- Before becoming one of the most influential film critics in Indonesia you started you career as a screenwriter, working on the script of Brownies and then with a project as film director, the short 4 SISI. Can you tell us something about these two experiences?
Sure. Like everybody else in the country during those days, 2003 to be precise, I wanted to be a filmmaker. That was everybody’s dream. I started to make friend to some people who active in filmmaking, and they, like myself, were relatively begun their involvement in film industry. It was the three of us at that moment. When one of us got a project to write/ direct a feature-length film for commercial cinema, he involved us.
The three of us, Hanung Bramantyo, Salman Aristo and myself worked together on Brownies. It was a wonderful experience. I realized that composing a film script is like working on Lego – where you must consider the structure carefully – on one side but at the same time you must also let things flow. Looking at this experience retrospectively, I feel that working on film script has given me an insight of how a filmmaker think about the inside world of the characters in their films.
The experience on directing 4 Sisi was even greater in term of giving me sense of the entire universe that a filmmaker would construct. What I love about 4 Sisi was the film was screened at Shortshort Film Festival in Tokyo 2005 and I went to Tokyo with my film. In that festival I must answer questions from audience whose cultural background was totally different than myself. Then I have to explain about basic concept that we think ‘everybody understand’, I realize there is no such thing as ‘everybody understand’ when you talk about culture. That is a great experience, especially in explaining basic concepts in our culture.
- After this, you decided to work as full-time film critic. How was this passage from the “active” cinema to film critic?
When I watched my film again, I was aware that as a filmmaker, I am not a talented one. I feel that it is so difficult for me to make a project such as filmmaking materialized. On the other hand, I have been writing film review in many websites and blogs until one moment I sent one of my reviews to a contest and it won the first award. That was 2005, the moment when I thought maybe I’d be better as a film critic rather than a filmmaker. Then I won two other awards in 2006 and 2007.
- You are the founder and one of the editors of “Rumafilm.org”. How was this project born?
A friend of mine started the project. He received grant to have one-year residency in Japan and Thailand. Then after came back to Jakarta in 2007, he initiated the project by gathering five of us, who have already known as reputable film critics in the country. We are long-time friends back from our university era, where we actively involved in some informal study circles. To be together as a team in RumahFilm.Org, is some kind of extension from our interests in those study circles.
- Talking now a little bit about Indonesian cinema. Indonesian cinema has a long history, but it has some difficulties to reach an international audience, compared to other Asian filmography, such as the Korean or the Hong Kong ones. What is the reason for that, in your opinion?
Yes it has a long history but the Indonesian filmmakers prefer to cater local audience rather than to produce them for international appeal. As I mentioned earlier about the cultural notions that appear in the film, most of Indonesian films are full with un-explainable cultural images and idioms, which could be ‘lost in translation’. This becomes the biggest obstacle for Indonesian cinema to open a wider international market.
- How has Indonesian cinema changed from the Suharno regime to the reformasi?
Hypothetically, it supposed to be changed a lot since there is no control in filmmaking and people are free in expressing their views. The freedom can be seen in the process of making film. During Soeharto era, there was an entry barrier for aspiring filmmakers to enter then industry from the old filmmaker. They put restriction whose objective is to have a great influence towards the young filmmakers. Such restriction is no longer effective. That is one change.
But on the other hand considering the existence of censorship bureau (or Lembaga Sensor Film, LSF), I can say that the control in content remains. The LSF has been working based on the censor criteria developed during Soeharto regime. The main objective of the criteria is to control the film content. By controlling the film content, the filmmakers were not dare to criticize the government. By saying this, I can say that in one aspect, Indonesian cinema has not changed.
On the other hand, I don’t really feel any major change in film in term of its political stance vis-à-vis the authority. The number of films that have strong political view toward the societal and political condition is still a few until now. Maybe the situation is a little bit different in 2010 and 2011, but before, there were only few political statement and social commentary in the films, which I think it’s even fewer compared to films during Soeharto era. I reckon this as a cultural change in the filmmakers’ viewpoints toward the society. Rather than conveying political views, most of the filmmakers tend to amuse audience with shallow entertainment. For the ones who make “socially-relevant” films, usually go into inspirational films, where the audience is presented an inspiring messages in order for them to “learn from other people’s life” for their own benefit. It seems that Indonesian filmmakers perceived that problems of Indonesian lies in their psychological / cultural issue rather than societal or political.
- Which one is in your opinion the key point in the recent Indonesian cinema?
To mention one, I believe the key point for recent Indonesian cinema is the lack of support in cinema industry. Filmmakers have been struggling to keep on business without any proper support from the government. Most of the filmmakers operate in a, say, small-scale industry and they managed to attract funding from commercial entities as well as foreign endowment agency. This has made them believe that government’s support to film industry now should be limited since most of the government intervention to the industry tends to put barricade in production.
On the other hand, this situation has made the filmmakers depend very much to the audience in term of getting the revenue for their production. This has made the popular approach on Indonesian cinema becomes the most tangible element. The filmmakers with big money tend to produce and reproduce films based on known and recognized popular formulas. As for the filmmakers who try to do innovation to their films must be very considerate to the mass-market approach, as they must take into account the ‘return-of-investment’ thinking that was encouraged by their commercial backers. It can be said that, recent Indonesian cinema is weak in term of aesthetic breakthrough.
- You have experience also as member in film board and committee in Indonesia and abroad, such as Hong Kong. What are the perspectives for Indonesian cinema at the moment? Which ones are the most interesting authors from Indonesia for an international audience?
Indonesian films are mostly produced for domestic market and considered weak in delivering material and storytelling that suitable for international market. Most of the Indonesian films are considered slow-pacing films with beautiful pictures but the stories are too much localized and made the international film programmers and buyers lost the story context. This has made the marketing efforts for Indonesian cinema must be done in extraordinary way. Some of the international film programmers are quite open to new possibilities and they travel to Indonesia to understand more about the product. They have brought some films to their festival regardless very few went into commercial release.
So far, it is Garin Nugroho who speaks the most daring words for international audience, especially to the film programmers around the world. His films have been screened in so many festivals around the world and made some significant achievements. However, Garin’s films are not so popular for Indonesian audience.
Another notable filmmaker is Edwin. He made one film, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly. This film also has a strong appeal for international audience, especially for festival programmers.
Another name that I think will also attract international audience in Joko Anwar. He made films with popular approach and universal theme. His films mostly composed in fast-pace rhythm and strong storytelling. Joko did not put too much effort in contextualizing his films to local knowledge. Indonesian audience still has mixed feeling about his film. I believe with his skills in filmmaking, Joko Anwar will be a name that the world will take into account in the near future.