Denok and Gareng: Luang Prabang Review

Engaging representation of below-the-breadline lives which never stoops to exploit poverty as exotica.

Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni's first feature-length documentary features a young couple's quotidian struggle to get by as they tend to their pig farm in an Indonesian village.

Denok and Gareng begins quite grimly: through on-screen texts, director Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni outlines how Denok, one half of her first documentary's titular couple, ran away from home at 14, and spent time peddled drugs in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta for a living. And as video clips of her marriage to Gareng are shown, accompanying texts concludes how the happy times are relatively shortlived as the bridegroom's father soon ran off, leaving the family to confront his huge debt.

Indeed, what follows is a chronicle of Denok and Gareng's struggle to stay afloat, as they slave away at their pig farm in a village in central Java in order to earn a living not just for themselves but for Gareng's mother, brothers and also the young couple's toddler. But in miserablism Dwi does not dwell: rather than stripping them of their integrity by just heightening their poverty as some kind of exotica, Denok and Gareng is a vibrant piece about vibrantly full-fleshed individuals leading lives defined by principles and their own philosophies.

As an unobtrusive, empathetic and engaging piece about individuals who are not, as Gareng's mother jokingly said at the end of the film, "hungover by the situation", it's perhaps unsurprising – and indeed heartening – that the documentary has been garlanded at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, DOK Fest Munich, the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival, the Salaya Doc festival in Bangkok, and back home at Yogyakarta's Jogya-NETPAC Asian Film Festival. Its screening at the Luang Prabang Film Festival on Dec. 8 should simply be yet another booking in international tour.

Never for a moment betraying even a small modicum of artifice, the narration-free Denok and Gareng allows its protagonists to reveal their personalities and circumstances naturally, with a rapport that suggests a collective perfectly able to keep themselves above water with affection in the face of adversity, spiced up by general dosages of humor.

The fact that Dwi has known the couple since they were street kids probably contributed in this, but her direction and Gregorius Arya Dhipayana's editing also helped, with an accumulation of anecdotes which, though deadpanned by its subjects, actually unpeels their marginalized status in their community: a segment when the couple instructed their daughter not to talk about their real profession in her Islamic school – Muslims are to deem pigs unclean – is swiftly followed by another conversation when Denok questions why Gareng wasn't invited to regular religious rituals.

Not that Dwi has skimmed the unnerving difficulties the couple and their family have to confront on a daily basis: Gareng is seen regularly scavenging stinking garbage dumps to find his pigs' next meal – a gooey swill Denok makes by stirring all sorts of leftovers by hand. The family also are seen selling off nearly anything they have to make ends meet, ranging from their VCD player to their sewing machine. But the documentary never patronizes the couple and their kin, these are individuals who are quietly determined to make things work and laugh in the face of adversity, such as when Gareng jokes, without bitterness, that the rich's worries are different to his because they "make them bald," and that "without debt my life wouldn't be complete".

But tensions do exist in such exasperating circumstances, and Dwi has managed to capture moments that reveals how some kind of ugliness could possibly come to the surface from all this panged-up angst. A jokey pillow fight spirals into a real row with Gareng chastening Denok for her "lack of respect," and how Gareng goes into meltdown after his brother Soesan crashes his motorcycle in a drunken stupor, and how nobody – pedestrians, policemen or anyone – cares about him and his family.

The fury soon subsides and life continues; it's a kind of toughness that is seen in Gareng and his mother's tough love against the younger members of the family, when they will at the same time cheer up the wayward youngest brother Pur by offering to buy him chicken noodles – but he will have the food thrown in his face and stuck up his backside if he is to waste any of it. It's exactly how these divergent emotional moments are represented, in a mix of wit and grit, that elevates Denok and Gareng beyond single-dimensional indulgences into someone else's destitution.

Venue: Luang Prabang Film Festival
Production Companies: Jawa Dwipa Films in association with credo:film
Director: Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni
Writer: Dwi Sjuanti Nugraheni
Cinematographer: Kurnia Yudha
Sound: Abdi Kusuma Surbakti
Editor: Gregorius Arya Dhipayana
International Sales: credo:international
In Indonesian
89 minutes