In the midst of the homogeneous stream of today’s Indonesian cinema, Jermal challenges the flow. A thoughtful portrayal of the relationship between a father and a son, it explores a classic theme given a unique twist by its setting: an isolated fishing platform, or jermal, in the middle of the Malacca Straits off North Sumatra.
The central character is Jaya, a 12-year-old schoolboy whose orderly life is dramatically disrupted when, after his mother’s death, he is sent to the jermal to be with his father Johar. Johar, a taciturn and solitary figure, is an escapee from the mainland with a past he is determined to reject. Snubbed by his father, Jaya is left to fend for himself in a tough new environment that transforms him from a naïve schoolboy into a hardened survivor.
The idea for the film was seeded by a Kompas article read by director Ravi Bharwani a few years ago. “I felt at the time that a jermal would be a great place to make a film, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I just knew it was a great location. Not just aesthetically, but the possibilities of it being in the middle of the seas, this context of isolation.” Ravi developed the story together with Rayya Makarim in a 2003 scriptwriting workshop with Jakarta-based veteran cineaste Orlow Seunke, finally completing production in 2008.
Here are some outtakes from the experience…
Rayya: “When we picked the main actor (Didi Petet), we needed a partner and alter ego who would be able to challenge the main character, because the character of Johar is this big, formidable, strong, intimidating character. Because they’ve worked together for 26 years in pantomime theatre (in the group Sena and Didi Mime), they know each other very well, and Didi recommended him. I think in some scenes Yayu even steals the show! He was a very strong actor.”
Ravi: “I like to see and I like to make films that have minimum dialogue. So we had at first short lines for him, then they became shorter and shorter until finally we had the idea, why not make him mute as well?”
Rayya: “That was a challenge as well, as opposed to other Indonesian films, where everything is so verbal and every single thing is explained. We, especially Ravi, wanted to make a very visual film, so instead of putting things in, we took them out. Also, what I like about Bandi’s character – the irony in the relationship between Bandi and Johar – is that Johar is this person who can talk, he can express himself but he doesn’t say a word, he’s quiet, everything is closed up. Whereas Bandi, who cannot talk, is so expressive – that idea that someone who cannot talk is actually expressing more than somebody who can. Bandi is there as a supporter, but also as somebody who provokes his friend.”
Ravi and the casting agency scouted the whole city of Medan and the small towns nearby before discovering Iqbal through a screen test at his school. “He was a natural…the moment that we gave him something to do, he reacted quite fast, without having a script or without even telling him to prepare anything.”
Rayya: “This boy was hyperactive [on set] – you’d think he had no concentration span whatsoever, he’d be goofing around all the time. But the moment we’d say ‘Action’ – we’d have the clapper in front of his face and he’d still be making faces – click – and suddenly he’s there! And sometimes as well it’d be really late and we’d still have to do a few scenes, he’d be completely fast asleep on a chair. I’d have to pull him, ‘come on Jaya’, he’d be grumbling…but he’d do it. The moment we say ‘action’, he acts, and that was quite amazing.”
Some of the kids cast for the film were actually themselves from the jermal. All had different backgrounds, a couple were from the area, one has his own bakso stall – but they soon forged a close bond.
Rayya: “We stuck them together in a house for about a week or 2 weeks before shooting and when we met them again they were all best friends! They really gelled well together. They were all friends, so bullying got hard, especially the stripping scene [a bullying incident where the jermal boys take Jaya’s clothes and force him to climb up one of the jermal poles]. Jaya cried for an hour, I had to babysit him. He said I’m not ready. I said you’ll never be ready. But if you don’t do it now, you’ll still have to think about it tomorrow… But the kids also felt bad about that scene. They were like ‘how can we do this?’. And when they did it, they did it so well, so naturally – one kid smacked his bottom! They were quite ruthless in their acting, but it worked well.
“Dealing with 9 kids was hard at times, the concentration, they had no experience in acting, no idea what it entailed. They had no idea they were going to stay on a Jermal for 30 days. They didn’t know that a big part of filmmaking is waiting, they were bored.”
Ravi: “For 2 weeks we kept them in the house, then we had a basic reading and doing all the stuff we were going to do in the film, rehearsing. I also made them stay over on the jermal for 2 days, to get the feeling of what it’s like to wake up on the jermal every morning.”
Rayya: “One night suddenly one of the boys, Ahab (the boy who thinks he’s a whale), had a fever. Then he suddenly was making all these different moves on the deck and he became this tiger, growling. He was possessed. For me this was something very exotic, but for the others, this was just something that happened all the time probably. But for me this was fascinating! When they asked him who he was, he answered ‘Mayong’. The workers on the jermal said that this word has two meanings: ‘keeper of the sea’ and ‘young tiger’.
“Then the main actor exorcised him, took some water and threw it on him…it was like watching a bad B film! And you don’t know whether it was acting or if they really believed it…
“There’s a story behind the jermal: the crew member who was lowering Ahab into the boat that night, as he was lowering him, somebody pulled his hair back. And he looked, and it was a little boy, who ran to the other side of the jermal to his mother. There was a family of spirits there, a husband, wife, and child. According to the crew member, the husband was annoyed because the film crew were having a buffet dinner, and had not invited the family to join them. The husband had a bad temper – he entered Ahab, possessed him.
“Then the next day it happened to two of them – Ahab and Franky. They were facing each other on all fours, held back by 5 people each, ready to attack each other. Then it was like, ‘alright, yesterday was fascinating, today we need to finish this! We need to shoot a film!’”
Didi Petet was always the actor in mind to play the role of the father on the jermal; his name was already written on the script as it developed.
Ravi: “There are not a lot of Indonesian actors who could act well in this type of movie, so he was our first choice. We didn’t consider anyone else.”
Rayya: “Physically he fits the role, and we also thought that you need a formidable actor to be able to make the transition from being a very closed-up man, and slowly and slowly that wall gets scratched, slowly and slowly he opens up. And he also found it a challenge – it’s not just a normal character development, because the original character is a teacher and he had to keep in mind that he used to be this good man, open man, and then he closed himself up because of what happened and became an emotionally different, detached person. And then he had to go back to his original self again. And that for him he said was a challenge, he’d never done anything like that.
“Johar is isolated on so many levels – he wants to close out everything, be distant from everything, that’s why he wears earplugs at night, sleeps with a sarong covering his face, blocks out the light by covering his windows with newspaper. He has shut out the world.”
The jermal is indeed often a place of escape for people who have something to avoid on the mainland.
Ravi: “One whole jermal is occupied by convicts. Nobody even dares to approach their jermal – they have big muscles, long hair. Some of the others have kids that have run away from their homes, just to be away from their parents, work over there. You even see mentally retarded people on some jermals. When they are not accepted by their family, they send them over there. Because they can do manual labour, they don’t need too much experience, they don’t have to interact on a social level, so they are well off over there in comparison.”
Jermal is released in Indonesian cinemas on March 12, 2009.