Jul 17, 2009

Interview: Edwin of Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly

Rooftop Films has teamed up with the International Film Festival Rotterdam this weekend to present a pair of films from the most recent edition of Holland's most well regarded cinematic event. Tonight's screening is the first in what I certainly hope is a long partnership between two organizations committed to independent and formally ambitious film. After having been to Rotterdam this year and seen so much interesting work that doesn't have a natural home stateside, the promise of some of those films trickling over via Rooftop Films is tremendously exciting.

Tonight's picture is from Indonesia and I promise you that after watching it, you'll never think of that country or Stevie Wonder in the same way again. Edwin's Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly, which screened in competition at Rotterdam earlier this year, is at times uproarious, at other times somewhat impenetrable, but it is certainly never less than a strange and fascinating meditation on the repression of a culture and a people that is hard to shake and even harder to pin down. A film that defies simple synopsis or explanation, it follows in a distinctly non-linear fashion a number of story threads, including a dentist obsessed with Steve Wonder songs, a former championship badminton player who retired because of her uncanny resemblance to her chief competitor and a young woman who eats firecrackers. And yes, there's even a blind pig who wants to fly.

I was on the FIPRESCI Jury which awarded it a prize in Rotterdam and I can say that although each of us couldn't shake our impression that the film was a visually inventive rubix cube, one that demanded much twisting and turning in order to fully encompass its mysteries, its desire to shed light on the costs of repressing Chinese identity in Indonesia is accomplished with such finesse and subtlety that the unattuned could (and did) easily miss the narrative's underlying tensions. Despite its unconventional nature, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly has an accessibility that's not sneaks up on you. It's also just a beauty to behold, not only because of its compositional inventiveness, but because so much of the thematic finds its way into the film through the dry ironies of staging and costume, the use of Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You" in the most seemingly inappropriate of situations and some clever editorial juxtapositions that leave you smiling or cringing in equal measure. Running a mere 65 minutes, its sweetness and brevity go oddly hand in hand with a brutal political circumstance, which was one of the many topics I got the chance to discuss with Edwin via email this week:

CEC: Many have observed that your film is a once a searing socio-political critique, a very bizarre dark comedy and an ensemble piece. That's alot to tackle in 63 minutes. Did you set off to make such a singular and unrepentantly strange film?

EDWIN: The film is a mozaic or sketches of feelings, of being a minority, in this case of being Chinese but living in Indonesia, nowadays. Of course there are also universal values, even if you don't have any background on Indonesian culture and political situation, you will feel them, but the sense of alienation, the sense of paranoia, the sense to sacrifice, the sense to survive, the sense of being minority are all ones I'm distinctly interested in.

The film also deals with how today's media, especially television, becomes closer to those in power. They have a significant role in documenting fake hopes, fake dreams. That said, I try to tackle many socio-political aspects in Indonesian today situation with subtlety and humor and shared emotions. I tried to document feelings, not informative data about Chinese Indonesian situations. That's why I decided to make it as a non-narrative. These issues are very personal to me. Its quite sensitive to talk about. I would rather not to say it loud, and not to be verbal. I don't want to exploit this kind of situation. I hate when people use these type of issues as commodities.

So yes, non-narrative and subtle humor were the perfect language for the film.

CEC: Tell us about how the various pressures of Indonesian society, its identity politics, the repression of the Chinese minority, and how the situation there specifically shaped your film?

EDWIN: There is alot of information out there on the internet about what we're going through.


Some in the media (literature, films, music, fashion, newspapers, televisions) are interested in using this issue as background. I appreciated the effort, but somehow, I just see it as something artificial, not really trying to dig closer to the essence of what's going on. It's kind of a sad situation to have that stereotypical portrait of Chinese Indonesians again and again. I don't want to look at these issues as an exotic thing. Because it is not exotic at all. We really deals with this problem for our whole lives.

Again. I don't want to exploit those emotions. I'm just trying my best to portray these complex and often absurd emotions as they are. I don't need to make it look simple, to have people enjoy the exploitation. We all have to learn a lot. But I don't want to preach. I know the limitations of human knowledge. But I believe there are no limits when we talk about emotions or feelings. I want us all feel it, like we feel the wind for the first time. When we don't know what the wind is.

CEC: Why Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You"?

EDWIN: Back in late 80s i grew up with that song. It was so popular. Somehow its like a terror following me everywhere. It was an early symbol for me of The American Dream and my evolving understanding of it. I have so many friends that are trying hard to leave Indonesia, to get green card and go to the United States to reach their dreams. To escape, to survive. The Stevie Wonder music can be your hope, can be your friend, but also can be your enemy. It depends on your mood and vision.

CEC: How were you able to make this deliberately political film in modern day Indonesia? How was the film's stance of the repression of Chinese indentity taken by the government?

EDWIN: I would say its more of a personal film than a political film. Nowadays everything can be examined through personal things. You can learn a lot from just reading a simple diary on a personal blog. You can read about culture, society, not only politics, by exploring personal video on youtube, for example. The film is political of course, the effects of the repression of Chinese identity taken by the government is there, but the most important understandings are personal.

The Chinese Indonesians have the responsibility for this chaotic situation. We all know there is repression aimed at us. But why don't we want to fight? At least, why don't we just talk about it? Why we choose to maintain the situation, by hiding our identity, by killing our emotions? Why Chinese Indonesians choose to kill themselves, rather than just talk and discuss what we want. This paranoia of being what you are, is the main problem for Chinese Indonesians. We let them manipulate us. We let corruption grows in our culture. We let those powerful people rape us, as long we can survive from our paranoia. It's ironic.

CEC: What are you working on now?

EDWIN: A new film called Postcards from the Zoo. Its the story of a 3 year old little girl who was left abandoned by her father in the zoo. She lives in the zoo with the animals, working there and also shares some stories with homeless people that are about living in the zoo. On her 17th birthday she meets a boy, who asks her to explore the real Zoo, what we call the city of Jakarta.

Rooftop Films and the International Film Festival Rotterdam present Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly tonight at 8pm at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus (232 3rd Street, Brooklyn, NY)