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Indonesia’s first Academy Awards voting member Amelia Hapsari to champion Southeast Asian documentaries

Gisela Swaragita
Gisela Swaragita

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, July 8, 2020  /  09:00 am
Indonesia’s first Academy Awards voting member Amelia Hapsari to champion Southeast Asian documentaries

Amelia Hapsari is the first Indonesian to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Courtesy of/In-Docs)

Meet Amelia Hapsari, the first Indonesian filmmaker to join the prestigious club that is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

In her new role, Amelia will take part in voting for next year’s nominees for the Academy Awards, widely known as the Oscars.

When discussing her new membership to the exclusive club, however, Amelia was more enthusiastic to talk about her opportunity to promote Southeast Asian documentary films.

“Documentaries have long been perceived as uninteresting [and so] they seldom receive enough investment, meaning the results can lack in quality,” Amelia told The Jakarta Post during a phone interview on Friday.

“Even national television companies are reluctant to invest in independent documentaries. They prefer to create cheaper ones, made in-house, or buy old, cheaper films from National Geographic. This mindset had led to documentary films being created with an infrastructure gap,” she added.

Amelia has made a name for herself on Southeast Asia’s documentary scene. In 2012, she became the program director of In-Docs, a non-profit organization that focuses on promoting the region’s documentary films and connecting independent documentary filmmakers with the industry. 

With Amelia in charge, In-Docs initiated documentary forums that promoted homegrown South Asian documentaries, such as Docs by the Sea, IF/Then, Good Pitch Program, Dare to Dream Asia, Disappearing Sounds and many more. Amelia, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio University in the United States, was also involved in the documentaries Rising From Silence (2016) and Fight like Ahok (2012).

Her outstanding reputation on the region's documentary scene eventually led to an invitation to join the academy, along with 819 new members. According to AMPAS' official website, 45 percent of the invitees are women, 36 percent are from underrepresented ethnic/racial communities and 49 percent are international filmmakers from 68 countries.

In recent years, the academy has received criticism for its lack of diversity. It was considered reluctant to include women filmmakers and people of color. To this, Amelia said she felt enthusiastic to be a part of the change the academy was going through.

“What does it mean to be a member of the academy? Privilege, of course, to choose films to nominate. But it also carries a big obligation to make the films more representative of the world,” she said. “For too long, privileged white Americans have dominated the academy […] and now new members are being invited to be a part of the academy to democratize film making.”

As a member, Amelia is listed under the “Documentary” category but she has the right to vote for nominees outside her category.

Read also: Oscars organizers say academy exceeds diversity goal as 'Parasite' cast, others join

The awards night has also suffered from low viewership for four consecutive years since 2015. After the 2019's show improved 12 percent from 2018 with 29.6 million people tuning in, this year's show fell to an all-time low of 23.6 million viewers. And although the annual Academy Awards are still the most popular film awards in mainstream media, it is hardly the sole place for filmmakers to gain recognition.

“Not all filmmakers dream of being nominated for an Oscar […] As the world goes by and the ways people express [their values through film] become more innovative, [people realize that] Oscar choices are America-centric, making it identical with the American film industry," Amelia said. 

She then named prestigious film festivals that have become benchmarks for the global film industry, such as Cannes, Berlin and the Toronto Film Festival, as well as the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (ITFA) for documentaries. She also mentioned the Sundance Film Festival as an alternative to the Academy Awards, along with the Venice and Rotterdam film festivals for their curatorial choices of artistic, non-industry films.

Amelia also noted that the Oscars gala was not the only thing of significance for its members. Aside from voting for the award, they are expected to create seminars, fellowships, workshops and other educational programs for young filmmakers around the world as part of the outreach mission to foster the film industry’s next generation. They can also lobby other academy members to support films that they believe deserve recognition,

Amelia is keen to use her new platform to extend her mission to connect deserving Southeast Asian documentary makers with influential members of the academy. She said that campaigning to get recognition at events as prestigious as the Oscars was costly and difficult, so much so that it required contributions from many parties.

“For films to be recognized at the Oscars, there are so many things to do. There are so many members of the academy to lobby […] It takes money to campaign for an Oscar race. You host dinners, ask influential people to talk about the film, host exclusive screenings. It is a business in itself to get a nomination,” she said.

Commenting on the big win by South Korean film Parasite at this year’s Oscars, she praised the strategy pursued by the film's publicist.

“It was a big campaign. The film itself is outstanding, but it also hits the right kind of [publicity] strategy,” she said. “There needs to be a really well orchestrated effort to get nominated.”

She said all foreign films nominated for the Academy Awards were financially supported by their respective governments. 

“Other countries have film councils that allocate a lot of money to campaign for the Oscar race. It is a prestigious award, and the race to win it deserves to be funded with the people’s money,” she said.

“A country without documentary films is like a family without a photo album,” Amelia said, quoting Chilean documentary film director Patricio Guzman.

“If Indonesia does not support documentaries, the country will overlook critical voices and perspectives from filmmakers that cannot be found in mainstream media. A documentary is a reflection of those that are part of a system. If the reflection is not being watched and discussed and forged into a collective consciousness, the nation will fail to learn from its own children,” she said. (wng)

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