Cast: Adi Kurdi, Nurul Arifin, Viva Westi
Gold Prize, Young Cinema Competition, 1994 Tokyo International Film Festival
Best Feature Film, 1994 Taormina International Film Festival
RESTORED IN 2019 BY THE ASIAN FILM ARCHIVE
A stubborn kid, a quiet widow, and a sketchy Elvis impersonator clash in LETTER TO AN ANGEL, the first feature shot on the Indonesian island of Sumba, and an early work of Garin Nugroho, soon to rise to international prominence for his films about cultural traditions across the archipelago. A post-modern fable of globalization, LETTER TO AN ANGEL takes place, as the titles tell us, at “a certain place at a certain time,” evoking the timeless while winking about the peculiarities of the present, in which the young boy, Lewa, spends his after-school hours roving a village that features an abandoned truck splashed by a Madonna poster, and a beached plane that may as well be an alien spaceship. One day, Lewa gets pulled into a fashion shoot in search of “exotic” characters, but when the crew gifts him a Polaroid camera, he becomes the master of the gaze – that is, until his photos spark trouble on the island.
This gesture of passing the camera shapes much of what we see in the film, including extensive local rituals performed by non-professional actors. Steeped in 1990s multicultural approaches to ethnography and nation that would later evolve into Nugroho’s breakthroughs Opera Jawa and Memories of My Body (SDAFF ’19 Spring Showcase), LETTER TO AN ANGEL is a tough rebuke of National Geographic pleasures. Conflicts between tradition and modernity aren’t played for gags, but rather stage uneasy acts of self-definition that are anything but comforting. Like the Nugroho-penned Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, another Sumba-set parable, LETTER TO AN ANGEL is a savvy work of visual and pop cultural reverie unafraid of jarring twists of narrative and shocking twists of the knife.
A village boy dreams of play, while a carousel of sounds – creaking, rain, crickets, music – swirl around him day and night.