Crossing A Religious Line: An Interview with Maudy Koesnaedi

An interest in a modern retelling of the Adam and Eve story that is Ave Maryam, a narrative feature by Indonesian filmmaker Robby Ertanto, led me to a close encounter with a 90s Indonesian TV soap opera icon and a foot in the door of understanding the touchy subject of how Catholics relate to Muslims in modern day Indonesia. Maudy Koesnaedi is one of the most recognisable faces in Indonesia, having played the iconic role of Zaenab in TV soap opera Si Doel Anak Sekolahan. Her relationship with cinema had always been fleeting over the years but with Ave Maryam, that has changed. It is one of her first major roles and it is one that could ruffle some feathers - a Muslim playing a Catholic nun.

Ave Maryam is actually the Indonesian version of the phrase Ave Maria. Based on the real life experience of one of Robby’s friends in Semarang, this is a tale about Maryam, a Catholic, who was assigned to help a nursing house. Life in the church is laborious as she has seven elder nuns to take care of, on top of a series of chores. Things start to change when a new liberal-minded Pastor named Yosef joins the church and becomes that breath of fresh air that breaks the stodginess in her life. Expectedly, the film explores the forbidden, a secret relationship between Maryam and Yosef. Robby, who has a penchant for drama and social realism, developed the story over a long period of time, making sure at the end of the day, this movie, when distilled down, is simply one about love and the universality of it. And Maudy was chosen by Robby not just because she fit the demographic profile but he wanted someone with charisma. Our interview with Maudy in Singapore proved every bit of that.
Photo credit: SINdie

I understand you started your career in TV,  in the memorable role of Zaenab. When did you start trying your hands at film acting?

This is actually the first time I am in a lead role since my role in the TV series in 1994. I did act in some movies over the years but my scenes were limited or it was just a cameo. When Robby came to me with this offer, I thought this was my chance to explore my acting aspirations. In Indonesia, it is not easy to find opportunities to have roles for me in movies because many roles these days are for teenagers or millenials as the stories are about teenage romance. So came this role about a 40-year old nun. But actually last year, I was also back in the cinemas with my role as Zaenab in the movie version of Si Doel Anak Sekolahan. It was with the original cast, same actors basically. I was very surprised we had a good response for that. The Indonesians were still excited to see us. It did well at the box office and we really didn’t expect such a positive response because the series was old, in fact 24 years ago! So it was a nice welcome back to the movies.

Interestingly, some reviewers of Ave Maryam mentioned that they thought they were going to see Zaenab but as a nun in Ave Maryam but of course, it was a totally different role from Zaenab.

What’s Zaenab like? And how is it different from your character in Ave Maryam?

Zaenab is like a village girl. Batawi….in Jakarta, in a kampong. She fell in love with Doel and she would give anything to be close to Doel. She was very quiet, always crying, works patiently and quite naive. And people always compare Zaenab to Sarah, the girl who is very rich, very modern. So Doel has two choices between Zaenab and Sarah. Sarah is the modern one. So in fact, there were two camps of fans, the Zaenab team and the Sarah team.
Photo credit: SINdie

I can see why the TV show is so popular, with this rivalry going on. And how is this role different from Maryam in Ave Maryam?

Well, Zaenab is also quite different from Maudy. I am talkative and I love telling stories. And my son sometimes calls me ‘Hitler-mum’. Not mean but very….. Especially when I get angry….And you know., people get the impression that Zaenab will never be angry. Like when she is disappointed, she will just go to her room and cry. (aside to her husband) Bapak, what’s the difference between me and Zaenab? (her husband replies saying that Zaenab is much sweeter, drawing laughter from everyone)

And between Zaenab and your role in Ave Maryam?

Totally different. I am a Muslim and I know nothing about Catholicism and nuns. So I had to start everything from zero. Robby gave me a big chance to do this and I wanted to give my heart to the role and I told myself I couldn’t fail this. I put a lot of energy and focus into this role.

Way before we started the shoot, I went to Semarang, in the centre of Java. I live in Jakarta myself. I went to a nunnery and I interviewed them. I observed their gestures, the action, the atmosphere, the energy. I stayed there the whole day trying to understand them even though I didn’t sleep there. We also shot in the nunnery, so during the lunch breaks or whenever we had time, I would sit with them, chat with them. I listened to their stories. And I would ask them many questions ‘is this right?’ ‘Is this how you do it?’ ‘What do you think?’ And they were very enthusiastic in helping me. They were always around me to help.

Do you consider this a challenging role? Is it mainly because you have to learn how to be a nun or is it because the personality of the character makes it challenging for you?

First of all, because you are playing a nun. Second is because of the character Maryam. Maryam does not talk too much. There is minimal dialogue and everyone delivers meaning by expressions and the energy. So I had to put all my energy to communicate what Maryam feels and it required a lot more effort to deliver the message that she was in love, or feelings of jealousy. She could not display love openly like normal people, simply because it was secret, forbidden and very much a taboo. So even though I felt romantic but I could not show it, and I had to mix it with worry and other emotions.

So I feel happy when I read on people’s review that they can feel these things that I am trying to communicate. I am trying to deliver that feeling to the people who watch the movie. So that’s challenging. The other thing is in Indonesia, people have certain hang ups about religion. LIke why is a Muslim playing a Catholic? And why Robby specifically wanted me to play this character who is a Catholic.

So I spoke to my husband about this situation and asked him what he thought. He said ask my brother. And when I got a ‘yes’ from him, I went ahead. I did ask my god about this ‘if you are ok with it, please let me do it and guide me through this role and help me through this project’. But since the poster and trailer were out last year, we received some comments about it and I was trying to defend myself. People were trying to make up their own mind. I could not make everyone happy with my decision. I took that as advice and I said ‘can you transfer your advice to me to be a good Muslim for my future?’ So far everything is still ok and I can still handle it. And I am so happy that many priests and nuns who already watched the movie said thank you so much for being a sister. They said they are very happy that I can portray a nun.
Photo credit: SINdie
How about feedback from Muslims?

There has been an interesting variety of feedback. There were some who were extremely happy with this movie and said ‘this movie has to go to Oscar!’ (she laughs), or ‘Maudy has to win the Piala Citra’ or something like that. Then there were others who said ‘I don’t get this. What kind of movie is this!’ Even my brother said. He didn’t understand. There is minimum dialogue. Long shots, still camera and all. My brother said ‘I know this movie is good but how come people can understand the movie?’

Some of the Muslim viewers said they really wanted to watch the movie but they wear a hijab. So they asked is it ok for them to go watch the movie in the cinema? So I replied that it is totally fine. Some of them who did watch it in the cinema actually took pictures of them in the cinema and posted that the movie was really not just for Catholics. They can enjoy it as well. There were so many people with hijabs posting about the movie. I am just glad they are able to enjoy the movie as a movie itself and not think of it as being controversial. It is about love, simple love.

Name me one of the most surprising things you learnt about the life of a nun.

They are so relaxed but yet they have so many things to do. They can do it so efficiently. One of the chiefs would often come and ask me on set ‘Are you ok?’ ‘Do you need anything?’ So they give me this sense of peace.

You feel peaceful talking to them but yet you know they are very busy.

Yes. I also heard from my friend who studied in a Catholic school that they are very strong.
(pause) Robby and I really put our heart into this movie and treated the movie and the subject matter with a lot of respect because these people give their life to their beliefs.

Finally, one thing I would like to share is that a group of young trainer priests went to watch the movie and they were asked to write down their own reflections on the movie. And they told me ‘Thank you for making this movie’. So I am happy they could see the good side of this movie and not focus on the sensitive aspects of it.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

The movie opened commercially in Indonesia since 11 April 2019 and has travelled to several film festivals including the Hanoi International Film Festival, Cape Town International Film Festival, Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival and Cinemasia Film Festival.

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