The film's narrative presents a doubling, perhaps tripling of women gaining knowledge through looking. Here, Berlian places herself in Daya’s peeping place, As she puts herself in her Daya’s position, she tries to align herself with her daughter’s gaze, perhaps to understand how her daughter is growing in knowledge.
Dead, anonymous bodies by the sea indicate how the narrative deals with the 1965 political turmoil as an almost obscure background element in the villagers' lives.
“Hot weather makes people more hostile” was Berlian’s only explanation for this violence.
Two men stare at Daya, but the mother interrupts their voyeuristic desire.
Daya walks in ignorance, captured by the male gaze.
Daya enjoys liberating her body without acknowledging the presence of others.
Berlian returns and interrupts Suwito’s voyeuristic gaze.
Delima, Daya’s aunt, is a sensual Tayub dancer.
Daya feels closer to her aunt than to her mother.
Daya, who always wants to identify herself with Delima, learns Tayub dance.
The burning of the village forces Daya and her mother to flee.
Daya and Berlian are trying to find a new place to live.
The framing often contrasts the smallness of the characters to the vastness of the landscape.
The two women finally arrive at the new village.
Delima visits Daya and gives the girl a red kebaya. Daya's mother is watching jealously.
Daya, wearing the red kebaya given by her aunt, is looking at her reflection on the mirror.
Daya becomes identical with the image of the aunt she admires.
Daya and her friend sneak out to see the Tayub dance.
Delima teases men with her erotic dance.
After watching the dance, Daya comes home and sees her mother burn the red kebaya.
Delima bids farewell to her niece.
Agus, the long lost father finally returns.
An image of father telling fantastic stories to his daughter replaces the relationship between mother and daughter.
Agus sells Daya to Suwito the vile merchant.
Agus is watching the sexual harassment experienced by his daughter from a rear view mirror.
Suwito, in desire, asks Daya to touch her own body sexually.
In this scene showing sexual violence, the cinematography prevents Daya from being an eroticized spectacle.
Berlian takes revenge by poisoning her husband to death.
Berlian insists that Daya leave the village so the daughter can seek her own path.
Berlian turns her back against Daya.
Daya keeps counting as she used to do, but her mother does not turn her head.
Eliana Eliana (2002), another mother-daughter film produced after the fall of Suharto regime in Indonesia.
Love for Share (2006), another post-Suharto Indonesian film made by a woman director. It criticizes polygamy in Indonesia.
Another sequence provides an expanded narrative tracing Berlian’s power over the gaze. First, in Berlian’s house in the evening, she gives Daya a warm drink to have a good sleep. She then leaves for her neighbor’s house, a midwife, to assist a pregnant woman in labor. When Daya hears a woman’s voice screaming from pain, she jumps out of bed and rushes toward the door. The scene now shifts to the outside of the midwife’s house. Once again, in voyeuristic fashion, Daya peeps through a window to see her mother, the midwife, and the pregnant woman. Recurring in the film is a visual motif of walls with gaps between the boards, indicating the interplay between the image of the house – traditionally seen as a claustrophobic domestic space — and the rupture within that space through which a female character can connect with other women.
Similar to the previous sequence, Daya, the camera, and the spectator are in the position of watching the mother. Daya counts until three, and as the spectator can predict, the mother looks at all her viewers. Among the three women in the mise-en-scène, Berlian is the only person aware of being watched. As she looks at her daughter (and us), Daya hides her face from the mother’s gaze and stops watching. After the baby is delivered and the scream fades out, we have a long shot of Berlian looking at the camera again. She gets up from the bed and approaches the camera. When she opens the door, she finds Daya asleep on the bench by the window. As she gazes through the window, in the same way as when Daya watched her before, the film frames a close-up shot of a figure peeping into the room. This time the audience is not aligned with Daya’s point of view but the mother’s.
Now we are following both the camera and the mother’s eyes, looking into the midwife’s room. The scene shows the midwife sitting on the floor, looking exhausted, and it soon cuts to the close-up shot of Berlian, who is still looking through the window. This is followed by another shot of the room in which Berlian helps the ill-looking midwife to sit on the bed. Berlian sits closely by her side, rubbing her chest with body warming oil. Then a young woman appears after knocking on the door impatiently, insisting on having an abortion. The woman comes in, leading the film to a series of shots where Berlian and the midwife perform the abortion. Another scream is heard, and finally, the two women receive their payment. Another abortion and another childbirth are repetitively shown in that room, plunging the spectator into the banality of giving life and ending it.
Afterward the film cuts back to the close-up shot of Berlian peeping into the window. This gives the impression that the series of childbirth and abortion that we saw were only in her imagination. By placing herself in Daya’s peeping place, the mother tries to put herself in her daughter’s position and align with her daughter’s gaze. The film thus complexly underscores that voyeuristic desire is not necessarily male and hence the cinematic and narrative structure make a female gaze possible and necessary. What Daya – and later her mother – watches is not sexualized, but the work of women in a domestic setting: brewing, crushing herbs, giving birth. The activities seem to be trifling, monotonous, and banal, yet they bind these marginalized women together in their endeavor to survive.
The idea of women frankly seeing other women’s private lives challenges New Order historical films, in which the male heroes have the privilege of looking into the lives of anonymous civilians before they decide on important actions. In Pengkhianatan G30S/ PKI, some scenes depict poor people complaining about soaring food prices to present the film's negative outlook on President Sukarno’s authoritarianism and alignment with the Communist Party. They set up a framework for the audience to justify military intervention. In contrast, with this historical event treated as an almost obscure background, Pasir Berbisik detaches its worldview from grand political schemes. When villagers gather to see dead bodies by the sea, Berlian only explains that in a hot, dry season people tend to be more hostile to one another. Clearly this is an inadequate explanation that alienates the audience from the real political context, yet such dialogue may lead viewers to understand that they are here seeing bloody history from the perspective of the people that are missing.
Daya’s way of looking, furthermore, proposes a different dimension of voyeurism, which cannot be categorized as perversion but rather, as the desire to unravel the mysteries of life. Her curiosity hence shows that the Oedipal desire to solve a crucial riddle is not exclusively masculine.
Mulvey claims that the “conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world” (17). Within this framework, Sen points out how female characters in Indonesian cinema do not control how much they are exposed. Referring to Annette Kuhn, who argues that an important part in enjoying voyeurism is the object’s ignorance of being watched in a “caught unawares” pose, Sen provides examples from voyeuristic shots in 7 Wanita dalam Tugas Rahasia (Seven Women on a Secret Mission) in which women sleep on the ground with legs apart (1994: 153). Pasir Berbisik challenges the illusion of unawareness. Since the very first scene, Berlian’s omnipotence is emphasized. She is not only conscious of being watched, but she also disrupts the pleasure of viewing activity. Every time she returns Daya’s (and our) gaze, Daya has to hide, and the spectator also has to stop looking.
It is important, however, to note that the film does not completely escape the male gaze. Some sequences present male characters who take pleasure in seeing women, yet the male gaze in the film is always interrupted by the mother. In a sequence in which two male customers are drinking jamu in Berlian’s little shop, we are presented a point-of-view shot of men catching a glimpse of Daya, who is walking from screenleft. We can only see Daya for a moment because the camera immediately moves to focus on Berlian, now alerted that her daughter is being watched. One man comments about how Daya has grown up as she is passing by. The two men laugh, which makes Berlian uneasy. As they are laughing and enjoying their view of Daya, Berlian drops a plate with a cold look. The noise alarms the two men; they stop staring and turn their heads from Daya to her mother.
With Berlian interrupting male voyeurism, the film foregrounds an interplay in which the gaze of both male and female characters is contested. As a result, the spectator’s identification with male characters is disrupted. In her “Afterthoughts” Mulvey refines her proposition, much criticized for dismissing women from the audience, by arguing for the experience of “masculinization” of both male and female spectators when watching film. Using Duel in the Sun as her object of analysis, Mulvey claims that female protagonists are unable to achieve a stable sexual identity since they move back and forth from passive femininity and regressive masculinity (1989: 29). This instability is parallel to the dilemma of the female spectators, who unconsciously enjoy the freedom of action of a male hero and thus adopt the masculine point of view, yet ironically they are left unfulfilled, for the masculinization remains a fantasy, or as Mulvey puts it, “restless in its transvestite clothes” (1989: 29-30). Pasir Berbisik responds to these boundaries; it allows for a female gaze by aligning the spectator with Daya’s voyeurism, making the gaze of female character and spectator possible. At the same time, it destabilizes the masculinity of the gaze by presenting Berlian as a castrator of male voyeuristic pleasure.
Berlian's severity contrasts with her sister Delima's sexiness. As an erotic Tayub dancer, Daya’s aunt offers a completely different version of femininity. [open notes in new window] She represents the prostitute figure that New Order cinema would condemn or save, yet the film provides her agency with her sexuality. Like Berlian, she is not afraid of the male gaze, but instead of looking at men with disgust, she seduces men with her eyes. Berlian begins to worry when Delima teaches Daya erotic dance. Every time Daya watches her aunt dancing with admiration, Berlian always calls the daughter and interrupts the scene. Berlian’s hostility toward erotic dance and the male gaze it invites is emphasized in a sequence where Daya, unaware of her surroundings, practices dancing. Captured in a long shot, she enjoys liberating her body without acknowledging the presence of others. We soon learn that there is a spectator, however — Suwito (Didi Petet), a vile merchant who desires Daya, faces Daya like a spectator in the auditorium. As soon as Daya’s mother appears from the screenright, she returns the merchant’s gaze, looks at her ignorant daughter, and calls her: “Child!” Daya stops dancing and follows her mother. Once again, the male character and the spectator are not allowed to engage in a long, continuous activity of voyeurism.
Protective mother and symbolic order
The sequences discussed indicate Berlian’s ambiguous character. She is a loving and at the same time harsh and controlling mother who prohibits all curiosity and pleasure. She is the mother whom Daya is dependent upon and from whom the daughter wants to flee. The complex relationship between Berlian and Daya in the film reflects the psychological relation between mother and child in the imaginary realm. Describing that psychological mechanism, Mulvey draws on Lacan to indicate how a woman has two options:
Instead of submitting Daya to patriarchy, which is established by suppressing femininity, Berlian chooses the second option: protecting her daughter and keeping her within the maternal sphere.
In Lacan’s topographic mode of human development, the Imaginary is the phase in which the border between a child and the (m)other is not rigidly distinct. The mirror stage gives the infant the first experience of personal unity as the infant is looking at his/her reflection in the mirror, but even this coherence is “guaranteed” by the mother. Jacqueline Rose in the introduction to Lacan’s Feminine Sexuality stresses mother’s dominant role in the child’s recognition of his/her “salutary imago” since it is through the mother’s look and presence that the child perceives himself as a whole (1982: 30). This explains a child’s dependency on his/her mother in discovering him/herself. The mirror stage, nevertheless, is not only a phase of finding excitement in seeing images but also a phase of misrecognition where the human imago “dominates the entire dialectic of the child’s behaviour in the presence of his similars.” Lacan further illustrates:
Seeing his/her image reflected outside, the child keeps identifying him/herself with the other, given that he/she still cannot clearly define who is viewing and who is viewed. The mother, whose body a child feels undifferentiated from as a baby, is the one he/she is identified with.
Dependency and (mis)identification are recurring themes throughout the film. Berlian’s act of calling her daughter "Anak" (Child) instead of "Daya," which means "ability" or "power" in Indonesian language, underlines the mother-daughter dyad in the Imaginary where totality and separation are not completely achieved. By calling her daughter “Anak” (Child), Berlian claims that Daya’s existence cannot be separated from her as “Ibu” (Mother). Daya in turn is obsessed with her mother voyeuristically as a child searches for her own image projected onto the other. Yet mother’s rigidity that forbids all pleasures, including the pleasure of looking, makes it difficult for Daya to identify with her. The sands, therefore, serve as a displacement of the mother image, offering Daya more gentleness and comfort.
When Delima comes and stays with the mother and daughter, Daya feels a warmer affection than she receives from her mother. In a sequence where Daya looks at herself in the mirror, allowing the spectator to see her dancing and imitating her aunt, she becomes identical with the image of the aunt she admires. Berlian does not allow this, as according to Rose, a mother does not “mirror the child to itself; she grants an image to the child, which her presence instantly deflects” (1982: 30). Berlian gets vexed when one night Daya sneaks out to watch Delima dancing with men. In the morning, she burns Daya’s red kebaya given by Delima, a violent gesture that can be interpreted forbidding identification.
A "normal" subjectivity can be achieved when a child leaves the Imaginary and enters the Symbolic Order, in which he/she acquires language and marks him/herself as different from the other. Unlike the Imaginary where the prominent figure is the mother, The Symbolic Order is regulated by the Name-of the-Father:
The father in the Symbolic Order is not the flesh-and-blood father, but a paternal image representing the law, order, and the rational world governed by the Phallus. Only by repressing the maternal/Imaginary, can one access a place in the Symbolic Order, a patriarchal world which requires one to be regulated, signified, and judged within masculine parameters. As Lacan’s topography can be read as both diachronic and synchronic, the Imaginary does not always end when the Symbolic begins (Grosz 1990: 73). And if one reads topography as synchronic, it entails understanding that the Imaginary coexists with the Symbolic in an individual's life as a binary opposition. People inevitably overlap the two modes of relating to self and world, and each mode bears meaning only in relation to the other.
Berlian’s over-protective gestures make her seem like an egocentric mother unable to admit her daughter’s independence, yet her own traumatizing experience as a woman forces her to interfere with the Symbolic. In this film, the Symbolic refers to the masculine sphere of the 1965 violent conflict. The film gives more emphasis on the experience of individuals, especially women as victims, and later survivors, against a greater force. As a village woman, Berlian has to flee and relocate after witnessing her home burned. As a wife, she has to let her husband leave the family to seek an adventure, "something out there" — anything but domesticity that is claustrophobic from the masculine viewpoint. Culture in the Symbolic, which determines appropriate gender roles, tends to exclude non-conformist women. Raising a child without a husband and earning money from performing abortions, a woman like Berlian does not then meet the moral standards set up by Javanese society.
Furthermore, women’s sexuality has no place in the Symbolic other than to fulfill man’s desire. Since Berlian witnesses how sexually liberated women — especially her sister — are objectified, she views woman’s sexuality as a threat. The act of burning Daya’s kebaya is difficult to read as it does not seem to encourage female bonding, but it can also be seen as Berlian’s distinct way to survive within the Symbolic. Berlian is the imaginary Phallic mother who denies her annihilation by disturbing the masculine world, especially where the Law of the Father imposes separation, violence, and rigid gender roles. Due to the absence of the father figure in the first part of the film, Berlian incorporates both the mother and father principle by becoming the source of love as well as the law for Daya. This complex mother figure is relatively new in Indonesian cinema since mothers in the New Order period were usually imagined as both submissive and supportive. Even an interesting, resistant mother character in Teguh Karya’s much-admired film Ibunda (Mother, 1986), eventually supports the Symbolic through her role as a unifying figure of class and ethnic differences under the New Order’s multicultural umbrella.
While Berlian tries to protect her daughter, Daya goes through a series of imaginary identifications to discover herself. She seeks a total concept of “I” without the mother as she keeps identifying with her aunt and feeding her Oedipal desire with fantasies about her father’s adventures. Her voyeuristic desires to see what her mother is doing and what is forbidden indicate her wish to discover adulthood. While she tries to make sense of her mother’s work as a jamu seller and midwife’s assistant, her gaze upon her aunt as an erotic dancer is filled with adoration. Acting as the law for Daya, as the substitute for an absent father figure, Berlian does everything to disrupt her daughter’s gaze since she is afraid of the horror in the Symbolic Order, especially the annihilation of women's agency, that Daya might discover.
The threat of the Symbolic comes to life for Berlian when her husband, Agus, returns after “not knowing anywhere else to go” and begs her to accept him. Filmic images of the father narrating fantastic stories to his admiring daughter suddenly take over the authority of the mother, perturbing the equilibrium established previously when Berlian acted as both mother and father. Agus’ sudden appearance in the lives of mother and daughter leads to tragedy as he sells Daya’s body for money to Suwito the merchant. The film reaches its climax with a disturbing scene in which Suwito orders Daya to masturbate in front of him. In Suwito’s living room, Suwito and Daya are sitting face to face. A shot/ reverse shot is established between the two characters, contrasting Suwito in desire and Daya in agony. While rubbing his own thighs, Suwito asks Daya to touch her own body. The camera photographs Daya from over the shoulder of Suwito as he commands her to touch her nipple with her right hand and put the other hand under her skirt. Daya’s father is waiting in Suwito’s car outside, but once in a while he looks inside through the rearview mirror. This is the most troubling sequence exposing Daya’s powerlessness and inability to fight back. The two men, on the other hand, are in control; Suwito keeps ordering Daya to touch herself as he is watching and masturbating, and Agus is in total surveillance while looking at the mirror. Without the presence of the protecting mother, Suwito’s orders reflect the language in the Symbolic. He is the father who is naming, coercing Daya to acquire the language of male desire by making her aware of her body parts and the pleasure they produce for men.
After the previous series of sequences showing women challenging the gaze, this scene of sexual violence becomes problematic for showing a helpless teenager commodified by her father and sexually abused by another man. Such an abusive moment might eventually lead us to the same conclusion as Krishna Sen when she talks about the victimization of female characters. Yet even in such a difficult moment in which the protective mother’s gaze is absent, the mise-en-scène and composition prevent Daya from becoming an eroticized spectacle. Throughout the scene we do not see nudity; all the touching and caressing are going on underneath Daya’s clothes, making it impossible for the spectator to get pleasure from the sight of her. Nan T. Achnas describes a powerful contradiction in the mise-en-scène, which subjects Daya’s body to a male gaze on the one hand, yet on the other hand does not satisfy the audience’s gaze and results in the frustration of spectator desire. The composition offers what Teresa de Lauretis refers to as a “desexualization of violence” as a form of aesthetics in women’s cinema (1987: 146). Daya suffers from a mental breakdown in the harassment scene and its aftermath, but then we meet Berlian again. Having realized what her husband did to Daya, she decides to end Agus’ life by poisoning him. The mother, seemingly excluded by the Law of the Father, reappears and saves her daughter.
Even though killing the father returns power to the mother, the film's ending leads away from the Imaginary, with Berlian asking Daya to leave the village because “there is nothing left anymore.” Daya pleads to stay with her mother, but now Berlian wants separation. This can be read as yielding to the power of the Symbolic, which insists on separation from the mother. But a more optimistic interpretation can be made as Berlian starts to call her daughter by her real name, “Daya” (power/ability) instead of “Anak” or “Child.” She has entrusted Daya with her independent existence and subject-hood, a conclusion visualized in an extreme long shot of Daya facing her mother yet separated by a wide landscape.
At the end, the camera photographs Daya looking at her mother, and as in the earlier sequence, we are presented a point-of-view shot in which Berlian is seen through Daya’s eyes. From a low angle, Berlian appears in full shot, turning her back against Daya, who is counting, “One, two, three…” Daya stops, but the mother does not turn her head. As she keeps counting, the screen gets dark and the film fades into the credit title.
Inventing language, contesting narrative
Mulvey argues in “Film, Feminism, and the Avant Garde” that to counter the objectification of women prevalent in Hollywood classical cinema, feminist film should define a new language which “disrupts aesthetic unity” and “forces the spectator’s attention on the means of production” (1989: 120). Feminine aesthetics for Mulvey is therefore a de-aestheticization of women as the object of the gaze. By foregrounding a mother who is aware of the gaze and is capable of interrupting the male gaze, Pasir Berbisik tears down illusion as a necessary condition of voyeurism. The masculine aesthetics is challenged by women who engage in and negotiate with the gaze: Daya pursues a voyeurism more based on a desire for knowledge rather than perverseness. Berlian the mother sees everything, loses control, and gains it back.
The narrative, however, is not totally destroyed. Rather it leads to what Mulvey considered an exemplary model of feminist cinema — “passionate detachment” within the audience. While the style focuses on the experience of the image in itself, instead of on movement and the causal relation between action and image, it does not mean the film fails to utilize the progression of images. The marker of time here is not "real" historical time (i.e., the resolution of the 1965 political conflict), but a phase of growing, part of a personal experience of the character. Achnas subtly uses affect, especially in the depiction of sexual violence, to move the spectator emotionally. The film maintains a coherent narrative, but one that presents a feminine subjectivity that insists on its own expression.
In the end Daya’s realization of her mother’s love shows an inversion of the Oedipal drama. The shift from the desire for the father toward the mother echoes De Lauretis’ counterargument to Mulvey’s “prescription to destroy all pleasure in the text.” Instead of being anti-narrative, a film should be “narrative and oedipal with a vengeance;” it should represent “the duplicity of the oedipal scenario itself and the specific contradiction of the female subject in it” (De Lauretis 1987: 108). Pasir Berbisik literally ends with a revenge of a castrated mother, hurt and abused, yet she manages to gain her power back from the father. It is a valorization of the maternal voice and female bonding which, instead of being repressed, exist within and can even shatter masculine Law. It is a film made by a female director celebrating strong female characters and feminine imagery, a powerful example of De Lauretis’ conception of a feminist cinema which addresses “all points of identification (with character, image, camera) as female, feminine, or feminist” (1987: 133). The sands as the backdrop of the whole story are an evocation of the feminine in terms of softness and tactility. The strength of the sands, which determines the lives of the people in the village, is analogous to the mother’s persistence. Finally, the complexity of the mother, who is protective yet does not make herself available to be a moral model of femininity, challenges the Ibu (mother) prototype idealized in the Indonesian New Order period as sacrificing, patient, and nurturing figures.
Four years after Pasir Berbisik was released, more women entered the Indonesian film industry as directors, producers, or scriptwriters. Another "mother and daughter" film appeared a year later. Eliana Eliana (2002) is a road movie about mother and daughter who explore the city in a sense of modern female flânerie, trying to understand their relation to each other amidst the clash of modernity and tradition. The latest “woman’s” film is Berbagi Suami (Love For Share, 2006), shown in several international film festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival and Vancouver International Film Festival. The director, Nia Dinata, feels more at home with the comedy genre, but her film shows a concern for women’s issues. Criticizing the phenomenon of polygamy in Indonesia, she also complicates the gaze by foregrounding the queer gaze in the film’s lesbian subplot. The changing political scene in Indonesia has enabled a redefinition of aesthetics, which were formerly defined by masculine standards, and has allowed filmmakers to voice women’s experience in the face of the nation’s constant struggle to reconceptualize its identity in terms of ethnic, religion, gender, and class.