Night Bus was the surprise winner of the Citra award for best film at Film Festival Indonesia 2017, the Indonesian equivalent of the Oscars. It was a victory that caught many off guard because, after its success at the box office (as well as with the critics), Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves (Pengabdi Setan) seemed certain to win.
Emil Heradi’s second film, Night Bus, is a ‘political’ film that positions itself intelligently between political and genre cinema. As the title suggests, the story focuses on the events which take place along the route of a journey aboard a night bus. We are in an undetermined country – a land of fantasy-politics which are full of references to the contemporary Indonesian and international situations. The night bus is directed towards Samper, a town known for its natural resources which has long been at the centre of a bloody separatist war. A fragile truce has been declared which has reopened the roads, and a group of passengers, each with different motives, boards the vehicle to reach the remote location.
Accompanied by a little girl, there’s an old lady who wants to visit the grave of her son, probably a rebel killed in battle; there’s a very young couple fleeing from their families, lured by the prospect of finding a new job and a new life in the city; there’s an activist from an NGO who is looking for his missing colleagues, who were perhaps kidnapped by rebels or killed by the army; there’s the village braggart who spends his time boasting and treats all the other passengers with vulgar arrogance; there’s a blind minstrel, heading for the island where he was born, and where he is seemingly the last remaining man; there is a silent veiled young woman, apparently a doctor; and there is a photographer, intent and curious, who we immediately realise is not simply interested in the beautiful landscapes the bus traverses on its way to Samper. At the wheel is the devout driver Amang, accompanied by boisterous conductor Bagudung, a former street kid who Amang took under his wing. All characters expertly rendered by excellent actors, especially Teuku Rifnu Wikana (who is also one of the film’s producers) in the role of Bagudung, where he gives a performance notable for its versatility and command of registers; it was no coincidence he won the Citra award for best actor.
This cross-section of humanity sees itself plunged into a journey to hell when, after they have passed through the final checkpoint before the war zone, the checkpoint’s commander receives a call announcing the breakdown of the truce and telling him to stop all access. The voyage of the night bus continues up the steep slopes of these fantasy lands in a combination of realism and metaphor, crossing paths with the army, the guerrillas, deserters and bloodthirsty mercenaries whose only interest is that the war continues.
It is a narrative journey that Emil Heradi handles with great subtlety and tension. The characters’ stories are sketched in with quick strokes and immediately afterwards we find ourselves in the middle of an agonizing journey of terror. There are moments of genuinely painful and atrocious horror, almost unexpected in their power: a disturbing escalation that deliberately makes it impossible for the viewer to react with indifference. But this is not brutality for its own sake: the film is also imbued with a sense of humanity and shared desperation which is sometimes almost poetic (as in the excellent and succinct portrait of the silent woman who runs the service station). As well as its anti-war sentiments, Emil Heradi’s film is practically a directorial tour de force: with its fine-tuned precision in the pacing of shots and sequences, it commands the viewer’s attention so confidently that the film’s length (almost 140’) never becomes an issue. A result that bodes well for the future and invites curiosity about the future work of this surprising director.
After directing several short films and participating in the collective film Kita Versus Korupsi (2012), Emil Heradi made his feature directorial debut with Sagarmatha (2013). His second film, Night Bus, beat off the competition to win the Best Film Award at the Film Festival Indonesia 2017.
2013 – Sagarmatha
2017 – Night Bus