We all have our own way of dealing with concerning issues. This is similarly the case for films. The visual medium has often been used to draw attention to current issues of social, political, and activist matters. Especially in the realm of short films, which usually focus on a concentrated topic due to the restricted time span, this tendency becomes very much visible.
When looking at this year’s hybrid short film festival program between the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and the Minikino organization in Indonesia, the program includes several films that touch upon social issues such as gender issues, poverty, and social inequality. Thereby, the two Indonesian short films Amelis (2016) and One of the Murders (2019) especially caught my attention due to their unique approaches in addressing them. Both films talk about tragedies of death and in doing so, reflect on the realities in society. However, they do so in a surprisingly humorous way, that made me as an audience laugh more than just once.
One of these Murders: Tragedy in Absurdity
The Indonesian short film One of these Murders directed by Jerry Hadiprojo tells the story of a woman that was brutally killed by a murderer. When two Janitors find the dead body, they thoroughly examine it and identify the victim as one of their very likable colleagues. They further find evidence that she was raped and regret her tragedy.
However, while the film continues, they switch their tones by joking about the tragedy, conducting victim blaming due to her “daring” outfits and displaying her dead body during live postings on social media to gain public attention. Paradoxically, these moments are characterized by such absurdity, that they rather made me laugh than appalled.
Through its satirical tone, the film comments on several societal issues such as sexism and victim blaming, the dominance of social media in our lives and problematic forms of voyeurism through these platforms. But what is it exactly that makes us laugh about such a film rather than being sad?
I guess there are two main answers to this question. First, the behavior of the janitors obviously seems terribly inappropriate when facing such a tragedy of death and we watch the scenes with a certain presumptuousness, taking amusement in the ignorant and immoral behavior of the janitors. But if we further think about it, those “dystopian” illustrations are not that far from our own reality. Satirical films commonly use exaggeration to comment on problematic issues, leading to the ridiculousness of the depictions. But can we really define these situations as ridiculous? Or shouldn’t we perhaps admit that they are closer to our own reality than we would like to think? And if we do admit it, isn’t laughing the only way to cope with this absurd reality?
How to joke about the death
Amelis is an Indonesian short film by Dery Pranada that talks about a young man, who wants to bring the body of his dead father back to his hometown. To do so, he takes his father’s corpse in an angkot, a public transportation bus in Indonesia, in which other passengers are sitting as well. Dressed in everyday clothing and hiding the dead eyes with sunglasses, the father appears as if he is merely sleeping. However, the rotten smell of his dead body drives the other passengers to leave the bus in the middle of nowhere, even with the driver following.
The film only endures five minutes and was shot in black and white, which reinforces the sadness of the father’s death. However, the absurd appearance of the father in the bus such as the reactions of the other passengers offers quite comedic moments within the film, transforming a rather gloomy film beginning to an amusing ending.
According to the filmmaker, the plot is based on a real story that occurred on a train ride in Jakarta. It reflects on the burdens of bureaucracy in hospitals, which hinders the release of the beloved dead from it. By including the comedic elements in the film, the filmmaker effectively approaches the very sensitive topic of death to us and at the same time, promotes critical thinking about existing structures in a light and accessible way. In doing so, Amelis proves that it does not only matter what you want to transmit, but rather how you do it.
One of these Murders and Amelis are both using absurd and amusing distortions of our actual reality to expose the harsh truth. Satire can be used in many different ways: They can be an effective tool to make us realize the actual absurdity of our own realities, but also be important to address topics that are sensitive or even forbidden to express in a direct way due to censorship processes. At the same time, the line between satire and polarization can be very thin. When it comes to satire, it is more important than ever that the message is communicated effectively to the audience, otherwise the comedic aspect of it can become a painful and even harmful matter. Luckily, this is not the case with One of these Murders and Amelis, which makes the films powerful social commentaries, that are worth watching.