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Riar Rizaldi

Indonesia, today: a pair of scientists studies the activity of Mount Merapi; an intrepid female documentary-maker investigates the socio-economic realities of extracting volcanic sand, accompanied by an exploited and disabused miner who reveals the industry’s underbelly; a group of paramilitaries exerts a reign of terror over the region. This colourful community with its very different aims and interests populates a vivid fresco that explores, through a series of shifts in tone, the logic at work around the volcano. Riar Rizaldi jubilantly combines multiple cinematic registers, as if each dynamic had its own aesthetic. He uses both the bloody excess of the horror film and the informative precision of the documentary to offer us an explosive, unpredictable movie that mirrors its main character, this stratovolcano whose next eruption, according to scientific legend, could lead to the extinction of humankind as nature’s punishment for human hubris. For Rizaldi, the idea of supernatural forces is far more than an impressive tool to stage and twist the realities it models. Fantastic, incandescent figures haunt this landscape of extractions (extracting sand, data and information) better to challenge the prevalence of instrumental rationality. They accompany Monisme towards a visual and audio epiphany that suggests, in contrast to science set in its own dogmas, that, through the relationship it creates, belief in the spirits of nature is perhaps the most reasonable attitude towards the destruction of living things.

Claire Lasolle

Monisme was filmed in the foothills of Mount Merapi. Where did your interest in this place and the stories that run through it come from? Is this particular place the origin of the project?

Everyone involved in the film lives around Yogyakarta, which is maybe around 10 – 20 km away from the top of the volcano. Since the 2018 eruption, the volcano has been closed to the public, meaning that the closest people can get to the top is 4 km away, where the highest observation office is located. Even so, this  observation office is considered a forbidden zone for the public now (but we luckily got access to film there). Since 2018, I had been wondering why the eruption was treated differently (by closing down the top of the mountain to the general public) than other eruptions that happened earlier, even though it was relatively mild compared to 2016 or 2010 (which had been the loudest and biggest explosion in 200 years). We started to research, and approached the volcanologist community. We then realised that there is a silent knowledge that science cannot function as a prediction and forecast tool for the people who live around the foothill. In order to make everything safe and sound, the volcanologist community and the government can only close it down, creating many tensions amongst mountain mystic people as they used the volcano as a place of worship.

As indicated in the credits, Monisme was co-written by the people living in the foothills of Mount Merapi. Can you tell us more about their involvement and how the writing work was done?

We hung out with them a lot. During our research, from 2018 until 2021, we traveled, lived and stayed with several of the film’s characters. In 2020, we started fiddling with the idea of making a film with them. Not a film about them. But a film about Merapi made along with these people who had different world views. It could be a fiction, it could be a documentary, it could be experimental, it could be everything, or it could be nothing. But it had to be a social practice. And it had to portray Merapi as the main character. This generated a really interesting conversation about the aesthetic of cinema, especially the aesthetic of documentary cinema. Most of them were throwing ideas about making a fiction film, as some were not really comfortable being in front of the camera. When we said that we worked a lot in the context of documentary filmmaking, they understood it as a journalistic approach. For them, cinema needed to be a platform to imaginatively express their thoughts about the volcano. We thought that this was an interesting idea, in line with our own understanding of Merapi that was actually also shaped by cinema (there was a series of fantasy films from the 90s about the volcano which we grow up watching; Misteri dari Gunung Merapi, 1990). We started to write collectively, the people in the foothill that we met told us their story, and we wrote it down on paper. Many volcanological theories also came from the scientists.

The film makes extensive use of the codes of B-movies, particularly horror, but also mixes various other writing styles, in an ever-changing narrative flow, which crosses boundaries and comes to integrate meta-cinematographic elements and the making of the film itself. Why did you opt for this formal treatment?

We tried to fuse many cinematic elements to create something that resonates with the subject we are working with. Indonesian B-movies horror is our common language, the community  (including us) grew up watching it in itinerant makeshift cinemas. We share this taste for horrific aesthetics, somehow echoing many 80’s and 90’s filmmakers that used horror to speak about the presence of oppression during the military dictatorship in Indonesia. On the other hand, I am personally interested in nature documentary. Many films made about Merapi are always conceived in this frame of nature documentary, however without the involvement of local scientists. I’m interested in portraying scientific research based on the knowledge that is situated in the Mountain. Looking at the possibilities of generating scientific discussion through fiction filmmaking. Eventually, when we made this film we didn’t want to limit ourselves to certain categories. We saw this film like the volcano: as something that could not be predicted. We could not foresight how it would look like. We only knew the story on the screen but it got mixed up with multiple elements that might have been scattered or resonated with each other.

In the film we see the initial reluctance of the miners to sincerely express themselves, as well as the difficulties encountered by the female filmmaker determined to make a film about this place. To what extent do these images reflect the conditions you faced in making Monisme?

Since beginning we knew we didn’t want paramilitaries to get involved at all in this film. But of course we also needed to contextualize the film as a fiction when we dealt with them in order to shoot it in the foothill. The presence of paramilitary in the volcano is a public secret, everyone is linked to them for some reason. Many journalists have been complaining that they cannot cover certain issue in the volcano (related to ecological degradation) because of the presence of these paramilitaries. On the other hand, women researchers also have a hard time being field volcanologists because they have to face this issue. In a place like Merapi, both the notion of fiction and non-fiction might lead us to an unpredictable direction and condition.

Interview by Marco Cipollini

  • First Film Competition  
  • International Competition

Technical sheet

Indonesia, Qatar / 2023 / 115’

Rights holders
New Pessimism
B.M. Anggana

Riar Rizaldi