In a cold, dark basement, a treasure — some 2,700 old and new films — lays on rows of shelves in silence, waiting for a chance to hit the big screen once again.
When the door to the basement floor was opened, a strange odor hit the nostrils.
The room, some 100 square meters in size, is home to extensive film collections, including those dating back to the 1940s. The collections are a vital part of Sinematek Indonesia, a non-profit institution dedicated to maintaining the country’s film archive.
The institution is spread throughout the five-story H. Usmar Ismail Film Center, which is located next to Pasar Festival in Kuningan, South Jakarta. It consists of an office on the fourth floor, a film storage and maintenance area in the basement and a film library on the fifth floor.
To the eyes of outsiders, Sinematek looks just fine. It has become a main source of information for countless local and international students, researchers and cinematographers, thanks to its wide-ranging documentation and information related to local films.
Inside, the first film archive in Southeast Asia is dying.
Hartono, the head of film data management and responsible for the maintenance and flow of the film archive, said his department ideally needed 60 liters of liquid chemical, worth around Rp 6 million (US$654), to clean around 40 films every month.
These days, they can only afford some 10 liters per month or sometimes every other month.
“The foundation said they did not have enough money for us. Meanwhile, we have to roll back and clean the films regularly, at least once in three or four months,” he told The Jakarta Post.
The foundation he referred to is the Usmar Ismail film center. Sinematek became a part of the film center foundation in 1995.
Rolling back the films, he said, was important to prevent them from sticking to each other and the chemical cleaning process helped keep fungi in check.
Under such constraints, Hartono, who has worked in Sinematek for 29 years, did not give up and instead set his priorities straight.
Hartono said he prioritizes the maintenance of local movies over foreign ones, although the storage room is also home to a large number of foreign documentary films donated by foreign embassies.
Manually, Sinematek’s staff checks the condition of the movies and applies a liquid chemical to the parts that badly need maintenance.
He said that in fact, they had a machine that could forego the whole arduous manual process, but they could not use it because the machine had to be filled with at least 30 liters of the liquid chemical.
“Indonesian people are known for their cunning ways of dealing with difficult situations. This is just our way,” he says.
His computer was another example.
When he was about to print out some data for the Post, he smacked his personal computer several times, hoping that the page on the screen would stop moving uncontrollably.
Nia Nuraini, a librarian in charge the book and document collection on the fifth floor, said Sinematek’s library mostly relied on donated books or scripts from filmmakers to add their collections.
“These days, we only get Rp 3 million for our monthly operational budget. If you want to know our salaries, just divide Rp 24 million by 17 people,” she says.
The institution currently employs 17 people, comprising the head of the institution, four people responsible for film data management, one administration officer, four people responsible for general data management, two visual and picture auditors, three librarians, an office boy and an assistant.
The founder of Sinematek, legendary filmmaker Misbach Yusa Biran, apparently was not happy to see the current condition of his baby.
In a note on the history and problems of Sinematek Indonesia and the Umar Ismail Film Center on May 18, 2011, he pointed out that the institution has been standing still for the past 10 years because of the financial complexities of the foundation.
“SI [Sinematek Indonesia] is like a person in coma. Although it can still breathe, many parts of the body are deteriorating. The collection is just stagnant,” he said in a copy of the note made available to the Post.
In 1971, Misbach established the Documentation Center under Lembaga Pendidikan Kesenian Jakarta (now the Jakarta Arts Institute) at the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) arts center in Central Jakarta.
He ended his career as a film director because he could not cope with what he saw as a growing trend of sexually themed films in the industry at that time, deciding to focus instead on film archives and documentation.
Two years later, the Dutch government gave him an opportunity to study film archives, which was a revelatory experience for him.
He later convinced Jakarta’s seventh governor Ali Sadikin of the importance of film archives. Sinematek Indonesia was born in 1975 under a gubernatorial letter of appointment.
Mischbah said he hoped Sinematek could be separated from the current foundation and become a government-backed institution, similar to the H.B. Jassin Literary Documentation Foundation.
He said the government’s involvement would enable Sinematek to receive help from foreign countries, as was the case when it was supported by the Information Department under the New Order regime.
With its future hanging in the balance, Sinematek employees keep things going in the film archive.
Nia, who has been working at Sinematek since 2000, said she found happiness in helping people get information on local films.
“My salary may be small, but I feel happy when university students come back here to express their gratitude for being able to get data easily, which helps them finish their studies,” she says.
Ghesa Ririan, a student of Airlangga University in Surabaya, East Java, recently spent a week in Jakarta to visit Sinematek.
She learned about Sinematek after reading the acknowledgement statements in the thesis of other students. Most of them gave credit to Sinematek for helping them to get information and rare references.
“I was looking for information about films from the 1950s to the 1970s. It’s difficult to get film literature in public libraries. Here, they have complete sources,” she says.