Plunging the Depths of Multi-Culturalism

in 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival

by Philip Cheah

I was surprised when sitting on the Tokyo International Film Festival jury last year when my Japanese jury colleagues expressed their great love for film The Mirror Never Lies (Laut bercermin). Kamila Andini’s statement about climate change in Wakatobi, in South Sulawesi, Indonesia — part of the global coral triangle — and how it impacts the Bajo tribe, the sea gypsies who live there, triggered an emotional reaction in the Japanese. They remembered last year’s earthquake and tsunami (of March 11), and suddenly realized that they were not alone.

Again on the FIPRESCI jury at the 36th Hong Kong International Film Festival, my German colleague Helmut Merker and Hong Kong archivist Lau Yam were struck by the cultural diversity and struggle of this outsider community. The film is very culture-specific, even for Andini herself. As she said: “There were only two books about the Bajo and they were written by foreigners. We had to go directly to Wakatobi back and forth to get to know everything about the tribe. Through this film, I hope Indonesians get to know more about the marine world in Wakatobi and about the Bajo people. I want to show people that the Bajo people really exist in our waters.”

This is splendidly achieved by the gorgeous cinematography, both on land and underwater. Partly funded by the World Wildlife Fund and the Wakatobi administration, the natural beauty of the environment is vividly captured. On a narrative level, we follow the anguish of Pakis (played by Gita Novalista, a local Bajo girl), who is still hoping that her missing father will be found. A shaman conducts a traditional ritual, and tells her to see if her father appears in the mirror that the latter gave her. The film follows her rites of passage as she grows up, challenging her mother Tayung (Atiqah Hasiholan) for her own independence, and the awakening of female desire when Tudo (Reza Rahadian), a marine biologist from the capital city of Jakarta, arrives to research the dolphin population. Actress Atiqah Hasiholan, acclaimed for her role in Jamila and the President (Jamila dan sang presiden), and two-time Citra award (Indonesia’s equivalent of the Oscar) winner Reza Rahadian, are the only professionals on board, with the rest of the cast drawn from local folk.

Through Pakis’ journey, we see how the Bajos find their livelihood threatened when they are unable to predict weather and changes in ocean currents.

Andini’s father is, of course, the well-known figurehead of independent Indonesian cinema Garin Nugroho, who has spent his whole career depicting the various cultures across Indonesia’s more than 14,000 islands. Andini’s independence from her father’s shadow is seen in her interest in ocean communities. As a licensed diver, the underwater beauty she sees is a first-hand experience translated to film for us.

But Andini needs to work her scripts more rigorously. Her father’s famous maxim that his films are only 30 percent dependent on scripts can only prove to be shallow water for her. The character of Tudo, the marine biologist, for example, is underwritten. Hence, his chemistry with Tayung, Pakis’ mother, never really gels.

Also, Andini’s reliance on the symbol of the mirror recalls her father’s dependence on such symbols in his films, which sometimes work but are sometimes too convenient to believe.

Still, for a debut film, The Mirror Never Lies is an amazingly accomplished and compelling piece of work, one that reflects the turbulence of our natural world.

(Note: Just for the record, Tayung’s application of white paste on her face is a native version of sun-block, common in other Asian countries such as Myanmar. As many critics have wondered about the symbolic value of this image, I asked Andini and she confirmed that it’s a symbol of faith in her husband.)