Making Bahasa Indonesia Sexy

We’ve all heard the joke about the Polish starlet who went to Hollywood and tried to get ahead by sleeping with a screenwriter. It’s no longer PC to identify a whole nationality with dumbness, but the underlying point about the essential powerlessness of the man or woman who writes for the screen has endured. The emblematic image of the screenwriter is still once-golden William Holden, screwed-over in more ways than one, lying face-down in Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard pool – not waving, not even drowning, just dead.

This doesn’t seem to faze the 37-year old, German-born, Jakarta-based, journalism-trained Prima Rusdi. She really likes screenwriting. She even likes collaborating with directors and producers. Is she a masochist?

“I’ve always been a movie buff,” she says. “And movies are a very collaborative medium. If you want to write something where you have full control, you should write novels instead!”

Perhaps she had just been lucky. The two scripts she has worked on so far are Ada Apa Dengan Cinta? and Eliana, Eliana. Both films were made at Jakarta’s Miles Productions. A2DC, as the teen-flick is popularly known, broke box-office records and made stars here of Dian Sastrowardoyo and Nicholas Saputra. And the intimate Eliana, which didn’t set cash registers into overdrive, nevertheless won awards from Singapore to Vancouver; not bad at all for a low-budget digital-video movie.

“I don’t envy directors,” she said. “It’s appropriate to call A2DC a ‘Rudy Soedjarwo film’ and Eliana a ‘Riri Riza film’ because during the shoot people always go up to the directors and expect them to solve all kinds of problems!”

Both these scripts were initiated by the director/producer teams and she came on board for final drafts. She also chose to be involved as miscellaneous crew on both films, in the thankless task of Continuity person. Being on the shoot taught her to be more practical about logistics and stuff. “You’ve got to let go of your ego,” she says. “I have met a few people, ‘aspiring writers’ they call themselves, who worry about how they can protect themselves from directors and producers. And I say: ‘Maybe you need to be protected from yourself!'”

The script for Eliana actually came first. “Riri had this script about a mother and daughter, but it was initially quite a big project, tracing the development of their relationship over three acts, in Sumatera as well as Jakarta. We decided to just expand on the third Act, 20 pages, which is just set in one night, when the woman comes to the city to take her daughter back.”

It was an adventurous decision and risks the charge of making the film, composed of ambiguity and little moments, seem under-developed. This is what London’s Time Out thought: “It’s hard to know what motivates these characters.” But I think it works because the binatang jalang (wild beast) of Jakarta itself is fore-grounded as the main character. As the city is in a flux, reforming in more ways than one, so do the women, traveling all night in a taxi-cab, seem perpetually in transit.

The script seems improvised because the two actresses seem so comfortable in their skin but “there was actually very little improvisation once we started the shoot,” Prima reveals. “During scripting we did consult a lot with Jajang C. Noer since the mother character was written for her. It was her decision to make the character smoke, because she said that a woman of that age and background would smoke.” (Rachel Maryam Sayidina, who played Eliana, came on board just prior to shooting.)

Prima now says she made a lot of “mistakes” on Eliana because “it was a new type of movie, so I learned a lot! Before 1997 I had never even read a screenplay before. Although I prefer character-driven stories, I think the motivations could have been a bit clearer.”

Working on A2DC was a different experience since the teen-movie template had already been set; plus there was already a first draft by the established Jujur Prananto. “We had references, such as we wanted the male lead Rangga to be a bit like Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites.”

The sense of girlie camaraderie is fore-grounded rather than the romance because “when you walk around Jakarta malls, you will see all these girls hanging around in packs. The sense of group belonging is so important, it dictates what you wear and which guys who date.”

Hundreds of Indonesian students were interviewed as research for A2DC in an effort to “keep it real.” It was also commercially pragmatic: “Instead of just making a film and presenting it to the market, why not find out what the market wants?”

Issues like domestic abuse and political suppression were touched on in A2DC. “The abuse was something we came across in our research. It’s something that happens even though people never talk about it. And as for the politics, represented by Rangga’s dissident-intellectual father, we thought it was important. We wanted young people to think about politics in the post-reformasi age rather than just be jaded about it.”

“The characters didn’t use hand-phones!” she reveals triumphantly. “We didn’t want to encourage that kind of consumerism, although it’s all over the place. And if you notice, most of the time, the characters are just in their normal school-uniforms. We had a sense of social responsibility!”

A heartening response to the film: An increase in the appreciation of literature. “This is great, because Chairil Anwar is like the Indonesian Shakespeare!” she says. I couldn’t help being smart-alecky: “More like Rimbaud, actually.”

A2DC spawned a legion of imitators, such as the very recent Eiffel… I’m In Love and 30 Harl Mencari Cinta. But the impact of A2DC is still felt in unexpected ways: Teenagers contacted the makers “saying, for the first time, they found Bahasa Indonesia lessons to be sexy [due to the fact that both Rangga and Cinta write poetry]!” We await the Malaysian movie that can have the same effect.

Prima, a glad refugee from advertising, is currently busy with a few screenplays, including adaptations of Kafka’s oft-filmed The Trial and Ayu Utami’s notorious Saman. It will be some time before these projects come to a screen or bajakan (pirated) VCD stall near you, so I asked her to recommend a few good Indonesian authors – you know, the ones with books. She rattled off a list: Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Hamsad Rangkuty, Afrizal Malna, Putu Wijaya and Ayu Utami. Go off to bookstores and hope to find their books; or if you know anyone in Indonesia, get them to kirim. And don’t say I don’t try to make your life better.

First Published: 19.02.2004 on Kakiseni

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