Experimental films are a category that clearly falls outside the realm of commercial cinema. These films often feature abstract techniques, sound manipulations or unconventional narrative structures. Instead of following the style that we most commonly see in films, they rather explore new cinematic techniques and visual expressions. Countering our usual expectations, experimental films can sometimes be difficult for the viewer to fully grasp or understand. It’s a genre that offers creative freedom and innovation to the filmmaker and thus triggers unconventional ways of storytelling to us. In doing so, these films can appear alienating to us.
The Partian (2021) is an Indonesian experimental short film made by Hadafi Raihan Karim and has been nominated for this year’s RWI Asia Pacific Award. Talking about alienation, this is exactly the word that first came to my mind when watching the film. The Partian tells the story of an astronaut that lands on a planet and discovers unseen things. The feeling of alienation is reflected throughout the whole film with his appearance feeling out of place and his behavior of facing the new world. Like many experimental film experiences, not all intentions behind the stylistic and narrative choices of the film are entirely clear to us and thus offer room for interpretation. Therefore, this article will represent a reflection of my viewing experience of The Partian.
“A Martian is a hypothetical inhabitant of the planet Mars or a human colonist on Mars. Meet the Partian“. These are the words that the film is introduced with. The Partian tells the story of an astronaut that lands on a rocky planet. While wandering around and discovering it, he soon experiences the strong presence of trucks and land erosion. After having explored the planet, the Partian starts working for the land erosion. At the end of the film, we are confronted with a funeral that he and other astronauts take part in.
Throughout the whole film, there is no narrative that explains the visuals we are exposed to and the sound is dominated by loud passing trucks. In addition, the filmmaker makes use of bright technicolor’s, which let the sky appear green and reinforce the brownness of the planet such as the white color of the Partian’s astronaut costume. However, apart from the modified color palette, the planet and its inhabitants look very familiar to the earth, as if the filmmaker wants to make a comment on our own home.
With the strong presence of loud vehicles and the “alienness” of the Partian, it felt to me that the film touches upon the exploration of nature such as human resources or extractivism. Extractivism refers to the process of removing natural resources such as oil, gas, or metals from land or underground and selling them as commodities on the global market. However, the term also implies geopolitical, economic and social relations that are based on hegemonic structures as the extraction is often led by companies or states coming from abroad and thus exploiting the natural resources of the producing countries, leaving them with little or no profit. This especially concerns countries from continents such as Africa, Latin America or Asia, which possess high valuable natural resources, but have been exploited by Western countries and companies for a long time.
Thus, the model of extractivism not only leads to serious environmental damages, but further implies the economic plundering of the producing countries and human workers. Historically, the latter implies the exploitation of human bodies in form of slavery. More recently, this exploitation can also be found through labor-intensive and precarious working conditions of the laborers by the foreign companies or states. This becomes very much visible in the ending scene of the Partian, in which several astronauts are standing in front of graves with the lettering “laying here”.
Again, this scene hit me with a feeling of alienation. All astronauts standing in front of the graves look exactly the same and the lettering on the graves does not involve any mentioning of a name or date of birth, almost as if the astronauts and their deceased are not considered as human beings or part of the planet that they are situated at. Thinking about extractivism, this scene could make us reflect on how profit-making degenerates or alienates us from our own humanity.
In the end, all of this is just thoughts of interpretation, for which I will get no clear answer. But what I learned from watching experimental films is that we should not question all artistic choices and focus on the content or message that a film converts, but rather the feeling it elicits in us and why it does so, such as a feeling of alienation.