– A cross between a road movie and a documentary, Razka Robby Ertanto’s film navigates the contradictions characterising the Indonesian island of Sumba, which is both a paradise and hell

Review: Yohanna

Laura Basuki in Yohanna

Razka Robby Ertanto’s Yohanna, which was presented in the IFFR’s Big Screen Competition, unfurls around a modest plot: a Catholic nun (Yohanna, played by Laura Basuki) roams the streets of an island delivering humanitarian aid. And this simple premise, enriched by the narrative device of Yohanna’s delivery van being stolen, allows Razka Robby Ertanto to dig beneath the surface of the island of Sumba and unearth its many contradictions. The film sees the beauty of the landscape and of the country’s ancestrial rites juxtaposed with the harshness of child labour and police corruption, thanks, no less, to the technique of continual cross-cutting, which blends past and present in continuous flashbacks and keeps this movie alive. It’s a work which isn’t averse to spiritual moments in the midst of chaos, indeed Yohanna is experiencing a crisis of faith and her humanitarian journey first and foremost turns out to be a journey inside of herself. And despite the chaotic narration and (no doubt thanks to) the technical limitations of this film made with scare resources, Yohanna turns out to be quite an astonishing opus.

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The twists come thick and fast throughout the story and are sometimes unreal, as if in a dream, and sometimes verge on a parody of genre cinema, leaving social denunciations and judgements (human, of course) at the door. There are no affectations or pretence when depicting misery, no poverty-safaris for the use and consumption of western viewers. Instead, Razka Robby Ertanto focuses on making a film foregrounding issues such as child exploitation, without indulging in moralising or Manichean tendencies. Even the riskiest of situations are endowed with a certain grace, and a loss always goes hand in hand with a victory, with a sense of justice bordering on the divine. But this is nonetheless a profoundly human film, despite its spiritual aspirations. None of the characters are entirely good or entirely bad, and a desperate sense of pietas envelops and redeems each and every one of them.

Yohanna’s character represents the side of the church which abandons the fort of morality which it has barricaded itself in for centuries and reaches out to people, without setting itself the mission of preaching The Word. We hear no condemnation or judgement from the sister, only doubts and a desire for justice.  This nun doesn’t hesitate to take a risk or to corrupt an official if it helps bring relief to another, and is immediately presented to us in an eye-wateringly beautiful opening sequence amidst a group of nuns who are playing football on the beach before receiving their umpteenth “call”.

Despite this beauty, contrasting with the many slums dotted across the island, the picture this film paints of Indonesia is unarguably interesting, departing from the touristic paradise and glossy image of this country which is usually thrust upon us. In this sense, Yohanna represents another way of decolonising the gaze and of rethinking our ideas about the world, through the non-Instagram filter of film.

Yohanna is produced by Indian firm Summerland, British outfit Reason8 Films and Italy’s Pilgrim Film. Reason8 are also managing international sales.

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(Translated from Italian)





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