Grimly surveying the aftermath of the recent tsunami on an Indonesian province, “Serambi” scrupulously avoids milking tragedy for easy tears or pity. Garin Nugroho’s loosely structured, highly reflective, at times hard-to-navigate documentary snapshot wisely acknowledges that its subjects’ lives are as much in transition as they are in devastation, dwelling less on the event itself than on individual responses. Challenging results will play better at festivals than in commercial settings.
Docu opens with a very brief textual recap of the massive Indian Ocean earthquake that struck early on the morning of Dec. 26, 2004, setting in motion a series of waves that ended up killing more than 200,000 people — 131,000 of them in the Sumatran territory of Aceh alone. Subsequent shot of waters flooding the streets of Aceh, captured by a firsthand witness, conveys the sweeping devastation in disquieting, yet also strangely quiet, fashion.
One of the first regions of Indonesia to embrace Islam, Aceh has commonly been referred to as “Mecca’s Veranda,” a name that accrued multiple layers of irony in the wake of the tragedy, which was perceived in some quarters as the smiting hand of God in response to the province’s separatist factions.
“Serambi” — which simply means “veranda” or a meeting place for family and friends — makes a fitting and poignant title for a film less interested in stirring religious debate than in chronicling the relationships and conversations that emerged among the survivors.
While it has its share of heartrending moments, including shots of naked corpses that are barely distinguishable from the debris, pic quickly gets down to business and introduces its primary subjects, whose paths occasionally intersect: Reza, a university student with an exclusively Che Guevara-imprinted wardrobe; Lisa, a young woman with a talent for dancing; Tari, a 12-year-old girl whose parents and siblings were killed; Usman, a rickshaw driver who lost his wife and daughters; and Jaelani, a man whose boisterous spirits seem relatively undampened.
Helmed by Nugroho with assistance from three other directors (Tonny Trimarsanto, Viva Westi and Lianto Luseno) and four cinematographers, docu has a noticeably lurching, disjointed construction that will tax some viewers’ patience, as will the relative absence of analysis or context.
Yet Nugroho and co. find other, more personal ways into the material, following Reza with the camera as he explores the washed-out ruins of his ex-girlfriend’s house, or using Tari’s unwavering faith to provide a sense of the region’s strong Muslim influence.
Trust between the camera operators and subjects was apparently strong enough to extract a handful of powerfully authentic moments, particularly the drawn-out and sometimes intensely irritating rants of Jaelani. Nugroho achieves some stirring poetic effects — such as a lengthy shot of Tari’s tear-streaked face — that seem more apropos of an abstract fiction feature than a documentary.
Well-lensed on digital video, docu’s images transfer beautifully to the bigscreen.