I spent long and hard, thinking about how to start this particular review. It’s not that the film ‘Pesantren’, or ‘3 Doa, 3 Cinta’ is hard to decipher. If anything, it plays out in a very straightforward manner, and a positive one, at that. I do wonder a little about the multiple titles that has been bestowed upon the film. Though both aptly and accurately describe the film, neither is particularly eye-catching, or attention-grabbing. ‘Pesantren’ (religious school) sounds a little more local, and thus stands out strongly amid the other films lined up in the schedule. Nevertheless, its uniqueness would have inspired more of a “Huh?” sort of reaction, rather than a “I’ve got to watch that one!” So, I suppose it would be appropriate to begin the review by pondering what is in a title.
Then again, it is the easy way out I take for every other Korean film I review, due to the big difference between the Korean and the English titles like ‘Shadows in the Palace’ (shameless self-promotion here). Plus, with the professional wrestler Edge’s theme song ringing in my ears, it is difficult to think with the noise. I’ve taken the habit of listening to songs from Youtube as I write these days, partly to provide for inspiration, so do forgive me for the little sidetrack.
Pity, really, because as a film, ‘Pesantren’ (the title which I will use) is a film that gives and takes respect in equal measure. In part, that is one of the ambitions of the director, Nurman Hakim, who have consistently stated that he wants to counter people’s perceptions of religious schools in the aftermath of September 11. From that little seed grows three loves and wishes that plays out in the film, and we have the director’s own personal experience to thank for this little gem.
Thus, the words ‘big’ and ‘small’ can describe the narrative. Small, personal stories set against the background of grand, world events. We follow three best friends, Huda (Nicholas Saputra), Syahid (Yoga Bagus Satatagama) and Rian (Yoga Pratama) who all live together at a pesantren in Lempuyangan, Java. They spend almost all their time together, sneaking out after hours, playing pranks, and attending the classes together. One particular moment that stuck in my mind was when one of them, when waking up, notices the early morning boner that another one of them has, and lifts his cloth to have a quick look and snigger (for the life of me, I can’t remember who was checking out whose boner). Another is when they fall asleep during the early morning prayers of Subuh. It is the sort of personal touch that could not be made up by anyone else. I wondered whose penis the director checked out during his own pesantren days.
Getting back on track, it is during the classes that events and issues starts to get a little more international. Two of the more influential teachers at the school unfortunately teaches and believes in diffferent things. The headmaster, wise and old Kyai Wahib (Brohisman), believes in equality, peace and brotherhood amongst everyone. This includes Christians and Jews (a message which I personally lean towards). On the other (extreme) hand is Ustadz (Doubleh Zulkanean), who preaches with all his might of the need to fight the advancing enemies from the West. You know the stereotypical religious recruiters? With their heads covered and bearded and all that? That’s Ustadz. He preys on the minds of the young, weak, and impressionable, something that Syahid is. This is not without cause, as we see his own family being practically conned out of their own land by the big, bad white guy.
As Syahid is busy being inducted into the ‘jihad’ way of life, Huda is far more concerned about finding his mother in Jakarta. His only link to the capital city is Dona Satelit (Dina Sastrowardoyo), who is a singer in a group. She has a friend of a friend of a friend (or someone to that effect) who may be able to track down his mother. Though the link tenuous, the girl mysterious, and the resources limited, Huda is desperate enough that he is tempted to go beyond himself to find his mother. As Huda deals with his missing mother, Rian tries to pay tribute to his late father by trying to go into the film and video industry. He gets his foot in at the travelling circus Dona Satelit is a part of, getting to know the movie exhibitor Toha (Butet Kartaredjasa).
And then 9/11 hits. From that point on, the film matures from sweet adolescence into young adulthood, mirroring the journey of its protagonists.
It is this journey, and nothing else, that matters. In short, it is a coming-of-age story. Set in a different, more Western setting, the film might have been dismissed as nothing than yet another, typical teen drama. But it wasn’t, so it isn’t. What it is, however, is a very poignant tribute to the director’s own memories and history. At the same time, it also serves as a very interesting and humanising portrayal that strips away at the stereotypes that you might have of people attending religious schools.
That basic approach to the narrative also helps to keep everyone involved. It’s easy to like the film, despite the potential heaviness of the subjects at hand. After all, every one of the three suffers, in a way, from the lack of a strong, parental guidance in their life. Sure, they get their share from the teachers and what not, but evidently that is not enough. It is their drive to search for something more that leads them on their respective paths. Everyone can relate and share in the collective consciousness of having parents, and so, despite the persona of seemingly-far-flung Java, you’ll definitely be able to hook up with the characters and sink their teeth into their escapades.
It helps greatly that despite the limits of their characterisation (I can’t help but feel like I’ve seen all of these characters before, somewhere…damn you, Carl Jung!), the chemistry between each and every one of them sparkles like the bubbly champagne that will surely be banned on the pesantren grounds. It is the little moments between all of them that makes the bigger whole worthwhile and satisfying. Big and small. Dian Sastro, despite her starring role on the poster, actually has a comparatively smaller role, but that’s OK. Far more interesting are the performances of the rest of the supporting cast members. Both Doubleh Zulkanean and Brohisman are very charismatic and convincing, but the chief star turn amongst these is Butet Kartaredjasa. I loved his character, it felt completely, totally, utterly believable, and though I can’t quite go further than that, there’s just something about him. His scenes was brief, but they carried a lot of weight. One of his last scenes, especially, as his face etched the feelings of his heart, was heart-wrenching in its own way.
In that lies the secret of the films success. Despite the long development period (3 years), it seems that the director never lost touch with what he wanted. Everything is what it is, and yet not what it is at the same time. September 11 is important, but not that important. It is big, and it is small. Something as small as a video recorder also plays a big part, providing for a nice, interesting way to give a twist to events. Small, and big. Nurman Hakim has successfully created a film that is feels incredibly personal on a grand scale. He has imbued something in almost every scene that can make you feel, and it is this skill that I want for myself.
That sounds egoistic, doesn’t it? But that’s what it is. I hope I have made myself clear, somehow, about what this film is both about and how.
Big and small.
That’s how I should have started this post…
Fikri just finished reading ‘Psychology for Screenwriters’. Hence, the Jungian reference…