Ziarah: A Story of History

Like stories, history also consists of fictions that are transmitted from person to persons and generation to generations. In a culture where oral tradition is stronger than the written one -like the Javanese, of which I'm part of- the experience of listening to stories from elders is part of one’s childhood. To a degree, such an experience can be found by watching and listening to stories in Ziarah

Directed by B.W. Purba Negara, Ziarah is a fitting debut feature for a filmmaker who has been an influential figure of the short form in Indonesia. The 84-minute film narrates the story of Mbah Sri (Ponco Sutiyem), a 95-year-old woman searching for the tomb of her husband who was a war veteran. The search somehow brings Mbah Sri to trace the history around the Second Dutch Military Aggression (Operation Kraai) in 1948 when the Dutch captured the newly formed Indonesian republic's temporary capital, Jogjakarta, and seized its leaders to force them to cooperate with the Dutch government in the implementation of the federalist policy as stipulated in the Linggadjati Agreement.

Concurrent with this search, Mbah Sri's grandchild, Prapto (Rukman Rosadi), is also searching for her after leaving home with no word. During the search, Prapto encounters traces of history, as well as local philosophy on the concept of life and death. Expressed through the Javanese language (basa Jawa  as opposed to the national bahasa predominant in Indonesian cinema), the film exhibits local Javanese culture not only in the shape of words but also of myth, life philosophy, and the mysticism of the Javanese. The depiction of the misery of loss, of a genuine love story, of traces of Indonesia’s history, as well as cultural expressions of the philosophy of life and death, intertwine throughout the film.

In Ziarah characters are often filmed in close shot while they talk, as if answering interview questions from Mbah Sri or Prapto. This kind of mise-en-scene allows the spectators to see details of the subjects in the frame, which are mostly elders, tracing the truth by probing and digging into people’s collective memory. The positions of the main and supporting characters in the film are captured by the camera at spectator’s eye level. As a result, listening to the stories pierces through the screen, allowing the audience a sense of experiencing firsthand history lessons told through personal stories. 

The choice of the director to use real witnesses and historical accounts in Ziarah generates a documentary atmosphere in the film. Remnants of political and military trauma appear throughout the story, framed around a pilgrimage to the graveyard in the middle of a reservoir. The military, as we are told through the film's dialogue, seems to have two faces in society: a hero and a villain. By including this parallel in the film, the fictional elements in Purba Negara's film enrich the elders' recollection of the past. 

The story of Ziarah takes place in post-reformasi Indonesia but lightly inquires into stories around the events of the Dutch Military Aggression of 1948 after Independence. This plot reflects the title which literally means a “pilgrimage” to a tomb, but it might also be translated as a trailing to past time. By investing in people's memories and impressions and placing them in a seeming archive, Ziarah becomes a piece of oral history which can be useful, especially for a society of oral traditions.

Ziarah's blatant display and materialization of the idea of death evokes our primal fear of death. The camera at the beginning of the film is fixed as though we see the world through the eyes of the dead, staring at us for the last time from the burial ground. Adding to the atmosphere of death is  a mystical song in the Javanese language, leading us to consider death and perhaps mysticism as the main issue of the film. Aside from death, various social and cultural issues emerge through the dialogues, subjects, and objects in the film. 

Static shots dominates much of Ziarah, giving latitude for its audience to ponder and, due to the shot's long duration, to reflect on varied issues (mortality and cultural identity, for instance) that are perhaps as old as Mbah Sri. Simultaneously, these issues appear through dialogues which becomes the obvious matter aside of events, subjects, and locations in the frame. 

On the other hand, camera movement is employed not so much as to construct the form, but to keep the harmonic balance of subjects and objects within the frame. The subjects are always at eye level, while objects are placed in the frame and reinforced by aural elements to emphasize that this film is about the culture of the  Javanese. Loosely knitting narrative and visual elements, Ziarah meanders both in the tackling of its themes as it navigates beautiful landscapes with a certain serenity captured in its long take aesthetics. However, this camera technique also expresses the lack of visual experimentation where the dynamics of storytelling  is not well supported by the film's visuals. Apart from its effort to make historical and philosophical context accessible, the film falls short in the visual composition of its fictional elements (by putting too much effort on the documentary look), relying too much on its dialogue to construct its form.

–Anggraeni Widhiasih 

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