VIFF 2018 Review: The Seen And Unseen (Sekala Niskala)

Seen Unseen
A young Indonesian girl uses myth and spirituality to deal with her dying twin brother in The Seen And The Unseen.

At film festivals, you often see a lot of cutting edge film. Very rarely do you see a film that’s family-friendly. The Seen And The Unseen is a film that should rightfully called family-friendly.

The film begins with a young Indonesian boy named Tantra being brought into a hospital bed. The mother is hurt. However the twin sister Tantri is naive and doesn’t know what’s really happening. You can tell by how she breaks the egg in her hand that it’s very serious. A flashback shows how the two were in more playful times.

The family live on a farm and the hospital Tantra is staying at is in the city. Unknown to her mother, Tantri takes trips to visit Tantra. She brings puppets, eggs, plants and a musical instrument. One day Tantra does a shadow-puppet show for Tantri where he tells of his illness. She returns to the hospital to play games, sing, dance and dress up in traditional costume. They even share time where they dress up as birds.

However the mother notices it and she’s not happy. Even though she understands, she advises Tantri not to do it anymore. Nevertheless Tantri feels the spirits of her brother in the farm fields. She even feels her own spirits in the animals and in the sky. Then the news comes. Tantra’s cancer is getting worse. She spends as much time as she can with him whether it’s in the hospital or in the dream world. In the dream world, he’s alive and well and active. Even as she goes with her parents with a temple crowded by monkeys, she can feel his spirit. Even as his death eventually comes.

The thing of the film is that it takes a stressful situation like a child sick and dying and it incorporates Balinese culture as a way to escape. Tantri is the twin of Tantra so of course she has a strong with him. The culture incorporated in the film is very much rooted in images of monkeys and birds. When he’s sick with a potentially fatal illness, she goes to elements of the Balinese culture to play with him and communicate with him. She even uses the elements to get into her own spirits. However for Tantra, the more serious and debilitating his illness gets, the more his imagination flies. It becomes evident that there’ something in the unseen. The mother doesn’t see it. I guess that was the point; a world seen only by the two children.

The culture in the film is also central in the relationship between two twins. It is there where in Tantri’s dreams, the two can act out their stories, or where they can become the spirits of animals. They share songs, dances, dress in animal costumes and play games. The two have a balance together. When Tantra is nearing death, Tantri senses something in his spirit. It’s this world of culture and animal imagery that help Tantri in dealing with her brother’s looming death.

If I have one complaint, it’s the ending. I felt like the ending was too brief. All the events led from his admission to the hospital up to his death. I was anticipating something post mortem whether it be Tantra’s spirit in the form of animals or imagery. It was not to be. I assume it was the director’s choice for the ending to be that way. However I felt it did take away from the film.

Top credits go to writer/director Kamila Andini. Childhood is an essential part of her filmmaking as she also wrote and directed The Mirror Never Lies. I know the subject of a child dying makes for something that would be tricky to make watchable, but Andini creates something beautiful. Through the imagery, the looming death of Tantra doesn’t look so harsh. The film even has spiritual elements and the focus of the soul living on. I admire Andini for having those elements in the film. In terms of acting, top credits go to Thaly Titi Kasih. She was the protagonist in the film and she did a very good job without getting manipulative or overbearing in emotions. Even though she’s the sister in between this, she’s not trying to be manipulative. Also goo din the film is Ida Mahijasena as the brother whose spirit comes alive at night when the body is fastly dying.

The film has won the Best Feature Award at the Adelaide Film Festival and won the Generation KPlus Award at the Berlin Festival. It was also a nominee for the Platform Prize at the Toronto Film Festival. The VIFF doesn’t have any special awards for family-related films. Here’s hoping in the future.

The Seen And The Unseen is a film that wouldn’t normally get children too interested, but it’s a beautiful film. One could even describe it as ‘spiritual.’ However it’s definitely cultural.


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