Who is Annah the Javanese? Most people do not know. Some may have seen one of the few pictures of her in existence. In one of them, she is sitting next to famous French painter Paul Gauguin and his friends with a lost and stern expression, in sharp contrast to the laid-back attitude of the men in the photograph. When Indonesian film director and scholar Fatimah Tobing Rony came across these haunting pictures in 2002, it was the beginning of 20 years of obsession, fueled by an unrelenting determination to bring Annah’s story to life.
Fascinated by the girl in the photograph, she was astonished by the lack of information about her in spite of her being a model to famous painters such as Gauguin and Mucha. She even traveled to Paris to do research but could find little in the archives, reaching the conclusion that Annah seemed to be a “funny historical anecdote”, mostly known to be Gauguin’s young mistress.
As a professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Irvine, Fatimah ended up dedicating an entire chapter to Annah in her book How Do We Look? (2022), in which she analyzes the ways visual representation determines which lives are made to matter more than others. Her idea of a short animation film was born as she struggled to find a real-life cover image for the book that matched the clear idea she had in mind: a young girl, at a dock, with a signboard around her neck, looking at snow for the first time. This strong image did not become a book cover but a memorable scene in the film.
Far from attempting to recreate the bleak reality of her life as it would be told by historians or ethnographers, Fatimah wanted to give Annah her rightful place back as a person by re-imagining her life in a creative way. “I don’t even think she was Javanese. I just wanted to tell her story very simply, the story of a girl who is trafficked”, she explains. The fact that Gauguin is only represented as a shadow in the film makes it even more compelling.
Annah la Javanaise (2020) is the latest opus in Fatimah’s filmography, which one cannot help but notice, strongly mirrors her research interests as a film scholar. In her book The Third Eye (1996), she demonstrates how anthropology and popular culture, especially film, play a significant role in the West’s construction of race and gender. This idea is the very subject of her experimental film On Cannibalism (1994), in which she explores the West’s fascination with native bodies. With an interest in feminist film theory, it is no wonder that her filmography puts women in the spotlight, such as her story of a marginalized Indonesian woman in the acclaimed fiction omnibus film Chants of Lotus (Perempuan Punya Cerita, 2007).
She herself was given few opportunities as a female director in the United States, although she graduated in directing and production from the prestigious UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “Ironically, Indonesia has more female directors than Hollywood. The opportunities I got came from Indonesia” she muses, reminiscing about her collaboration on Chants of Lotus with internationally acclaimed Indonesian director Nia Dinata.
For her first foray into the world of animation, it was important to her for her entire team to be Indonesian and for the film to be made in Indonesia. “I knew from Chants of Lotus, that there was an enormous amount of Indonesian talent”. Her brilliant team included heavyweight Aghi Narottama as music composer. She and lead animator Ariel Victor met through mutual friend Lucky Kuswandi and worked very closely in total symbiosis. Fatimah had a very clear idea of what she wanted visually for the film, which she combined with Ariel’s own animation style. Her knowledge or art history, which she studied at Yale University, transpires through the film. Her choice of color palette and use of color blocking is an obvious reference to Gauguin and Henri Matisse, but the film esthetic also refers to the history paintings and collages of African American artists including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Bettye Saar.
Annah the Javanese is truly a labor of love. Struggling to secure sufficient capital, Fatimah self-funded and produced the film, in addition to writing the screenplay and directing. Ariel’s small team of animators worked hard on the film for months, after their regular working hours. When the film was selected for the Annecy International Animation Film Festival and started winning awards from various festivals around the world, she could not believe it. As audiences wanted to know more about what happened to her beyond the short film, Fatimah decided to develop Annah’s story further as a feature animation film. Reimagining Annah’s background as the daughter of a family of shamans, the thorough scholar that she is traveled to Indonesia to research about shamanism in Yogyakarta, to get the details right. Currently working on a screenplay, she will soon move to France to continue researching and polishing Annah’s untold story.