Short Film Review: Ruwatan (2019)

We hear the sound of children and traffic before we see Sri’s mother, centre-framed and her back turned to us. In a moment, we will see Sri framed similarly from the front, her face ill-lit in spite of the glaring sun, but for now we soak in the lack of agency and isolation in this opening image. It speaks volumes – on both Sri and her mother’s part. Their identities, no matter how separate, are one and the same.

Ruwatan, directed by Ernest Lesmana, is an Indonesian short film from the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s ShortFest official selection. Sri, a young woman, takes her mother weekly to a dukun – the equivalent of a shaman – to seek treatment for what seems to be black magic-induced blindness. Distanced from the film’s cultural context, a foreigner’s immediate reaction is to discover what ‘ruwatan’ means – a Javanese purification ritual, an exorcism to remove the bad luck from a person.

The ritual itself is, if not feared, then something to be anxious about. In a scene where mother and daughter consult the dukun, Sri looks at him in concern when he mentions that her mother must ‘prepare for ruwatan’. Interestingly, he is out of focus and framed from the back so we can hardly see his features beyond a vague side profile, while Sri’s mother is blocked such that she is in the centre of the frame, her eyes looking almost straight at us. It’s an imploring of us to question the validity of his alternative treatment.


Consider the shot succeeding this. Framed in a tight medium closeup, Sri's mother sits, her shoulders hunched, toplight casting macabre shadows on her face as the dukun cleanses her with flowered water. The green saturation already suggests an unnatural, perverse intrusion into her privacy as her expressive face betrays her fear – all while the camera gradually dollies in, and a tense thrum grows in volume. There’s a moment where the dukun attempts to lift up her towel from below – already offscreen – presumably to cleanse underneath. She hesitates; he merely asks if she wants to get better. Conflict warring across her visage, she allows it. Lesmana chooses to leave things to the imagination and criticism remains unsaid, but the implications are clear.


But this really isn’t the point of the film; it’s more of a backdrop against the foregrounded mother-daughter relationship and the isolation between the two of them. The film is full of moments where, even in settings where there are an abundance of people in the same frame, eyelines never match. In minivans, Sri is always looking out the window while her mother looks off into the distance. The rest are all either looking at their phones or magazines. Indeed, some of the most heartbreaking moments are of shots like these, her eyes wandering around, face crumpling as she feels around the empty space for her daughter, searching for a connection where there is none.

There is a moment of catharsis when Sri finally moves to sit beside her mother. Mother holds daughter’s face gently, eyes still not fully meeting hers, beginning to cry as she delivers a heartbreaking line: “I just want to see your face one more time.” But the shot maintains its static, objective mid-shot while foregrounding an apathetic stranger on his phone. The moment is not afforded much sentiment either, the full force of the moment abruptly cutting to the next – perhaps showing that hesitation to open up to each other.


Ultimately, the core of the film is its dearth of connection. There is a deep well of love for each other but it seems that both are afraid to reveal themselves to each other, resulting in deep loneliness. What is the need for purification, actually? The need for connection? An exorcism of the demons that separate the both of them? Emotions are sanitised, and acts of service seem transactional. At home, Sri fills a bowl of the holy water the dukun gives to them for her mother to use; the tilt downwards to the table shows a number of empty plastic bottles. That imbalanced image of negation reflects the numerous, and ultimately empty, attempts at connection.


The film ends with an overhead shot of Sri and her mother sleeping on the same bed – facing away from each other, distanced even in sleep. The bright red of the blanket is dulled by the darkness of the image, a mockery of the vibrant mother-daughter relationship. As credits begin to roll over sentimental music, one is brought to think about the emotional complexity of familial connection. The film whispers an utterance rather than proclaims a message, perhaps provoking us to think about our own relationships. In this sense I think there’s a universality to this final image; a desire for human connection, as poets, writers, and singers have been writing about for millennia. And filmmakers too.

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