Atambua 39 Degrees Celsius: Tokyo Review

A sensitively directed drama from Indonesia.

Riri Riza’s humanist drama about East Timorese political refugees stars Gudino Soares, Petrus Beyleto and Putri Moruk.

TOKYO - A cloud of bats silhouetted against a mauve-streaked sky in the opening frame sets a poetic tone for Atambua 39 degrees Celsius, the latest collaboration between producer Mira Lesmana and celebrated Indonesian director Riri Riza (Gie, Three Days to Forever). Partially financed through crowd-funding, Riza used local actors and a limited crew to fashion a low-budget digital drama based on real-life stories of East Timorese political refugees living in the perennially steamy West Timorese border town of Atambua.

Following its world premiere in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the sensitively directed and beautifully lensed film, Riza’s eleventh, will screen at the Rotterdam festival in January next year and further festival exposure is assured. The Makassar-born filmmaker is beloved on home turf and, despite having no name actors, Atambua should do well on its November 8 local release, although nowhere approaching the scale of his 2008 box office smash The Rainbow Troops and its sequel The Dreamer (both of which are screening during a retrospective of Riza’s work in the Tokyo festival’s Winds of Asia-Middle East section).

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The despair of displaced persons separated from their families is Riza’s primary concern here and a familiar story of hesitant young love plays out against that politically charged backdrop. Set 13 years after East Timor’s 1999 pro-independence referendum which triggered a campaign of violence by pro-Indonesian militias, Atambua opens on scenes of grinding poverty and lives in limbo.

Joao (Gudino Soares) is a young man separated from his mother and sisters since the age of seven, when his father Ronaldo (Petrus Beyleto) took him to live in Atambua following the referendum. He passes time in the dusty marketplace where dogs lie prone in the heat against an ambient thrum of skinny-wheeled motorcycles and incessant tooting.

Ronaldo, a bus driver, is drunk more often than not and Joao alternates cleaning up after his father’s binges with listening to a secret stash of audio-taped letters from his mom.   

One day a young woman, Nikia (Putri Moruk), catches Joao’s eye as she glides along the street, her red veil wafting out behind her. She has come to Atambua from Kupang to complete the ritual mourning of her grandfather, and the sorrow of marginalization and loneliness unites the two teens. The local actors, speaking in their native Tetum language, acquit themselves well, with Beyleto particularly strong toward the end as the bitterly angry Ronaldo works to make peace with the past.

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The central narrative is simple enough and much of the film looks naturalistic, though there’s a lyrical quality to the direction. Gunnar Nimpuno’s cinematography wonderfully captures nature’s harsh beauty and provides a window into the colorful tumult of life in a part of Indonesia that’s often overlooked.

Cast: Gudino Soares, Petrus Beyleto, Putri Moruk

Production company: Miles Films

Writer-director: Riri Riza

Producer: Mira Lesmana

Executive producers: Ignatius Andy, Sendi Sugiharto, Adrian Sitepu

Co-producers: Suzy D. Hutomo, Budy Karya Sumadi, Lala Timothy, Frederica, Budhy Tjahjati Soegijoko

Director of photography: Gunnar Nimpuno

Editor: Waluyo Ichwandiardono

Music: Basri B. Sila

Sales: Miles Films, Jakarta

No rating, 90 minutes