A Historian of Tomorrow: An Interview with Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu on SGIFF's Indonesia Cinema Focus

The Talisman

This year's Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) Focus programme is a mix of political, superstitious, traditional and mystical with its Indonesian Cinema focus. Using the post-Suharto Reformasi movement in the late 90s as the basis of extrapolation, this series of the 28th SGIFF features films that explore the diverse developments in Indonesia's independent film scene as a key player in effecting social changes through empowerment and the dissemination of knowledge.

The section consists of the shorts programme, Redefining Togetherness, which seeks to expand on the idea of collective gatherings from revolutionary groups to the public observer, Grassroots Cinema, showcases the building of the film community, empowering youths and telling the stories of the people.

There are four feature films in this section, namely Masean's Messages, which depicts a village dealing with old wounds when something mysterious happens; The Ballads of Cinema Lovers, a documentary on the travelling community-built Purbalingga Film Festival; The Talisman, a supernatural film hailed as “one of the best Indonesian movies of the year”; as well as Ziarah, Tales of the Otherworlds, which explore Indonesia's dark history through an old woman's journey for love.

Here is our interview with Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, co-curator of the programme, and a writer and critic at Cinema Poetica.

These films are a rare treat for cinema audiences in Singapore as many of them seem born out of filmmaking at a grassroots level and open our eyes to Indonesian history, society and politics at such close range. What are the highlights in this curated set that you think would be interesting for audiences here?

There are some films I think that you don’t want to miss, especially if you don’t have all the time in the world. From the feature films, I would highlight Balada Bala Sinema (Ballad of Cinema Lovers), a documentary about the film activists and communities in Purbalingga, Central Java. For all the hype about film communities in the archipelago, Balada Bala Sinema remains the only film that documents the rise of informal film ecosystem in post-Reformation Indonesia, with Purbalingga as the vantage point. Indonesian cinema has always been defined more by the grassroots. They are in fact the “majority” of the Indonesian cinema. The so-called national film industry is limited in Jakarta and, to some extent, Yogyakarta.

I would also recommend Masean’s Message. The film actually is typical of post-Reformation documentaries about the 1965 massacre: reliant on the testimony of survivors, seen from the commoners’ perspective, aimed at questioning the government’s official narrative. What really attracts me is the fly-on-the-wall cinematography, weaving in and out of his subjects with dynamic camera movements. And, for the whole film, none of the characters look at the camera. For me, the camera somehow represents the restless victims’ souls and how the political regime here treats them. It was as if, people know you’re there, but they won’t acknowledge you. You could only wiggle.

Selection of Indonesian short films

Are these films considered independent/underground or are they are mix of mainstream as well?

In a sense, all films in Indonesia are independent productions, since there is no such thing as established film studios. We don’t have our own Hollywood Big Five. Although, yeah, some people I know would object that line of thinking.

Perhaps, more fittingly, I could say that most of these are films that are not submitted to the censorship board. Here the seal of approval from the censorship board is required for commercial uses of film products. Of all the films screened in the program, I think only Ziarah and Sunya (The Talisman) that have that seal—they were screened for several weeks in the cinema. The others, especially the short films, rely on informal film distribution through network of film festivals and independent screenings organized by various communities.

And it is in this sweet spot of non-censorship that you could find more diverse faces of Indonesia. Basically, if you read all the articles in the Film Censorship Law, the censorship seeks to present Indonesia as an apolitical harmonious society through films.

Ghosts of the Suharto era and Indonesia’s tumultuous history continue to linger a lot of Indonesian cinema, with titles like ‘The Act of Killing’ coming to mind. There must be tons of films out there dealing with these ‘ghosts’, could you discuss briefly why this set of films were selected?

Actually, since you brought up The Act of Killing, there are around 70 films about the 1965 massacre produced after the Reformation in 1998. You see, that tragic event is the political prerequisite for the rise of the Suharto’s New Order regime. Of all those films, I chose Masean’s Message to be the representative of the political advocacy filmmaking that is rife in post-Reformation Indonesia. And, to some extent, it is that knowledge that shapes this program.

Of course, this program presents a wider scope than that. Throughout curation, my SGIFF colleagues (Aishah and Zu Boon) and I seek to present an off-centre view of Indonesian cinema today. And for that we need to look at the film communities.

Reformation would be a good point to frame the cinematic diversity today, because Reformation is what allowed the filmmakers here to explore uncharted waters, telling stories and playing with aesthetics in ways that have never been done before. I mean, to put it simplistically, after Reformation we have films about the 1965 massacre or scenes depicting drug use or stories criticizing government officials.

That’s just the social dimension. There is also the technological aspect. Around the same time at Reformation, the video technology is available for public use in Indonesia. That allows people outside the film schools and the film industry to organize their own film activities, not just film productions but also film discussions. Don’t forget the internet (which contributed immensely to the social movements during Reformation) that allows people to learn about filmmaking techniques and other film knowledge by themselves. It’s not a coincidence that the first cities that have vibrant film communities are also the first cities in Indonesia to be connected to the world wide web. That would be Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, and (perhaps) Malang.

So, in short, Reformation in the political spectrum brings about the reformation in Indonesian cinema, especially in terms of film communities.

Masean’s Messages

Dwitra, who made Masean’s Messages, is a farmer/filmmaker. Is he more artist or agriculturalist? Have his films brought significant changes to his community?

I am actually not very familiar with him. From what I know he does have a farm and an interest in agriculture, and he also has made a documentary about farmers in Bali, but I don’t have any idea which one he loves more: film or agriculture.

Also, from what I know, Masean’s Messages has been screened in the village in which the film is shot. In terms of social changes, I have no idea.

Masean’s Messages

What film topics were banned during the Suharto regime? How are they making a comeback now?

The usual suspects: sex, drugs, violence. But those are the usual things that get censored almost everywhere.

What truly defines the film censorship in Indonesia, especially during Suharto’s regime, is the political restrictions. Suharto sought to create a single undisputed narrative of Indonesia as an apolitical harmonious society. Media were prohibited from making any mentions of social tensions, economic disparity, and political diversity in the society. You may not say critical things about government officials, you may not say that there are poor people in the city (or there are people that stay poor throughout their life), you may not say that the political spectrum includes left-leaning ideology, et cetera.

Censorship, both preventive and repressive, became the rule of the day. There were some funny cases, though. There is this comedy film in 1989 titled Kanan Kiri OK (Right and Left are OK). The original title is Kiri Kanan OK (Left and Right are OK) but it the censorship prohibited it because it begins with kiri (left). Anything left is not right.

The censorship still remains. What changes is society. Around the same time at Reformation, the video technology is available for public use in Indonesia. That allows people outside the film schools and the film industry to organize their own film activities, not just film productions but also film discussions. Don’t forget the internet (which contributed immensely to the social movements during Reformation) that allows people to learn about filmmaking techniques and other film knowledge by themselves. It’s not a coincidence that the first cities that have vibrant film communities are also the first cities in Indonesia to be connected to the world wide web. That would be Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, and (perhaps) Malang.

The films made their way to the public through festivals, public discussions, and independent screenings organized by various communities. This vibrant network of activities proved to be a fertile ground for exchanging ideas on social issues and local identities, free from interventions of the censorship board.

What kind of films does the Purbalingga Film Festival showcase? Mainly films made by the local communities? It seems like the festival has spawned filmmaking interest among the villagers. How is this developing? Do many go on to develop this career?

Purbalingga, a small city in Central Java, was the most outstanding one during these past years, thanks to the presence of its local films in the national film festivals. One of the most talked-about was SMK Rembang (vocational school) student Misyatun’s Lawuh Boled (The Breakfast) by Misyatun, the champion of Gayaman (student category) in the Solo Film Festival 2013. Meanwhile, SMA Kutasari (high school) student Achmad Ulfi’s Penderes dan Pengidep (Sugar and Eyelashes) won the student film competition at 2014 Festival Film Dokumenter (Documentary Film Festival) in Yogyakarta. Purbalingga-based film group Cinema Lovers Community and Jaringan Kerja Film Banyumas (Banyumas Film Network) which actively conduct screenings and workshops in various schools for couple of years, present audiovisual awareness and competition among the students are behind these accomplishments.

The Ballads of Cinema Lovers

Furthermore, at the beginning of 2000s, a collective, named Youth Power, produced two short films: Kepada Yang Terhormat Titik Dua (To the Esteemed) in 2001 and Surat Pukul 00:00 (The Letters from Midnight) in 2002. From 2002 until 2005, Youth Power conducted a series of film screenings and discussions, entitled Pesta Sinema Indonesia (Indonesian Cinema Party). This activity encouraged film productions in Purbalingga and connected local films of Banyumas, a regency near Purbalingga, with people outside Banyumas. Then, there was Purbalingga Film Festival, in its seventh year now, which screened local short films and national feature films through “layar tancap”—a term for humble open-air screenings in the villages. This festival was considerably successful in fostering a unique cinema culture. It creates the works of local people that managed to articulate their surrounding environment, a consistent channel for those local films, and a new watching habit among the local people. The audience came in great number to the festival in order to see their friends, neighbors, relatives, and parents in the big screen

In Karangmoncol, a mountainous area located north to the urbanized Purbalingga, a different form of film activities were practiced by SMPN 4 Satu Atap public junior high school. This school found a little exposure in the national media when Pigura (Frames) by Darti and Yasin and Langka Receh (Candies for Coins) by Eka Susilawati and Miftakhatun were nominated as the best shorts in Festival Film Indonesia, a prestigious state-funded film award, in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Both films were produced by students that participated in SMPN 4 Satu Atap’s film program, an extracurricular course established by the school’s teachers in 2008. The school itself was established in 2007, to accommodate graduates from the elementary schools in the area—so they do not have to travel far to the junior high schools outside Karangmoncol to continue their education

An interesting fact often missed by the mainstream media is SMPN 4 Satu Atap has been conducting their film program despite the lack of reliable electricity network in Karangmoncol. Blackouts and brownouts happen almost daily, especially during the day, in Karangmoncol. According to Aris Prasetyo, the teacher in charge for the film program in the school, the extracurricular course was actually a way to attract the children in the area to go to school. In the beginning, the school had only 39 students. After numerous screenings of the school’s films in the area, also numerous success stories of Karangmoncol films spread through word-of-mouth, SMPN 4 Satu Atap now hosts more than two hundred students.

Not all of those student-filmmakers didn’t go to develop their career, though. Most stopped making films after high school, mainly due to lack of opportunities for various reasons. This one is a homework for the future.

Image result for the talisman indonesian film
The Talisman

Why was the Talisman hailed as ‘one of the best Indonesian movies of the year’? Who gave the accolade? In your opinion, what makes this film special?

It’s more of a critical acclaim, really. Many prominent intellectuals (and not just limited to film) hailed it as one of the more unique cinematic achievements in Indonesian cinema. So, it’s more of a social accolade. I could not recall any national film awards that give some kind of recognition for the film. Perhaps Sunya (The Talisman) is just too weird for most people. 

For me, Sunya proposes an interesting take on the mystical and the spiritual side of Indonesian society, in this case the Javanese.

Many cultures in Indonesia, including the Javanese, has always treated the mystical and the spiritual world as an integral part of Indonesians daily life. We occupy the same plane of existence with them, but they exist in forms unseen and unheard by the eyes and the ears of ordinary people. Their existence is identified (and respected) through rituals, superstitions, and other “inexplicable rules” in the human world.

This kind of interpretation is absent from Indonesian cinema. Since 1965, the government only recognize six “official” religions, excluding many local and traditional beliefs. Therefore, the mystic world has always been expressed as “the other”, an opposing element that could (and must be) eradicated by prayers and other “official” religious practices. That is why, in Indonesian horror films, kyai or religious leader almost always provides the resolution for the conflict.

Sunya, produced after the New Order (and perhaps also due to its narrative weirdness), managed to express another interpretation of the mystical and the spiritual world—a much closer one to the cultural roots of Indonesia.

Has Ziarah been screened internationally? What’s the difference in the reaction to a film like this between an Indonesian audience and a foreign audience?

Yes. I think it won something in Salamindanaw. The film is also in competition in several film festivals.

Image result for Tales Of The Otherwords
Ziarah, Tales of the Otherworlds

Foreign audience probably would focus more on the story, on the drama/tragedy side of the it, which is natural and meant to be consumed that way by the filmmakers. And the film is still good even if we only focus on that layer.

For me, it meant a lot more. What I found interesting from Ziarah is how it demystifies the role of freedom fighters (or, in other words, the military) in Indonesian history. In the film, they are portrayed as a coward, a tyrant, and a wife-cheater.

During the New Order regime, you could never do that. Freedom fighters are practically glorified as saints. Even more significantly, the regime only endorses the military efforts in the history of the struggle for independence, but not the diplomats, the students, and other kinds of struggle.

What is also striking is how history is articulated through the film’s narrative. We learn all about the historical facts only through conversations with the people Sri encountered on her quest. Everything is oral history, everything comes from memory, which is exactly what happened in Indonesian society after 1998. Oral history (mostly from survivors of the regime) serves as an alternative interpretation of the nation’s history.

After the New Order regime, there is no more history. Only histories.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Screening Details

The Talisman24 Nov, Fri / 9:30 PM / The Arts House
87min / Javanese, Bahasa Indonesia / M18: Sexual Scenes and Nudity

25 Nov, Sat / 7:00 PM / The Arts House
120min / Bahasa Indonesia, Javanese / PG13: Some Mature Content

26 Nov, Sun / 4:30 PM / The Arts House
77min / Balinese

26 Nov, Sun / 9:30 PM / The Arts House
85min / Javanese, Bahasa Indonesia

26 Nov, Sun / 2:00 PM / The Arts House
86min / Javanese, Bahasa Indonesia, Bajawa's Language

25 Nov, Sat / 2:00 PM / The Arts House
74min/ Various Languages                                                 
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