As you watch the Indonesian feature film Mother (Emma), pay attention to the fabrics and food. As easy as it is to appreciate the beautiful cinematography capturing gorgeous sarongs and plentiful plates of mouthwatering cuisine, these details are also helping to tell a story being primarily conveyed through what is left unsaid.
Mother (Emma), set in the 1950s and '60s, adapts Alberthiene Endah’s novel Athirah for the big screen. In the domestic drama, Althirah discovers that her husband, according to Muslim practises, has taken a second wife.
Filmmaker Riri Riza explained, in an interview with the Georgia Straight at a downtown Vancouver hotel, that polygamy was common in Indonesia for Muslims from the 1930s to '70s.
He said that Indonesian people have varying perspectives on polygamy, with younger generations increasingly frowning upon it as inappropriate.
That's reflected in the film with the son's reaction to his father's second marriage, as well as the negative reputation the father develops that affects the family's social life.
"This young boy is actually very critical towards his father and, in the end, he cannot understand his mother also," Riza said. "He becomes very critical and that's why he becomes very much alienated."
Riza said he was born where the story is set and is Buginese the same ethnic group as the family in the story, which he said is rarely portrayed or discussed in film. He added that their lifestyle is differs from other parts of Indonesia.
"This story is very culturally, ethnically specific," he added. "The culture highlighted generally in Indonesian cinema is basically from the capital, from Java Island, and this one is in the Celebes Island—Sulawesi Island—which is in the middle [of the country]."
What is unique about the story, Riza said, is that the mother does not give in to the husband's polygamy.
"Formally, she cannot do anything," he said. "But in her territory, at home, she actually rejects the idea of polygamy. But she is a woman and she has her needs too, but she never actually gives up. She always tries to take her man back home."
He said she is shown "not giving up easily". She does what she can within her power, including starting to pursue her interest in the sarong market.
As modern sarongs aren't as sacred as they once were because they're now made by machines, Riza said that he hopes the depiction of the garment in the film will spark discussion about and revive interest in traditional culture, including craftsmanship and the art of clothing and textiles.
While Riza pointed out it was an obvious choice to make food an important component of the film, since the conventional mother "rules the house with her control of the kitchen", he also wanted to show how the impact of the father's polygamy on the family unit.
Traditionally, he said, the father sits at the head of the table and is always the first served rice and the head of the fish, and family members would wait for the father to start meal.
A quietly heartbreaking scene in Mother (Emma) reveals the family waiting in silence for the father to return home for dinner—as it becomes apparent he is with his other wife.
What Indonesian audiences will pick up on, as they did when it premiered in the country on September 29, is what happens to his setting in his absence over the duration of the story—and what that signifies.
Like in many countries, Riza said many modern Indonesian families don't necessarily eat together—thus, he feels it's important to show family togetherness again.
While on the one hand, he sought to delve into the devastation that polygamy can have (particularly on the emotional lives of women, which he feels has been underexplored), he also wanted to revive an interest in traditional values for cultural arts and family values.
With regard to the latter, he said, "I think this is a good way to see how these things can be possible again."
Mother (Emma) will screen at International Village on Sunday (October 2) at 8:45 p.m. and Monday (October 3) at 1 p.m.