Riri Riza: Film as a cultural

JP/R. Berto Wedhatama

Filmmaker Riri Riza has grabbed the spotlight - not at home - in five European countries, because from May 19 through June 10, the touring event "Indonesian Film Festival: Focus on Riri Riza" was held in the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Serbia and Germany.

The honor of being featured in an international-scale film festival means a new step for Riri, who is currently busy with the sequel to his box office hit Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warrior), Sang Pemimpi (The Dreamer).

Riri's films screened during the event included Petualangan Sherina (Sherina's Adventure), Eliana Eliana, Gie, Untuk Rena (For Rena), 3 Hari Untuk Selamanya (Three Days to Forever) and Laskar Pelangi. Besides attending the screenings of his films, Riri also met and held discussions with movie buffs and fellow filmmakers. Amid the tight schedule, he was fortunate to have a chance to swing by some film studios and see the oldest animated film, Zlin.

"The whole program forced me to look back on my creative journey, and I eventually felt so grateful to have the colleagues and working environment that enabled me to produce those films," said the Makassar-born director, who was honored at the Singapore International Film Festival.

This year's Indonesian Film Festival in the Czech Republic was the third of its kind. The first festival focused on Wim Umboh, a veteran director there.

In a statement made available to the media at home, Indonesian Ambassador to the Czech Republic Salim Said stated that cultural diplomacy was key in shaping Indonesia's image abroad, especially in Europe.

"We want to introduce Indonesian culture and its people to the Czech Republic. We'd also like to boost the quality of Indonesian films to make them more competitive and on the same level as films from other countries," he said.

Riri, however, could not believe it when he first got the offer.

"The honor usually goes to seasoned directors or those who have directed many films. I don't think I fit either category. Pak Salim convinced me to go on the program because he said my works were diverse and each had been in international festivals and some won awards," said Riri, who graduated from the Jakarta Arts Institute and London's Royal Holloway University.

Warm welcome and enthusiastic spectators on the first day of the screening in Prague touched Riri's heart. City Library Hall, the screening venue, was packed. Other than that the presence of veteran Oscar-winning filmmaker Ziri Menzel at the screening was beyond his expectation.

"The event was well organized and well thought out. I was brought to meet media people for interviews to promote the events. The presence of Ziri Menzel was another promotion prepared by the organizers to draw movie buffs to come," he said.

"Ziri Menzel commented on Laskar Pelangi as a film that takes on daily life and is very touching."

One of the most frequently asked questions was about religious tolerance in Indonesia; Muslim life, Islamic schools and the connection to terrorism.

The coming-of-age tale in Laskar Pelangi tells of the struggle of the students and teachers of an Islamic school to survive, given their limitations.

"I told the forum that Muslim life in Indonesia is not identified with violence and terrorism. The Muhammadiyah school, for instance, is deeply rooted in our traditional communities. The schools have given birth to Muslim intellectuals who love peace and tolerance," he said.

Muhammadiyah is the second-largest Muslim organization in Indonesia.

From his experiences, Riri strongly believes a film must not be made for commercial purpose, because "it can be a material for discussion to get to know a country from its cultural values, education, religions, political conditions and so on".

The European audience was also interested in finding out more about 3 Hari Untuk Selamanya, starring by Nicholas Saputra and Adinia Wirasti. The film tells of a road trip Nicholas and Adinia to attend a relative's wedding. Twists and turns occur throughout the trip, with their encounters with strangers and from their dialogues. The film was named Best Indonesian Film at the Jakarta International Film Festival and received the Best Director award at the Brussels International Independent Film Festival.

Riri was mostly asked about his motivation to make this film, which was considered ahead of its time in portraying adolescent life.

"All the characters and problems I brought out in this film were a depiction of our everyday life. Denying their presence is the same as rejecting reality. That's why I keep fighting against film censors that often turn a blind eye to reality, for no reason sometimes."

But most of all, Riri said he learned how the Czech government played a role in managing films.

"Films must be regarded as cultural products, not only commercial ones. That's why ahead of the presidential election, which means the establishment of a new administration, I hope the cultural and tourism departments are split into separate ministries, because if they remain under the same ministry, different films and other culture are regarded as commodities."

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