The past two years have been quite a ride for Jonathan Hagard. While experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic like the rest of us, his short film Penggantian (Replacements), which was released in 2020, made it big on the festival circuit. World premiering in Venice, winning a Crystal award at the prestigious Annecy International Animation Film Festival, before gracing the Dubai World Expo. Quite the achievement for the French-Indonesian director, whose journey into the world of VR was far from obvious. “We are increasingly entering a world of post-reality. I thought that VR was pushing that even beyond and I hated that”, admits Hagard.
His journey as an animator began by accident, as he had originally wanted to become an architect, a plan thwarted when he failed the admission exam. Setting his sights on fine arts, he progressively entered the world of animation through internships and small jobs that allowed him to learn techniques he would use for his graduating project and first film Timelapse (2009).
Made in Jakarta as Indonesia was still recovering from the devastating 1997 economic crisis, the film encapsulates the colorful energy and sense of freedom of Indonesia’s capital at the time, but also its trademark chaotic atmosphere and a feeling of uncertainty in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
With the city of Jakarta itself as the main character, the film can be seen as a blueprint for the more mature and polished Penggantian. Both films reflect Hagard’s love of urban landscapes and, maybe more significantly, his nostalgic infatuation with Indonesia. Although only about a decade apart, both films are snapshots of two very different periods for the Indonesian capital. Hagard’s interest in the country’s political and socio-economic evolution and his own personal experience are at the very core of his creative process.
Penggantian came to be in response to the rise of religious conservatism in Indonesia, in particular to the imprisonment of Jakarta’s former governor Ahok in 2017, following accusations of blasphemy against Islam. Hagard, as many Indonesians, was shocked by what many saw as religious intolerance and an attack on freedom of speech and became concerned about the country’s future orientation. This also coincided with the death of his Javanese grandmother, bringing him on a pilgrimage to her abandoned house in Solo where he was confronted with his childhood memories and the passage of time. The result is striking, as he makes full use of VR as a medium to weave local scenes and levels of understanding, layer by layer, into a perpetually evolving fresco of cultural and generational change.
If Penggantian feels so authentic and abounds with details–from a traditional mask on a wall to advertising from a former era on a billboard–, it is because Hagard embarked on several years of research, scouring the internet for photos of Jakarta in the 1980s or hunting down an old commercial that he remembered seeing as a child on TV to include a visual reference of a now extinct brand of cigarettes in the film. He also dug into his own family albums and unearthed photos of Central Javanese kampungs (villages) from the 1970s to create the countryside feel of Jakarta at the beginning of the film. He then drew on his own imagination to put the finishing touch on this meticulous patchwork.
As Penggantian addresses the rise of conservative Islam in Indonesia and the issue of cultural replacements, Hagard expected that the film would generate strong reactions from more conservative communities. As his film traveled all around the world, he realized that people experienced and interpreted it very differently, with the strongest reactions coming from the most unexpected places. The film was screened at the Jeddah Film Festival in Saudi Arabia, where the audience praised the film’s attention to detail and technicality, while in France, some viewers saw the film as Islamophobic.
Although the film is set in Indonesia, audiences around the world strongly identified with the issues of environmental degradation, religious intolerance, and generational change it depicted.
Boosted by Penggantian’s success, Hagard embarked on his next project at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Finding himself under lockdown in Bali, he experienced the island in a totally different light, without its usual crowds of tourists. Marveling at this drastic, sudden change and its implications, Hagard decided to set his next project, Alternates, on the Island of the Gods. Developed as part of an artistic residency he participated in earlier this year, the film will imagine what Bali would look like if the Balinese forgot about their history of fierce resistance to foreign invasions, further exploring the disappearance of traditional culture, Islamization, and uncontrolled urbanization. “My work continues to talk about time, and increasingly post-reality, about the dangers to mix reality and storytelling”, explains Hagard. The film is now in production in Japan.
With this new opus, the director continues to build his body of work, underpinned by a strong dystopian vision of humanity’s future. Always thinking one step further, he is already thinking about his next project, that will link Penggantian and Alternates into a cohesive loop. Set in Japan, where he also resides, the film will explore a century of transitions up to 2080 and will address the country’s issues of a fast-aging society as well as the increasing impact of the digital world on its population. While he is still considering alternatives in terms of techniques, one constant remains, the exploration of the pervasive sides of our digital era.
VR Film Penggantian (dir: Jonathan Hagard) screening was part of Short Film Market MFW7 (3-11 September 2021) and MFW8 (2-10 September 2022)