Erwin Arnada: (JP/P.J. Leo)
Erwin Arnada’s life has been one filled with dizzying highs and crushing lows and it seems that, these days, life is pretty great for him.
The veteran journalist currently resides with his wife, Hevie Ursulla Arnada, in Bali and describes his average day as consisting of “a lot of daydreaming, walking on the beach, playing with my huskies and taking care of my five-month pregnant wife”.
When he is not too busy doing all of that, he does research for future book and film projects. There are at least three in the pipeline.
He often goes deep into the island’s poor villages and talks to the local people to create portraits of Bali that are so far away from a paradise — just like what he did in preparing for his 2012 novel Rumah di Seribu Ombak (House of the Thousand Waves), which he then turned into a film.
Those experiences, ultimately, led him to become engaged in the Bali-based Eco Defender project, a green campaign aiming to fight Bali’s unchecked tourism developments and to preserve the island’s nature for future generations.
Along with environmentalist Wayan Gendo Suardana and the drummer from rock band Superman is Dead, I Gede “Jerinx” Ari Astina, Erwin has become one of the project’s most prominent supporters.
If he still has time to spare, Erwin travels to Jakarta to manage his production house Winmark Pictures and visit his old friends, including those in the Cipinang Penitentiary.
It was here that Erwin was incarcerated for almost nine months from October 2010 to June 2011 following a controversial criminal case that found him guilty for indecency under the Criminal Code for heading the now-defunct Playboy Indonesia.
With so many things on his plate right now, no wonder Erwin has no time to seriously considering returning to journalism.
“For now, I don’t want to be in the mass media business. I’m just too tired for any of that,” the 49-year-old said bluntly.
Has he given up completely?
“Well, no. It’s just that I’m bored; mass media these days is just so dull. There’s nothing new, nothing different. The moment I came up with something different, they sent me to jail,” he said, laughing wryly.
“Nowadays, I just want to focus on my novels and film projects.”
Judging from the reception that both the novel and film versions of Rumah di Seribu Ombak have received, it seems that Erwin has chosen well.
The novel Rumah di Seribu Ombak, released early last year, became a best-seller in bookstores across the country.
The film version, released later in the year, gained critical acclaim and nine nominations at last year’s Festival Film Indonesia. It eventually won in two categories — Best Film Editing and Best Sound — and snatched a special award for its young lead actor Dedey Rusma.
The film tells a dramatic tale of friendship and pluralism between two childhood friends, set in poor rural areas in Singaraja, Bali.
For his next project, Erwin has picked another story set in another one of the island’s poor villages, where most of the population may have been inflicted with either an unexplained genetic disorder or even a curse — although he remained tight-lipped about it.
“I have one year’s worth of research for the story. I’m writing the novel and developing the film script right now. Maybe I’ll start shooting the film in May,” he said.
When comparing the market-oriented movies Erwin produced before he went to jail — including Tusuk Jelangkung (The Stab of the Uninvited, 2003) and Jakarta Undercover (2007) — and the artsy projects he has either made or planned after he regained his freedom, it seems that imprisonment has changed him dramatically.
“Well, some of my friends said that I was born again when I got out of jail. Maybe it’s true. I don’t know,” he said.
In a nutshell, he said, imprisonment has muted his “insane ambitions”.
Long gone are the days of his now-legendary effort to bring something like Playboy to Indonesia, an idea which, he said, he proposed “just for fun, as an answer to a friend’s challenge”.
“I have always loved Playboy for its edgy and award-winning journalism pieces,” he said.
A fun idea then turned into a serious consideration, when he managed to get through to Playboy Enterprises’ top management in Beverly Hills, California, thanks to a friend he met during a journalism course in New York. The management heard his proposal and granted him an audience.
Erwin then flew to the United States and had a lunch meeting with Christy Hefner, the daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.
“It was during the fasting month when I presented my idea, so it was very absurd. I told them, ‘No nude pictures!’ I didn’t want to talk about dildos or how to get laid with girls you met at nightclubs. I wanted the magazine to tackle cultural issues.”
The management was initially shocked by Erwin’s different approach, but, in the end, they said yes and gave him a license to establish Playboy Indonesia.
However, Playboy’s journey in Indonesia was not smooth sailing.
Despite featuring fully-clad models and a rare interview with celebrated author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, the magazine’s premiere edition on April 2006 raised massive controversy.
Various hard-line Muslim groups rallied in protest in front of Playboy’s office in Jakarta and posed legal challenges for the magazine. Printing office employees were assaulted for printing the magazine and, as a result, advertising agencies shied away.
In the end, just after 10 editions, Erwin himself decided to shut down Playboy Indonesia, as he deemed it no longer feasible. This was despite a circulation of around 100,000 copies per edition.
After a lengthy legal battle, Erwin was then sentenced to two years in prison and began his prison sentence in October 2010.
“In my first days, I was sad, angry, frustrated. [I thought] ‘Why me? This is no justice! This is not fair!’”
When the Supreme Court finally acquitted Erwin and he got his freedom back in June 2011, hundreds of his prison mates gathered at the jail’s soccer field and cried their eyes out.
“That one moment melted my heart. We had become a family. We had shared our food and our life stories, including why they put us inside.”
Right now, when he takes a look back toward his past, Erwin said he had no regrets at all. He is at peace. Imprisonment has freed him.
In the meantime, American production house Altaloma Productions has agreed to purchase the rights to his life story to be turned into a movie.
While Erwin had no authority in choosing the film’s director and leading actor, he is free to dream in his mind. “In my dream, the film is directed by Oliver Stone and I am played by Ryan Gosling. It’s going to be a gritty journalism drama. It’ll be awesome,” he said, laughing heartily.
Add to that the baby that will soon become the newest member of his family, it can be safely concluded that Erwin Arnada is having the time of his life.