English, Film/Video, Portfolio

On The Haunting Witch-Demon Pontianak

This is a full interview conducted by UK film Scholar, Rosalind Galt, for her upcoming book on horror of Southeast Asia. Before you read, do watch the film. Tell me what you think in the comment section.

-Why did you want to make a pontianak film?

The idea came from my film workshop student, Agung Setiawan, who is now a Philosophy lecturer in a university in Bangka Belitung, Sumatra. I’ve always wanted to make a horror/myth film with classic touch, black and white, almost no sound, and my student idea was raw but it was a start. I also wanted to make something like Nosferatu (1922) or long shots film like some scenes in Kubrick’s The Shining. Pontianak or Kuntilanak in Indonesia is a popular demon-witch, appears in many films and tv shows, and I wanted to make it out of the ordinary images of vengeance toward men, or some ghost sitting on tree. So I change my student original script with more research and plot twist. 

–One of the film’s surprises is that the pontianak is not a threat but is there to save her friend. Why did you want to imagine a ‘good’ pontianak?

I learnt a lot about feminism in myth and film from Intan Paramditha, a well known Indonesian writer and film critic. In her horror folklore class I learned that every demon has cultural and psychological background. They represent the fear of the society. So far the legend told us that Pontianak is a woman who eat fetus to stay young, and at the same time we have Sundel Bolong, a demon who, in the classic cult Indonesian film Malam Satu Suro (1988, played by Suzanna), becomes a man’s beautiful wife and domesticated after a nail was being penetrated to her head by another male (her foster father).

From this I tried to deconstruct the myth by staying faithful to its demonization narrative, but interpret the demonization as a creative way to achieve freedom. My imagination of Pontianak is not good nor bad. I simply put more complex motivation on the representation of women. 

–I’m really interested in how your film creates a relationship of care and intimacy between the two women, and how there are no men in the film. Do you think of the pontianak as having feminist potential? 

I think all female demon have feminist potential. Most demon/ghost in Asia are women, representation of uncontrollable nature. And its quite different from, let say, Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which female demons are controlled by male demon. In Asia, female demons are representations of repressed freedom, or vengeance toward (mostly) men. I once read a book about western and eastern image of the feminine (I forgot the writer’s name though). I remember that western image of the feminine are represented by Freudian Psychoanalysis that sees women as emotional and unstable, penis envy, etc. While the eastern sees women in accordance to Al Bukhari & Muslims or Hinduism in which women posses a really huge power that need to be contain either by closing their appearance, or putting them in chain–or in Pontianak case, penetrate their head (mind), with a nail (a long sharp erected object representing penis). So yeah, sure it has feminist potential when the nail is being pulled out of her head. 

–There even seems to be a hint that the women are romantically together – were you interested in playing with that idea?

Yes I do. Hahahaha… But that’s just a small tone. Glad you saw it. 

–Did you grow up watching Pontianak films? Or hearing stories? What drew you to this figure?

My father came from the remote area of Mempawah, West Kalimantan, about 4 hours from the city of Pontianak (go figure, haha). So I grow up with this legend a little bit closer than most people. I have heard stories of local demons since I was a kid, every time I visit my father home village. 

–Did you want particular ‘looks’ for your lead actresses? I think part of the surprise is that the actress who plays the pregnant woman looks less like a traditional pontianak than the other actress. How did you approach casting?

For the casting, I wanted to start in showing what most Indonesian-Malay people knows about Pontianak: beautiful, tall, long hair, white dress. It’s a start, and Ratu Annisaa Suryasumirat fit the role well.

Then I choose Klara Virencia, an Indonesian-Chinese, as the other Pontianak with the red dress because if you go to Pontianak and Mempawah (or Kalimantan as a whole) Indonesian-Chinese have been part of their culture for centuries. Klara uses red dress at the end of the film to represent another demon well known to the Chinese and Malay people: the Chinese woman in Red.

I remember having an uncle who used to rob Chinese grave near my home village, since the Chinese-Indonesian buried many expensive stuff with their dead. And during those robbery, my uncle told me he was haunted by this ghost in red dress. So yeah, I put Klara in the film as another of Pontianak, to put more ethnic profile of the area of Kalimantan. 

–I haven’t heard of the rice bowl protection – is that a real belief?

Yes it is. I have interviewed some pregnant mother in my village, and this ritual is still being done in the remote area. As an ethnographer, I interpret all three protections as domestication of women: mirror represent her beauty and sexuality, broom represent her role in keeping the house clean, and rice represent her role in cooking. In Indonesia we have the famous phrase Dapur-Sumur-Kasur. Dapur (Kitchen) as represented by the rice. Sumur (Well, where women work to take water to clean the house) represented by the broom, and kasur (bed) represent sexual intercourse. These are three domestic area which bind women. Thus freedom, must untangled these area. 

What are you working on now?

I am building my film workshop (mondiblanc.org), in which I give workshops for free for college students and young professionals to make their own films/video so they will be able to communicate visually. Hopefully I can make a film school, free of charge too, someday. Its a long term project. 

I am also shooting some short films with my students either as a writer, producer, director, or executive producer. We wanted to be some sort of side-stream movement in filmmaking. Now I am producing a horror series both for workshop purposes and for youtube content. Some other stuff is also in pre production and post production. A long term science fiction-romance film is in preproduction. A romantic comedy seires in postproduction. Many many things going on simultaneously. Haha.

I hope these answers can help you with your book. Ask me further questions if you need to. Sorry to be so late in replying. I just got back to Indonesia. and stil a little jetlag.

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