Siti: Woman Against Nature

When interviewed regarding her 2011 project titled ‘Voir la mer’, in which she brought a group of Turks to see the sea for the first time in their lives, French conceptual artist Sophie Calle mentioned her concern about how the subjects would actually respond on camera:

“What can you say about the sea? The sea is amazing? The sea is more than what I expected? Its immensity? I was afraid the comment would be banal compared to what the eyes express.”

Hundreds of miles away, in the rural seaside of Parangtritis, a beach in the southern coast of Java, Indonesia, director Eddie Cahyono seeks if the same question could ever be answered through the eyes of Siti (Sekar Sari). Crab cracker hawker by day and karaoke parlor hostess by night, Siti worked hard to support her young son Bagus (Bintang Timur Widodo) and her fisherman husband Bagas (Ibnu Widodo), the latter of which has become paralyzed due to a presumed boating accident — not to mention the silent treatment he was giving her since she started wearing makeup and skimpy clothes for her evening parlor shift.

Following her daily routine of cooking and packaging the crackers, we learned that Siti was not only responsible as the family’s sole breadwinner, but also struggling to repay the debt from constructing her husband’s fishing boat that has long gone into the depths of the Indian Ocean. Yet, as if concurring with the current global spirit of portraying strong female characters in fiction, Siti was not one to dwell on her tragedy and let life run her over. Despite the sea leaving her husband dormant and becoming her personal tribulation, Siti never once blamed the sea. Aku percoyo karo laut (I believe in the sea), Bagus once said to her in a flashback, and so Siti knew better not to challenge the forces of nature, and instead faced the forces of man in the form of Gatot.

Gatot (Haydar Saliz), a policeman, was not a man of violence. Instead he moved with silent seduction and innocent affection, and drew Siti out from her lair of despair to reveal a crush she can once again yearn for. As is with the cigarette she lit the moment her son went to school, Cahyono displayed the limited forms of entertainment that low-income Indonesians could afford: What else could bring temporary bliss if not the frugal hedonism in the form of smoke, alcohol and singing your heart out in a wooden stall? Perhaps Siti understood that only desperate men are willing to shell out extra cash for a few hours of seductive joy, and perhaps that was why she joined the karaoke parlor in the first place, much to the disdain of her immobilized husband.

The black-and-white treatment and Academy ratio not typically seen in Indonesian movies prove to be a successful choice for Eddie Cahyono to draw the strength of Sekar Sari as Siti. Draining all the colors lets Siti’s tough resolve shine through her oft-fragile expression while stepping out of the poverty porn trap and into the verge of Italian neorealism. Krisna Putra Ratmara’s score is also a very welcome addition to the interspersed scenes of the sea, a strong statement that even with her husband’s inability to ever sail out again, the sea is never really ebbing away from their lives.

Bagus, the only (nearly) silent character in the whole ordeal, remained the most intriguing one as we followed his internal torment. His only connection with the outside world, his voice, was kept shut in protest as he leered at his wife dressing up and applying mascara before heading into the depth of night. His silence became a tormenting entity, pushing Siti to beg once in a while for him to hear his voice again. Ultimately, in the true Javanese fashion of staying away from conflicts, his silence wasn’t meant as a weapon against Siti, but perhaps against the sea that confined him in the modest bed and most likely in poverty for the rest of his life: Did he do something wrong that angered the gods of the sea, or were those roaring waves just being what they are, an unforgiving, towering force of nature? Siti (the person) wondered the same question as she stared into the infinite saltwater abyss with her husband’s words ringing in her ears. Aku percoyo karo laut, Ti…


Siti (2014) is an award-winning feature film by director Eddie Cahyono. After making waves in numerous film festivals throughout 2015 including Singapore International Film Festival and Filmfest Hamburg, topped with a Best Film win in Festival Film Indonesia 2015, Siti is now playing at theaters across Indonesia.

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