Documentary films can be seen as an indicator of the changes happening on the local, regional and also global levels. (Shutterstock/File)
Docedge Kolkata, India's largest documentary movie-pitching platform, brought together the potential energy of documentary filmmakers from the world over. All kinds of issues, including geopolitical, economic, social, cultural, historical and environmental, were deeply delved into during the event, which took place from March 3 to 10 in the city of Kolkata, India.
As an invitee, I had the opportunity to meet other filmmakers from other countries, as well as film-festival caretakers, film critics, producers, film financing organizations, distributors and international-level broadcast industry stakeholders.
At this forum, I found a very strong correlation between the realities of human problems, with film as an engagement media to awaken public consciousness into becoming involved in real change. Documentary films can be seen as an indicator of the changes happening on the local, regional and also global levels.
What I found in Docedge Kolkata was, of course, quite different from the reality that we currently face in Indonesia. Nearing our National Film Day on March 30, the potential of the Indonesian documentary film as a product has yet to receive maximum appreciation from industry stakeholders, or from the beholders of cultural strategies -- in this matter the Indonesian government. An adequate appreciation of documentary filmmaking would be the barometer by which to measure the strength of civil society in maintaining the health of democracy.
In Indonesia, the Center for Film Development at the Education and Culture Ministry and the Creative Economy Agency (Bekraf) have worked together for the past five years, exerting maximum effort to push the Indonesian film industry forward and yet within this concerted effort, when it comes to documentary films, an adequate impact has yet to be felt.
Various organizations in Indonesia have consistently carried out documentary training sessions, production and screenings: for instance, the Eagle Awards Documentary Competition, In-docs, Jogja NETPAC and the Documentary Film Festival in Yogyakarta.
I hope that the Indonesian Film Festival, which so far has focused on fictional movies, would in the future provide more room for the appreciation of documentary films. In the global field, we are currently quite far behind other Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and China.
Hoax versus documentary
On April 17, Indonesia is to hold the 2019 general elections. Political communication machines have been working 24 hours a day to sway the hearts of the electorate. In this highly political situation, hoaxes have become unavoidable, filling every crevice in the daily lives of most Indonesians. Hoaxes are born in social media and spread into personal and familial spaces with worrying impact as they threaten to create conflict.
Digital information technologies have opened the floodgates of virtually unlimited communication and information, melting away the boundaries of journalism. Social media has changed the way the human race communicates and distributes information. Each piece of information may as well have been published without any noticeable control. How do we wisely face this problem? Can we navigate our way out?
With the right and good intention of criticizing and dispelling hoaxes, efforts by incumbent President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo have instead unfortunately resulted in protests from Moscow over his use of the phrase “Russian propaganda” during a rally held in Surabaya in February.
On one hand, the dynamics in social media is a form of democratic celebration, but on the other it becomes tragic; any party that spreads hoaxes, whether intentionally or unintentionally, faces the risk of being subject to legal due process and imprisonment.
Reflecting on Indonesia’s political reality through the window of Docedge Kolkata, I realize there is a difference between the dynamics of social media and the dynamics of documentary films.
Dziga Vertov, a Russian filmmaker who lived from 1896 to 1954, declared his manifesto, called Kino-Pravda (Cinema of Truth), in the 1920s. Another figure with a similar spirit was Robert J. Flaherty (1884 to 1954), who introduced Cinema Verite (Cinema of Honesty) as a style of documentary filmmaking grounded firmly in participatory observation. The 1922 movie Nanook of the North is an important example of such work and is a primary reference in the study of visual anthropology.
Vertov’s manifesto inspired a cinematic movement in the 1960s, inspiring, among others, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin from France when they made Chronicle of a Summer in 1961. They both firmly believed that the exploration of a camera is no different than that of the eye of a witness gazing upon reality as the story is told as-is.
The documentary film stands inside a corridor of strong methodology in research, developing empirical qualitative data into a visualization that can bring the audience into the true reality and it is within this corridor that film has the ability to open up audience awareness of the reality being told.
This is what differentiates documentary film from fictional film. Although perhaps both would begin their journey from the background of a true story, the fiction film has the freedom of interpretation in storytelling; meanwhile, the documentary does not have this degree of freedom and yet the documentary does influence the film-watching society to take action upon reality as recorded in film.
For his supporters, President Jokowi has undoubtedly been successful in developing and establishing physical infrastructure throughout Indonesia, but for those aligned with the opposition and the opposition’s supporters it is not so. The opposition asks by what criteria we measure this success. What are the indicators of such success, other than the official reports produced by government bodies and by the incumbent’s supporters? Outside of the incumbent and the challenger, how do the people appreciate the achievements of development from the point of view of the people themselves?
It would be quite difficult to achieve a Mental Revolution by using a political machine that reproduces one-way narratives in the service of power through the frame of memes pumped through the canals of social media. For the past five years the public has been shackled by over-dosage of political fanaticism, giving birth to cebong and kampret polarization mired deep in copy-paste debating.
This is why I truly believe that the documentary film can be an indicator of national development and be a solution for this nation after this election. The achievement of physical infrastructure development should ideally be accompanied by achieving a mental revolution of honesty involving all national stakeholders.
It is time for the infrastructure of Indonesian documentary films to be made a priority, as a medium to indicate development that can help people actively contribute, to become the bridge by which it is communicated what developments have been carried out and what public hopes have been achieved.
On my journey back home, I dream of a documentary film training workshop for the now generation, to be carried out in unison in several rural villages, empowering village millennials to carry out their own research, to construct narratives based on facts, to record, to construct into film and to give form to forums of discourse based upon their produced works.
Can we imagine? The President and the Cabinet, director generals, governors, regents, district heads and village heads, directors of state-owned enterprises: Imagine them all in the presidential airplane, through gadgets and digital distribution platforms, all easily accessing documentary channels and appreciating works produced by millennials from throughout Indonesia.
Indonesia needs documentary films and achieving this dream is inevitable.
The writer is a filmmaker and a recipient of a Director Guild of Japan Award in 2011. He is also an alumnus of the American Film Showcase and the Asia Pacific Screen Lab.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.