Idealism versus Commercialism in Indonesian Cinema

The most important event for Indonesia is the proclamation of independence on a Friday morning, 17 th August 1945. Dutch literary historian Teeuw states that in the first years of independence, large numbers of young intellectuals were drawn to film.

Rivai Apin, Asrul Sani, Siti Nuraini, Sitor Situmorang, Trisno Sumarjo, and many others were fascinated by this new medium, which promised so much—especially in a land where for the man of letters contact with the (not yet) reading public proved to be such a great problem (quoted in Sen 1994: 19).

As I mentioned earlier, Andjar Asmara inspired the playwright Usmar Ismail to enter filmmaking world. Asmara later asked Ismail to become his assistant-director in 1948 to make films for Netherlands Indies Civil Administration (NICA) Company, South Pacific Film. Ismail at that time was just released from Dutch custody (he was captured in Jakarta while doing his task as an intelligence officer), and he left his military duties to make films (Said 1991: 36).
Another prominent figure who had influenced Ismail and other early filmmakers from the idealistic group was Dr. Huyung, also known as Hinatsu Eitaro or Hue Yong. He was a Japanese-half Korean soldier, and his duty was to dominate the theater industry in the Japanese occupation era. In 1948, Huyung founded Cine Drama Institute in Jogjakarta, the capital city of Indonesia at the time. One of the lecturers was the prominent thinker and founder of Taman Siswa[8]Ki Hajar Dewantara, the first the minister of education and cultural affairs. But the institute soon disbanded. Then, Huyung founded Stichting Hiburan Mataram (Stichting Recreational Foundation) where young Indonesian artists studied and developed their talent (Said 1991: 38). Huyung and other intellectuals taught filmmaking in Jogjakarta.

On 31 st March 1950, Ismail founded Perfini (Perusahaan Film Nasional Indonesian, National Film Company) (Said 1991: 39). The first film produced by this company is Darah dan Doa, and its first shooting day, 31 st March 1950, became National Film Day. This is actually Ismail’s third film after Harta Karun (Hidden Treasure) and Tjitra (Image). For Ismail, Harta Karun is the first effort to unite cinema with literature, and Tjitra is the first film “…to raise the question of national consciousness which was common in literature for a long time” (Sen 1994: 18). But only in Darah dan Doa he felt the freedom of expression and free from producers’ commercial pressure. Ismail consciously made it for the Cannes International Film Festival (Said 1991: 48). Ismail emphasizes: “I cannot say that both early films are my film, (because) when I wrote and made them, I receive so many instructions (from the producers) I did not always agree with”[9]. Ismail also writes: “…because for the first time, a film was made by Indonesian filmmakers, technically and creatively, and economically. And for the first time, Indonesian film raised the issues about events in national scale” (Ismail 1986: 170)

Even though Dewan Film Nasional (National Film Council), in its conference on 11 th October 1962, decreed the first shooting day of Darah dan Doa, the official acknowledgement from the Indonesian Government occurred in 1999 when President Habibie legitimized the Presidential Decree (Keputusan Presiden, Keppres) no. 25/1999.

The funding for this film was helped by Tong Kim Mew, a Chinese movie theater owner (Said 1991, 51), and senior officials of the Siliwangi military division (Sen 1994: 20). The story speaks of the saga of the march by the Siliwangi Division from Jogja to its old base in West Java after the Dutch took Jogja in 1948 (Said 1950: 51). Ismail’s second film, Enam Djam di Jogja (Six Hours in Jogja, 1951) is about the general attack of an Indonesian guerilla army just as the Dutch were trying to prove in the international forums that they were in firm control of Indonesia (Said 1991: 52), with focus on the role of Diponegoro Division. The main characters were all real people (Sen 1994: 22).

The next film, Dosa tak Berampun (The Unforgiveable Sin, 1951) represents the first exodus of the Indonesian war as related to real-life topics. Siasat, a leading journal of the period, published a review claiming that Ismail “had introduced a new motif into his film whose characters can be found in our daily life” (Said 1991: 53). The article states that in that film, a conscious attempt has been made to apply the principles of good film, something rarely seen in Indonesian films. The article stated that the lyrical Italian realism has left a good imprint there and, for the time being at least, that film can be said to be the best Indonesian film ever made. “Perhaps they were not sufficiently explored but the film does, nonetheless, offer new possibilities for Indonesia. Usmar should have further exploited his material. The film abounds with redundant scenes; yet there are other scenes which Usmar could have shot to strengthen his film” (quoted in Said 1991: 53).

Said mentions that at the time Perfini was established, neorealism (which was a new trend in filmmaking) was riding high in Italy. For Said, some aspects of Italian neorealism occur in Ismail’s early films. “The Italian Neorealist believed in taking the camera out into the street and using common people, not stars. The same opinion was shared by Perfini people. Usmar was so fanatic about this new approach that Perfini’s films always introduced new actors with no previous film experience” (Said 1991: 54). Said also mentions other aspects. First, the constant lugging of the camera to the street or shooting location instead of the studio. Second, just like the neorealist succeeded in showing the worn face of post-war Italy, Perfini did its best to show the real face of Indonesia. But he highlights that “Although a comparison might be deemed exaggerated, there are also some Indonesian pararrels to the resistance that sprang up in Italy” (Said 1991: 54).

Other Perfini’s film, Embun (Dewdrops, 1951) was directed by Djaduk Djajakusuma and highlights a common problem in those days, the veterans, depicting the village life with its detailed visual description of living customs and beliefs (Said 1991: 54-55). The story followed the common model of a frustrated ex-revolutionary being brought back to life and society by a woman’s love (Sen 1994: 23).

After the production, Ismail was awarded Rockefeller Foundation fellowship to study for a year at the University of California in Los Angeles (Said 1991: 55). A year later, he made films under the influence of Hollywood style and tried to strike a compromise between idealism and commercialism. But, the spirit of the idealistic group of filmmaking still existed in Perfini. For example, Krisis (Crisis), directed by Ismail in 1954, dealt with Jakarta’s housing problem and depicted a variety of human characters and a range of human behavior and responses to this distressing situation (Said 1991: 56).

Regarding the connection between Perfini and realism, Nyak Abbas Akub, a director specializing in comedy who always put social issues on his films and began his career at Perfini, explains that in Perfini days, he and his colleagues got the stories for the films from reality. The Long March of the Siliwangi Division gave birth to The Long March; the general attack on Jogya gave birth to Six Hours in Yogya; the struggle for housing in Jakarta in those days became the source of Crisis; while Past Midnight was based on the difficulty that veterans were having in adjusting to society after leaving military service. “The stories and the themes that we chose were totally different from these that were dominant in the cinemas at that time “ (quoted in Said 1991: 102).

Teguh Karya mentions that Ismail’s films were indeed “…films depicting Indonesia as it is. The themes and the characters Usmar created really reflected Indonesian thinking and the Indonesian personalities” (Sen 1988: 6).

In the same year Perfini was founded, 1950, Huyung established Kino Drama Atelier (Dramatic Film Studio) and made Antara Bumi dan Langit (Between Earth and Heaven) written by prominent novelist Armjn Pane about the Eurasian citizenship problem in Indonesia after the revolution (Said 1991: 49; Sen 1994: 22). Before the film was made, some kissing scenes appeared in newspapers and it was stated that the still photos were taken from the film, hence it became controversial. On 21 st January 1951, four months before the censor board gave its approval, the Medan branch of Pelajar Islam Indonesia (PPI, Indonesian Islamic Students) protested the film (Said 1991: 50). Expatriates in Indonesia also made protest against its sensitive content. As a result, the film went to the censorship council, who changed the title to Frieda, the main character’s name. And it became just an ordinary love story because several scenes had to be cut and be replaced with new ones (Said 1991: 50). Pane refused to put his name on screen (Sen 1994: 22).

Also in 1950, Perusahaan Film Negara (the State Film Corporation) began producing feature films as well (Said 1991: 39).

On 23 rd April 1951, Muslim businessman and politician Djamaluddin Malik (later known as the Father of Indonesian Film Industry) founded Perseroan Artis Indonesia (Persari, The Indonesian Artists Company) (Said 1991: 39). This is the indigenous film company that started the big studio system (with cooperation with studios in Manila, Philippine, for post-production and later built a big studio in Jakarta suburb of Polonia with complete equipment) (Said 1991: 41) and with Hollywood style approach. Thus, this is the first indigenous company from the commercial group of filmmaking, as Malik stated: “If the public wants Indian, we’ll give them Indian until they’re sick and tired of it” (Said 1991: 42). Its first film was Sedap Malam (Tuberose) directed by Ratna Asmara, Andjar Asmara’s wife.

One of the important moments is when Persari and Perfini worked together to produce a film directed by Ismail and written by Asrul Sani, Lewat Djam Malam (After Curfew, 1954). This was the film that got critically and commercially successful achievement (Said 1991: 43), the union of the commercial and idealist filmmakers. The story is about Iskandar, a medical student and revolutionary soldier, who finds himself unable to face the better prospect of civilian life in post-war Indonesia and feels betrayed by the corruption and mismanaged leadership surrounding him (Sen 1994: 39).

On 30 th August 1954, Persatuan Perusahaan Film Indonesia (PPFI, The Association of Indonesian Film Companies) was founded by Malik and Ismail. In 1955, Malik proposed the first Indonesian Film Festival (Festival Film Indonesia, FFI) on 30 th March-5 th April 1955. Lewat Djam Malam won the best film award and represented Indonesia in the 2 nd Asia Film Festival in Singapore. But the result had some problematic affair because Lewat Djam Malam was not the only best film announced in FFI. Tarmina, a Persari production directed by Lilik Soedjio also became the best film. Consequently, many people questioned this result, considering Malik fully sponsored the festival (Said 1991: 43).

But Ismail and Malik, and also Sani, were still best friends and united in one political party, Nadhatul Ulama (the Awakening of Islamic Scholars, a traditional Islamic party). In PPFI, they made public statements and arranged demonstrations by film actors and other film personnel to urge the government to lower the quota for Indian movies (Said 1991: 44) because they consider Bollywood films the destructor of Indonesian film market. Later, all of them made Tauhid (Pilgrimage to Mecca). They united against Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI).

From the leftist filmmakers, Bachtiar Siagian is the most prominent director who made film with socialism-realism approach such as Tjorak Dunia (Color of the World, 1955) and Turang (Beloved, 1957). Tjorak Dunia relates the love stories of ex-revolutionary soldiers and social rehabilitation set in a poor rural zone, and Turang is about a love story between a guerilla commander and a village head’s daughter told from the “people in revolt” point of view (Sen 1994: 42, 45). His other film, Daerah Hilang (Lost Land, 1956), was truncated by the Board of Censors because “the Censors were frightened by the honest depiction of social realities” (Sen 1994: 43).

Later, the influence of the communist party grew and had great effects on Indonesian cinema.

by By Ekky Imanjaya, Editor of, Jakarta, Indonesia.

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