Pasir Berbisik and 
new women’s aesthetics
 in Indonesian cinema (Jump Cut, 2007)

Pasir Berbisik

Jump Cut  vol. 49, 2007

Intan Paramaditha

Nan T. Achnas’ Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sands, 2001) was produced during the early years of Indonesian reformasi, a new era of democracy after the end of New Order regime under Suharto’s authoritarian leadership in 1998. It is an important film not only in terms of political context but also aesthetics, as the first work directed and produced by women with a conscious feminist agenda.The film, however, has not been extensively discussed. An explanation for this is inaccessibility; it received critical acclaim in various international film festivals yet did not have a wide distribution.Even in Indonesia, copies are only available in VCD and without subtitles. And there both critics and viewers have shown a lack of interest. The film’s minimal dialogue and slow pace have led to its commercial failure as many people find it “simply boring and confusing.”On the other hand, critics tend to see it as an unnecessarily beautiful film that is neither “realistic” nor political enough.

Set up in a village in East Java in 1960’s, Pasir Berbisik presents a complex relationship between a mother, Berlian (Christine Hakim), and her teenage daughter, Daya (Dian Sastrowardoyo).Berlian’s husband, Agus (Slamet Rahardjo Djarot), had left the family when Daya was still a little child. As a single parent, Berlian earns a living by selling jamu, Indonesian traditional herbal medicine, and assisting a midwife in childbirth and abortion. While Berlian is overprotective toward her daughter, Daya constantly daydreams about her father’s returning as a real hero. Meanwhile, external political tension between the military and the Indonesian Communist Party threatens the remote areas of the country, forcing the mother and daughter to flee from their village. In the new place they settle in, the long-lost father finally returns and transforms their lives.

Offering long, lingering shots of vast landscape of sands, mountains, and small villages, the film is stylistically indebted to neorealism. As described within Deleuze’s framework, space in neorealist films offers subjective images built up of “purely optical situations” rather than action (1989: 2), reflecting people’s interpretation of their environment and circumstances. Characters’ actions, as in Pasir Berbisik, do not necessarily entail linear progression, and the ways in which they behave often do not seem to correspond to their immediate situation. Because critics and viewers probably receive the film from the point of view of realism – especially in terms of the history of neorealism in Indonesia, which has focused more on social content instead of aesthetics  – they may not appreciate that the film’s aesthetic subordinates or integrates representing the “real” to a psychological and social foregrounding of the perspective of its female characters. The sands as depicted in the film are more than a physical setting, rather something integral to the characters’ world view.

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