People

Ari Sihasale & Nia Zulkarnaen:
for love of motherland

Ari Sihasale (left) and Nia (with dark glasses) with film crew. Courtesy of Alenia
Ari Sihasale (left) and Nia (with dark glasses) with film crew. Courtesy of Alenia

Everyone has their own way of expressing their sense of nationalism. For film producer Ari Sihasale and his wife Nia Zulkarnaen, it’s their commitment to always put Indonesia’s diversity in their movie productions.

Sihasale or Ale, 36, and Nia, 40, gave their broadest smile as they greeted dozens of reporters, TV cameramen and photographers attending the press screening of their latest movie Tanah Air Beta (My Motherland) at  the Planet Hollywood cinema in South Jakarta.

Some reporters tried to interview the couple, but Ale and Nia asked the journalists to have their lunch. “Sure, no problem. But first of all, you guys have to eat. Please, enjoy the meal,” Nia said, escorting the journalists to the dining area.

Ale and Nia kept their promises. They welcomed the journalists who wanted to do one-on-one interviews with them. “Sorry, to keep you waiting, guys,” said Nia, smiling.

The couple did not mind answering journalists’ questions, from simple questions about their latest projects to the tricky ones concerning their personal lives.

They handled the media in an amiable by occasionally cracking jokes. But their latest film is no laughing matter. Tanah Air Beta tells the struggle of a family going through the riots after the 1999 referendum in Timor Leste. Directed by Ale, the film stars among others Alexandra Gottardo, Lukman Sardi, Robby Tumewu and Ale himself.

This is the fourth film produced by the couple under their production house, Alenia Pictures.

Their debut, Denias, Senandung di Atas Awan (Denias, A Hum Above the Clouds), which tells the story of a Papuan boy who believes that going to school will bring him far in life, surprisingly got critical acclaims in 2006.

It also received some awards in the 2006 Indonesia Film Festival for Best Actor, Best Adapted Script and Best Cinematography.

Two years later, Ale and Nia produced a musical Liburan Seru (Adventurous Holiday), which tells the adventure of a group of elementary students in finding hidden treasure during school holiday.

In 2009, the couple brought in sports-themed King, which is about the story of three kids who idolize badminton legend Liem Swie King and their struggle to imitate him. Inspired by the life King, the movie is Ale’s first film as producer and director.

Just a year after the release of King, Ale and Nia is back with Tanah Air Beta in which Ale once again sat on the director’s bench. Before the launch of the movie, the couple published a novel and bilingual comic version of Tanah Air Beta, part of an effort to promote the story to overseas market.

Nia said that the idea came out when she and his husband watched TV as well as read stories about the life of refugees in East Nusa Tenggara.

After doing research, Ale and Nia decided to adapt the story for the silver screen.     

“This is the year 2010, but there are still many people out there living in poor conditions with limited water supply and no electricity,” said Nia.

“The men normally work as farmers, while the women try to support their families by making woven clothes like this,” she said, showing the attractive burnt orange woven cloth that she was wearing.

The couple observed that there hadn’t been any filmmakers who produced film about the refugees. “So, they asked why didn’t we do it? The people are also our brothers and sisters. We can’t just forget them,” she added.

The story may be a bit weighty, but the resulting film does not display much politics substance or the terrifying condition after the referendum.

“We want to focus more on the friendship and family issues instead of political issues. The unity of the family is important. We need to keep in touch and stick together regardless of different minds or perspectives,” he said.

Ale hoped that this kind of film would help promote a greater sense of nationalism among Indonesians, saying that many Indonesians might have forgotten the country’s national anthem.

Actor Mathias Muchus is in a still photo from Denias Senandung di Atas Awan a production of Alenia Pictures. Courtesy of Alenia

Actor Mathias Muchus is in a still photo from Denias Senandung di Atas Awan a production of Alenia Pictures. Courtesy of Alenia

“When we traveled to some cities to promote Denias, for instance, we found that many people, including children, had forgotten how to sing Indonesia Raya (the country’s anthem) and Dari Sabang Sampai Merauke (From Sabang to Merauke),” said Ale.

“I’m very concerned about this. This is not the children’s fault, it’s the fault of adults who never taught them the songs. Now, we want to reintroduce the national songs to remind all of us.”

Ale and Nia have always put national and traditional songs in their productions.

With this film, Ale also hoped that the people and the government will support displaced person who still live in misery.

“Not long after the news of the making of Tanah Air Beta broke on TV, many people logged on to our website and use Facebook and Twitter, posting messages asking what they could do to help the refugees,” said Nia.

“We don’t even know the people, but we really appreciate their concern on the refugee issue.”

Ale and Nia are also driven to help refugees by donating some of proceeds from the tickets.     

“We plan to go back to the refugee camp to hold a free screening of this film, as well as giving donations to the people,” she added.

And more than just flag and national anthem, in every film, the couple always feature Indonesian nature and culture, highlighting Indonesia’s plurality.

The couple has captured the view of Papua in Denias; Central Java and Yogyakarta for Liburan Seru, the beauty of Kawah Ijen (Ijen Crater) in East Java in King, while for Tanah Air Beta, they explore the views of East Nusa Tenggara.

Ale claimed that both of them had strong commitment in promoting places of interests in Indonesia.

“We both really love Indonesia and we’re proud of being Indonesians. We want to bring this spirit to many other Indonesians. We have to be grateful for being Indonesians because this country is so beautiful and rich of culture,” Nia said.

They, Nia said, get to know more about Indonesia while filming our movies. “Now, we know about Atambua and other areas that we had never been to before such as Soe and Ponu. Indonesia is so amazing. You’ve got everything in Indonesia,” she added.

“There are many stories that we can get from many parts of this country.”

Ale shared similar questions. “Indonesia is so big. So if there’s nobody who introduces the places, people will never know about them. I’m happy to be the one who does this.”

Since the success of Denias, the couple has become highly committed to make family-themed and children’s films. “We both have been in the movie industry for a long time. This is our world. We both love film. For us, film is something fun. We always miss [the atmosphere of] movie making,” said Nia.

“And doing the film making process with kids is really fun. They never seem to get tired. They can always make us laugh,” she added.

At the same time, they also expressed their concern about the lack of children’s films on the cinemas. 

“We’ve had enough of horror films. It’s so sad that our kids have a very limited choice during the school holiday,” said Nia.

After the launch of Denias, she revealed, many parents demanded they make more and more children’s movies.

“We can’t just leave the young audiences. We must appreciate them,” she ensured, hoping that this kind of movie would appear in cinemas to fill the gap of children’s movies in the local film industry.

“Yes, because they have made us into what we are today. We couldn’t make four films without them,” Ale agreed.

Ale, whose full name is Juharson Estrella Sihasale, started his career as a member of local boy band Cool Colors with actor Ari Wibowo, Surya Saputra and Johandy Yahya in the 1990s, before stepping into the movie world.

Born in Tembagapura, Papua, on Oct. 5, 1973, he later starred in some operas like Andini, Cinta Pertama (First Love), Camelia, Antara Jakarta-Perth (Between Jakarta-Perth). It was Ali Topan Anak Jalanan (Ali Topan the Street Boy) who brought him into the limelight.

He established production house Alenia Pictures after he married Nia in 2003, while continuing to act in some movies.

Nia herself has long been known in the local entertainment industry as both a singer and actress. She was born to celebrity couple Dicky Zulkarnaen and Mieke Wijaya on June 19, 1970.

The actress, who began her career since she was a little, released some pop albums and used to play in a number of films and soap operas like Lagu Untuk Seruni (Song for Seruni), Kristal-Kristal Cinta (Chrystal of Love), Isabella and Denias.

Ale and Nia are just one among maybe a few couples who have a professional relationship, not just an emotional affair. At home, they are husband and wife, but in the production house, they are professional partners. “We both have realized our responsibilities. So we just do our best. Arguing? Of course we should argue in terms of our positions because we want to produce something good,” Ale explained.

“We criticize each other. It’s a normal thing. But we’ve made a commitment that if we have problems in the working place, we should not talk about it at home.”

Nia echoed her husband’s opinion. “We should separate family and business matters,” she said.

The couple has high hopes in developing Alenia Pictures, saying that they still want to make many more productions. Even though soap operas have mushroomed in the country, both Ale and Nia have yet planned to get into the business, saying that they will stick to creating movies.

“Alenia is still a small company. We focus on making films, documentaries, company profiles and advertisements,” Nia said.     

“We are not ready to do sinetron [soap opera]. We just can’t deal with the hectic schedule of sinetron. It takes big crews who can work everyday. We are not prepared to do this.”

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