Bruce Emond, WEEKENDER | Thu, 03/24/2011 1:51 PM |
Indonesia’s foremost actress of the past 30 years, Christine Hakim remains true to herself in her career and life.
Christine Hakim prides herself on sticking to her principles and beliefs. For one, she believes that film must offer more than mass appeal entertainment – that it must convey a meaningful message to the audience.
“What sells may be the ghost or teen flicks, and the public goes with whatever the trend is because that is what is put before them,” she says. “I may offer them something heavier and more meaningful, but it’s up to them whether or not they want to watch it.”
She is content, she says, to be consistent, not someone who blindly follows the latest trend or the money trail of commercial filmmaking. But that’s not always easy.
“You have to make a lot of sacrifices, there is much pain involved, but that’s the consequences of making that choice,” she says.
Later, when discussing the recent controversy over a royalty tax for imported films, her voice brims with emotion. She pleads for mutual understanding from all sides on the issue – “everybody is required to pay taxes” – and argues that revenues should be used to develop not only the film industry, but also the nation.
“Please understand that filmmakers also have a voice, they also can cry out. I know that myself as a producer who has almost killed herself trying to get funding for films that will be of value to the public,” she says, briefly dissolving into tears.
Hers is a long-held commitment to quality over quantity. In a profile in The Jakarta Post in August 1992, when the national film industry was declining amid the stranglehold of US movies in local theaters, she told me about exploring “alternative forums” in cinema if shoddy roles meant being in front of the camera was no longer an option.
Nineteen years later, Christine is continuing to find fulfillment and self-expression through film, recently spending more time behind the camera as a documentary filmmaker.
“Today, I don’t distinguish between the media of big-screen movies and documentaries, because for me it’s about finding the means to express our concerns and values. In fact, we can face more obstacles with feature films, particularly when it comes to funding and distribution. As a documentary producer, I can be more of a ‘guerrilla’ in finding funding, even if it means sometimes having to draw on our own money for its completion.”
Her productions have included documentaries on Indonesian heritage, made in conjunction with the Tourism and Culture Ministry: “I feel it’s so important to preserve our culture ... not for my generation, but for the next ones.”
Currently in production is a work exploring the contemporary social issue of autism. Documenting the lives of autistic children and their families has proved an alternatively painful and inspiring experience for Christine.
“I want to educate the public about what autism is, because a lot of misconceptions remain, even in the medical community where misdiagnosis occurs,” she says of the film, scheduled to premiere in conjunction with World Autism Day on April 2.
“I hope the film will put an end to the mistaken viewpoint that these children are mentally ill, that it will help parents who are in denial about their children’s medical issues and also lead to more schools accepting autistic children as students. And that there will be an end to the discrimination and mockery that autistic children face.”
Making such documentaries has provided the star with another opportunity to learn through her career. Film sets have been her classroom and library of knowledge since she made her debut in 1973’s Cinta Pertama (First Love), after director Teguh Karya spotted her photo in a teen magazine.
Although she won the 1974 Citra Best Actress award for the film, she considers her performance one of play-acting, quipping that “Cinta Pertama was not my first love in the film world”.
“I realize that I never said yes to acting in the film, but I never said no, either. Pak Teguh would say, ‘Tomorrow come here at this time’. And so I would do what he said, and at the end of the day he’d say, ‘Don’t forget to come back tomorrow and wear this type of dress’, and I would, just doing everything by instinct. I couldn’t say no.”
Teguh had fought for Christine’s inclusion in the film despite the producer’s reservations. “He said to me that she was too thin and had no chest,” Teguh told me in July 1992. “So I said to him, ‘Are we selling a film or are we selling breasts?’”
The director, who died in 2001, said in the same article that he recognized Christine’s desire to learn more about the craft of acting.
“I think the more time she spent in the acting world, the more she realized that real acting isn’t about menjual tampangnya [selling faces]. She knew that the tools of an actor are creativity, body and soul. That is why she always chose to work with people who could give her more advice about her acting.”
Christine says it was not until she took on the role of an introverted, timid young woman in Kawin Lari (Elopement, 1974), also directed by Teguh, that she experienced a “wow” moment in understanding acting for the first time.
“I was just 18 years old and I didn’t know anything about life. I was just like teenagers today, wanting to have fun, hanging out. But with Kawin Lari, I had to see life from a different perspective in studying my character.”
She also praises the “teachers” who shaped her career, from Teguh Karya and his Teater Populer acting troupe – “without him and his confidence in me, I probably would have ended up as a female cleric,” she laughs – fellow actor Slamet Rahardjo, man of the arts Eros Djarot and directors Sjuman Djaya and Wim Umboh. The latter allowed her to use her own voice for the first time on film in Sesuatu yang Indah (A Beautiful Thing, 1976). In her previous acting roles, her voice – considered too heavy for the roles she was playing – had been dubbed by model-actress Titi Qadarsih.
She went on to win a six Citras over the years, including for one of her own favorite roles, the Acehnese heroine Tjoet Nja Dhien (1986). She also has received numerous international acting and cultural awards, including from France, Japan and the Philippines. In 2002, she was on the Cannes Film Festival jury and the following year was named one of TIME magazine’s Asian Heroes for her contributions to acting and social welfare.
With all that thespian cred behind her, she was underwhelmed when asked to audition for the role of Balinese healer Wayan in the adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.
“I had never auditioned for a role before, and I thought, well, they know what I can do,” she says.
She auditioned nevertheless, but the role went to a local actress in Bali. Still, she remembers intuiting that somehow the role would be hers. Ultimately the actress cast in the role was let go due to creative differences, and Christine was asked to step in.
It required a whirlwind schedule of wardrobe fittings and learning her lines before her first scene with Julia Roberts. Although much of her part ended up on the cutting-room floor, she says it was one of the most challenging experiences of her career.
“It required me to draw on all my capacity and experience as an actress to come through in realizing this role under the circumstances,” she says.
Christine’s escape from the city’s increasingly infuriating traffic snarls and pollution is her beautiful home, which is like a lush secret garden amid the creeping suburbia of East Jakarta.
There are a couple of pavilions, a large gazebo serving as an open-air communal area, a warung dining space and, at the heart of the property, a swimming pool. The only sounds are chattering birds, the gurgle of water from a fountain or the occasional ripe avocado falling to earth among the many fruit trees in the garden.
She gathers here with her Dutch husband and her mother (her father died shortly before she became involved with Eat, Pray, Love). Her sisters and friends from around the world are frequent visitors. The house is also the site of brainstorming sessions with colleagues when they want to get away from the office, located in her family’s former home in Bendungan Hilir, Central Jakarta.
“This place is not about luxurious amenities, but comfort,” says Christine, who moved to the property, formerly a rambutan field, seven years ago. “As soon as I step through the gate, I feel like I have suddenly received a new supply of oxygen. Sometimes, when I get home late, I will just sit in the warung, listening to the croaking of the frogs, and relax.”
It’s also her sanctuary from infotainment journalists, she says, only half-joking. Consistent as always, she has constantly strived to separate her professional commitments as an actor and public figure from her private life, which she considers off-limits to the media. “I have to keep something for myself, otherwise I would be naked in front of the world,” she said in the 1992 interview. Only friends are allowed inside.
Now a radiant 54 years of age, Christine comes across as strong, unpretentious but proud, a woman who will have her say and stand up for what she believes in. In the 1983–1984 edition of Apa dan Siapa, the Indonesian version of Who’s Who, the 27-year-old Christine was described as someone given to visiting five-star hotels in a sarong and rubber sandals, or snacking at sidewalk stalls.
The older Christine, to use her word, has remained consistent in being herself. She famously put green highlights in her hair because she liked the look, and continues to emphasize comfort in her fashion choices. On this day, her eye-catching necklace features red chilies.
“If I wanted to be popular or sought to own a branded bag or a luxury car, then being a documentary filmmaker obviously wouldn’t be enough, there is no money to be made from it. But I’m happy with what I have.”
She says she does not fear aging, considering it part of a natural process. She made a conscious decision to take better care of her health when she turned 40, scaling back on late nights on the town and eating more healthily.
Getting older also means she no longer faces the pressure of being the industry’s leading light. The ascent of a new generation of directors and actors allows her to focus on other roles in documentary filmmaking and her social outreach activities in education and hunger relief.
Her strong social consciousness makes her “deeply concerned” about what is happening in Indonesia today, from social unrest to the politicization of religion. A nationalist at heart, proud of her Indonesia, she also strongly believes in the goodness of most people even as she has words of caution for some of the powers that be.
For she is dismayed by what she calls a shameful lack of godliness among the country’s leaders despite a holier-than-thou attitude.
“They should remember that power is not eternal, and neither are our possessions. We have to remember that there is somebody more powerful than us, and we will have to be accountable to Him ... I sometimes don’t understand these people who believe there is God yet they want to act like Him.”
Getting older has also helped her put her own life in perspective. “It comes down to what the meaning of life is for an individual. For me, I want my life to be meaningful for me, my family and my community.”
She stumbled upon acting all those years ago, and along the way found out who she was meant to be.
“I never imagined it would be like this,” she says. “I thought I would be an architect, or a psychologist. But the film world has allowed me to learn and also to make a living. I feel it was not only my destiny, but also a mandate.”