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film review: the photograph

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the photographer, the girl and the railway line

The 2007 Indonesian film the photograph definitely has some power in spite of certain manipulations and conventions which I’ll get to later. It boils down to a very simple story, a two-hander essentially, about a relationship between an old and infirm photographer, and a young, struggling single mother, Sita (Shanty), teetering on the abyss. Sita sings in a karaoke bar and is clearly being forced into pleasing the customers in other ways by a hectoring standover figure. She’s separated from her young son Yani who she rings whenever she can, as well as sending money home (she also has an ailing grandmother).

But let’s begin at the beginning. The film opens as we enter the photographer’s dilapidated studio, with old pictures on the wall in old gilt frames. The old man shuffles among these images, regularly contemplates a trunk of photographic and other memorabilia, and spends some of his time burning offerings to his ancestors, or whatever gods he believes in, on an abandoned rail line just outside of town.

The beautiful Sita, having been forced to leave her living quarters, asks the old man if she can rent the room above his studio. The photographer’s responses are always non-committal if not grudging, and he seems to be lost in another world. Sita takes advantage of this to simply move in.

That’s when we turn to Sita’s life as a karaoke singer and spruiker for clients. Her ‘pimp’, if that’s what he is, is presented rather one-dimensionally as a whining, bullying little packet of evil who bangs on the door of the phone booth while she speaks to her son, and cajoles her into a room where three thugs rape and abuse her. He appears also to take all her earnings because she apologizes to the photographer for not being able to pay for her room and begs him to let her stay on. Having been beaten up, she’s unable to work, and so she makes herself useful to him by cleaning his studio and helping with the occasional customers he photographs against painted backdrops of the countryside.

The film dwells on this awkward relationship, contrasting the spent, secretive old photographer with his face toward the past, and the struggling young woman with a mixture of pragmatic hopes and idealistic dreams for her and her son’s future. The old man is looking to groom a successor, but he needs someone who can carry on the spirit of his ancestors. Sita is half-interested herself in taking on the role, but realises that the tradition-bound old man, in spite of his growing kindness toward her, would find her unsuitable, just as a woman.

Sita hasn’t told the pimp her new address but he soon finds her and starts haranguing her, but is beaten away by the neighbours. Later he returns, and in one of the film’s most unconvincing scenes, chases her out of the town along a railway track, where, conveniently, the old man turns up and somehow the pimp manages to get himself run over by a train, though the impact is not presented and the likelihood of this young man, who’s clearly been living by his wits for years, allowing himself to be hit by a train in this way is just about zero.

Anyway, being freed of this man, she’s able to look more clearly towards the future – she’d love to become a chanteuse on a cruise ship. Meanwhile the photographer is getting more tottery, and while he’s on what might be his deathbed she explores the place further, including a trunk that he’s strictly forbidden her to open. It contains, inter alia, some tattered photos of the mutilated victim or victims of a train accident. The old man, suddenly recovered, catches her snooping, and we get a flashback to his youth, when he was on a train which hit someone on the line. He took photos of various parts of the victim’s body, the photos Sita found in the trunk, and he’s been haunted by the event ever since.

The old man returns to his dying, and he may already be dead when a last photograph is taken, with him propped in a chair and Sita by his side. This is the photo of the film’s title, and it eventually comes into the possession of Yani, Sita’s son, who narrates the final moments of the film, uniting past and future through the power of photography among other things. A pleasant and sometimes moving film, a little marred by some unlikely plot elements, and by a slightly unreal spareness of scene, with little of the bustle you would surely find in urban Indonesia. Film-makers, of course, create their own reality in a film, which is never the ‘real’ reality. At the same time a degree of verisimilitude is essential to evoke the sorts of responses you want to evoke in viewers. This is one of the essential balancing acts in any film, and the hardest thing to manage (and that’s what makes James Bond films such abject failures in my view). The photograph, unfortunately, doesn’t quite succeed in this regard, but the characters, especially Sita, are interesting enough to compensate.

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Written by stewart henderson

February 22, 2014 at 2:18 pm

Posted in film, film review, Indonesia

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