The Points Beside – Rooftop and Afternoon Talks

Fikri Jermadi considers how the context becomes the text in Riyadi Prabowo’s film.

This is will have a slightly weird start, but bear with me: having a good idea of ‘Rooftop and Afternoon Talks’ is a little bit like discerning the divide between the animated films of Pixar and Dreamworks. The former places a premium on self-contained plus points, predicated largely along engaging plot and characters. Key examples include ‘Cars’ and ‘Finding Nemo’, whose films stand the test of narrative time; you don’t need to know what’s cool in 2006 to enjoy Lightning McQueen’s trials and tribulations.

The latter, on the other hand, leans more towards the cultural capital you acquired beyond the film. If, for instance, you don’t understand the ubiquity of Starbucks in a North American sense, some jokes in ‘Shrek 2’ is more than likely to pass over your head. Of course, these fine strokes of a broad brush do not determine the quality or enjoyment of these films, merely how you access some of their deeper levels.

That leads us to ‘Rooftop and Afternoon Talks’. Directed by Riyadi Prabowo, the story is exactly what it says on the film tin. It features two characters, Gema (Galih Prasetyo) and Nayla (Fajrina Faluhukay), lazily whiling away an afternoon on top of a building in Jakarta, Indonesia. It’s quite an idyllic scene, a break for ‘fresh air’ away from the busy urban life below (more on this later). In between the puffs of life, however, lies more prevalent questions related to interreligious marriages.

This is first broached by Nayla, who merely asks: “How long will we be like this?” I didn’t quite get it at first, but it became clear soon enough that she is talking about the state of their romantic relationship, indicating a difference in the direction of their prayers. Gema appears to be of Chinese ethnicity, an identity often conflated in Indonesia with a non-Islamic persuasion. This is confirmed later through their interaction, where they enact the different marriage practices of their faith.

Religion is the first of the ‘silent’ factors this film considers. Though largely anecdotal (and thus should be taken with many sprinklings of salt), there is evidence to showcase how such divisions have led to many of these relationships conducted along largely unofficial lines, often acknowledged only by close friends and family members. More often than not, this is because putting things down on paper would require some realignment on it; given Indonesia’s majority Muslim population, this often sees non-Muslim (reluctantly) convert into Islam.

Nayla’s thoughts thus betrays a desire for a more public and performative aspect to their personal relationship. What is intriguing is that, while she appears to prioritise the intimate and domestic appeal of such marriages (“We can eat together, shower together, sleep together”), Gema’s response, that they can go to work together, suggests a more socio-economic imperative often imbued with Chinese minorities. His balking at the potential dowry, as well as wondering out loud the need to have children, does not help with this. Having said that, he is the more playful of the two, rendering such analyses with all sorts of asterisks.

These terms and conditions segue into the second ‘silent’ factor. “Work all the time, and never rich,” she chides him, indicating to the buildings towering over them. “Be ashamed with those buildings there.” The topography is key, for the film places them at Sudirman Central Business District in Jakarta, a financial centre of the country; while they remain aspirational towards climbing the Indonesian ladder of life (a phase Gema describes as pre-rich), they are also far above the madding (and maddening) crowd bustling below.

This is where the laboured Dreamworks analogy would pay off, where the context makes the text. Released at the end of 2019, it came after a particularly tumultuous year in Indonesian politics, in which tensions over differences (such as race and religion) would play its part in the presidential election. These are are spillovers from a contentious gubernatorial race in Jakarta a few years earlier in 2017. Then, the polls recorded a narrow defeat for the ethnic Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, with many analysts believe his religion and ethnicity to have counted against him when push comes to political shove.

Though the 2019 presidential election had no minority candidates, Jakarta once again became conduit through which all sorts of residual anger was channeled. The incumbent and subsequent winner Joko Widodo (a long-time ally of Purnama) certainly felt shaken enough to install a running mate with relatively hardline Islamic credentials. All these events (and more) are enough to instill a greater sense of caution in the Chinese community; traumatised by events from the late 1990s, many of those with means would leave the country during these flashpoints, before returning when they feel safe.

This may have strayed far from Riyadi’s intentions in making the film, but he appears to be a filmmaker conscious of such contexts. I’ve not seen ‘A Montage of Chisun’ myself, but the synopsis for his 2016 film (“A Chinese guy wants to make a vlog with his spouse, but there’s a gaffe found after the video was uploaded”) suggests someone conscious of how these factors would float in an Indonesian cinematic context. Thus, even as our protagonists are situated far above those on the streets, this mass remains present through their absence, their politics a silent signified hanging in the background; conflating the context and text together, I believe those beside the point is precisely the point of the film.

Of course, that may be digging a little too deep into a film that probably sprung more from a “Wow, this place is cool, let’s make a film here” moment. ‘Rooftop and Afternoon Talks’ is short and sweet, maximising its impact with minimum fuss, props and characters. There’s a balance to the proceedings, with both main characters (and a cameo third) offering their own whimsical charm to the story. There are some shifts in perspective and tone (such as in the solemnization roleplaying sequence) which, at times, can be a little jarring. It caught me off-guard, but these are small issues far and few in between.

Ultimately, I feel ‘Rooftop and Afternoon Talks’ is a film not just about those on top of and inside these buildings, it also touches on those selling nasi goreng gila behind it. In addition to thinking aloud on issues related to religion, it doubles as a more covert discussion on hierarchy (this is signified in the film’s ending, when a solution to Gema and Nayla’s conundrum is revealed). Not only is this an indication of Jakartan politics, it is also an indictment on Indonesian society, where some of the things that matter the most sits silently in the distance down below.

Featured image credit: Pille Kirsi / Pexels

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