Council on Southeast
Asia Studies

Yale University

October 18, 2012, 6:30 P.M.
Luce Hall Auditorium, 34 Hillhouse Avenue
(>click here for directions and campus map)
Synopsis | Filmmakers | Characters | Background

With Filmmakers, Jim de Sève and Kian Tjong

2011; 72 minutes; Javanese, Madurese, Indonesian and English;
Score: gamelan gendhing Kutut Manggung

In a peculiar travelogue, two filmmakers dive into an ancient rite of manhood in Islamic Java - the tender and raucous sport of the singing doves, "the Indonesian NASCAR." Filmmaker Kian Tjong brings codirector Jim de Sève to his native Indonesia, home of the world's largest Muslim population. They dive into the midst of Muslim men to film singing dove competitions. Mandove follows the magical perkutut birds, casting spells on men, taking them away from their wives, and pitting them against each other to prove their masculinity. With its rich human diimension, it is one of the most unusual bird documentaries ever made.

"ManDove is a fascinating documentary about the symbiotic relationship between men and their prized perkutut birds in Java, which can be viewed and appreciated on multiple levels. It is both serious in approach and refreshingly light-hearted in execution, along the way offering revealing insights into Indonesian daily life, cultural and religious values, and social structure and relationships. Because it is without an interpretive narrative, other than that provided by the people who are filmed, ManDove would be an excellent teaching resource for generating discussion and stimulating inductive reasoning."   - Terry Bigalke, Director of Education, East West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii

"ManDove is amazing. I loved everything about the film - [the] approach to the entire project was refreshing, inspiring, oblique. So glad I got to see it"   - Micah Silver, Music Curator, Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Troy, NY.


To be a real man, one must have a wife, a house, a horse, a dagger and a singing dove.
- Javanese traditional wisdom

When General Zainuri announces the National Perkutut Championship, thousands of Muslim men arrive at the grounds. Seven hundred poles stand in the center. Men hoist their doves - perkutut - seven meters up and dangle them in a sea of colorful cages. A team of judges passes through the forest of tall posts straining to discern the birds' magical coos. If the judges are impressed they score a bird's song by tacking a small flag to the pole. After three hours a winner is declared. Winning perkutut sell for tens of millions rupiahs - tens of thousands of dollars.

Perkututmen come from all over Indonesia to the ancient capital of Solo for the National Perkutut Championship. Some travel for more than fifteen hours. Wealthy oilman Gunawan arrives with reigning champion dove Beauty, assisted by legendary coach Sukur. Nervous-wreck Halim wears yellow so Napoleon can see him from above. Henry the Comeback Kid hopes Cowherd will be today's dark horse. From the podium, General Zainuri, chairman of Perkutut League, warns against bribing judges. Can any dove defeat Beauty, who in the last six national matches has won three and was runner-up in the other three?

The modern popularity of perkutut belies its ancient roots as a privileged pastime of the sultans and princes. Though the practice has developed into a modern material pursuit, with winning birds fetching high prices, it is still a far cry from NASCAR. Raising doves requires patience and tenderness. Men train their birds for years, administering herbal tonics, and gently bathing them. Westerners would question it as a hallmark of manhood. Perkututmen work to bond with the birds to develop an intimate and intuitive relationship. Perkutut will not sing if the master is upset. The doves perform at will, not on command. If the weather before a competition is wet, owners feed their birds mung beans and shallot juice to coax a good performance. First time presenters worry that their nerves will rub off on the birds and affect their singing.

This comic travelogue combines uncommon ingredients: masculinity achieved through tenderness, gay filmmakers embraced by Muslim men, and ancient auditory refinement mixed with a modern desire to get rich. ManDove shows the human face of moderate Muslims rarely seen in the West. Our War against Terrorism paints a single, radical face on Islam. In the process, we alienate the world's largest population of Muslims, who adhere to moderate beliefs in Indonesia.

The film cuts between the private lives of these Muslim men and the suspense of the competition. The competition forms the grand narrative, the frame on which the men's intimate stories hang. Instead of voice-over narration, visual and aural clues provide a cinematic space to follow the story. The filmmakers plunge the audience into Indonesian cultural waters, so to speak, in efforts to make people familiar with this very different, yet very human, world.

The Filmmakers:

Jim de Sève
(Producer/Director, Cinematographer) and Kian Tjong (Producer/Director) produced and directed the documentary Tying the Knot, about the fight to open marriage for same-sex couples. The film premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and was theatrically released in 2004 (by Roadside Attractions) at the height of the debate and won eleven festival awards, including Best Documentary at the 2004 Frameline Film Festival. To date, Tying the Knot has screened in 70 U.S. cities, 110 festivals and 21 countries. In the week preceding parliamentary voting to legalize same-sex marriage, CBC Canada broadcast Tying the Knot thrice on their prestigious Passionate Eye platform which many believed helped pass the law. Tying the Knot has also been broadcast on TV in the U.S. (HereTV, LOGO), Italy (FOX), France (Canal+), Germany, France, Argentina, Brazil, Denmark, Poland, Japan and New Zealand. It continues to be shown through colleges as well as religious and political groups in the U.S.

For his works, Jim de Sève received grants from Jerome Foundation, the Marcelle Foundation, the Stonewall Community Fund, the Independent Feature Project and the New York State Council on the Arts. He teaches film production at Union College in Schenectady. Prior to that, he was an instructor at Film Video Arts in NYC for ten years. He sits at the board of Media Alliance, a non-for-profit who operates a sanctuary for independent media.

Born and raised in Indonesia, Kian Tjong has lived in the US since 1997 when he came as a Fujitsu MBA scholar at the University of Hawaii and Japan-America Institute of Management Science. He is an avid food gardener, a self-taught anthropologist and sociologist.


General Zainuri commanded a powerful army division during Suharto's dictatorship. After retirement, he started breeding perkutut, naming his business Xena Warrior Princess Farm. He is here today with his perkutut, Dewa Ruci, and its trainer, Prabowo. Dewa Ruci has won several regional competitions prior to this. Many fans put down money to purchase the bird's offspring. So, Prabowo found Dewa Ruci a female perkutut. Two weeks ago the pair produced two eggs which were taken away to be hatched by surrogate doves. The pair was separated so that Dewa Ruci can concentrate on this competition. Prabowo worries that Dewa Ruci is still angry.

Halim is a nervous wreck, never sits still, always pacing around and bobbing his head like a bird. Halim only wears yellow so that Napoleon can recognize him from up high. "Napoleon, sing now dear," he says. Then he cups both hand to his mouth to make a strange call. Every time the camera gets closer, Halim pushes it back, suspecting that it sends laser beams to the bird. He recently returned home after living for years in Australia where he was rumored to be a gang member. He sees his singing dove as his guiding angel, the good force that keeps him on the good path.

Henry, the comeback kid, brings Cowherd, a juvenile perkutut that has been winning in the adult bird section. Cowherd is now ranked in the top ten nationally. Henry bred and competed for eleven years and then came the avian flu outbreak. The scare collapsed the perkutut market just after he made a huge investment. Two years ago he got back in, going to every contest to rebuild his standing. Henry's bird farm is perched on the rooftops of his meandering house-dorm complex on the hillside of Tangkuban Prahu - the Upside-down Boat Mountain. At dusk, his rooftop pens, which are heated with neon lights, glow against the mountain in the background. To reach the roof, one must climb many stairways, passing students' monk-like cells that open to narrow inner courtyards, littered with tea kettles, flip-flops and laundry racks. The residents are students from a nearby college. Henry, like the students, is an ethnic Chinese and a non-Muslim; these facts make him a minority in the sport. He fights for acceptance with persistence and humility.

Kwan is a legendary bird tuner. A perkutut bird can be seen as a musical instrument. When the sound comes out imperfectly, it can be tuned. Kwan demonstrates one tuning technique to improve the middle and ending song. Using something that looks like a knitting needle, Kwan knits a string under the bird's feather and when he finishes, he burns the ending knot with a lighter.

Gunawan owns Beauty, the perkutut everyone wants to beat. Gunawan was crazy about cockfighting which is linked to gambling. Cops started investigating, worrying his wife sick. She encouraged Gunawan to switch to perkutut. Gunawan was hooked. He started winning small competitions, built a perkutut farm, bought the local park and converted it into a perkutut competition site. He also chairs the competition affairs in the Perkutut League. Gunawan is a relentless charmer, cracking jokes all the time. Things get too serious when General Zainuri is on the microphone. When Gunawan takes over, the fun starts.

Prince Prabukusumo
is the brother of the Sultan of Yogyakarta. His great great grandfather started a perkutut listening event in the same palace. Prince Prabukusumo lifts one hand and explains, "A perkutut song has a beginning like the thumb, an ending like the pinky finger and a middle like these middle fingers." Prince Prabukusumo explains that a man need five things in life - a wife, a house, a horse, a dagger and a perkutut - to be a complete man, according to ancient Javanese belief.

Nur owned a contracting company before switching to perkutut farming. A devout Muslim, Nur takes the filmmakers inside a mosque to film him praying. He helps rig a camera into a cage and hoists it in Madura. All is well until the competition ends. An angry Madurese confronts the filmmakers, accusing the rigged cage of ruining his chance to win. Apparently, the camera looks like a cat, scaring his bird. Just as things get heated up, Nur steps in to mediate.


No historical or anthropological research, let alone a documentary, has ever been done on the subject of perkutut. In the West, the Indonesians' fascination to perkutut was mentioned very briefly in very few books. Colin McPhee in his famous memoir, A House in Bali, mentioned about a Balinese Gamelan music inspired by the perkutut song. ManDove is the first documentary on this phenomenon.

The earliest recorded history of this phenomenon appeared in the 15th century around the time of the last Hindu Majapahit Kingdom. Prabu Brawijaya, its last Hindu king, was travelling from East Java to Yogyakarta when his perkutut, Joko Manggu, escaped from the cage. The bird reappeared in front of him at his destination near Yogyakarta. His descendants, who founded the Muslim kingdom of Mataram, kept raising perkutut in their courts into today.

The Javanese believe perkutut have the highest soul in the animal kingdom and are intimately linked with their masters and the outside world in a mystical way. Manggung, the Javanese word meaning to sing on stage, is the term applied to the singing voices of the doves. The Javanese names the singing voices of other birds as ngoceh, or baby talk, talk that has no meaning.