Joko Anwar: "Horror is the most honest genre."

Who do you call if you need some scares, some tears, and a whole lot of despair? Why, you get the current stalwart of Indonesian cinema, Joko Anwar of course. One of the most prolific filmmakers of the region, who is just as popular with the critics as he is with the box office, he is here in town for a very special screening of Folklore: A Mother's Love and a panel discussion as part of the Asian Film Archive's State of Motion slate of horror films.

SINdie catches up with Joko over some hot tea and talk genre, working with horror, and his favourite themes.

What is it about genre works that captivate you? 

I grew up with genre films in my childhood. When I was five, I regularly visited the film theatres in my hometown, Medan, and most of the time, the theatres only played genre films; and predominantly horror films at that—because of this, the original Satan’s Slaves was one of those movies that were deeply etched in my memory. Alongside horror, they also played Kung Fu, action…these were the three genres that really influenced me. I grew wanting to be a filmmaker so that I can eventually make these kind of films. 

I actually wrote the screenplay for my first film, when I was in college. When Nia Dinata first asked me to write a screenplay that she was going to produce, I gave her the script that I finished—which was the romantic comedy, Janji Joni. This is why even though I wanted to be a horror filmmaker, the romantic comedy was the film that got made first.

What do you think of the horror genre in the context of Indonesia?

For me, horror is the most honest genre. When a horror film is made, the filmmaker is fixated on giving that cinematic experience of fear to the audience. I think these feelings are very universal, unlike a genre like drama, for which your feelings and responses while watching can depend a lot on factors such as your social status and your level of education. Someone can be intellectually amused when watching drama, but there are no such detached equivalents for horror—you cannot be ‘intellectually frightened’! It is a primal sensation, working in a genre and space where everybody feels the same way about certain things; and since it is so accessible to society, it is the perfect way to infuse anything you want as a filmmaker.

In Satan’s Slaves, I wanted to say something about the rising religiosity in Indonesia, which has reached a stage where if a religious teacher says something, people will just blindly follow. This is part of the reason why I killed the religious teacher in the film. By doing this, I was trying to make a point that there will not be much hope for you if you depend too much on religion. Once he dies, you are all by yourself. Your prayers will not help you—nothing will, except your love for  your family.

Satan's Slaves

One thing that strikes me is how prolific you are. How do you do it?

How do I do it? I am the sort of filmmaker who plans everything. I make shot lists before I shoot, and I communicate this to my crew, so that everybody will be on the same page. The process is different when I am working with the cast—I want them to be fresh on set, and sometimes I will give them something completely surprising to get fresh performances out of them.

Apart from that, I do not really know—maybe it is because I am an early riser? I always wake up at six in the morning to start working on scripts, sometimes even those that have no plans to be produced yet. I have actually only directed 8 films, but I have also written scripts for various features, amongst other projects I am involved in. I used to have about 11 un-produced scripts then, now people are starting to buy my whole scripts.

What’s the creative process of screenwriting for you like?

I have a script which I took eight years to complete. I also have a script that was completed in two weeks. Basically, I do not see one single way that is guaranteed to make the script more polished. Usually, if I do not like a script that I have started, I will just delete everything. This is why I make sure that the first draft is the perfect draft—I do not really do a lot of revisions. The last two movies that I did…. one was shot on the first draft and the other was shot on the second draft.

I believe you have to be very clear about what you need to tell. Not everything is about style or spectacle; you have to take care of your characters firsts. When you take care of the characters, interesting things will come to the surface. 

 Do you think being a critic has sharpened or changed the way you look at cinema and your own filmmaking practice?

It helped in a way. When I was still a film critic, I actually try not to be critical whenever I watch a film, I try to be an audience first. It is only after watching that I begin to think about what worked and what did not. When watching a film, I try not to analyse it. By making an assessment of a film only after you watch it in its entirety, one realises what worked the in storytelling in terms of both the techniques and the aesthetics.

Perhaps it is because of this greater awareness that I would be actively thinking of what story I want to tell within a shot, within a scene, whenever I am making a film. Next, one begins to think of the kind of tools that one needs, and one reflects and makes the decision if one has the technical skills or aesthetic sense to do it.

After finishing a film, it always helps if someone is critiquing it, no matter if it is a positive or a negative review. I know that this is not something that can be internalised easily, but one has to process it. Praises can be dangerous because then you start thinking that you are good, but a harsh critic can also really get you down. Personally, I only allow myself to feel sad for maybe one day. After that, you have to be the hardest critic for yourself. 

Every step of the filmmaking process, I always have to look at the components of my film, and whether they work. I have to be able to judge my film, as if it is not me doing it.

How did you get involved in the Folklore project, and what was the development process for you like?

I have actually worked on a project with Eric Khoo before—it was a short film omnibus titled Art Through Our Eyes, and we collaborated with other filmmakers in the region. Later on, he invited me to come aboard this new project of his, and I accepted.  The development was actually pretty organic—Eric just said that we are going to make an anthology of stories about ghosts in our countries and we can pick any ghost we want, and I picked the Wewe.

Can you share more about the Wewe and why you chose her?

The theme of motherhood and fertility has been present persistently in my films, so much so that one trademark of my work could be the presence of a pregnant woman: My first pregnant character went into labour in a taxi, the second one was ran over by a bus, the third one was got an abortion and sealed the child’s remains inside a statue…even Satan’s Slaves was about someone who was infertile and had to ask for help from the Devil to bear children.

I think this fascination with maternity came from a very deep place in my memory. As a child, I always question why I was born. After I grew up, I always ask people why they want to have children—I mean, this world we have right now is a very dangerous place to grow up in, and unless you have a very strong plan on how to raise your kids, I do not think anyone should have them.

It is with this idea of someone who cannot bear children, someone who has a child but did not have any intention to it, and the feelings of a child not being loved by their parents in mind that the Wewe, a female spirit borne of a barren woman’s sorrows, came automatically and organically.

Interview by Alfonse Chiu
Interview transcribed by Jeremy Sing
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