Tellurian Drama: Bringing Arthouse from Screen to Page

In the crosshairs of Dutch-colonialism and indigenous animism, sits the ever-mysterious Malabar Radio Station. Tellurian Drama takes a fictional spin on the intriguing history of the biggest telegraph radio station in the colonial-era. This book is both an adaptation and expansion of the film of the same title. Through the book, its author, Riar Rizaldi, who also directed the original film, presents a fresh take on film-to-novel adaptations.

Jordan Marzuki, founder of Jordan jordan Édition which published this book, first came across Riar’s thirty-minute film over the pandemic on Kinosaurus Virtual Cinema as part of their curated collection at the time. He found the notion of a colonial-era radio station used to send transmission from Bandung straight to Amsterdam intriguing as he had never come across it in his history books before. “The movie talks about how the radio telegraph left quite a lot behind even after it had perished,” Jordan explained. The demise of the station remains a mystery with no clear record of how the station became no more. The film takes a turn with the radio waves becoming so powerful it made the land supremely arable.

The film struck a chord with Jordan, getting in contact with Riar through an unexpected mutual acquaintance. As with every Jordan jordan Édition title, their mission to challenge themselves rings true as the main motivation behind the Tellurian Drama adaptation. This was no small feat. While film-to-novel adaptations have been done before as with many large franchises like Star Wars and, Jordan noted, more independent films like Mother!, Tellurian Drama takes on the challenge of novelizing an arthouse film. “The first [priority] was to explore this subject. How can a film become a book, but also how do you experiment within those parameters.”

For Jordan, truly understanding Riar’s intention with the original film was also quite the challenge. “It’s actually quite abstract. There is a critique of the government, and also [the handling] of natural disasters, which the site of which could become the key to saving the environment or [solve] global warming. There’s so many things going on in the film itself. That’s the challenge for me. I’m not quite familiar with that kind of topic. Something so earthly, something to do with the environment. So I had to be careful with that because I don’t want to mislead the audience and I don’t want to be a tone-deaf person writing about something I don’t understand.”

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“I really, really, wanted the book to reach a wider audience. So where the film may have a larger audience abroad, I’d like [the book] to have an Indonesian audience as well.” Jordan explained that the book’s purpose is to provide clarity on the narratives of the film. As such, it was important to not create a simple script book. Instead, Jordan asked Riar to expand the narrative, adding excerpts from the existing film but also adding in new written elements. “It’s like an extended version.”

The book also uses a great many archival images of the station from hobbyist collectors in the Netherlands. “From when the forests were still pristine, to when they began to chop the trees down, to the construction of the station by forced indigenous labor, to the Malabar Radio Station as it stood." It was important for Jordan to truly understand the pictures, the flow, and the evolution of the radio station so that the images could be incorporated into Riar’s text. “I tried not to make it too easy. I didn’t make it A-Z, so I mixed the order up quite a bit. It’s like a journal, but also historical, and research–like a research log. Like a much more detailed version of the film."

Arthouse films themselves can be considered a hard-sell in Indonesia. While there are communities who appreciate the genre, large-scale national demand is not commonly seen. Although Jordan had no specific agenda with the creation of the Tellurian Drama book, Jordan hopes that, by packaging this story in the medium of a book, the Indonesian audience will become more open to genres they may be less than familiar with. Pushing the art form to the mainstream and thereby elevating figures like Riar Rizaldi as an artist to encourage more works and artists in the same vein.

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About the Author

Kireina Masri

Kireina Masri has had her nose stuck in a book since she could remember. Majoring in Illustration, she now writes, in both English and Indonesian, of all things visual—pouring her love of the arts into the written word. She aspires to be her neighborhood's quirky cat lady in her later years.