People

Ifa Isfansyah: The man
behind ‘Sang Penari’

JP/Agus Maryono

Ifa Isfansyah is familiar to Indonesian filmgoers, most notably after his successful Garuda di Dadaku (Garuda in My Heart), was released three years ago.

Now, Ifa is garnering further praise with his new film Sang Penari (The Dancer).

Shot not long after Garuda, the new picture that premiered on Nov. 10 took about three years to complete, which he said was an exhausting undertaking.     

Since it presents the story of a ronggeng or lengger (dancing girl) in Banyumas, Central Java, the film was also produced mostly in Banyumas.

Ifa spent months in search of candidates for the main character, Srintil, in Banyumas, but failed to find anyone from there to play the dancer there and instead got someone from Jakarta.

“I’m indeed eager to make films depicting the nation’s cultural values. I certainly hope the pictures I produce, however small, will help preserve such priceless culture,” Ifa told The Jakarta Post at Banyu Biru Dance Studio in Plana village, Banyumas, where ronggeng dances were being taught to the cast by native Banyumas dancers.

Sang Penari features the culture of Banyumas, one of the few southern coastal regencies in Central Java still promoting the lengger dance art. The film was adapted from the masterpiece trilogy of Banyumas novelist Ahmad Tohari, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (A Dancing Girl of Paruk Village).

As the story goes, the dancer in Paruk, a hamlet in Banyumas, in the 1960s comes into conflict with prevailing custom and social conditions. The innocent Srintil falls in love with a youth, Rasus, in the same village, giving the plot a heroic twist.

The political heroism at the time, involving the Sept. 30, 1965, movement, is portrayed more realistically by Ifa in the film than did the novelist himself.

Thanks to the current reform era, Ifa faced no constraints in depicting those circumstances. It was unlike the situation when Ahmad Tohari wrote the story in the 1980s — the peak of the repressive New Order regime.  

“Today, few films have been derived from our own cultural riches. For me, it’s very interesting to get in touch with local traditions. I’m trying to pay greater attention to these aspects because they’re important and challenging. Such films not only draw movie audiences but also inspire everybody with ideas,” Ifa said.

Ifa has emphasized his serious attitude as a director. However, he remains calm, friendly and unassuming toward his peers and crew.

This approach makes him appreciative of the film crew and enables their self-exploration in the process.

The young director, born in Yogyakarta in 1979, started his film career in 2001 when he was mostly experimenting with fairly successful short pictures. His first acclaimed big-screen movie was Garuda di Dadaku in 2009.  

In 2001, he cofounded an independent film community called Fourcolors Films, actively producing shorts. His first such film, Air Mata Surga (Heavenly Tears), which he codirected with Eddie Cahyono, was the opening picture at the Indonesian Film-Video Festival in 2002.

In 2002, Ifa’s short film Mayar won the Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) Award for the best camera and artistic direction at that year’s Indonesian Independent Film-Video Festival and joined several other events, including the Rotterdam and Hamburg International Film Festivals.  

He produced Harap Tenang, Ada Ujian! (Be Quiet, Exams Underway!) in 2006, seizing awards in major events like the best short film at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival, the Confident Short Film Festival and the Indonesian Film Festival 2006, and managed to enter international competitions at the Short Film Festival 2007 in Tokyo, Japan, the Alamaty Film Festival in Kazakhstan and the Three Eyes Film Festival in Mumbai, India.

In 2007, he made yet another short film, Setengah Sendok Teh (Half a Teaspoonful).

Opportunity opened wider as Ifa was chosen as one of Asia’s filmmakers to join the Asian Film Academy at the Pusan International Film Festival in 2006 and won a scholarship from the film and video department at Dongseo University/Im Kwon Taek Film School in Korea. For about two years until December 2008, he studied film in Pusan, South Korea.

Without wasting much time, he gave his filmmaking a further boost upon returning from Korea through his 2009 debut with Garuda. And Sang Penari has been receiving rave reviews and is expected to have even greater success than his previous works.

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