STOP10: 'Kado' by Aditya Ahmad

As this year’s winner of the Short Film Award at the Venice Film Festival and recent winner of Best Director and Youth Jury Prize at the Singapore International Film Festival’s Silver Screen Awards, young Indonesian director Aditya Ahmad has created a true gift (pun very much intended).

His award-winning short film, Kado (A Gift) also screened at the Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival this year and provides a wondrously nuanced, complex depiction of gender identity within a Muslim community. But most of all, it depicts the true lawlessness of (and freedom found in) adolescence, the unconditional love and acceptance found in friendships, and the inherent turmoil that is finding out who you are (or whatever that means). 

The 15-minute short provides an intimate glimpse into the life of androgynous teenager Isfi (Isfiri Febiana). Febiana does the role immense justice –– strength coupled with ambivalence radiating from each gaze when the camera rests on her. The opening shot depicts Isfi staring out of a broken window at the world below, only eyes in view, both an outsider and observer of the patterns and behaviours that constitute masculinity and femininity. 

Simple actions such as dressing and undressing are elevated in meaning here: they are rituals. Actions such as wearing trousers as opposed to a skirt, a hijab rather than going out with one’s head barethese actions enable Isfi to fluidly navigate friendships and gain access to both social and intimate spaces. 

Kado's greatest fault is that it's only 15-minutes long. In this short amount of time, Ahmad has delicately given us a taste of Isfi’s world and in truth, there's so much more left to discover. To understand more about the story behind Kado, Melissa had a discussion with him about his film.

What drew you to the use of the short film format? What does it enable you to do that a feature length film does not?

I started making Kado with the intention of shooting a short film. The idea of making it as a feature length film came up during some screenings with friends. Some of them said that this movie should be a feature length film with the type of story it has. I know of some films that began as short films that were later developed into feature length films with the same story, but I didn't want to do that for Kado.

Do you feel like it’s because in 15-minutes there’s actually a lot one can do, or do you feel like for this specific film it was right to keep it as a short film?

I think this particular story just worked as a short film. I’m not really sure if it would work in a longer format. You’d have to add some elements to lengthen the film that might not necessarily fit with the narrative, and in the end, these elements might serve to only distract from the main story. 

What inspired you to make Kado?

This film is based on Isfi’s story (Isfira Febiana, the main actor in the film), but it all started with my questioning of life and of my own existence as a human being. This began after On Stopping the Rain (2013) –– I started to question myself and my decision to make films. Asking myself these questions resulted in a crisis in my life about two years ago. I travelled a lot, I met a lot of people –– I experienced life. The thing is, I experienced that crisis because I didn’t feel alive. When I was travelling and I met those people, I found that some people actually needed me and knowing that made me feel alive. 

When I went back to my hometown, I met Isfi again. We worked together in On Stopping the Rain and for several years, we didn’t meet but were still communicating via phone. She shared the same anxieties with me –– she had been questioning her identity and felt confused about that. We shared these thoughts together and decided to make this film. In the process of making this film, we probably got more answers and we learned from the process as a whole. 

What is the role of gender in Kado?

My hometown isn’t a big city so it’s a little conservative but at the same time, we have a very strong Buginese culture. We have a belief that there are 5 genders that exist: male and female; calabai, where the person is physically male, but identifies as female; calalai, where the person is physically female, but identifies as male; and bissu, where there’s no gender identification, the person is gender-ambiguous and androgynous. 

The story comes with this context. I used to question whether these five genders really existed in our culture and how they existed. When I met Isfi, I spent a lot of time with her and her friends, I was inspired by their lives. At the same time, I was bringing those questions of existence that I had: Why was I born as who I am? Why was I born in this body? Why was I born into this family? 

That's very fascinating. Now that I have greater context surrounding the conceptions of gender that exist in Buginese culture, it's now interesting to look at Kado in this new light. I’ve read some comments from Western film critics who bring a view of gender that’s more geared towards how it’s viewed in their culture. In terms of having that extra added layer of context that’s unique to Buginese culture, how do you think the film would be interpreted within a wider Indonesian audience as a whole?

Through this film, I hope that people ultimately identify with these characters in the sense that we’re all human. We’re all born as humans –– we don’t have a choice in that or in the finer details of what constitutes being human. 

In some of the screenings we’ve had, people have come up to me and said, “Thank you for making this film” –– I’ve never had an audience that watched the film and felt negatively towards it and disagreed with the content. I think that it’s ultimately because what I’ve shown is a portrayal of what it is to be a human being. I don’t think there’s a difference between gender identities –– whether you’re male or female –– you’re just human and we’re all God’s creations. 

Media and technology play quite a role in the film, particularly as Isfi and other characters engage with one another through social media like Snapchat, et cetera. Within local Indonesian society, when it comes to issues of identity and gender identity, what have you seen are the ways in which people discuss that? Is it mostly kept online or do people openly discuss it in person as well?

I’ve found that a lot of young people discuss these issues via social media. But even in person when I’ve spent time with Isfi and her friends, I saw that they don’t see her differently. She’s just Isfi –– they don’t treat her differently. 

Of course, it’s not always like that. Isfi told me a story about her experience when she was in junior high school. Her school had a dress code and she told me that she would bring two sets of uniforms to school (like in the film). She’d bring the female school uniform including a hijab and a male school uniform in her bag. She would go the bathroom and then change before going to classes. In her final years of high school, they weren’t as strict about wearing the hijab to school. But she was also still bringing both sets of uniforms to classes. Some of her teachers were okay with that –– that she felt more comfortable in the male uniform, but others didn’t agree with her choices. They told her, "Why are using boys’ clothing? That doesn’t really fit you". On the other hand, another teacher told her that she looked really cool in the boys’ uniform. 

Not everyone in a given society thinks in the same way –– and for us, we live in a conservative society. Most of them wouldn't really agree with what she did and not conforming to your gender. 

Do you feel then that in some way that the traditional beliefs observed in some of these villages have a more tolerant approach to gender identity versus than the views that are held in cities?

Yes and no. It differs from place to place and person to person. For example, there’s a village that’s about a 3-hour drive from Makassar where I live and they believe that you should be touched by a calabai before you get married. But at the same time, when I was still in high school, I remember I once had a haircut. A friend told me that some people claim that if a calabai cuts your hair, if they’ve touched you, all of your prayers in the past are voided –– like you’ve fallen out of favour in God’s eyes. 


Yeah (laughs). There are a lot of beliefs that societies have built in order to ignore and erase people. They don’t want to acknowledge them and the fact that they exist. 

You mentioned you were filming something and then you got sick –– what are you working on next?

Oh, that? That was just regular work! (laughs) I was shooting outdoors and it was raining all day, so I fell ill and I got a fever. I was filming a music video –– I found it interesting and the music was good. So I said, “Why not? Let’s go do this”. It wasn’t with a famous singer, I don’t think she’s even broadcasted her work on TV or on YouTube yet. I found that these types of projects are good as a place to explore or exercise the more technical aspects of filmmaking –– you’re able to build knowledge and develop skills on that you can then bring to your personal projects.

At the end of the day, what do you hope for audiences to take away from your films?

I’ve always said that what I want to bring to my films is that I want to share my discoveries, and what I’ve gained from this process of exploration. What I’ve learned is that life itself is a gift. To be human is a gift from God and life is a gift that should be given to others, too. I believe in that concept that we’re all just made from the stars and that we’re all very connected to each other. 

The film was screened under the Asian Perspective section of the 13th Jogja NETPAC Asian Film Festival held in Yogyakarta.

Interview and Review by Melissa Noelle Esguerra

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 

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