Documentary on Javanese dance wins short film contest

Kuda Kepang: Reviving The Culture is about a controversial Javanese ritual.
Kuda Kepang: Reviving The Culture is about a controversial Javanese ritual. PHOTO: CHEN CHEN

Kuda Kepang: Reviving The Culture, an eight-minute documentary film about a controversial Javanese- originated ritual that involves a state of trance and a display of unusual abilities such as the eating of glass, has won the top prize at the second Singapore Heritage Short Film Competition.

Organised by the Singapore Film Society, the competition recognises film-making talents who view the heritage of Singapore from a fresh perspective.

The three Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts students behind the winning work - Mr Muhammad Na'im Muhammad, 25; Mr Louis Porfirios, 20; and Mr Jasper Lim, 25 - on Monday won $1,500 in cash, among other prizes.

Explaining the choice of topic for their film, Mr Na'im says: "We wanted to preserve the heritage of Malay culture through the competition and raise awareness of some of the dying arts such as kuda kepang and shine a light on the good and the bad side of it."

Roughly translated, kuda kepang means "flat horse" and it is a traditional Javanese dance depicting a group of horsemen riding their "horses" made from woven bamboo and colourful paints and cloth.

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In the practice, its participants work themselves into a trance and then appear to have unusual abilities such as eating glass and enduring great pain. It is a taboo subject that has nothing to do with Islam and is not sanctioned by the Islamic Religious Council Of Singapore.

Although there is a kuda kepang community in Singapore called Kuda Kepang Singapore, which has about 1,400 members, the folk art form is not widely known here.

The community tries to stage weekly performances at HDB void decks around Singapore. During the one-month production of their short film, Mr Na'im, Mr Porfirios and Mr Lim managed to film only one actual procession at a void deck in Yishun.

Two other winners were announced out of the eight works that made it to the finals.

Second place went to Beneath The Spikes, an eight-minute work about a Hindu man who participates in the Hindu festival of Panguni Uthiram. It was directed by Rishii Kanthan.

Third place went to Wu De Ban, a six-minute work directed by Karen Wong which follows a cook who prepares the Hakka dish of abacus beads.

In total, the competition this year received 19 entries, which was more than last year.

One of the five judges on the panel this year, Dr Imran Tajudeen, an assistant professor at the department of architecture at the National University of Singapore, says he is pleased with the winning entries.

"The winning submissions this year put across the complexity of inherited traditions in a brilliant and nuanced way. They go beyond superficial discussions of tradition to delve into what gives these practices meaning and significance," he says. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 30, 2015, with the headline 'Documentary on Javanese dance wins short film contest'. Print Edition | Subscribe