An Interview with Ravi L. Bharwani on '27 Steps of May'

TW: Rape

27 Steps of May is a poignant film that explores the lasting effects of trauma that consumes a woman long after she was raped in her teens.
Stuck in the bottomless pit of depression and self-harm, May (Raihaanun) has lost her will to live, as well as her need for speech. Her protective father (Lukman Sardi) tries to lure her out of her self-deprecating state but to no avail.
Despite living under the same roof, both father and daughter lead double lives. May discovers a crack in her wall through which she peeks at a magician (Ario Bayu) and gradually learns to open up to him.

Blaming himself for her rape, her father vents his anger and frustrations in underground fights. With their constant lack of communication and hidden secrets, the pair suffers in solitude.
Each time their relationship seems to be progressing, small events would occur that cause them to fall back into the same pattern of isolation and grievance.
With a subtle approach to addressing past demons, the film is meticulous in its symbolism of small and careful steps.

27 Steps of May is a film by Ravi L. Bharwani. We spoke to the director about his inspiration, as well as the behind-the-scenes of the film.
SINdie: There are multiple layers of pain in the film, from the daughter's rape to the father's rage in his fights and the almost non-existent communication between both father and daughter. How did this story first come to you? What was your inspiration for the film? 
Ravi L. Bharwani: It started with a theme that I was obsessed about, which is alienation. Two of my previous films also talked about the same theme. The second point was from the 1998 riots, there was political and turmoil chaos happening in the country. During that time lots of women were raped and people murdered brutally, especially in the Chinese communities.
Both points became the backbone for me to create the story of the woman and her struggle to break away from the trauma. Later on it develops into a story of rape, and I realised that there are themes that I didn’t see. Guilt, trauma, these are also themes that have been quite personal, from my personal experiences as well.
So it’s a mix and match of all these experiences and events and obsessions and resulted into a story about this film, about 27 Steps of May. Throughout the film, I realised that I didn’t want to make a political statement of the happenings. I just want to focus on just one family and how the violence, especially sexual violence, can be so devastating, not just on the victim but on the family as well.
How closely did the film follow the script? Were there scenes that were omitted in the edit?
Yes, some scenes were taken out during the editing, not much, but there were some scenes. Quite a couple of scenes we did not shoot it as well because of time constraints as we did not anticipate a couple of stuff. Especially thinking of how time consuming and tedious it is to prepare the set.
To give you an example, when we want to move the cupboard from one point to another, the cupboard where the dolls were placed, during the second take, readjusting and realigning all the dolls into becoming one straight line and fitting it according to how the character is in the film was just so time consuming.
We also have limited space on the set because we actually shot it at a house, a real house, that was about to be demolished so we couldn’t build two sets at the same time and work on it so we had to just do one thing at a time. So it’s time consuming. I discussed with the writer, Rayya Makarim, on how to omit these scenes and how to tackle it so that the story can convey the same message.
The crack in the wall gets bigger as the film progresses, how did you (or your art department) manage to achieve this physically?
We did not have the luxury to shoot on a set because of budget, so we found a house, that belongs to the writer actually, the house was going to be demolished. That way we had the freedom, given the house was small, but that way we could break the wall as much as we want to, or to attach walls. So we treated it like a set.
The art made a big hole on the wall, and also they made different sets of holes, maybe there were like 6 or 7 sets probably. That part of the set was like a square that can be attached to the main wall. Before we commenced shoot, we would already have 6 sets, 6 holes. So on shoot, we would know during which part of the scene we would want to use, let’s say, No. 2 hole or No. 3 hole.
But again, attaching the part of the set that has the hole to the main wall, it takes time as well, to make it seamless. So that’s another constraint that we had. Those are the technical stuff of attaching the walls. We had already decided from point A where there’s no hole, till the end part where the hole gets bigger and bigger. We already knew what the progress would be like.
The performances of your lead actors were very strong. How do you manage to elicit such strong performances on set?
Well, I think it goes back to casting. I cannot underline the importance of casting. Casting, casting, casting. I do my own casting, research well, ask people, whatever. I think 50% of the film is done due to good casting. After which we discuss, with the writer and the actors, what is the intention of the scene, why the character is doing this, why the character is doing that, so they know the intention of each and every line.
After this, we work on the set. We had the house already prepared for the shoot, so we had time to work on the set to do rehearsals. We had 2 weeks of rehearsals, but not on a daily basis. I do not tell the actors where the camera is going to be placed or the technical concerns. I just observe and see if they are going to the right directions. But at the end, I cannot get all these if there’s nothing in the script. Which brings back the point that I needed a good script in order to get a good performance.
And of course these actors are working from their hearts, they’re working with their emotions, not from a technical point of view, not that I wanted to achieve this or I wanted to achieve that. So that makes the whole thing less difficult for me to direct them, as they already had the preparations, the character’s psychological backgrounds. They already have all the materials that they needed, in terms of physicality, emotions and rationality, why they do this and why they do that, before they come to the set. All prepared.
How did you direct the fight scenes? Did Lukman Sardi have to train extensively for that?
We had only 2 days to film all the scenes for the underground cage fighting. And 1 day for the boxing. It was very hard for all of us, exhausting for Lukman and all the actors too. We had the fighting coach to help in directing the action scenes.
But what’s more difficult is that the fight isn’t just about punches. It’s about how the experiences he encounters with his daughter reflect on the fight sequences. To get all these, we had to train him for 2 fighting setups. His training was around 2 months before the film. We have a trainer that comes to workshop with him for the 3 fight sequences for the underground fighting. And he goes to a more formal gym for boxing training. So you can understand how difficult it is, how exhausting is it for him to work on these 2 different kinds of styles and physicality. So that’s the kind of training he had to do for this film.
What were some thoughts that you and your DP had when deciding on the camera movement and execution?
The original idea about the film is about steps. The film is about progress and change, baby steps. It starts off with the character who is making baby steps and progress.
I gave a simple guideline to all the departments on the film, we are going from point 1 to point 4. From number 1 to number 4. Just to give you a feeling on the progress from one scene to another, we agreed from where the actor was going to stand, from the starting point, and then we agreed on the ending as well, that this would be the end of the film. Then I left all the departments to play within those boundaries.
I wasn’t going to make a film that had character change from 1 to 100. Let’s say, suppose a big melodramatic film would have a character change from 1 to 100. I said this film was just going to be a small step, small baby steps that we want to take. Every department you see in all the scenes, there are minor changes, from the hairdo, from the makeup, from the colour of the set, of how the props are placed, everything. It’s all about progress, changes.
So same thing with the camera, it was initially restricted. Then it was moving, and finally there was fluid camera movement. So at the end, that’s how I wanted to give a kind of fluidity to her character, to give a feeling of how she’s a little bit more open, more fluid in her ability to deal with the outside world.
And from a technical point of view, we had about 3 takes for the last shot. We had so limited time so we had to work with the constraints. We did 3, or maybe 4 takes for that.
Lastly, what is the significance of the film's title, 27 Steps of May?

The film was inspired as a sort of allegory to the main 1998 event. The film is about steps the character made to break free from her struggle. Literal steps as well as psychological steps.

Why 27? That’s the interesting part. We thought okay, let’s count the number of steps that she has to take, literally, from her house to the outside gate. I counted a number, I don’t quite remember, and my producer, Wilza Lubis, she counted and gave a different figure. Another director, another producer gave a different figure, so we didn't know which one to choose. So who’s is right, who’s wrong? It wasn’t a matter of being right or wrong, it’s just that we have different pacings, different ways of strides so we didn’t know how to choose. So we came up with a figure, the 4 of us, twenty-seven.

Two plus seven is nine, according to Wilza. 27 is 2 + 7 = 9, which is a good chinese number so we ended up using 27. So I hope that this number 27 brings us luck with the film, especially since we’re going to screen here in cinemas in Indonesia on the 27th of April.
We would have asked for a simpler title, like just ‘May’, but then we have a film in Indonesia called ’May’ a few years back, so we decided to called it 27 Steps of May. Which was actually quite interesting as a lot of people were asking us the same question, at the festivals that we went to. So that’s the idea of the film and how we got into creating the title.

*The interview answers have been edited for clarity.
Do catch the film, 27 Steps of May, in cinemas (Indonesia) on 27 April 2019.

Written by Christine Seow
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