Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a feminist western from Indonesia, and as such the story should be told by a woman, thought IFFR-maestro Garin Nugroho. He left his idea in the capable hands of the talented Mouly Surya, whose second feature What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love won the NETPAC Award at IFFR 2013. In her highly original follow up she follows Marlina, a victim of a rape, who fights back -literally- by decapitating the gang leader and carrying his head across the island of Sumba to the police station.
Did the original seed for this film already have the western look inside?
"What Garin gave me was basically a five page treatment with the same premise. You can ask what I changed, but it’s easier to tell you what I didn't change, which was the premise; in the first act where she is raped by the robbers who come into her house and how she then beheads the leader and takes the head on a trip across the island to the police station. Garin got the idea from something that he had actually witnessed on the island of Sumba: a guy went around the market after beheading another guy. I also didn't change the structure, which was three acts and an epilogue, with different settings for every different act. But at that stage, it could have taken any form: a small time drama or a very gory rape revenge film for that matter. It could have gone the Tarantino way. Actually, that would have been your first thought when reading the screenplay."
So how did this idea flower into its current form?
"To make it into a western was something I thought of. Working on somebody else's story is new to me as usually I write my own scripts, basically starting from scratch. It was my producer who fell in love with the story. I was quite reluctant at first and had to take my time to digest it. When I read the treatment, I had never been to Sumba. So of course, the first thing I did was I google it (laughs). The images of the island during the dry season reminded me of western landscapes. It's in the middle of nowhere and the law doesn't seem to exist. I live in Jakarta, which looks not unlike Rotterdam. From there it is a 1,5 hour flight from Bali and then another hour on a smaller plane to Sumba. Maybe not so far, but it still feels like a different world. When I arrived there for the first time, the first thing I noticed was a warning sign: a picture of a machete, and that you were not allowed to bring them. Apparently they carry machetes like people in westerns carry guns."
The name says so much: the western is a genre from the west. How well known is it in Indonesia?
“It’s not well known at all. I myself did not grow up watching westerns, but I studied the genre at film school. The one I remember the most is Dead Man by Jim Jarmusch. Marlina is more in that vein than the classics or spaghetti westerns. That being said, my film might look like a western, but it isn't a western. It does and doesn't make sense at the same time. But the nice thing is that because it is a western, you don't have to explain everything."
As striking as Marlina looks, it is fair to say that all your films are quite different from each other?
"I'm still at the beginning of my career. I'm one of those people who never knows what to do next. Marlina just fell into my lap. It has a distinctive look, for sure, but I think that audiences who have seen my other films can make the connection between them. There is only one me and I can't make different films, but at least I can try to make them appear different, by using a different genre, or a different theme."
How was the film received in your home country?
"Marlina is my most successful film to date. It’s not exactly a box office hit, because in Indonesia those are comedies and very light films made for a mass audience, which is none of my films (laughs)... they always think my films are too depressing. But Marlina did way better than I expected and had maybe about 150,000 admissions which is not bad at all. It was hugely popular in one specific cinema in central Jakarta, where the venue would start filling up at 5 o'clock to full capacity and the audience would even clap at the end, as if I was there."
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts screened at IFFR 2018 and hits Dutch cinemas on 15 February 2018.
Photo in header: Portrait: Joke Schut. Interview: Anton Damen.