Life

Hanung Bramantyo: Hitting
the right marks

(JP/P.J. Leo)

Throughout his career, movie director Hanung Bramantyo has tried going to the left, to the right, and in between.

He flirted with the ideology of the left when he inserted the character of the ghost of a victim of the anti-communist massacre of 1965 in Lentera Merah (Red Lantern, 2006). He has also made six other movies that don't necessarily carry any particular ideology.

However, his path to the right has so far given him the most audience and the most media coverage.

His latest film Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) is one of the biggest selling movies to hit the country in recent years.

"Today, the ninth day it's been screened, 1.5 million tickets have been sold to Ayat-ayat Cinta," Hanung told The Jakarta Post.

Ayat-ayat Cinta premiered in a special showing on Feb. 21, hitting the cinemas a week later on Feb. 28.

Previously, Get Married was Hanung's most commercially successful film, with 1.4 million tickets sold in two months.

The preliminary response to Ayat-ayat Cinta has been extremely positive. Many Muslim women reportedly left theaters teary-eyed after watching the film, which is based on an Indonesian Islamic romance novel and takes place in Cairo.

It is the first time that Hanung, who was born and raised in Yogyakarta in the Muhammadiyah tradition, has directed an Islamic movie, but it's success has encouraged him.

"I'm excited by the idea of making more Islamic movies. I plan to release two more this year," Hanung said.

The first movie scheduled for release this year is titled Doa yang Mengancam (Threatening Prayer). It is a satire, about a person who requests something from God, but does so in a threatening way, Hanung said.

"Aming (an actor known for his comic roles) will be among the cast," he said.

The second is Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (Woman With a Scarf Around Her Neck).

Like Ayat-ayat Cinta, Perempuan Berkalung Sorban is also based on a novel by Abidah el Khalieqy, who, according to reviews of the book, explores the concept of Islamic feminism.

"The novel is about a Muslim woman who enters into an arranged marriage. The husband, picked by her kyai (cleric), is abusive," Hanung said.

"It will be different from Ayat-ayat, which is clean and without controversy. Perempuan is more advanced; it will be critical."

Hanung said although the storyline of Ayat-ayat Cinta was naive at times, he enjoyed making it.

"However, I also poured everything I had into Get Married," he said. Last year, he received the Citra Award for the best director for Get Married. "I think I deserved the award."

Get Married is a comedy about four close friends growing up in a Betawi kampung in Jakarta. Far from being shallow, the film raises a number of social issues that Indonesian society faces today.

The Post's review of Get Married said: "...the film becomes an amusing satire of society's simplistic view of marriage.

"It's like a Cinderella story with something to say," Hanung said.

After releasing Get Married, his seventh big-screen movie, Hanung said he understood Indonesian audiences more.

"They (the audience) are not as stupid as most producers tell me."

"Indonesian audiences mostly consist of people like private employees who have insecure jobs. They wonder whether next month they will still have a job. Or government officials who are worried about getting demoted if the boss doesn't like them."

In short, Hanung said, Indonesian audiences were insecure, worried people in need of a channel to vent their bottled anger, anxiety.

"They are thirsty for fresh beverages. They need to scream from the top of their lungs watching good horror flicks; laugh out loud watching comedies or cry to their heart's content seeing emotionally charged movies," he said.

But, he said, there was no point without a good plot.

Hanung can get a bit defensive when asked about his commercial success making "lightweight films".

"Don't get me wrong, I was serious. I started out as an actor in high school theater. I had a lead role in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot," Hanung said.

Those who have observed the arts scene in Yogyakarta will understand why Hanung was initially reluctant to make mainstream films. Being young and idealistic, there is often talk among the artists and directors there of "selling out".

Jakarta, on the other hand, is a city that is all about making money.

After high school and a few years of university in Yogyakarta, Hanung decided to move to Jakarta. He later graduated from the Jakarta Arts Institute, a training ground for many film and advertising professionals.

In the beginning he made movies for TV and festivals. In 1998, his first movie, Tlutur, was awarded first prize at the Jakarta Arts Council's Alternative Film Festival.

For Gelas-gelas Berdenting (Tinkling Glass, 2001), he won third prize in the 11th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) for TV Program Category.

His first commercial movie was Brownies (2004), which gave him his second Citra Award as Best Director.

"Honestly, I felt I did not really deserve it. For Get Married, I know I did well. But Brownies ... You know, getting an award really depends on the jurors' taste and mood.

"Before the jurors decided, they invited the nominees to dinner. They would think, 'I don't like this one, he seems smug. If I give him the award his head will probably get bigger and he won't be improved. I think, back then the jurors liked my personality."

After Brownies, Hanung made Catatan Akhir Sekolah (School's End Notes, 2005), Jomblo (Singles, 2006), Lentera Merah (2006), Kamulah Satu-satunya (You're the Only One, 2007), Legenda Sundel Bolong (Legend of Sundel Bolong, 2007), Get Married (2007) and Ayat-ayat Cinta (2008).

Most of them Hanung refers to as "teen flicks".

"I still want to make more serious movies, like on Kartini (the national hero) and something to do with Genjer-genjer (folk song associated with the Communist movement in Java). I Haven't got the investors though."

Hanung, who wears a necklace with a pendant showing the hammer and sickle, has repeatedly voiced his fascination with the ideology of the left.

"I was born on Oct. 1, Pancasila Sanctity Day, the day to remind the country of the nation's victory over the communists. Thus, I have always been intrigued by Indonesia's history of Communism."

Hanung's generation grew up during the New Order regime, which waged a serious anti-communism campaign. Inevitably, Hanung belonged to a group of children across the country who were sat down to watch the propaganda movie Pemberontakan G30S/PKI (The Mutiny of the Indonesian Communist Party, Sept. 30) every year, on Sept. 30 in the evening, the time when Hanung as a child was full of anticipation, waiting for his birthday the following day.

Nevertheless, save for the ghost in Lentera Merah, Hanung has never really made it to the left side, instead steering to the right.

Whether he is making teen flicks or tackling more serious issues, Hanung's says his films will always be "statement films".

"As a director I can make both serious and light movies at the same time. Ridley Scott, for example, his latest movie is light, unlike his previous epic movies. It's no problem," Hanung said

"I will seize the moment, that's it."

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