Dewi Anggraeni, Contributor, Melbourne, Australia
Since it has been proven time and time again that the films that are a box office success are those in which the audience escapes to a dream world or those that pretend to be a mirror reflecting beautiful images, why make films on social realism?
Cynics would say because these are the films that win awards at international film festivals. In reality though, there is an element of truth in the cynics' proposition, with the stronger drive being that filmmakers have a desire to make something socially meaningful for posterity, combined with the urge to take up the challenge that they can make a film of their choice successfully.
Director Hanny Saputra's film Tato, its world premier screened at the Indonesian Film Festival 2002 in Melbourne at the beginning of this month, attempted with some degree of success, at marrying social realism with some romanticism.
Tato depicts a fragment of life rather than telling a story. The subjects of the film are a group of petty thieves, comprising Tato, whose body, including his forehead, is covered in tattoos, Pete, who is as thin as a pete bean, Markus, Bogel and Gendut.
The film takes the audience to an urban slum where the five men hang out and eventually squat in an abandoned warehouse.
Unlike many films about social realism, Tato does not try to contextualise the existence of these men; They exist in their own right. They have their own set of ethics, which is up to the audience to compare with their own, their own code of behavior, and their own dreams. All these ingredients, when served up, come with a definite pathos and a thin film of romanticism.
Their natural sense of decency becomes apparent early in the film when they are confronted with the dead body of someone they knew. They try to make do with whatever they can find to perform the last rites for the body, and end up stumbling into a tragicomedy situation without even trying.
Most of the things they do are out of immediate necessity, including killing a dog belonging to a family from whom they also steal a television set. In the middle of eating their slaughtered victim, they are moved when a puppy, presumably the offspring of the dog, comes looking for its mother. They spontaneously adopt the puppy as their own, and go to great lengths to find sustenance and provide entertainment for their adopted pet. They become distraught when the puppy dies.
Tato's humanity comes to the surface when he falls in love with Luki, the daughter of a traveling showman. Devoid of any sense of niceties seemingly obligatory among those in the comfortable middle class, however, Tato promptly plunges into a self-absorbing world, ignoring the bewilderment of his friends.
His make-believe world does not take long to burst. Luki gets pregnant and unceremoniously tells her lover that she does not want the baby. And when the slum version of a do-it-yourself abortion goes wrong and Luki dies, Tato is inconsolable and he disappears.
At this stage the film assumes a degree of surrealism. His friends devise various ploys to lure him back, but the one that finally works is throwing a big party in the building where they live. However, when Tato does appear he has completely lost his mind.
The ending of the film is also the climax of the surreal buildup, in which Tato even challenges God.
Tato runs the risk of being seen as romanticizing the lives of petty criminals, though as a film which tries to invoke the pathos of these lives using a loose story-line, it has proven its power in drawing its audience into the story without going overboard, except during the last scenes.
Hanny Saputra deserves to be congratulated for his debut in directing, and Leo Sutanto for his faith in the project. Tato belongs to a genre that is still finding a home.
Tato will be screened during the Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest) on Oct. 26 at 5 p.m. at Usmar Ismail film center on Jl. HR. Rasuna Said, South Jakarta.
For further information, contact JiFFest at 325113; 325115 or check out www.jiffest.com.