Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Eleventh Hour

(This blog was in the make for about a week....)

It almost always happens to me. Just before a project is due to be published or presented, I lose faith in its value and think that it should go in the round file. Such a moment descended upon me the day before leaving Jakarta. We had come to a difficult juncture in the editing of Rangsa ni Tonun and suddenly the film seemed like an impossibility. The text written down by Guru Sinangga ni Adji is a description of the steps in weaving a cloth, but it also has a poetic quality and plays with words, rhythms and analogies. It does not always follow the exact order in which a weaver carries out her task. Moreover, the way a weaver works varies from place to place and from weaver to weaver as well as from textile to textile. This poses an enormous challenge when editing the film. How much latitude can one take with the text? And are there errors in the guru’s recitation? Should we chop up the weaver’s work to coincide with the text? These questions lead to the inevitable: what are we doing with this filming project and why? What are our purposes and goals?

I began to question many things, but most of all, the style of the film. I think that Nashir has done well infusing the weaving description with a mythical quality. Should we have emphasized that mythical quality more and not focused on the details of the techniques? But how could we have accomplished this? I just do not know enough about film to even begin to articulate this. Our film is neither apples nor oranges, fish nor fowl. It leads me to want to explore comparable texts in other Asian cultures. (Chris Buckley has told me that such texts may be found elsewhere in Asia as well, and not just in the Batak region.) Have we stumbled into a problem of genre? Does this film require a rangsa genre? What form would that take?

On top of that, no matter how we slice it, the film is about translation of a text and of culture. We inch closer to the Batak culture of the past as we work on it, but the closer we get, the further away it seems to recede. The film appears to be an introduction rather than a conclusion. As the text reveals itself as more and more complex, the problem of translation moves increasingly to the forefront. How can plays on words, so distinctively rooted in ancient, foreign, past Batak culture, be turned into film? While I had rejected a verbal translation of the text because it would be so ponderous, now it seems easier to negotiate than a filmic translation.

And then there are all of the practical issues that we have run into. The film is undeniably a visual rendering of Batak weaving terminology. But even this goal is turning out to be increasingly daunting because so much has been lost. We tried valiantly to find people who could execute technical processes for us and we tried heroically to find weaving equipment. We reconstructed and refurbished but in the end, we can only approximate. What is lost is lost and cannot be revived. Too much time has already passed. Is approximation of a past the story that we want to be telling? All of the steps in making yarn and all of the steps in making red dye have been lost. The elderly women in Sianjur Mulamula could pantomime the activities but they are too old to perform them. The tradition is like sand slipping through the fingers. It lives only in their pantomime and memories, and they are women at the end of their lives. Anyone seeing that footage, who truly understands its significance, can only weep.

In addition, the woodworking skills required to make the instrument are gone. Even the trees and access to wood has disappeared. In this sense, our attempt to film Rangsa ni Topnun has been a lesson in the depth of social change that has taken place in the region, the extend of loss. We are making the film 100 years too late.

As I ponder all of this, and consider our resulting filmic translation of this old Batak text, I see that I have come to a crossroads. I am realizing that our own journey of discovery is a valuable story. The reasons why the filming of Rangsa ni Tonun is so difficult have great value. Nashir has coined the phrase “the last weaver” and we both know that his footage of laughing, pantomiming women in Sianjur Mulamula is as tragic as it is fun. The footage is precious and may someday be recognized as such and in demand. It depicts the last weavers talking about a tradition that ends with them. Even if it ‘revives’ and transforms into a recognized art form, it will never be what it was. Is this the real story that we should be telling? Through our film we became aware of the loss of culture. There should have been a camera filming us filming Rangsa. That story behind Rangsa is at least as important as the message of Rangsa and, let’s face it, far more timely. Is our filming of Rangsa ni Tonun just the first step in a longer filmic journey? Just don't tell me that another book about Batak weaving is beckoning me to sit down and write it…

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