Nay, an eighty-minute drama well crafted by one of Indonesia’s rising female directors, Djenar Maesa Ayu, intimately portrays a woman’s journey as she confronts problems in her life. Djenar says that from the outset she wanted her third film to be a voice for Indonesian women. She believes they are still considered second-class citizens, with their bodies controlled by males and the state. When women have their rights abused, Djenar says, they tend to remain silent, as the law is rarely on their side.
The film occurs almost entirely in a car driven by the eponymous protagonist, with the narrative propelled by Nay and phone conversations she has with characters off screen. By confining Nay to her car, the director is able to sharpen her focus on the gloomy realities faced by Indonesian women. As the film begins, Nay has just discovered she is pregnant, and is trying to negotiate with Ben, her boyfriend, about their future and that of their unborn baby. At the same time, Nay, an actor, is offered a major role in a new film. Through her conversations, we discover that thirtysomething Nay is still haunted by her childhood. She never met her father, and was raised by a violent mother and her abusive boyfriend. When Ben turns his back on her, Nay is left to deal with these pressures alone. As Nay drives through the streets of Jakarta, she becomes increasingly confused, trapped between reality, her past, and her visions of her future. Eventually, she is forced to make a decision for herself.
If that plot sounds familiar, it is because Nay owes its basic narrative structure to the 2013 British film Locke, written and directed by Steven Knight, and featuring a magnificent performance from Tom Hardy. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a married Welsh construction engineer. One night, Locke pulls out of a Birmingham construction site and decides not to return home to his family. Instead he drives to London to be with a woman who will give birth to his child, the result of a night spent together on a work trip. The narrative is built around Locke’s journey in his car and how he deals with the fallout from his decision, at the same time as attempting to coordinate a major concrete pour the next day.
It is not hard to see why Djenar chose to adopt the narrative structure of Locke for her own film. Nay is caught in a confusing and frustrating situation and cannot ask for help from anyone outside. The city (Jakarta) outside the car is like an unspeaking character, looking at her, much like the expectations of society can be felt as a weight for women. Locke deals with an ordinary man’s problems as he juggles responsibilities to his work, family and child, while Nay uses the same themes to highlight the tough realities for women living in a patriarchal society. Nay also takes inspiration from Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), in which a female driver drives through the streets of Tehran, talking to passengers about her feelings as she is going through a divorce.
Born in 1973, Djenar is the daughter of Sjumandjaja, the late director, and Tutie Kirana, an actress. Although Sjumandjaja was also a writer and film actor, Indonesian audiences recognise him as the director of some of the country’s most loved and important films, for example, Lewat Tengah Malam (Past Midnight, 1971), Si Doel Anak Betawi (Doel the Betawi Child, 1972), Si Mamad (The One Named Mamad, 1973), Atheis (Atheist, 1974) and Kerikil-Kerikil Tajam (Sharp Pebbles, 1984). The fierce social criticism of his films raised the ire of the New Order regime, and a number were heavily censored by the state censorship body.
Following her father’s path, Djenar was also a writer and actor before moving into directing. In contrast to her father’s social realism, Djenar’s body of work is primarily concerned with the problems faced by women in modern society. Nay was developed from her 2014 play, Monolog Tiga Perempuan (Monologues by Three Women), and is the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign on Indonesian site Wujudkan. Djenar also penned a collection of award-winning short stories, Mereka Bilang, Saya Monyet (They Say I’m a Monkey), which she turned into a film in 2008, and a novel, Nayla (2005), which also focused on women. The name “Nay” or “Nayla” is a recurring element in her work.
Djenar’s collaborator in Nay, Sha Ine Febriyanti, is an experienced stage actor and was the original lead when the story was performed as a play in 2014. Starting out as a model, Ine’s big break into the film industry came in 2002, when she starred in Aria Kusuma Dewa’s Beth. But theatre remains her real passion and she has only acted in five films since. She won early acclaim for performances on stage in an adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1999 and 2012) and, with the legendary Teater Koma, in Opera Primadona (2000). Over recent years, she has become known for her skilled performances in a series of one-woman shows, beginning with a Javanese monologue, Surti and Sawunggaling (2011), written by prominent writer Goenawan Mohamad, and followed by Warm (2013) and Drop (2014), written by French writer Ronan Chenau and directed by David Bobbee. In 2014, Ine directed her own monologue about Cut Nya Dhien, the Acehnese anti-colonial hero.
Djenar says Ine was the obvious choice for Nay. “When I wrote the script, she was the only actor I had in mind,” Djenar says. “When I saw her performance as Nayla on stage, I knew immediately that I wanted to make a film version. And Ine had to play Nay.” Ine’s familiarity with the work shows, and she gives a fine performance of a woman whose life is slowly unravelling. She allows Nay’s residual bitterness over her childhood to come through, a feeling heightened by the camera’s depiction of the cold city lights. By the end of the film, Ine leaves no doubts as to why she was Djenar’s first choice for Nay.
Nay is an important contribution to Djenar’s ongoing exploration of the rights of Indonesian women through her work. Although the film only had a short run in local theatres, it offers a perspective rarely seen in Indonesian cinema, and will hopefully encourage more young filmmakers to tackle sensitive issues.
Producer, writer and director: Djenar Maesa Ayu
Cast: Sha Ine Febriyanti (Nay), Joko Anwar (voice of Pram), Niniek L Karim (voice of Ben’s mother), Paul Agusta (voice of Ben) and Cinta Ramlan (voice of Adjeng)
Year of production: 2015
Awards: Best film at 2015 Jogja-NETPAC Asia Film Festival
Screening: Tuesday, 19 April 2016, 7pm at ACMI Cinema 1
Indonesia at Melbourne is an official media partner of the Indonesian Film Festival.