In The Seen and Unseen by Indonesian writer director Kamila Andini, the boundaries between dream, imagination and real life are effortlessly fluid. The story centres on Tantri, a nine-year-old girl whose twin brother Tantra is admitted to hospital with a possibly fatal prognosis.
Boy/girl or ‘buncing’ twins are said to have a special bond in Indonesian lore, and are meant to take care of each other, according to an older woman Tantri speaks to, but how can she look after her brother when he is dying? “If only I could replace you,” she says in the process of trying to assimilate and affect the tragedy that is occurring.
Tantri brings ritual and dance to the hospital in an effort to provoke and revive her twin. There is an extraordinary scene where both children are dressed in feathers and body paint to enact a dance of fighting cockerels that Tantri has just witnessed. Equally poignant is a scene where Tantra uses shadow puppets behind a backlit hospital curtain to tell a fable of the moon’s eclipse.
Andini’s gift as a filmmaker is highlighted in her impeccable scene setups, often with framing doorways and depth of field that separates Tantri from adult groups and conversations. The soft and natural palette underlines the delicacy of feeling and innocent child’s view of the world. The sets move easily between natural landscapes and the hospital room, night and day. The two child actors are superbly natural, well cast and directed.
Even if your taste is more towards a clear narrative line, The Seen and Unseen has a hypnotic appeal as it loosens your grip from holding to a predictable way of processing and interpreting events. The soundscape of the film adds to the effect; rhythmic undercurrents of the sounds of water and birds, or a clicking dance rhythm that becomes the rotating fan over the boy’s bed.
Andini says the film “is not based on a story but is an expression and a feeling.” She told the Helsinki Cine Aasia, “I want to explore who I am as an Indonesian,” as her motive behind the film. The finished work takes us deep into the themes and motifs of Balinese culture and folklore.
As the daughter of filmmaker Garmin Nugroho, Andini was born with the filmmaker gene. She resisted it at first, opting to study for a degree in sociology at Deakin University in Australia. She returned to Indonesia to work on music and documentary videos before gaining attention with the short film Following Diana, a deeply internal perspective on an Indonesian woman struggling with polygamy.
In 2011, Andini released a low budget feature, The Mirror Never Lies. It picked up awards and critical acclaim across several film festivals. Mirror deals with themes of magic and bereavement as a daughter tries to find her father through mirrors. The Seen and Unseen came next. Six years in the making, the seed idea came from the concept of ‘Sekala Niskala,’ an Indonesian belief in the ‘real’ world being completed by the intangible, spiritual dimension.
Enjoy a trip into the heart and soul of Indonesia at Sydney’s film festival with this original piece of storytelling.
A young soldier, stuck on a barren outpost, does a few crazy dance steps with his rifle as mock partner, to distract himself from the tension and boredom of guard duty. The dance is the ‘foxtrot’ that provides the title of Samuel Maoz’s hard-hitting film about Israeli conscripts and the soul destroying impact of military service.
The film is a socio-political statement but also a terrific drama. Last year it won the Grand Jury prize in Venice, the Ophir Award for Best Film and was Israel’s entry for Best Foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
Maoz told press and audiences in Venice “If I criticise the place I live, I do it because I worry. I do it because I want to protect it. I do it from love.”
The director had good reason to defend his film. It depicts a cover up by the military so, despite critical acclaim, Israel’s Minister for Culture denounced it as ‘outrageous’ and a slur on the Israeli army. At the time, Maoz commented to The Associated Press, “I could create a (story of) horrible crime in the Israeli police and nobody would say (anything). But if you touch the army, this is very, very sensitive. The army is such an integral part of our state because almost all young Israeli men and women must serve time.”
At its heart, Foxtrot is a stunning observation of grief and trauma, as an affluent Israeli couple are told that their son has been killed in service. The tragedy doesn’t end there because errors and misjudgement deepen the tragedy further. The couple’s story bookends the narrative while the middle act depicts the lives of four young conscripts, our ‘killed in action’ foxtrot dancer Jonathan among them.
Maoz’s telling of this story is deeply authentic, because he’s been there. At the age of 20, he was called to military service and became a gunner in one of the first Israeli tanks to enter Lebanon in the 1982 Lebanon War. He returned home after 45 days, having killed and been in the confines of an armoured tank for a good stretch of that time. He was a changed man and although he pursued his teenage dream to be a filmmaker and worked in documentaries and TV, it took him 25 years before he could approach the subject of war. Traumatic memories blocked him. It was seeing the war happening over again in 2006 that persuaded him to describe his experiences in the feature film Lebanon (2009).
Like Foxtrot, Lebanon won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. It was contemporary with other notable features dealing with the subject, including Beaufort, adapted from the book by Rob Lesham, and the autobiographical animation by Ari Folman, Waltz with Bashir.
In a 2010 interview with Rachel Cooke of The Guardian, Moaz describes the traumatising effect of becoming a wartime soldier.
“Normal people can’t kill. You need to be a psycho. So, the trick of war is to take a human being and put him in this… situation. After that, it’s a process. It takes 24 hours, maybe 48. It’s a metamorphosis. Our most basic instinct, our survival instinct, starts to take control and it’s like a drug: you can’t resist it.”
While Lebanon was a claustrophobic hell inside an armoured tank, focused on four young soldiers using spare dialogue (“because when you are scared you don’t speak,” Moaz commented), Foxtrot broadens its perspective on the effects of trauma into soldiers’ families and how its impact reverberates through society at large. It’s not simply a case of soldiers returning to families in a damaged state, it also shows how families are handled by well-meaning but fallible bureaucracy and support systems.
The film uses black humour, sharp, observation of sensory details and high impact cinematography to immerse the viewer. First, we enter the stylised spaces of the grieving family’s home, followed by contrasting scenes with four young conscripts. We experience their primitive, dislocating life as they try to cope with fear and boredom, and to deal with having power over life and death without much apparent sense or meaning.
Moaz has his actors, especially the grieving father played by Lior Ashkenazi (Footnote, Big Bad Wolves), hold long, close scenes of almost unbearable tension. The viewing experience is intentionally visceral.
As Moaz told The Guardian, “this is why, when people around me start talking about war and morals, it’s ridiculous… for example, in Lebanon, every time we found ourselves entering a small town, they told us that on 50% of its balconies there were snipers … and on the other 50% there were families. Now, if you’re going to check balcony after balcony, you won’t survive beyond three or four. So, what are your options… to be moral? It doesn’t work like that. It’s like blinking and, yes, these acts afterwards fuck your life.”
Foxtrot is a timely addition to the festival program, adding to international debate about war, as well as being a strong, well-crafted piece of storytelling by writer director Moaz.