When the Japanese took over the Dutch occupation in Indonesia, they wanted to turn a church in Semarang, Central Java, into a military base camp. They tried, but a bishop defended the church with his life and the soldiers, unwilling to kill him, left it alone.
This dramatic scene marks the opening of “Soegija,” a new film by renowned Indonesian director Garin Nugroho about the country’s first Roman Catholic bishop, Albertus Soegijapranata. The film, which opened with a press preview last week and debuts in local theaters next month, takes place during the occupation, but is not a typical war story.
For starters, it lacks a single central character, opting instead for a collection of smaller, though still important, roles. There is Mariyem (Annisa Hertami), who lost her brother Maryono (Abe) during the war and went to work for the Red Cross, as well as Ling Ling (Andrea Reva), who became separated from her mother (Olga Lydia) when the Japanese raided their house. The film also portrays the struggles of Japanese soldier Nobuzuki (Suzuki), photographer Hendrick (Wouter Braaf) and Dutch soldier Robert (Wouter Zweers).
The story then moves along a linear timeline, focusing on Indonesia during the Pacific War from 1940 to 1949. Garin captures the changing authorities, from the Dutch to the Japanese, to Indonesia’s independence and the eventual entrance of the Allied forces. As a thread throughout the film, each chapter unfolds with narration by Soegija as he pours his ideas into a journal.
While Garin believes every character in the film plays an important role, in some instances he does not introduce them by name. We enjoy their presence on screen, but do not become emotionally attached because they lack back stories and do not appear long enough for us to remember them.
Although a risk, it works. Garin’s portrayal of people during the war seems real, and as our humble heroes find a sense of closure, the audience’s confusion gives way to laughter and a message of humanity.
The story was not easy to craft. Scriptwriter Armantono said he revised the script more than 12 times over the course of a year, as new material kept coming to light. At points, he said, he feared he would never finish because there was too much information.
He also faced some early resistance from producers.
“After the first draft, Puskat [Pictures, the production house] said it was too Catholic,” Armantono said. “They said, ‘Arman, this isn’t supposed to be a film about Catholicism,’ so I had to reduce Soegija’s story and balance it with other characters,” he said.
Given the film’s name and portrayal of the bishop, some critics have said it was created to convert people to Catholicism. Garin has not been defensive about these claims, saying he intended to spark discussion and work toward pluralism.
The film took risks with its cast too. Indonesian writer Nirwan Dewanto, who made his acting debut as Soegija, said he decided to take on the role despite his lack of experience.
“I’ve a pretty good career in literature, so if I failed in this film I’d have things at stake,” he said. “But when it comes time to die and you look back, you always remember the risks you didn’t take.”
The film required Nirwan to speak several languages as Soegija was fluent in Dutch, Latin, Javanese and Indonesian. To get comfortable in front of a camera, he worked with acting coach Landung Simatupang. He also appeared alongside veteran actor Butet Kertaradjasa, who plays his assistant in the story.
Opening in local theaters on June 7, “Soegija” is 115 minutes long and involves 2,755 cast members, including foreigners from the Netherlands, Japan and China.
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