SMORGASBORD: Lesson from Indonesia

One of the highlights of the recently concluded Sarawak Millennium Film Festival was the screening of Kuldesak. This was an Indonesian film with much to offer us – not necessarily for its content, but the way it was made, and how its release widened the democratic space of culture.

Kuldesak consists of four stories set in modern-day Jakarta. Each story had a different director. This portmanteau flick began production in 1996 at the height of political repression under the Suharto regime. Two of its co-directors showed up in Kuching. One of them, Riri Riza, said, ”There were student and human-rights being detained everyday. We really felt like we were living in a cul-de-sac.”

The film took almost three years to produce due to the political situation and also the perennial problem of funding. Indonesian cinema had been all but decimated by then, thanks to the influence of television, Hollywood and piracy. The very fact that the film could be completed was cause for celebration. But not everything was a smooth ride.

There were regulations in Indonesia regarding films. For example, only a member of the Directors’ Association could be a director. In order to become a director, you first needed to be an Assistant Director three times. And in order to be an Assistant Director, you needed to be a Script Continuity person several times. These regulations are not so different from the ones currently operating in Malaysia.

The four Kuldesak directors were not registered members. The shooting also took place without a permit. The pro-democratic sections of the media, particularly the magazine Tempo, championed the film. Slamet Rahardjo, who was the head of the film-workers association, was compelled to make a statement. The good news is that he was supportive of the film-makers and said that allowances would be made for them. After all, it was literally the only Indonesian film being made at the time. So a permit was issued mid-shoot.

When the money ran out, help came from the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Film Festival which was set up specifically to help the cinema of “developing nations.” Even with this, the final budget of RM300,000 (the cast and crew volunteered their services) is very low even by our standards.

The next problem came with distribution. Cinemas in Indonesia are owned by one giant chain that was not receptive to local films at all. So the producers of Kuldesak had to approach the cinema people themselves to persuade them to show the film. Another co-director, Mira Lesmana, said, “We thought we would be lucky to get an audience of 10,000. But it ran for three months and was seen by 140,000 people.”

The timing could not have been better. When shown in 1998, it coincided with the new wave of optimism brought about by the fall of Suharto. While not a political film, the youthful spirit of Kuldesak tapped into and connected with this energy. It’s a very film-conscious movie with references to Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, and Jules et Jim. One of its characters even says, “We don’t want to make movies like (the older generation of) Teguh Karya and Slamet Rahardjo!”

Mira says, “Many of the older film-makers hated Kuldesak. They said it was too American.” But the important thing is that despite their artistic reservations, people like Slamet made things easier when they could have done the exact opposite. There was of course the inevitable bitching, but the film-making community there seems to have now found a collective voice to speak out against censorship and restrictions.

One of the by-products of reformasi was the abolishment of the Ministry of Information which had previously come up with all these regulations regarding permits and associations. Now literally anyone can make a film in Indonesia and get it released. We in Malaysia are still enthralled by bureaucracy. The Star’s Sujiah Salleh, who writes under the name Seri Bintang, always goes on about whether movies are made following the right procedures, and if any one self-serving association is more valid than another. Seniman? Karyawan? FDAM? SWAM? Who cares?

Listening to Riri and Mira talk proved to be very inspiring for the young film-makers who showed up in Sarawak. Here was an example of political change that actually worked. Censorship has also loosened up. Kuldesak if made in Malaysia would be chopped to bits but in Indonesia received only one cut (a gay kiss).

The success of Kuldesak led to the proliferation of young people who started making films, often on digital video, and screening them anywhere – in halls, open spaces, car-parks. One of them, Rudy Soedjarwo, make three DV movies and traveled personally around Java with a projector and screen. He would set up, charge tickets, screen the movie, and them move to the next town. There’s a capitalist happy ending, too: Rudy’s first big-budget film, Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? was made on 35mm and opens in Indonesia next month.

It has been barely four years since Kuldesak and the liberalisation of Indonesia. All four of the co-directors have done very well in resuscitating their national cinema. Petualangan Sherina, directed by Riri and produced by Mira, became the highest-grossing domestic film; it sold 1.5 million tickets. The other two, Nan Triveni Achnas and Rizal Matovani, have not done too shabbily either. The former’s Pasir Berbisik is a feminist-themed, art­ house movie that is starting on the festival circuit. The latter’s Jelangkung is a low-budget DV horror movie that caught the attention of Miramax.

Can something like this happen here? Yes, Indonesia has the advantage of a much larger domestic market. You might even buy into the romantic notion of their having a longer, richer cultural history – but this isn’t appropriate in this case as the new wave of films are not, with a few exceptions, very culturally-specific.

I’ve always found it annoying whenever Malaysian intellectuals take their cue from what is happening in Java, to the extent of mimicking lndon accents in their pronouncements. But Kuldesak, while not a great film, is a great example of how a group of people can make a difference if they are only stubborn enough to see things through. Majulah Indonesia! Majulah Malaysia!



First Published: 29.01.2002 on Kakiseni

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