David Hanan

Honorary Senior Research Fellow, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

Voted for

ATHEIS1974Sjuman Djaya
L'avventura1960Michelangelo Antonioni
SHONEN1969Nagisa Oshima
Elephant Keeper1987Chatri Chalerm Yukol
Meshes of the Afternoon1943Maya Deren, Alexander Hackenschmied
BHARAT MATA1957Mehboob
Unconcealed Poetry (Puisi Tak Terkuburkan)1999Garin Nugroho
Top of the Lake2013Jane Campion, Garth Davis


My selected films are listed in alphabetical order, not in terms of 'greatness' from 1 to 10. Indeed, I am reluctant to subscribe to the idea of the 'ten greatest' films globally. There are many brilliant films, which not only captivate and mesmerize audiences but can show a discerning viewer new ways of looking at the world and at human experience. There are also numerous films with a deep social relevance and connectedness, not widely understood except in their own country, and little known outside their country of origin. The best of these need to be brought to international attention, rather than film history relying largely on new ratings within a long-standing canon. Hence the list I provide here is purposefully a new selection – even for me – that contains only three films that I nominated 10 years ago in the Sight and Sound 2012 poll.

Bitter Coffee, with its highly original and complex use of both flashforwards and flashbacks, is an urgent portrait of besetting Third World experience for poorer classes in Indonesia in the 1980s, seen in the intersecting stories of three people (two of them women) from different outlying regions or islands, travelling to the capital city, Jakarta, in the 1980s in hope of improving their situations. It is a great 'Third World' film. There are no illusions or myths in this film. Indeed, its director announced at its premiere in 1985: "This is my bitter film." Later I was told by an official sympathetic to the film that some members of the National Film Council of Indonesia found the film "an embarrassment to Indonesia".

Made 10 years after India achieved independence, the visually rich, formally inventive, three-hour Mother India, filmed in colour and using traditional imagery found in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – and in its construction deploying both continuity editing and, in bravura style, elements of Soviet montage found in films by Eisenstein and Dovzhenko – celebrates the Nehruite Indian nationalism of the time, ‘Mother India’ standing for the Indian woman but also for the Indian nation. Mother India is both popular cinema and a text that contains imagery and discourses of Indianity over 2000 years, and also contemporary debates in India, with which the people can identify. The film reveals both the many dimensions and the powerful tensions of a pre-modern Third World society in the process of modernisation.

Maya Deren's highly concentrated and poetic short film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), extends ways of thinking about dreams and the unconscious in film, pioneered in different ways by Dalí and Buñuel in the late 1920s. Jane Campion's 2013 Top of the Lake systematically extends feminist insight into a popular investigative form. For me, Antonioni's much admired, modernist, L'avventura opened up new ways of perceiving human communication, as conveyed primarily through body language. Oshima's The Boy, made a decade later, not only explores a child's isolation within a dysfunctional family but shows how the eight-year-old boy uses play and fantasy to handle his situation.

The Elephant Keeper, a fine popular feature, filmed entirely on location in 1987 in the forests and villages of central Thailand, is a relatively rare early environmental feature film. It highlights the long-term devastation to the environment being caused by the extent of illegal logging in Thailand, its story given charm, wonder and humour by dramatising interactions between what the film suggests are the highly intuitive working elephants, 'spirits of the forest', and their masters (elephant keepers) – and the under-resourced, government-appointed officials charged to protect the environment.

Garin Nugroho's daring A Poet: Unconcealed Poetry, made in 1999 within a year of the resignation of the dictator Suharto, addresses the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Indonesian people, carried out by the Indonesian army under General Suharto in the mid-1960s, the film at the same time evoking the resistance to their oppression of these supposedly 'communist' political prisoners, as when, intermittently throughout much of the film – in their group chanting and dancing as they await likely execution – they perform a much valued local Acehnese tradition, 'didong', led in the film by a survivor from that period, the didong performer Ibrahim Kadir.

The two-and-a-half-hour, dynamic historical epic Atheist, set in West Java from the early 1920s to the end of World War II in Asia, like the novel on which it is based, focuses on new and increasingly prevalent ideas in 20th-century Java – in particular, atheistic Marxism and atheism itself – ideas that created challenges to thinking people brought up under strict forms of Islam, but looking for wider experience and social change. In addition to its focus on new and challenging ideas, the film, written and directed by Moscow-trained Sjuman Djaya, contains a greater variety of senses of Islam and its practices—for example, Sufi meditative Islam as well as strict Sunni Islam—than are found in the novel, so that on seeing the film, the author of the novel, Achdiat Karta Mihardja, commented that the film in some new and important ways expanded the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of his novel.

The 1960s was a period of great innovation in cinema and a period in which reflexivity in cinema became a significant preoccupation, as well as the kinds of modernism inherent in the innovative works of Antonioni. Hence I include Godard's episodic, self-reflexive, part-improvised, lively and humorous 'observation of dating' Masculin Feminin (1966), a ‘sociology’ of late-teenage-early-adult youth in Paris at the time, as a most accessible example of the new-reflexivity in cinema, in which film itself was put under the spotlight and not only the characters in films.