Film Review: The Science of Fictions | Hiruk-pikuk si al-kisah (2019)

Shown in the Concorso internazionale category of this year’s prestigious Locarno Film Festival, Yosep Anggi Noen’s The Science of Fictions (trans. Hiruk-pikuk si al-kisah) received a special mention among the line-up. A co-production between Indonesia, Malaysia, and France, the resulting film is an absurdist’s paradise, touching upon the art of self-mythologies, shared historical trauma, and the resulting interplay of cultural, technological, and social forces––all centred around a moon landing. The use of the moon landing as the anchoring event comes as no surprise, with us, as a civilization, having recently celebrated 50 years since Apollo 11. 

Indeed, the conspiracy theories surrounding its supposed fabrication continue to endure years on, gesturing towards our propensity not only for doubt, but a desire to understand the boundaries of reality as they manifest as a confounding mix of fact and fiction. The innate for that “a-ha!” moment translates well in The Science of Fictions where I, as much as others (I’m sure), looked to decipher the purpose of certain themes, characters, and scenes throughout the film. 

Opening with a shot through a round window, we observe protagonist Siman (played by Gunawan Maryanto) as he turns, walking slowly within the confines of space. As though fighting against heavy air, his movements are indolent––the shot is coloured with a melancholy blue. A voiceover coming from the television sets the scene for the significance of the moon landing in the film, that certain stones originating from the moon had been found on Indonesian islands hundreds of years ago. Shifting to black and white, Siman finds himself in the jungle, stumbling upon a film crew shooting a moon landing. Eyes glistening in the shadows, they find him and perhaps if it isn’t clear already, he had seen something he wasn’t meant to see and for that, his tongue is cut out. So, what’s the deal? Did the moon landing really happen? Was it all just shot in some remote jungle in Indonesia? Does it actually matter? “History is written by the victors”, whether you believe it’s Churchill or Machiavelli who said it, the point remains––history is contextual, grounded in subjective experience and its transmission determined by those who have the power to set things in motion. In his director’s statement, Noen argues: 
 “In this digital era, history can be written by anyone... The most fictional era in Indonesia was the time when Soekarno, the first president, was replaced by Soeharto by a coup. Nobody knew about the real situation or you could say the truth at the time. Everyone has their own version of the story… All will look empirical; all the stories from many sources will make us drown into all that is fiction. Repeated lies, confronted with other lies will lead to the understanding of truth.” 

Ridiculed for his slow movements, Siman is ostracised by villagers. Manipulated and ultimately commoditised as a labourer and as entertainment for village gatherings and weddings, his desire to become an astronaut, to express and reveal what he had seen that night in the jungle, is reduced to an act by others. Hard-working and trusting, his wages go toward his efforts at building a structure akin to the Apollo 11 command module and having a tailor-made spacesuit made. Historical and political trauma is a shared experience––the lies we believe as a culture and a society come to inform behaviour and idealogy. For Siman, he is collectively reduced as a means to an end––a slow, money-making commodity––and within his village, that is ultimately what his existence is believed to be by all those around him. Similarly, he himself continues the train of exploitation when he finds himself in another village––here, in a position of power, he can (sexually) exert his will in a way that he was otherwise unable to. 

Meditative and purposeful, the pace of Noen's film is laggard in its first half, but not to a fault. It demands patience and a critical eye, as the switch from monochrome to full colour is accompanied by a change of pace in the second half of the film. I see this second portion as the post-mythology phase of the cultural narrative that Noen has presented viewers with––how a society adapts to imposed belief over time. Moments where Siman's gait shifts are a delight––Maryanto truly makes the character come to life, as though every fibre in his body is suddenly awakened. But these moments are not fully explained, though perhaps intending to portray that such moments awaken us from the monotony of subjected existence.

A film that speaks to the nature of self-mythologies and shared trauma, Noen's film unpacks the complexities of how we create and disseminate truth in the digital age. Shifting away from the shamans of old (as in the first half of the film) to the presence of television screens and mobile phones, we tell the stories as we see fit. As the characters all come to confront the viewers at the end of the film, breaking the fourth wall as if taunting, "do you really see me now?", the result is 106 minutes of both absurdity and melancholy in equal measure. The Science of Fictions is certainly about that––a methodical deconstruction of the narratives we tell ourselves and tell others. 


The Science of Fictions just won the Silver Hanoman Award for the Asian Feature category at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival and will be premiering in Singapore at this year's Singapore International Film Festival in competition on November 29, 2019. 

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 

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