In Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sands), the sands are integral to how characters perceive their reality.
Sandstorms shape villagers' lives.
Everyday Daya and her mother have to clean their house from a pile of sand.
While Pasir Berbisik emphasizes on the subjective experience of “the missing people,” Pengkhianatan G30S (30th September Movement Treason) revolves around history’s great players, i.e. military generals.
A shadow puppet, symbol of the lost father who performed the puppets, is reflected on the sand.
Little Daya watches admiringly as her father puts on a shadow puppet play.
Daya caresses the sands, searching for tenderness from sand's tactility.
Berlian caresses her seemingly ignorant daughter who is caressing the sands.
Daya’s village by the sea.
Daya peeps through a hole on her house’s door to look at her mother.
Cinematic composition frequently emphasizes the distance between the mother and daughter, indicating their lack of intimacy.
Daya, framed in close up, is watching her mother.
Berlian is aware that she is being watched by Daya, and thus also seems aware of the camera.
Berlian works at home making traditional herbal medicine.
However, as we see Berlian tenderly applying a traditional face mask onto her daughter’s face, we get an indication of the complexity of Berlian’s harsh but loving character.
The film also presents a complex pattern of women's looking. Daya peeps through the midwife’s window to see her mother working.
Berlian, once again, is looking at Daya (and the camera), disrupting the voyeuristic pleasure of looking on unbeknownst to the person seen.
Among the three women, Berlian is the only person aware of being watched. What Daya looks at is the "hidden" world of women's culture.
The film offers intimate feminine images, such as when Berlian rubs the midwife’s chest with body warming oil.
The midwife performs abortions.
Nan T. Achnas’ Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sands, 2001)[open notes in new window] was produced during the early years of Indonesian reformasi, a new era of democracy after the end of New Order regime under Suharto’s authoritarian leadership in 1998. It is an important film not only in terms of political context but also aesthetics, as the first work directed and produced by women with a conscious feminist agenda. The film, however, has not been extensively discussed. An explanation for this is inaccessibility; it received critical acclaim in various international film festivals yet did not have a wide distribution. Even in Indonesia, copies are only available in VCD and without subtitles. And there both critics and viewers have shown a lack of interest. The film's minimal dialogue and slow pace have led to its commercial failure as many people find it “simply boring and confusing.” On the other hand, critics tend to see it as an unnecessarily beautiful film that is neither “realistic” nor political enough.
Set up in a village in East Java in 1960’s, Pasir Berbisik presents a complex relationship between a mother, Berlian (Christine Hakim), and her teenage daughter, Daya (Dian Sastrowardoyo). Berlian’s husband, Agus (Slamet Rahardjo Djarot), had left the family when Daya was still a little child. As a single parent, Berlian earns a living by selling jamu, Indonesian traditional herbal medicine, and assisting a midwife in childbirth and abortion. While Berlian is overprotective toward her daughter, Daya constantly daydreams about her father's returning as a real hero. Meanwhile, external political tension between the military and the Indonesian Communist Party threatens the remote areas of the country, forcing the mother and daughter to flee from their village. In the new place they settle in, the long-lost father finally returns and transforms their lives.
Offering long, lingering shots of vast landscape of sands, mountains, and small villages, the film is stylistically indebted to neorealism. As described within Deleuze’s framework, space in neorealist films offers subjective images built up of “purely optical situations” rather than action (1989: 2), reflecting people’s interpretation of their environment and circumstances. Characters' actions, as in Pasir Berbisik, do not necessarily entail linear progression, and the ways in which they behave often do not seem to correspond to their immediate situation. Because critics and viewers probably receive the film from the point of view of realism – especially in terms of the history of neorealism in Indonesia, which has focused more on social content instead of aesthetics  – they may not appreciate that the film's aesthetic subordinates or integrates representing the "real" to a psychological and social foregrounding of the perspective of its female characters. The sands as depicted in the film are more than a physical setting, rather something integral to the characters’ world view.
For example, sometimes we may see a sandstorm that prevents people from doing their activities, displaying nature’s vital role in shaping the villagers' lives. Every morning Daya and her mother have to clean their house from a pile of sand, an evocation of the Sisyphus myth in an age of desperation where the lives of poor people are easily torn apart by a greater power, in this case, the 1965 political turmoil. Time and space have a subjective meaning in the film, emphasized by a recurrent image of Daya pressing her ears against the sands and imagining that they are whispering.
The film thus gives access to the point of view of marginalized peoples so as to illuminate an angle of history often dismissed by previous “historical” films. Among those films, Pengkhianatan G30S/ PKI (The 30 September Movement Treason, 1984), the official film about the 1965 Communist’s coup, revolves mainly around stories of the great players, good military generals versus the evil communists, and it touches very little upon the impact of high politics on poor civilians. Additionally, although neorealism has inspired many Indonesian filmmakers to present class tensions, their focus is usually on poverty and not on women's subjectivity. Even if those films try to depict woman’s experience, they are usually framed within the perspective of male filmmakers.
Krishna Sen, a notable critic of Indonesian cinema, praises Pasir Berbisik as “an art film” that portrays “the meaningless and erratic brutality of that [New Order] regime,” yet she is pessimistic about the feminist tone of the film as according to her it treats the central characters as only “powerless victims of that brutality.” Sen’s argument can be understood in terms of the lack of critique that Pasir Berbisik offers about the narrative of 1965 tragedy, much distorted by Pengkhianatan G30S to glorify Suharto and military heroism. I would argue that the film creates a strategy to challenge New Order history not by providing a contesting narrative closer to the actual political conflict, but rather by engaging the audience to consider the personal experiences of women in the periphery, who were forgotten and silenced in the New Order historical films. Within the film's aesthetic, female characters need to be understood as seers rather than as real agents within contemporaeous or historical temporal continuity. Through its cinematic language, Pasir Berbisik explores the dimensions of female gaze and female voyeurism as well as reappropriates the Oedipal narrative structure. It thus offers a new feminine aesthetics that one could hardly find in Indonesian cinema since 1926 until the end of the New Order era.
Women in Indonesian cinema
The discourse of the representation of women in Indonesia is inseparable from Indonesian politics. Until the end of New Order period, women’s roles in Indonesian cinema were predominantly created by male directors with a male standard of aesthetics. Indonesian B-grade films blatantly displayed women as fetishized as well as demonized sexual objects. The work of serious (male) filmmakers, in more subtle ways, usually portrayed one-dimensional female characters who followed the old dichotomy of good/bad: idealized versions of femininity or "fallen women" in need of moral reform and redemption. Women were characterized in a typical New Order fashion — as supporters of men and the state who, despite their activities in the public sphere, did not forget their "nature" as mothers and wives. The position of women as secondary also occurred in the film industry, in which only a few women could participate other than as actors. Krishna Sen in her much cited work, Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order notes that, from 1965 to 1985, there were only a dozen films directed by women. Moreover, these films inclined to uphold the traditional representation of woman:
Female directors had to internalize masculine perspectives in producing their works for the sake of career stability, resulting in the lack of women’s voices in the male dominated tradition of Indonesian cinema.
The end of Suharto reign in 1998 marked a new beginning of democracy and freedom of speech in Indonesian politics, arts, and media. Although New Order film regulations and censorship were still implemented, people began to openly challenge rigid boundaries of gender, class, and ethnicity. The first woman director who expressed a feminist stance was Nan T. Achnas. Before directing Pasir Berbisik as her first feature film, Achnas collaborated with three other young directors – Mira Lesmana, Riri Riza, and Rizal Mantovani — to produce Kuldesak (Cul-de-Sac, 1998). Released months before the end of the regime, the film depicts more a young generation rebelling against established bureaucratic system rather than feminist themes, but it demonstrates Achnas’ attempt to explore women’s subjectivity through a series of long close-up shots of the main character, a lonely urban woman who finds comfort in her gay best friend, with her voice-over revealing her fantasies about love and family. A more bold thesis about a women’s film can be seen in Pasir Berbisik, and in terms of its production, it is also a manifestation of female bonding between Achnas as a director and female colleagues, scriptwriter Rayya Makarim and producer Shanty Harmayn, who were all relatively new to the film industry at that time. The film portrays women as central characters with a depth and complexities one could hardly find in earlier films.
When examining the aspect of gender in Indonesian cinema, Sen focuses her analysis on Suci Sang Primadona (1977, Suci the Prima Donna), directed by Arifin C. Noer. Despite that film's moral tone in the script about a sexually liberated Prima Donna who finally realizes her "true" identity as a mother, Sen argues, the female character's body is visually eroticized to fulfill a male spectator's fantasy(Sen: 145). These conflicting agendas in that film more generally characterize the prevalent male perspective shaping Indonesian mainstream cinema, which exemplifies Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey borrows from Freud the concept of scopophilia, the pleasure of looking at another person as an object, and argues that the gaze is exclusively masculine. Women on cinema are women on display, providing an access to the (male) spectator to play with a voyeuristic fantasy (1989: 16). A female character is objectified by different levels of the gaze: the characters in the film and the spectators in the auditorium. Her body implies the erotic “to-be-looked-at-ness;” she becomes the signifier of male desire (19).
What is interesting to me here are the ways that Pasir berbisik complicates Mulvey’s theory and its Indonesian patriarchal context by problematizing the look of the camera, the characters, and the spectators. Through her feminist lens, director Nan T. Achnas allows the spectator to see from the eyes of a woman (director and characters) and to explore the possibility of how women can be in control of, or at least negotiate, (cinema's and, within the film, men's) "look."
Challenging the gaze
The film opens with an image of a shadow puppet reflected on the sands, filling the mise-en-scène with symbols that recur throughout the film. Daya remembers her father as a puppeteer who traveled around and told stories to villagers. As she grows up, she often plays with puppets to console her as she longs for her lost father. The shadow of the puppet is thus the shadow of the father, who is absent until half of the film but lingers in the memory of the daughter. The sands have a softness and tremendous power, on the other hand, that parallels the dualism of the mother, portrayed as both loving and stern.
The beginning of the film establishes the relationship between Daya, the mother, and the sands as the camera lingers on a barren land out of which Daya appears in an extreme long shot. She walks closer to the camera and throws herself on the sands, listening to their whisper and humming. Later her mother appears from the same direction and walks toward her. She bends down and caresses Daya while her daughter, feigning ignorance of the mother's presence, tries to feel grains of sands. The feminine imagery of mother and daughter searching for tenderness from skin and sands foreshadows the main storyline, which revolves around the affection as well as tensions between the two women.
The first sequence in which the audience can see interaction and dialogue between mother and daughter begins with a long shot of a village as Daya’s voice-over is heard:
The scene cuts to a door of a traditional bamboo house shot from a low angle. Daya enters the mise-en-scène, approaches the door, kneels, and peeps through the keyhole. A subjective shot shows Berlian cooking jamu. From Berlian, the camera moves to show Daya, now framed in close up, and while she is watching her mother the girl starts counting,
On the count of three, Berlian suddenly turns her head toward her daughter, the camera, and the spectator. Daya immediately stops watching and hides, while Berlian turns her head again and continues working. As the camera shifts from Berlian to Daya, hiding behind the door, the spectator can hear Daya’s voice-over,
As Daya gets up and opens the door, the scene shifts from outside to inside, where Berlian is crushing herbs. Without looking at Daya, she says coldly,
Daya, framed from behind, replies,
Berlian stops crushing, gazes at Daya and says,
Her voice now sounds surprisingly calm. When Daya sits down on the floor and faces her mother, Berlian caresses her hair, picks up a bowl of traditional facemask, and applies it on Daya’s face as sun protection. As she is doing this she says,
Suddenly Berlian’s voice sounds harsh again as she reminds her daughter,
Daya replies in a casual tone, “But you always go there.”
Berlian stops applying the mask on her daughter’s face. She gazes at her for a while before she finally gives Daya a big bowl of herbs and commands her, in an austere manner,
The sequence demonstrates the intricate relationship between Berlian and Daya. Berlian is visualized as a cold-hearted mother who limits her daughter’s freedom, but the scene where she applies the facemask onto her daughter’s face implies the intimacy of touching. Daya, however, does not understand her mother’s love and views her as domineering and restricting. When we are aligned with Daya’s gaze, the film puts us in the daughter's position, allowing us to enter into her subjectivity and listen to her voice as a young girl. We see another woman through her eyes, but rather than being eroticized, the woman under scrutiny is presented as an omniscient mother, fully aware that she is being watched by another character, and thus implicitly by the cinematic apparatus. She seems totally in control of the gaze — since on the count of three, Daya as well as the camera and the spectator have to stop viewing and hide. The mother not only disrupts Daya’s action but also image continuity. Berlian’s omnipotence is even confirmed later by a male character who tells Daya,