Personalized and Depersonalized Memory of Places

Short note of the Museum of Innocence and Postcards from The Zoo[1]

When I visited to the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, one display attracted my interest more than the rests. It was display No. 32, titled “The Shadows and Ghosts I Mistook for Füsun”, taken from a chapter with the same name of the novel. It was a black and white map of Istanbul exhibited in the wall with tiny pink figures of Füsun (the novel’s heroine which is also the desired object of Kemal Bey, the protagonist) were pin up and each figure was numbered. The numbers refer to small photograph (approx. 10X10 cm) located in the periphery depicting detailed-photo of each location with the same figure of Füsun placed in. The map of Istanbul becomes dichromatic rather than simply black and white, thanks to Füsun figures.

Remnants of upperclass Istanbul are displayed in The Museum of Innocence to describe the lifestyle or the city’s particular era.

These tiny figures symbolize Istanbul in personal viewpoint of the novel protagonist, Kemal Bey. This chapter appeared after Kemal’s separation from Füsun (No.30, “Füsun Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”), and his intentional abstinence towards meeting her (No.31, “The Streets That Remind me of Her”) in which he marked Istanbul map with different colors to avoid him seeing everything that reminds him of Füsun. But Kemal’s denial was useless. Rather, he “sees” Füsun everywhere, in every occasion. Füsun “appears” in every direction he faces, while in fact Füsun is never there for him. He mistook shadows and ghosts as Füsun, as his obsession towards her grown uncontrollable. Kemal Bey, an honorable member of Istanbul’s upper class, has become obsessed with Füsun. This has distracted his view on his city. No places in Istanbul are free from Kemal Bey’s longing and obsession on Füsun. Istanbul, then, is defined as collection of places permeated with personal memories and remembrances.

This has taken me to other place, the Ragunan Zoo of Jakarta, the place of which Edwin’s[2] latest film, Postcards from the Zoo, is set. Postcards tells a story of Lana, a girl who was left alone in the zoo by his parent when she was three. Since then, Lana doesn’t have any remembrances of anything outside the zoo. The zoo becomes her world. She only meets animals and people in the same state with her: dislocated from their original habitat, whether it is the jungle or the society. In the place where the inhabitants are socially dislocated, Lana’s world becomes arbitrary. She has no attachment to any distinct socio-political world outside the zoo’s realm. Lana is a person uprooted from any social and political ground par excellence. Therefore no particular places can be attributed to her existence or remembrance of her, because nobody around her lives with social background to connect her to the world outside the zoo.

There is a slight acknowledgment to an actual place, the Ragunan Zoo of Jakarta, in the Postcards, but for me the zoo is merely a metaphor for a place where its inhabitants are socially-dislocated-creatures rather than a real zoo. In this situation, Edwin creates some short scenes in Postcards that show a total opposite to the Display No.32 of The Museum of Innocence. In those scenes Lana is placed among the impersonal zoo visitors in a “Where is Wally?”-fashion. After watching the scenes for a while, we can find Lana among the crowd, staring back to the camera, to the audience, to us. Here, the audience gazes into faceless crowd in arbitrary places only to find an impersonal character staring back at them without emotion.

This film tells a lyrical tale about the uprooted people.

The arbitrary character of the zoo has made the place in Postcards become depersonalized, detach from any connection to any personal memory. Lana is there without connection to her surrounding. She is just being there and unrelated to anybody in the film’s diegetic. No personal memory or social and political connections are relevant for her existence. On the other hand, we, the audience in that particular scene, tries to find a known face in the crowd, Lana’s face, but when it was found, we realize it has no significance to us outside the film’s diegetic. We cannot relate Lana to anything besides her uprooted-ness from anything outside her existence.

It is interesting to talk about this further in relation to contemporary Indonesian cinema because Postcards is not the first Indonesian film with intentional detachment to actual places in Indonesia. Before this, Joko Anwar’s films also come with sets that the audience should not bother to relate to actual places. Gareth Evans’ The Raid also called by Roger Ebert as “a movie whose story that can happens in any country in the world”. Questions popped up into my mind. Have places are now free from their connection to personal memory in contemporary Indonesia? Have Indonesians become uprooted individuals whose personal remembrances of places are insignificant for their existence? This triggers further question about collective memories, are they still useful for defining commonalities (such as shared-places for example) of Indonesia? Or is it the cinema has lost its function for new generation of Indonesian filmmakers in carrying ideas on personal and collective remembrances and other commonalities? This can go on limitless.

At this stage I have to be satisfied with comparison of The Museum of Innocence and Postcards from the Zoo and leave those questions unanswered. Maybe I won’t answer those questions altogether and let some younger Indonesian film critics to do that instead.


[1] I have discussed some of the thoughts here with özlem Mertel, and also with my co-visitors of the museum, Sashenka Lleshaj and Iliada Korçari. However I am responsible for whatever is written here.

[2] Edwin is young Indonesian filmmaker whose film, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly traveled to more than 45 festivals around the world. His name also listed in the 100 future filmmakers in the book Take 100: The Future of The Film, 100 Directors (Phaidon: 2010). His latest film, Postcards from the Zoo was screened in competition section of Berlinale 2012.

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1 Comment

  1. It depends on what type of film the director wants to convey. Personal detachments through geographical alienation is quite common among directors with ‘personal’ film. Then again you get someone like spike lee/scorsese/wong kar wai who is fiercely independent and personal but always put the locations as part of the story. In either case, as long as it serves the purpose of the story then it shouldn’t really matter.

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