Indonesia’s movies start
to mature

Salman Aristo. JP/J.B. Djwan

Despite a glut of sinetron soap operas, horror movies and camp comedy, Indonesia’s film industry might be growing up.

Salman Aristo, award-winning screenwriter of Laskar Pelangi (Rainbow Warriors), adapted from Andrea Hirata’s novel of growing up in Belitung, believes that while Indonesia’s film industry has a long way to go in its content, there are signs of a shift in genre.

“For me there are two producers — a business producer and a filmmaking producer who is interested in film and has a love for this as a medium, not as a product,” Aristo said on the sidelines of the Balinale International Film Festival in Sanur last week.

“That makes two paradigms in the [film] industry. As a writer who wants to work on films like Laskar Pelangi there are people to turn to, but in quantity the business side is bigger — with a lot more money.”

Aristo’s short film Pasangan Baru (New Partners) was screened during the festival, in which a range of films from around the globe were presented, including many homegrown gems such as Drupadi, Meraih Mimpi and Darah dan Dupa. He was speaking after his “Introduction to Filmmaking” seminar.

In his seminar, Aristo talked of the door into an industry that in most countries is closed, barred and double-locked. “There are roles for writers, camera, directors, actors — it’s wide open.”

Two of those attending the seminar were 15-year-old Golden Aliakur and 16-year-old Agung, who hope one day to break into the industry.

“We are not yet studying film, but that’s what we want to do,” Golden said. “The film industry here is still young and we feel youth need to be involved to move it into the future.”

Also at the seminar was a 45-year-old woman who, back in 1980, had her heart set on filmmaking, a dream crushed by her family.

“I always wanted to work in film,” said Lia Johan of Sukawati. “Now at 45 this just might be my chance, that’s why I came to hear Aristo. When I finished school I wanted to study film, now I feel I will go back and learn script writing.”

But the effect of Indonesia’s current bill on filmmaking is another story. The draconian film law awaiting discussion by the nation’s legislators calls for only accredited people to be allowed to make films and for filmmakers to have to have studied film, effectively slamming the door on anyone outside of that nexus, explained Aristo.

“This [new film bill] is horrible for us. We are still fighting this bill. If people have not been to film school they are not allowed to make films. The government approves who and what films will be made. You have to apply for a certificate to make a film and you have to submit your screenplay for government approval,” said Aristo, adding the law, if passed, will block freedom of expression.

“The government claims [the requirement that] we submit the scripts [is] to prevent two films being made with the same title. I feel it is because they want to control us again. I feel this is shades of the New Order. [President] SBY is more polite, subtle, but I feel it’s the same idea as the New Order to control freedom of expression.”

He pointed to the “double standard” of existing censorship in the country.

“There is a form of double standards operating. Brokeback Mountain [a film exploring a homosexual relationship] got through and we see Heath [Ledger]’s butt. In another film made by a friend of mine two men kissing passed the censor, but a woman and a man kissing did not — that’s how absurd it is.

The censors say ‘trust us, it will be good if we cut it this way’,” Aristo said.

Aristo came to film via journalism; deadlines and a tight writing style have stood him in good stead as a screenwriter. As for writer’s block, Aristo explains his journalism training taught him to write through it.

“Filmmaking in Indonesia offers so much. Every area has culture, language, all so very rich. This is why I love film. I fell in love with film when I was little. I loved the big space of the picture theater, the big sound. I used to sneak into the pictures with my friends when I was about 12 years old,” he said.
But at the time, he added, he thought of filmmaking as far away.

“I thought films were only made in Hollywood. Indonesia’s film industry at that time had collapsed, so it was all Hollywood. As I matured, I saw that the industry here was again becoming very interesting and provocative. I saw I too could make films and become a script writer.”

This passion and belief in Indonesia’s future as an important, mature Asian filmmaking nation drives Aristo to share, freely, his knowledge with the young and not-so-young film makers of the future.
His business card reads: “Life is about storytelling, the rest is just details.”

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