By her own admission, Mouly Surya was reluctant at first to direct Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts. She wasn’t interested in a film originally conceptualised by someone else, even if that person was award-winning director Garin Nugroho.
Garin came up with the story of a woman who beheads her rapist, then reports the rape to the police with the man’s head as evidence. But when Garin presented Mouly with the idea, she finally caved.
“Garin said he’d rather have a female perspective for the film. He also said he can’t imagine what I would do with his idea. I took that as a compliment, I guess,” said the 36-year-old Indonesian filmmaker in an interview in Kuala Lumpur.
Mouly made her directorial debut in 2008 with the thriller Fiksi, which won Best Director and Best Film at the Indonesia Film Festival. Her 2013 follow-up, What They Don’t Talk About When They Talk About Love, won the Netpac award at the 42nd International Film Festival Rotterdam.
She was in the middle of developing her third film when Garin offered her Marlina.
“When I showed the five-page treatment that Garin had done for Marlina to my producer Rama Adi, he agreed that we should develop it as our third movie. We both just fell in love with the story,” Mouly shared.
Marlina marks the first time Mouly is making a movie based on another person’s idea. “I was actually quite reluctant because it was an unfamiliar process to me,” Mouly explained. “At that time, I was looking for ways to make the story mine and deliver it in the way I can relate to.”
Mouly came up with the idea of interpreting Marlina as a Western, albeit one set on the Indonesian island of Sumba. “I found the idea of a feminist Indonesian Western-style movie intriguing. Though, it doesn’t make sense to call it a Western because the movie is set in the East,” she said laughing.
Marlina was selected for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival under the Directors’ Fortnight section. It has earned rave reviews from other international film festivals, and the term “satay Western” was coined by a Variety reviewer to describe the film’s unique narrative.
Mouly said she loved the phrase and found it moving that her take on Marlina’s story is widely accepted by audiences around the world.
Women fighting back
More importantly, Mouly wanted to tell a story about women helping each other to overcome their odds. The film stars Marsha Timothy as Marlimna and Dea Panendra as a pregnant character named Novi.
Marlina meets Novi while waiting for a bus to get to the police station. On their way, the bus is attacked by Marlina’s rapist’s henchmen. Marlina escapes but Novi is stuck on the bus. The story then shifts to how Novi fights back to survive her ordeal.
For Mouly, one of her favourite scenes is when Novi and Marlina are forced to urinate in the bushes during their bus journey to a different town.
“I’ve never seen girls pee together in a movie! I’ve been on road trips where I’d complain about how nice it is for boys because they can basically pee anywhere. Marlina was a movie for me to convey some nuances on what it’s really like to be a girl.”