2019 AFI FEST: Corruption and violence toward its people have longed plagued the reputation of the Indonesian government. Even more historically sickening is the United States’ complicit support of these heinous actions. Yosep Anggi Noen’s “The Science of Fictions” plucks one fictional victim from the millions of real oppressed Indonesian citizens, symbolically emphasizing the trauma inflicted on these ordinary dreamers. With such heavy stakes whereupon nothing can truly wash away injustice, it’s unfortunate that Noen’s character essay is devoid of tangible cohesion. Muddled timelines, unreliable narration, faulty internal logic, and confounding sequences that either bore or repulse will leave viewers more perplexed than profoundly moved.
With an opening that problematically validates some conspiracy theorists who believe the first lunar landing was a hoax, the audience is privy to a film crew shooting a fake moon docking in the Indonesian rainforest. A passing local watches the American-supervised crew – sanctioned by Richard Nixon no less (presumably for backup footage in case something catastrophic happened during the mission) – as they create a cinematic web of lies. This mystery observer, Siman (Gunawan Maryanto), is captured before he can flee; his tongue is forcibly removed to prevent word from spreading about the cover-up. Rather than avoid his trauma, Siman literally saunters his way through life in masochistic reverence of that fateful night. He dresses like and imitates the slow-motion pace of an astronaut.
Flash-forward fifty years later and Siman looks exactly the same. We’re meant to assume the day he became mute was the day his innocence was robbed, hence Siman always appearing as a middle-aged man. The problem is that these allusions and false representations are never conveyed to viewers. “The Science of Fictions” fragments time as a jigsaw puzzle but refuses audience participation to put these pieces back together, even at their own pace within the narrative. When one riddle is solved, a new wrench in the mystery is tossed which discombobulates the plot even further. The story is roughly a documentary-like observation of Siman’s daily rituals and struggle to find lasting work. Even when he does receive payment, his “friends” – who are ironically non-judgmental about his decelerated mental and physical state – embezzle his earnings by exploiting his disability.
Siman carves a home from scratch that resembles a space shuttle mirroring the one from fateful memory. He wanders around the village in his astronaut soon, becoming a local tourist attraction in the process for profit. Maryanto gives an astonishing, wordless performance as Siman, who is often idle or barely moving but is never without a light of curiosity eking through his solemn gaze. There’s almost a Stockholm syndrome hold the past over him. The worst day of his life winds up defining Siman to his heart’s fullest content, the dream of re-imagining himself as an intrepid astronaut routinely actualized.
The controversial element of the film that is deeply unsettling is how trauma is made to excuse Siman’s actions later in the story, including the objectification of prostitutes and the attempted sexual assault of a female neighbor. The correlation between receiving abuse and subsequently abusing others is irresponsibly handled by Noen. Finally, the movie touches on the ruling powers of television but doesn’t dive deep enough. We see a ruling leader spread his insidious propaganda through the relatable absurdity of reality television. The parallels made to our own clown in the White House would be more effective if Noen centered his gravity of thematic focus. As such, “The Science of Fictions” is an opaque and muddled message of the lasting haze endured after tragedy strikes.