Since filmmaker Garin Nugroho announced his upcoming film Soegija, he has had to face many questions.
The most frequent one was his reason for choosing Mgr. Albertus Magnus Soegijapranata SJ or Soegija, the first local-born Archbishop in the country.
His status as a national hero and the use of his name for a prominent Catholic university in Central Java do not necessarily make him a famous figure compared to other national heroes who fill the pages of school history books.
Garin, who has been behind award-winning films like Opera Jawa (Requiem from Java) and Daun di Atas Bantal (Leaf on a Pillow), explained that he tried to select a communicative film that could speak to the community.
“Soegija tries to open up problems that have not yet been unveiled or firmly addressed by our leaders,” Garin says.
“Multiple cultures will become our problem and this figure delivers a message that is very relevant to our present situation,” he added during the preview of the film, which involved 2,275 actors and cost Rp12 billion (US$1.3 million) to make. The film is set to hit the big screen on June 7.
Soegijapranata was born in the Central Java town of Surakarta on Nov. 25, 1896. He passed away in Steyl, Venlo in the Netherlands on July 22, 1963 at the age of 66. He was Apostolic Vicar in Semarang before he became Archbishop of Semarang. A Presidential Decree declared him as a national hero three days after his death.
The film opens with Soegija, played by poet Nirwan Dewanto, writing notes in his book, which become the central to the film’s overall theme.
“Humanity is one. The human race is one. It is a big unity despite the diversity.”
The film, shot against the background of Dutch colonialism in the 1940s, further touches on the lives of other characters, who are entwined with each other, especially during the preparation of the installment of Soegija as Archbishop of Semarang.
Mariyem (Anissa Hertami), a humble young woman who dreams of becoming a nurse, lives happily with her only brother, although they have lost their parents. She befriends Ling Ling (Andrea Reva), the cheerful daughter of a Chinese family.
As the story flows, Mariyem meets the little girl every time she goes to her family restaurant to pick up soto ayam (chicken soup) and deliver the food for Soegija at the church. Ling Ling’s grandfather (Hengky Solaiman) has a regular Japanese guest named Suzuki (Nobuyuki Suzuki).
Meanwhile, Hendrick (Wouter Braaf), a Dutch photographer who covers the Archbishop’s installation ceremony, develops a crush on Mariyem. He is a close friend of Robert (Wouter Zweers), a Dutch soldier who is obsessed with war.
The stories of those characters develop against the background of the Asia Pacific war. The film itself does not center on Soegija alone but Garin makes the archbishop a thread that binds the characters together and a critical voice that delivers messages on peace and humanity in the country.
The movie’s strength is the forceful presentation of each individual’s humanity and how they all share similar suffering despite their differences, both in nationality and race. It’s interesting to observe Garin’s ability to stage many characters, building different personal stories in one frame.
Soegija’s role is only highlighted when he offers his humble leadership during the chaos when the Japanese begin their occupation of Indonesia and when the Dutch return to the country after independence.
In a number of short frames, he shows support for the youth movement, visits people and conducts mass praying in villages while maintaining close correspondence with prominent leaders, like Sutan Syahrir and Sukarno.
Poet Nirwan Dewanto performs well as the archbishop although there are moments where he looks uncomfortable in front of the camera. But his dialogue with his assistant, Toegimin (Butet Kartaredjasa), is one of the icebreaking scenes.
Newcomer to the film industry, Annisa Hertami gives a charming performance as a Javanese nurse, a woman in love and an individual with pride and opinions.
Another unforgettable member of the casts is Suzuki, who only appears a few times but leaves a good impression on the audience. Appearances by Margono, who plays radioman Pak Besut, reinforce the 1940s setting, a time when radio became the main medium for news.
Music director Djaduk Ferianto lends a magic touch to the film — which uses many Indonesian, Javanese and Dutch as well as bits of Japanese, Chinese and English pieces — giving the film a fine musical quality and a selection of memorable songs.
Verdict: A memorable film that touches on history and humanity.
Director: Garin Nugroho
Starring: Nirwan Dewanto, Annisa Hertami, Wouter Braaf, Olga Lydia, Butet Kartaredjasa
Producer: Puskat Pictures