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Animated documentaries, a new frontier for Indonesian filmmakers

Sebastian Partogi and Gisela Swaragita

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, November 6, 2020  /  11:55 am
Animated documentaries, a new frontier for Indonesian filmmakers

Animation for awareness: The 2020 animated documentary short film 'Parasit[ikal]' by Indonesian filmmaker Wastana Haikal advocates for better public awareness of mental health by calling an end to social stigmas against people with mental disorders. (Courtesy of Wastana Haikal/-)

Within the last five years, Indonesian documentary filmmakers have begun venturing into the world of animation to tell real-life stories with a tinge of social critique.

The most recent examples are the 2020 feature-length K0s0ng, released with the official English title No One Inside, by Chonie Prysilia and Hizkia Subiyantoro that seeks to explore the topic of women’s reproductive autonomy.

K0s0ng is one of the first feature-length animated documentaries to have graced the Indonesian film scene. This year also saw Wastana Haikal’s Parasit(ikal), a powerful and eerie three-minute recounting of his own struggle with mental illness.

Then there is Ambulance by Dynamotion and Visible Traces by Sari Pololessy, which just won the 2020 Digicon Indonesia.

Going back a few years, there was M. Alfath Syahalam’s six-minute Marzuki, which tells the real-life story of a former soccer player who spent the rest of his life as a contract teacher to support himself and his family as the much-awaited support promised by the government never materialized.

Illustrated criticism: Animation may serve as powerful medium for conveying emotional weight of social ills, as filmmaker M. Alfath Syahalam demonstrates in his 2018 animated documentary short film, 'Marzuki'.Illustrated criticism: Animation may serve as powerful medium for conveying emotional weight of social ills, as filmmaker M. Alfath Syahalam demonstrates in his 2018 animated documentary short film, 'Marzuki'. (Courtesy of

American filmmakers have long used animation to present their interpretations of the truth – beginning with the 1943 World War II propaganda film Victory Through Air Power produced by none other than “master propagandist” Walt Disney.

Film critic Eric Sasono, who focused on documentary films in his PhD studies at King’s College London, United Kingdom, said that animation had long been a tool of choice for documentarians to illustrate events that they could not access directly.

“Thus, they can only reenact events like historical events or accidents [for which no footage is available] through animations,” he told The Jakarta Post.

For instance, he said, in the 2008 animated documentary Waltz with Bashir about the 1982 Lebanon war, filmmaker Ari Folman used animation to reenact nightmares his subject had been experiencing in connection to the war.

Eric said this trend was no different from journalists who used comic strip formats to recount their experiences. Think of how Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco used comic strips to recount his experiences covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance.

Eric cited several reasons why Indonesian documentary filmmakers had not tread the ground of animation storytelling until only recently.

“Making animated documentaries is by no means a cheap venture. Many Indonesians are not yet familiar with this format, other than short instructional films or when we talk about illustrations that supplement live action documentaries,” he said.

“This is not to mention Indonesia’s lack of a documentary tradition. Generally speaking, documentary production in Indonesia trails far behind countries that have well-established public broadcast and documentary channels.”

In an interview with the Post, Hizkia and Chonie revealed that budget issues were the biggest challenge they faced when making K0s0ng.

The film became a reality thanks to support from the Cipta Media Ekspresi initiative, which covered 70 percent of the budget. The remaining 30 percent was covered from online crowdfunding and their own funds.

Wastana, meanwhile, said he used had his own funds to finance his own short film.

Chonie, Hizkia and Wastana take inspiration for their films from deeply personal experiences.

Mnemonic esthetics: Documentary filmmakers can reimagine scenes using animation that they might otherwise be unable to capture with a camera, such as this scene from 'K0s0ng' (No one inside; 2020).Mnemonic esthetics: Documentary filmmakers can reimagine scenes using animation that they might otherwise be unable to capture with a camera, such as this scene from 'K0s0ng' (No one inside; 2020). (Courtesy of Chonie Prysilia/-)

The husband-and-wife couple Chonie and Hizkia made K0s0ng to chronicle their own struggle facing stigma for not having children, which has led them to cross paths with women who have been stigmatized for the same reason. These women were interviewed for the animated documentary.

Wastana, meanwhile, made Parasit(ikal) as a form of catharsis for his struggle with chronic anxiety.

The animated documentary format provides a number of aesthetic advantages that allow filmmakers to convey the emotional weight of their stories.

Chonie said animation helped them to capture their sources’ reality and spontaneity.

The interviewees, she said, tended to behave unnaturally in front of the camera. Therefore, she chose to just take audio recordings, in which her interviewees felt comfortable pouring their hearts out in a more authentic manner.

“It would also be impossible for us to ask her to repeat her heart-wrenching story [if we needed to reshoot on camera],” Chonie said.

She explained that she had also asked her interviewees to hide audio recorders in their pockets to capture conversations during major social events such as Idul Fitri celebrations.

“It’s impossible to record footage of society’s stigma [against childless women]. So, we tapped into our interviewees’ memories,” Chonie explained, adding that it was also impossible to capture their memories on camera.

“So, to define and distinguish the individual identities of each of our interviewees, we used different media – we used markers, colored pencils, watercolor, acrylic, cut-outs.”

Meanwhile, Wastana, who works as an illustrator, said the animation format allowed him to capture in colors, the raw mental upheaval he was experiencing, which was next to impossible to capture on camera.

Parasit(ikal) contains three main colors only – black, red and white. I used these colors to give the audience a sense of how my various mental states often contrasted with each other. I often swing between procrastination and the desire to create artwork; between the desire to keep my problems to myself and to seek help from my friends,” he explained.

Wastana said he was surprised at just how many people said they related to his film and that his film had helped them articulate emotions they had previously found hard to fathom.

Eric said animation could be used to create a greater emotional impact than live action filmmaking.

In response to those who questioned the objectivity of animated documentaries, he said documentaries were by their nature opinionated.

Eric argued that no film could be truly objective [and] totally free from its filmmakers’ interpretation and approach. “The filmmaker’s point of view will undeniably infiltrate the film, starting from the research to the recording, editing and circulation of the film itself. This is very common for documentaries of any kind, where objectivity is merely an illusion.” (ste)

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