Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).


Garin Nugroho: 40 years of inspired filmmaking

Placing cinema centre stage


Published: 31 May 2021

Pen 2

Updated: 2 May 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

Cover image: Setan Jawa, 2017. Images shot by Jack Yam and Lee Chang Loong (Lime Pixels).

Veteran filmmaker Garin Nugroho shows no sign of slowing down even after crossing a milestone in 2021 with 40 years of filmmaking under his belt. Not one to rest on his laurels, Nugroho has been releasing new films yearly in his native Indonesia.  

This May, he is back with another special collaboration with Esplanade that places cinema centre stage once again! A follow-up to his “cine-concert” Setan Jawa, which was performed at Esplanade in 2017 to a full house, Samsara is an immersive cinematic experience that combines film with live music. It will have its world premiere at Esplanade on 10 May during Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2024 before moving on to tour internationally.  

Samsara is a story about a man from an impoverished family who is rejected by the wealthy parents of the woman he loves. He strikes a dark deal with the Monkey King to gain wealth but ultimately curses his wife and child into a life of suffering. Tradition merges with the new age as Samsara, a black-and-white silent film that draws inspiration from 1920s German cinema, will be accompanied by electronic music by deejay duo Gabber Modus Operandi.  

In the week leading up to Pesta Raya’s cinematic event, it is worth recapitulating Nugroho’s ascent as one of Southeast Asia’s visionary directors.  

Starting out young

Nugroho’s wide-ranging interests in most art forms dates back to his colourful childhood. Born in 1961 in Yogyakarta, he grew up in a home that doubled as a rehearsal space for performers of traditional Javanese dance and had to keep up with a family that was artistically inclined. His father was a book publisher and an accomplished writer himself while his brothers pursued fine arts. Nugroho often joked that he had little choice but to pick up filmmaking because their harsh criticism of his writing and painting attempts drove him to it.  

Nugroho’s rise to acclaim… and notoriety!

Even though Nugroho began his filmmaking career as early as 1981, he truly burst onto the scene a decade later with the release of Cinta Dalam Sepotong Roti (Love in a Slice of Bread). This poetic film about three childhood friends going on a road trip only to be confronted with romantic and sexual crises is said to express societal angst from the stifling grip of then President Suharto’s oppressive New Order regime. It is still regarded as one of the more progressive films to be made in Indonesia and went on to garner five Citra Awards—the Indonesian equivalent of the Oscars—including Best Feature Film.

Cinta Dalam Sepotong Roti and his other films from the 1990s are an early indicator of the filmmaker he would become: a kind of provocateur who is proud of the unique and sublime traits of Javanese culture but who is also unafraid to highlight socio-political issues of modern Indonesian society. Surat Untuk Bidadari (Letter to an Angel) is a fascinating docufiction hybrid. It was filmed on Sumba Island where the communities still practised pre-Hindu animism. This rural drama about a melancholic, motherless boy whose Polaroid photo-taking antics stir up trouble among the locals is interspersed with footage of actual rituals that include animal sacrifices. Nugroho’s treatment emphasises the violent clash between traditional Indonesian life and modernity.

Behind-the-scenes images from the film shoot of Surat Untuk Bidadari.

Nugroho’s acclaim in Indonesia and overseas only grew with each new film he made. Bulan Tertusuk Ilalang (…And the Moon Dances), about two disciples of traditional Javanese arts dealing with past trauma, won the FIPRESCI Prize Forum of New Cinema at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1996. Daun Di Atas Bantal (Leaf on a Pillow), a gritty drama depicting the daily lives of street children in Yogyakarta, was Indonesia’s submission to the Academy Awards in the Best Foreign Language Film category and also screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. It is still celebrated as one of the most renowned films from Indonesia today.

Behind-the-scenes images from the film shoot of Daun Di Atas Bantal.

Collaborations across cultures

By the 2000s, Nugroho’s work generated significant industry buzz and he even attained a following in the global festival circuit. So, it was hardly a surprise when he was sought out for a film commission in Austria. Opera Jawa (Requiem from Java) is a gamelan musical film inspired by the story of The Abduction of Sinta from the ancient Hindu epic The Ramayana, commissioned for the Peter Sellars’ New Crowned Hope festival in celebration of Mozart’s 250th birthday. Nugroho combines gamelan music, traditional Javanese dance, fashion, theatre and art installation to create this visually-stunning opera with a Southeast Asian twist. Opera Jawa went on to win the Silver Screen Award for Best Film at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2007.

Opera Jawa may have set the stage for Nugroho’s ambitious 2016 stage production Setan Jawa, a black-and-white silent film screening, inspired by the classic 1922 horror film Nosferatu and Javanese mythology and accompanied by live music. Performed at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in 2017 to a full house, Setan Jawa was a grand production that merged the aesthetics of German expressionism and wayang kulit. Nugroho collaborated with leading artists from Indonesia and beyond to realise this vision. The mesmerising soundtrack was jointly created by Australian composer and conductor Iain Grandage and famed Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah and performed live by a 20-piece gamelan ensemble and members of a Western orchestra. The performance received a standing ovation and was lauded by both critics and viewers alike.

Nugroho’s creative journey with Esplanade

Setan Jawa marked the beginning of Nugroho’s enduring artistic relationship with Esplanade. He returned in 2019 to direct Fatih – The Prince & the Drum, a stage production commissioned by Esplanade that tells the original tale of Prince Fatih and his fantastical journey towards self-discovery through Malay percussion, martial arts, prose and song.  

He even commemorated 40 years of filmmaking by debuting his short film Sarung at Esplanade’s 2021 edition of Pesta Raya.  

With the return of Nugroho’s multi-disciplinary, east-meets-west, past-and-present brand of “cine-concert” in the form of Samsara, it truly feels as though the filmmaker’s creative journey with Esplanade has come full circle.  

Nugroho tells Offstage,

This is my third collaboration with Esplanade, which is a space for artists across disciplines to come together to explore and create art together. This is why Esplanade is the perfect platform for Samsara, a project birthed from the exploration and collaboration between multiple artists.

Samsara – A Cine-Concert will be presented as part of Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts on 10 May 2024 at Esplanade Concert Hall.

A limited screening of Opera Jawa will be showing at The Projector on 7 May 2024. 

Contributed by:

Diana Othman

Diana Othman has spent 11 years working the media and arts industry in Singapore and all her life being passionate about cinema and the written word. She consumes films voraciously and muses on them to escape reality and feed her soul.  


The good vibes continue

Pesta Raya – Malay Festival of Arts 2024

Celebrate the icons and treasures of the Malay community in its diversity and richness through the best in theatre, dance, and music from the Nusantara (Malay Archipelago).

9 – 12 May 2024
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