The Discovery of a Secret Indonesian Musical Masterpiece

At first I only had a photo of Opera Jawa, a high-res production still of a bejeweled female dancer imprisoned in a cone of billowing gold lace. Ignoring the floral-patterned glitz of the praying statue beside her, she points her fine-tuned eyebrows downward, resigned to the fate that resides just outside of the frame. Agitating my degenerate cinephilia, the uncanny beauty of the image spurred me to mount a shimmering masterpiece in my mind, the brief festival raves crystallizing my obsession with this cinematic coquette, too shy to unspool in New York City theaters.

The facts, presented to me like sacred runes, are thus: Opera Jawa is a Javanese musical directed by Garin Nugroho, and was commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival in honor of Mozart’s 250th birthday. When this dream-work finally hit a local screen (for a whopping one-day run), it easily trounced the feeble shadow play I had constructed in my head, tossing up a whole island’s worth of cultural history, peaking with a revolutionary war staged as puppet theater. To channel my mania I burrowed into the life and work of Mr. Nugroho. Who was this Indonesian iconoclast who had taken over the majority of my gray matter?

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—R. Emmet Sweeney

R. Emmet Sweeney writes for IFC News and helps to maintain the film blog Termite Art.

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