if you don't necessarily like what you learn. This unusual and engaging treatment of a very important contemporary social issue in Sumatra will be of great interest to researchers of Indonesia and also anyone interested in gender relationships and Islam.[]

I Love You—Hope for the Year 2000. Directed by Kathrin Oester; video camera and sound, Kathrin Oester, 1999; 77 mins., color; interviews in Bahasa Indonesia, narration in English, English subtitles. Distributed by Artefakt Productions, Neubrückstrasse 80, CH 3012 Bern, Switzerland; sale, VHS (NTSC), US $100.00; PAL, SFr. 150.00; S-VHS (NTSC), US $150.00; PAL, SFr. 200.00; Beta SP (NTSC), US $250.00; PAL, SFr. 300.00 (shipping incl). For orders: Tel.: +41-31-3025073; e-mail: znoj@ethno.unibe.ch


Felicia Hughes-Freeland, “I Love You”, Visual Anthropology, 14, 1, (2001): 93-95.

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