In 2000, Garin Nugroho gave birth to A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry, the first film to revisit the 1965 massacres perpetrated by the Suharto regime—a bloodbath the Indonesian dictator touted as “anti-communist purges,” and which claimed between 500,000 and 2,000,000 lives. Entry point into that unspeakable horror was poet Ibrahim Kadir, an Indonesian artist whom Nugroho filmed as he performed didong ballads, the sung poetic duels known for their humor, word-play, and not-so-veiled political satire. An artist and an art-form a political elite grew increasingly suspicious of served as a vessel to dissect a whole country’s unresolved past, and on-going mourning.
Nearly two decades later, Nugroho’s Memories of My Body feels like a long overdue sequel. Another meta-fictional biopic, this time zeroing in on Javanese-born, Japan-based dancer and choreographer Rianto, Nugroho’s latest offering unfurls as a portrait of an Indonesian artist as a young man, a journey of creative initiation where a dancer’s body serves as the receptacle of a whole country’s suffering and its uneasy balancing between tradition and modernity.
Real life Rianto stars as himself, but only graces the screen for a few short-lived interludes that interject Nugroho’s fictionalized account of the artist’s life. “My home is my body,” he smiles seraphically at the camera in the film’s preamble—one in several fourth-wall ruptures—before the lens glides past him to focus on his stand-in, Juno (played by Raditya Evandra, as kid, and Muhammad Khan, as teenager). Elliptical and episodic, Memories chronicles a few years in Rianto’s childhood and adolescence, opening with circa 10-year-old Juno as he roams around the jungle engulfing his remote home village. With no mother in sight and a father suffering from severe PTSD (presumably purges-induced?), young Juno trails behind his older sister, idling about until the day he bumps into a company of male dancers practicing the gender-transcending Lengger. It’s a life-defining moment: Juno peers through a door hole and sees a group of heavily made-up men swirling around their women’s garments; transfixed, he starts to imitate them.
From here on, Memories of My Body chronicles the years that followed that magic first encounter—a journey that begins with a voyeuristic peeping and culminates with Juno’s ascent to Lengger dancer himself. Abandoned by his father and sister, the kid fast-forwards from childhood to adolescence, first picked up and adopted by his aunt (Endah Laras) and uncle (Fajar Suharno), and eventually, when the last family ties vanish, embarking on a solo road-trip that sees him hobnobbing with a pantheon of memorable characters, from a boxer hunted by the local mob to fellow dancers and corrupted politicians. At once serene and volcanic, Rianto acts as chaperone, interjecting into Juno’s journey to parcel out musings on his own life, body and art. They are narrative staccatos that add rhythm to the plot, and never subtract from it: watching Rianto span from quiet, zen-like composure to outburst of energy—the dancer jumping around and interacting with his surroundings as if they were scenographies for his one-man show—is a riveting spectacle, but the fourth-wall ruptures serve a precise function: commenting on the artist’s journey as it plays out on his body.
“My body is so passionate it wants to know everything!” says the dancer, moments before Nugroho turns to Juno’s fixation for hens, and the “magic like” fingers which the kid sticks inside the chicken’s rear ends to predict when (and whether) they’d be able to lay eggs—a set of skills that (much to his aunt’s shame) turns him into a consultant for fellow villagers. Perceptively, Nugroho turns to Rianto/Juno’s body as a vehicle for knowledge, and in the most primal sense of the term: Juno’s initiation to the world is cast in a fundamentally tactile dimension, as the boy learns from touching—and from being touched.
It is no wonder Juno’s aunt would punish a set of tendencies she bills as “perverted,” nor that Juno eventually replicates those punishments in a sadistic game. “My body is like a battlefield,” remarks Rianto well into Memories, and the statement billows to life as the end-point of a journey of self-discovery, where the infliction of pain is indissolubly bound to the urge to venture beyond the set of morally acceptable norms. Juno is unmistakably drawn toward men—and the harmonica-heavy score by Mondo Gascaro does give his unrequited romance with the handsome boxer (Randy Pangalila) a semblance of melodrama—but his sexual orientation is best kept secret, lest he “damage the morals” of the young people around him, as he is eventually accused. “My body is like nature,” concludes the dancer, with DP Teoh Gay Hian echoing his exuberance with a bright and warm palette of lush greens and reds. “I can’t control it, and that causes disasters.”
It is in only in the Lengger that Juno’s sexuality can find some solace. Dressed and made-up as a woman, the dances are the only space where Juno is allowed to step beyond his gender, and shatter its performativity for the sake of a boundless, universal self. Sure, it may well be a “free space,” but it remains a rigorously policed one, and the look of shame in a local politician’s face when a photo is circulated of him holding Juno’s hand, the boy dressed in Lengger feminine garments, is telling. The local authorities’ attitude toward the dance company is one of tacit acceptance—but the moment Juno insouciantly trespasses a faux pas, the veil shatters, and the crackdown begins.
In its effort to process a horror of unspeakable scale, A Poet turned to didong as a means to give dignity to the victims of the 1960s massacres. In that, it shares with Memories an understanding of art as a vehicle of emotional catharsis. “Your body can take you anywhere,” Juno’s uncle tells the boy halfway through his journey, “but bodies often carry traumas.” With the Lengger tradition subject to growing pressure from religion and politics, Memories of My Body is a compassionate ode to an art-form struggling to vindicate an in-between-space (between man and woman, between tradition and modernity), and to an artist who turned his body into a liminal, ethereal space of its own.