Short Film Review: Tellurian Drama (2020)


What makes Tellurian Drama by Riar Rizaldi so compelling as a film is also what makes it difficult to process. The lines between truth and fiction are blurred so heavily that it becomes impossible to separate what is factual from what has been made up. 

From the opening, Tellurian Drama makes it clear that some of the scientific claims quoted on screen are sometimes considered to be “pseudoscience”. The story feels like an alternate reality where almost everything is the same as in our universe, except for a few differences that are basically impossible to point out.


The film hinges on Indonesia’s past as a Dutch colony, and the Dutch colonisers’ need to build a radio which could communicate back to the Netherlands. This station, Radio Malabar, ends up being looted and abandoned during the Second World War, and in Tellurian Drama we find it an abandoned ruin. Rizaldi interweaves between showing the audience Radio Malabar’s state today and its surrounding nature, presenting excerpts from Drs. Munarwan’s 1986 article “Reconfiguring the Earth: Radio Malabar as a Geoengineering Imagination” through narration and provide historical context on the creation and usage of the radio station. Just like Munarwan, Tellurian Drama attempts to “reconstruct reality” by breathing new life into Radio Malabar in the form of docufiction.


Tellurian Drama’s sound design really stands out in the production of the short film. Rizaldi doesn’t just use generic rainforest soundscapes to signal to the audience where the story takes place, but uses sound as another way of communicating important messages. The buzzing noise of flying insects becomes intrusive, almost adopting the metaphorical role of the ancestral spirit of the ruins. Music is used sparingly, but whenever it is present, it draws full attention to itself. It is a stark contrast between the realism of the other sounds in the film, and give an otherworldly feel to the sequence. In the end Rizaldi chooses to focus on the visceral human influence on the Radio Malabar story, bookending the film with a six-minute extended sequence of an Indonesian man playing the zither and singing on the steps of the station.


Rizaldi’s film obsesses over communicating with the earth and using the earth as a communication device. The word “tellurian”, meaning “inhabiting the earth”, connects closely to Drs. Munarwan’s writing and alludes to the inherent fact that we as people have a symbiotic relationship with the planet we inhabit. The technological advancements we create, the colonial ruins we abandon and the power of indigenous pasts we often forget are all irrevocably of the earth and ever present throughout Tellurian Drama.

Review by Valerie Tan

The film will be competing in the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition at the 2021 International Festival of Rotterdam happening from 1 to 7 February. It won Best Southeast Asian Short Film at the 2020 Singapore International Film Festival.

Share:

0 cent worth