Nia Dinata: All it takes
is courage

Lately, the advertisement pages of the latest movies showing at cinemas usually dedicate at least half a page to locally made movies. Some theaters have local movies dominating the screens. Local films have reawakened, sending a breath of fresh air through the film industry.

But a longer glance may be needed to differentiate one from another, as the posters are dominated by either horror movies or chick flicks. The horror films center on the never-out-of-fashion pocong, a ghost wrapped in a winding sheet. The chick flick posters are loaded with sexual humor and suggestive titles.

A 39-year-old female filmmaker Nia Dinata tells different stories. Her movies present issues many others dare not raise – homo-sexuality, polygamy, the lives of trafficked women, or even real-life sexuality. Nia Dinata talked to The Jakarta Post about the trend and what it takes to swim against the current.

Why, despite the huge number of films produced, are so many of similar type – chick flicks and horror movies?

Booming production, with the majority of movies being chick flicks and horror movies, is quite normal. It is the same everywhere, including Thailand, Korea and the United States. In the United States, there are always chick flicks and action movies. In Asia, there must be horror films.

Even in Hollywood, only few filmmakers have their own style or are authored filmmakers; these are the people whose films will be liked by film buffs. The rest are studio filmmakers who only make commercial films.

There is no need to feel sad about it, as long as we still have filmmakers who make unique films. As a person and a filmmaker, as long as I still hold on to my own work, I don’t have to worry about others’ work.

Is it so difficult to make quality feature films, like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, that sell?

It is not hard but it takes courage. Even Slumdog was supposed to go straight to DVD rather than hitting the cinemas, because people in the industry thought the film would not sell. Juno is another example.

Apparently, our society is ready to accept these kinds of films because they combine entertainment with reality and human issues. So, it is not hard but it takes courage because not all films are as lucky.

The studio film Doubt, starring Meryl Streep, made much less than Slumdog. If we compare them, both are good films. Nothing is predicable.

But if you ask if the director regrets making Doubt, I don’t think he does, because despite (selling badly), the film still got rave reviews and many of the actors still got Oscar nominations. It depends on how you define a successful film. Even if Slumdog went straight to DVD, I believe Danny Boyle would not have regretted making it.

However, it is more common for people to make movies that are easy to digest and likely to draw more viewers. Risky movies have less likelihood of being made.

What are the criteria of being risky?

First, the content. Some themes are not easily digested by the public in general. In Indonesia, issues of migrant workers, gays or lesbians, are not mainstream. These issues are not popular and people may not experience them in their daily lives.

In Indonesia, there is also the risk of censorship, even more so now, with the anti-pornography law. Everything related to homosexuality is deemed breaking the law.

There is also the financial risk. Audiences, who may understand these movies, are few. The market is even smaller for R-rated movies.

Or, if you use an indie singer to sing the soundtrack, then it is risky.

Did you see the Java Jazz Festival marketing? It was a “must go”. Is it possible to make a “must see” film?

You cannot compare Java Jazz and movies. Java Jazz is there once a year. Movies are released every week. The number of theaters is still far below the number of new releases. Every weekend there can be five to 10 new films released.

Some films may have very small audiences, maybe because there was no time for news to spread via word of mouth. But because there are not enough theaters, they are replaced. The film industry is in a very weak position.

Film producers usually mix emotions with business sense in our movies; even more so for those who make difficult, risky films. But cinemas are purely commercial, so if they see that a film does not sell for three days, they may make a business decision to replace it with other film.

Unless our government acts like the Korean government, which gives a quota for local movies; all local movies there must be screened for at least two weekends.

But your movie ‘Arisan!’ was a hit.

Yes. It was unexpected. Maybe it was a little bit like Slumdog. Everyone told me the market was not ready for a movie like that. There was neither sponsorship nor marketing. It relied on word of mouth, but apparently our public was ready.

But the ones ready were only in Jakarta and Bandung. Other areas were very quiet, and people were accusing me of promoting same-sex relationships. The good thing was the ticket price in Jakarta was higher, so selling half the volume generated the same profit. On average, we broke even.

You said it was easier to get investors after the boom of ‘Arisan! Is that true?

That’s true. There are a few who are angel investors, who believe in you and your idealism and support you no matter what. They are mostly businesspeople who like arts or movies. They run other types of businesses and have extra cash.

But most investors are purely doing business, so it must at least break even. They may think that because of the success of Arisan! all films I make will be successful. But that is not always true.

There is another type of investor, we call them ambitious investors. They may want to look cool by investing in films.

In any case, I don’t want any investor telling me what to do. If you believe in me, just leave everything to me.

Why do your films talk about the little people and women?

Because I am also a writer. I write and I look at what is around me, the social issues in Indonesia. Once we see reality, we can’t think about ratings anymore.

Gender issues are not well exposed. Even when there are movies about women, they are made from men’s perspectives. If a movie has a woman in the lead role, it does not automatically mean that it is about gender equality. There are a lot of stereotypes about woman.

Do you get positive responses?

There was a lot after Arisan! and Berbagi Suami. Many people told me their stories. I didn’t know if I was a psychologist or a filmmaker. But when people opened up to me, it was priceless. Some told me it gave them the courage to open up to their families about their sexual orientation. Some said they realized polygamy was not good for them and they wanted to get away from their partners.

At least, they see something, they can think about it and they can relate it to their personal lives. It was not my aim before I made the movie and it was unexpected, but it was a blessing.

Do you get hate mail too?

Yes. I think there is as much as the positive sort. They told me I promoted homosexuality and that I had sinned. It got me thinking, “Am I really going to hell?” But, what the hell (she said, while waving).

Once, when I was promoting Berbagi Suami in Makasar, all the callers were male and all blamed me, saying that I was antipolygamy. They argued that it was permitted by Islam; they thought I did not research it. Before I made the movie I consulted with an Islamic feminist, Musdah Mulia, who knows the verses.

If we look at the Koran closely, the verse said “if only you can be fair”. But who can measure whether love is fair?

With the anti-pornography law, is there extra pressure?

Yes. Very much so. From the censorship institution and public organizations.
It is difficult because when I make movies I include people of different sexual orientations.

For me, film is a description of social reality. In my social realm, there are homosexuals, there are Indonesian Chinese, Indonesian Indian. I meet a mix of people. Why should I only tell a story about mainstream people, mainstream religion, mainstream sexual preference?
I will still include them, but I don’t know what will happen to them (the scenes).

In Pertaruhan, for example, there was a lesbian couple who wanted to check themselves at the doctor’s. Those scenes were heavily cut, but luckily, there are still some scenes left.

Will you do self-censorship to avoid the movie being cut?

No way. If they want to do it, they do it. I still have the full version. The DVDs all are censored versions but if we hold a private screening for discussion, then we still put on the full version.
I still consider myself an independent filmmaker. As long as our idealism is there and we do not compromise it to the demands of investors, theaters and even the public, we are independent.

There is nothing that can intervene in our work, except, of course, censorship, which we have to just accept.

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