Writer and Director: Garin Nugroho
Playing at the centre of this year’s Queer East Film Festival and receiving its UK premiere is 2018’s Memories Of My Body from Indonesia. This beautifully shot film charts the early years of dancer Juno as he tries to find his way in life after his father deserts him. Misfortune seems to find him at every turning, but this coming-of-age film suffers from a fragmented narrative.
Juno is afraid of his body – afraid for his body – after seeing a man being attacked for his desire, a stick being directed at the man’s genitals in a form of castration. Still a child, Juno shivers under the table. Soon after, Juno’s female dance teacher tries to seduce him by opening up her dress and asking him to touch her. Too easily, the body reveals the secrets of the soul.
It isn’t until Juno is a young man that he meets someone like him, a lithe boxer who took up fighting as a kind of self- protection. His muscles carry the traumas of his childhood. However, an uncle tells Juno that traumas are part of everyday life, and that he should love his body that carries these past ordeals. The film’s lyricism doesn’t always convince.
The childhood years are the most enjoyable, and Juno grows up with gifts that appear mystic and prophetic. He lifts up hens and by feeling their rear ends can tell whether eggs are on the way, and later he can tailor suits without taking measurements; he just looks at bodies to glean their dimensions. As this young Juno, Raditya Evandra is a confident actor, and a natural in front of the camera, seemingly amassing each catastrophe in his shoulders.
Muhammad Khan plays the older Juno, who has become wiser, and more patient, and when he joins a traditional dance group he seems to find security in a role that allows for more flexibility than the simple binaries of male/female or gay/straight. Khan’s placidity confuses slightly: is Juno happy, or is he just accepting fate in his itinerant life?
But while the film seems to hold back the viewer from becoming totally involved in Juno’s story, especially in the scenes with cartoonish gangsters and bloodthirsty politicians, the clean shots and rich colours engage until the final minutes, even if the narrative doesn’t. Also not helping matters is the kitsch soundtrack that might have worked if it had been used more sparingly, but here threatens to dominate too many scenes.
Director Garin Nugroho definitely has a vision, but this film crosses too many genres and its episodic style leaves too many questions unanswered. Based on the life of dancer Rianto, who also appears as the earnest dancer talking straight to camera, this film caused a controversy in Indonesia where some called for it to be banned. With references to Indonesia’s Communist past, current corrupt politicians, poverty as well as LGBTQ+ issues, Memories Of My Body lacks focus.