Meet Eka and Edo. They’re two young men when we first encounter them in A Punk Daydream, the new film from Belgian director Jimmy Hendrickx and co-director Kristian Van der Heyden. The teenagers are covered in gnarly tattoos, inky expressions of their individuality and rebellious spirit. If tattoos have an element of taboo in western culture, their offensiveness is ten-fold in the boys’ native Indonesia where a melting pot of values and cultures moves at a different pace from the increasingly globalized world. Fuelled by musical influences and modes of expression from alternative western culture, the boys of Hendrickx’s unique and exhilarating film find the perfect outlet with which to vent their dislocation from society.
Hendrickx takes an innovative approach to the boys’ journey as they find themselves at odds with their parents and, increasingly, outcasts from society. They struggle on the streets of Jakarta in the face of an oppressive military regime, but use music to assert their voices loudly and proudly to anyone willing to hear them. A Punk Daydream draws upon a rich fusion of flavours in its soundtrack with adrenaline-pumping punk rock mixing with traditional Indonesian instrumentation and a layering of direct sounds taken on location. Hendrickx meditates upon a culture at a crossroads as competing worldviews and ideologies converge on the boys’ behaviour, particularly their dark tattoos that brand them as undesirables to some. Told in an innovative and kaleidoscopic collage of music video aesthetics, visual arts, and ecological concerns, the film empowers the boys by celebrating their right to self-expression.
The doc interweaves elements of tradition that are the roots of Indonesian culture as Hendrickx takes his camera inside a temple where a monk offers a much more compassionate view of tattooing than Eka’s parents do, while extended sequences draw upon the boys’ kindship with the Dayak tribe. Hendrickx goes deep into the bush to observe the Dayaks’ traditional way of life free of the restrictions that he sees when the camera is with Eka and Edo in the streets of Jakarta. As the film guides audiences throughout the country in a time of change, and creates a visual essay of landscapes, environmentalism, and ecological concerns, the tattoos on the boys’ faces are emblems of our own increasingly globalized world. Why is there such a concern for ink when there are much graver forms marking the earth worldwide?
POV met up with director Jimmy Hendrickx at Hot Docs following the North American premiere of the film to discuss A Punk Daydream, his journey with Eka and Edo, the rich tapestry of music in the film’s soundtrack, and the greater concerns for the world entailed with this intimate, eclectic portrait.
POV: Pat Mullen
JH: Jimmy Hendrickx
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Tell me about your travels in Indonesia for the film.
JH: When I came Indonesia, I was struck by its extremities, its epic beauty but also the harsh site of the country. There were polluted rivers in the center of the city where you have the nicest hotels. These very luxurious lifestyles are almost built on piles of plastic. But, initially, I started traveling through Indonesia doing photography on the volcanoes and the landscapes.
POV: How did you meet Eka?
JH: When I went back to the city, I jumped on a bus and I met Eka. He gave me his song and I translated it. I didn’t know he was a punk at the time because he was not fully dressed up. But when I translated the song, I realized it was about politics and anarchy, that it was a punk song. Eka was 16 years old at the time and we switched numbers. He texted me suddenly and asked if I wanted to meet again. That’s where it all started.
POV: I love the music in the film and how it blends traditional sounds with contemporary work. How did you develop the music? I noticed the credits listed some songs by Eka and Edo.
JH: They played the ukulele in the film. From the beginning, Kristian and I knew the music needed an Indonesian touch even when we focused on playing rock or punk songs. Most of the traditional music we recorded happened through coincidences along the road. Paul Chambers, a Belgian DJ, joined us for a month. We did stops at some wonderful music academies hunting for traditional music samples. In one school, students were playing their songs for a graduation project but there was this one song coming from the hallway that felt so new and magical to us. We instantly approached the students to see if we could record it in studio. They said it was just a school exercise—they never intended to play it again, actually. The song was an adaption of an old Javanese song for children. They added a bass guitar and an old school Casio synthesizer, which created a surreal combination of upbeat ska and Javanese folklore. We recorded many layers for a mix. Of course, there are some onscreen music pieces too in the film, like when there’s an event, dance, or live music, but essentially the soundtrack is filtered through the traditional music.
Furthermore, we use a very slow sound similar to a violin called a tarawangsa. It’s an ancient Javanese snare instrument. It only has three snares and it’s always joined by the jentreng. Although its dramatic sound cuts straight into your soul, there are only five musicians left in Indonesia who mastered it. Belgian composer Dijf Sanders, who just released his album JAVA, introduced me to this almost extinct instrument. As Eka is Javanese himself, and our film reflects on fading identities, it felt like this was the instrument we needed. But also the violin music from Wong Kar-wai films like In the Mood for Love might just be our inspiration. And about the Ukulele, that’s the real sound of the street kids, we didn’t do any direction in that. It’s the cheapest guitar on the market and therefore over the years became a must have for every homeless punk to become a street artist.
POV: The film makes a strong point about the effects of globalization, too. You show the negative consequences in what’s happening with urban development and the environment. But then you capture an exchange which shows that the boys wouldn’t know punk music and style if they hadn’t travelled across borders. What did the film teach you about the pros and cons of globalization? Is there a balance we can find?
JH: You asked me the opposite of the apocalyptic thinking. We never had the intention to give an answer in the film. There are thousands of films made about ecological studies. We are more artists than activists.
I don’t know where humanity goes, but I think it’s plausible that in the future, all our resources will be destroyed. But we have an extreme sense of survival. There’s a great documentary [ Generation 2.0 ] where they dig up mammoths from under the glaciers. Who knows? We might just eat dinosaur hamburgers in 10 years when all the animals are gone. It’s very dark to think about this. We might find 100 other planets one day so we can try it over, but we’d probably just start mining again.
POV: Do you share Eka’s sense of disconnection?
JH: For me, it’s important to meditate on our feelings of connection and disconnection with our surroundings. That’s what I wanted to put in the film. It might be universal if we do not have a connection with the earth; if we feel displaced. We don’t use the maximum of our powers. The tribe in the film show it very well—the magical energy we can have with the place where we stand. We can translate it into a belief, a religion, or animism, but the main thing is that we have to respect the place where we are and that makes us so different from animals.
POV: Right, because animals eat, sleep, and roam, but they don’t pollute outside of the natural cycle of things. What effect did the film have on the boys?
JH: We became close friends.I have contact with them almost every day.The boys have a YouTube channel and they made$400 already this month. That’s huge. They bought a little camera with that. We made workshops and experiments to create an economy for them, but it never succeeded. But suddenly, spontaneously, they picked up and started filming things, so that’s really good.
POV: The scenes with Eka and his wife, the girl he marries to help out when she becomes pregnant, were those re-enactments? Was that his actual wife at the time?
JH: The photography is a re-enactment, but the story’s real.
POV: The re-enactments with his father are especially effective. Can you talk about the stylistic difference between the first time we meet the dad, when the camera goes into his office and he’s a military officer who doesn’t trust you, and then the second scene in which he appears, which is more obviously dramatic, as Eka confronts his “father.” I didn’t realize the first scene was also a re-enactment until after the film. It’s shot quite convincingly as documentary.
JH: We choose to make the documentary style transforming into a theatre setting, so all the keys are there to reveal what is true and staged. But the emotions are so real in that scene that it seems hard to look through. Unlike the second scene in the theatre, the sequence was similar to what we experienced, only I didn’t have the camera on when we met his father, who’s in the army. We met at a different location, but the dialogue is the same.
POV: His presence in the army adds an extra dynamic to the tension, but also makes Eka seem so strong when he stands up to him in the staged sequence.
JH: We wanted to make the audience aware of the doctrine of film. You can say that doctrine and ideology are bad, but we cannot get them out of our system. Even in a regime, it gives answers to people. The punks have their own ideologies. Sadly, sometimes we need rules and restrictions. It’s interesting to play with that. But yes, it’s all a trompe l’oeil.
POV: Last night in the Q&A, you mentioned The Act of Killing. You were in Indonesia for six years with the film, so were you able to see the reaction to it in Indonesia? Did the release of that film impact your production?
JH: When I was there, it was already in festivals. It was out of my scope at the time. The film was mostly seen in artists’ circles when I was there, but it’s changed a lot of things. One of the biggest changes is the inspiration it gave other documentary filmmakers to stop censoring themselves.
POV: The Act of Killing was so controversial and your characters are not accepted by the military—and you’re filming in a country with a very tight military ideology. How did you navigate those concerns?
JH: At times we were certainly afraid, but as we were always surrounded by local people who supported us we kept on believing what we did was right. We strongly hope the Indonesian audience can see the positivity in our film, that the consequences of ideology and capitalism are universal. And without the love and passion we feel for Indonesia, we would never made this film. My relationship with the country goes deep, but as in every loving relationship, you might also say or do the wrong things. Maybe we didn’t succeed, but we always tried to show both sides of the stories. Eka’s father is somehow a victim too, but ideology or religion might also just give the right answers to people.
POV: Right. There are the scenes with the monk who tells the boys about tattoos and how it’s not really about whether the skin is clean, but the mind.
JH: Yes, that’s not the answer a western audience in general expects from an imam but at the end it’s just as logical as it can gets. Indonesia is such a vast country with all kinds of visions. You cannot keep the country together without a nationalistic ideology going on, either. If you have at least 8,000 islands, how are you going to do that? You have to be nationalistic or let everyone be independent.
POV: How did you find it, personally?
JH: There’s are some important things to understand the complexity of the Indonesian identity. The region has a long history of Buddhism and Hinduism, during the Dutch colony a few other religious like Islam, Catholicism and Protestantism grew on top of that. All united through an official state ideology which is guarded by the same army who ones freed Indonesia from the colonizer, actually ideology and the army stand also for freedom and tolerance in many ways. But just because of that it is also easy to abuse.
Eka opens the film with some heroic and nationalistic poetry: “I will die for my country.” He seems to attach emotions of freedom to those words that sound more like propaganda to us. But also in the punk lyrics we feel similar heroic vocabulary. My point is that there are so many sentiments slipping through that it is hard to define what is good or bad sometimes. It foremost tells something about a human condition, our need to believe in a more epic representation of reality, isn’t cinema all about that, and again, just because of that it’s so easy to be abused.
POV: The power of propaganda is a prevalent theme at Hot Docs this year. Has this film helped you recognize propaganda back home?
JH: I had friends who decried capitalism and saw conspiracies everywhere when I was younger and I never saw that. Then I went up to Indonesia were it was so in my face I realized how easily we can get indoctrinated. Eka talks about how they had to change their diets. They were told, “You now have to eat rice. If you don’t eat rice, you’re primitive.” You get whole population under control over something like rice. You stigmatize. I had to understand it myself, but for them, it’s very obvious. Edo told me, “That’s capitalism. It’s all for commercials.” But that’s true. Just by changing something in the diet, they’re all dependent on the capitalist system because they have to buy rice. Then they might have buy fertilizers because the land might not be able to grow rice, and so on until you get an identity crisis.
Stigmatizing happens just as well on the television screens in Belgium. Parties on the right are the most powerful now. Look at Trump and how he thrives with the Americans. You have someone saying, “We have to say it like it is.” Then everybody agrees.
POV: Yes, the propaganda of the right emboldens people. We’re seeing it here in Ontario too.
JH: I was shocked a few weeks ago when back home one of our leading politicians said in an interview, “Our politics and our programs are based on fear, that’s how politics works.” After, he was blamed for using populist fear tactics himself. They were blaming [the speaker] as an intellectual, but that’s how politics works. They simply create fear around the darkness in the street or drugs or anything and give a proposed solution. Then you think it works, but the reason is that we are just all under-educated. That’s something I realized when I went back to Belgium: Where does it start? You have certain figures who have an intuition for power. They fragment people. You see it from kindergarten with bullies, and favourites, and groups.
POV: How does that inspire your choices as an artist?
JH: As a filmmaker brainwashing people? [Laughs] I started out making video art, very experimental things. I never thought I was going in the direction of documentary until I felt the power of it. I made a short film in Malaysia on urbanization. I shot it in a few days and put an epic soundtrack on it. I suddenly had a DSLR camera and a slider in the field. It’s funny how cinematic you can make it: DIY, but theatrical. I discovered how powerful these tools are and how documentary could get to emotions that are real and complex.
POV: The emotion of the film is really strong at the end where there’s a real cinematic shot of Eka and Edo biking through his muddy field and there camerawork is gliding with them. What made that location so significant?
JH: That’s next to the volcano. I was standing on the volcano and I was looking for an idea, like what character can I put next to a volcano? Then I went into the field and I met a punk. The volcano is like the underbelly of the Earth. It’s boiling and lava wants to come out. That’s also punk for society. As long there is humanity there might be punk, it can pop up anywhere in the world where it ever slipped through, because its fundamentals are rooted in universal sentiments like rebellion and tribal feelings.
POV: What are you hoping to happen when you bring the film to Indonesia and show it to the community?
JH: For the punks themselves, I owe them a lot. I hope they at least like the film. I wanted the film to feel like a love letter for Eka’s mom.
I was in Belgium and I asked Eka to go to the studio and just say the words he wanted to say to his mom. I put all these elements in the film to help his parents understand that tattoos are complex and not just something that means you’re bad or good.
I hope the film doesn’t get them into trouble. They say bad words about their country and could be locked up. For punks, it doesn’t matter. There’s always a reason to lock them up. I don’t think Oppenheimer knew what was going to happen in Indonesia, after the release of his film, but it’s hard to talk about this film without thinking about what he did at the cinematographic level or the political level looking at Indonesia itself.