A Programmer's Chronicles 22
by Gertjan Zuilhof
You will usually find more people than necessary on a filmset. Moths round a lamp. Peeping Toms. The morbidly curious. I too can also occasionally be found hanging around filmsets surplus to requirements. I previously wrote about the set of Under the Tree by Garin Nugroho, a film now completed. In Jakarta, I saw him again working on a following film (and in the same week directing the live version of his Opera Jawa). The new film is called Generasi Biru/Blue Generation. It’s also a music film, but now focusing in the classic Indonesian rock-band Slank.
An ideal combination for many hangers-on: a set in the old heart of Jakarta, a renowned film maker and a notorious rock band. It was like a circus on the set and Nugroho remained faithful to himself by leaving the chaos intact. The shooting took place in a gigantic old warehouse that was so dusty that smoke machines weren’t needed. I was offered a dust mask, but only hard-working kids were wearing them. The rock stars were easy to recognise, they were the only ones who didn’t get pushed around.
A few weeks before, I had been on a very different set. I had been to take a look around on the set of Uruphong Raksasad. I already had the idea that his set - if you could call it that, because he argues that his film is a documentary - would not be overpopulated. His shooting schedule lasted no less than a year. His location was also some way outside Chiang Rai, in the far north of Thailand, not far from the border with Laos. No celebrities in this cast. Maybe there wasn’t even much of a reason to take a look?
The plan put together by Uruphong (Thai people occasionally have spectacular surnames, but they don’t really use them) is intriguing and was therefore supported by the Hubert Bals Fund. Under the title Agrarian Utopia, he wanted to portray a community of rice farmers through the cycle of seasons. A community that still works with traditional tools, without machines or electricity. The unusual thing about the plan is that it is actually fiction. He rented a paddy field (a muddy patch of waterlogged land) and asked several local farmers and their wives to work it for him. Then I would say you have a set, a location and a cast. It looks no different from the rice fields around it where everyone was also hard at work. Uruphong says the difference is in the story. He follows his performers like real farmers and also interviews them. He also introduced me to a neighbour who fitted in well with his story. The man had once worked at the university (as a sociologist, I think) and had withdrawn to a cottage in the rice paddies. He defended an even less cultivated way of growing rice. Instead of planting the typical sprigs in the mud, he just threw seeds on his land. The result was thought-provoking. You didn’t need to be a rice farmer for that.
I am sure that Uruphong is making a fascinating film. I primarily base that faith on his first film Stories from the North (2006) and also on his entertaining short film The Rocket (2007). His location is more an idea and a story. Maybe even a belief that man could live closer to nature. You can’t see or feel that the film will be special from his rice paddies (he asked me to stand in it with bare feet and that did awaken the nature man in me). It can however be deduced from the commitment of the film maker and the patience he displays in portraying what he always knew (he was operating from his parental home), but what is inevitably disappearing.
Another reason to have faith in the film is the producer, Pimpaka Towira. She brought me to the far north to see Uruphong at work and I suspect she will also make sure that the film gets completed as it was envisaged. I was happy to see that Pimpaka’s sense of responsibility knows few bounds in producing the complicated Black Air installation for the New Dragon Inns exhibition at the IFFR earlier this year. And she has even taken under her wing the Bangkok International Film Festival, that had entirely succumbed to corruption.
Uruphong could easily have found a lesser producer. There is not much to produce, it would appear. Uruphong lies waiting in the rice paddy with his camera at night waiting for the sun to rise. After his recording, he goes home for breakfast with his mother. Then he edits on the computer standing beside his bedroom. Ascetically and simply like a monk. But Uruphong asked his producer for a year and there is not much guaranteed income. An idiosyncratic film maker. A courageous producer. A hand-tilled rice paddy. I hope it is all worth it.