The Future Of Indonesian Films: From Domestic Oblivion To Global Recognition #1

by Ralph Tampubolon

"Constipation makes us work harder to achieve freedom … An example of how oppression leads to our creativity." Tag line of Sex. Violence. Blood. Gore. - directed by Jeff Chen, written by Chong Tze Chien and Alfian Sa'at (1998)

Three homeless kids attempting to survive in the hectic streets of the urban city Yogyakarta while sharing a deserted corner of a market with their surrogate mother who has her own means of survival by selling handmade batik. Through her eyes, we see the Indonesian society in her daily encounters with the street children who work and live off the harsh and sleazy world of adults.

In a rich and precise style that has already been compared with Japan's Shohei Imamura, director Garin Nugroho combines lyricism with shocking reality, strengthened by the natural acting of all who took part. The result, Daun Di Atas Bantal (Leaf On A Pillow) reaped extraordinary box-office success in Indonesia upon its release in 1998 and has toured the world since then while subsequently receiving good reviews from the international film critics and reviewers - including the jurors at Cannes. Enticed? Not quite? Try this next one.

The lives and problems of young urbanites of the 90s in Jakarta rendered as a mixture of comedy, drama and action. The dilemmas of four young people, forced by trying circumstances to make a desperate yet pragmatic choice for a better life. Invited to festivals throughout the world this past year, Kuldesak (Cul-De-Sac/Dead End) deals with how one struggles to achieve one's dreams of happiness while confronting changes in values in a modern metropolis. The film, directed by four up-and-coming Indonesian directors who promise to bring us more exciting surprises, began pre-production in 1996 during the Suharto regime and was finally released five
months after his resignation from 32 years of totalitarian authority. Not yet allured? Here's another.

A village girl who is married to a 70-year-old Javanese aristocrat. He falls severely ill into a deep coma, then she tries to nurse him back to health by bargaining with the God of Death in the process of asking for her husband to be given more time on earth. Set in the city of Surakarta in decadent Java where men gamble and womanize, Sri was superbly filmed in 1999 by director Marselli Sumarno, who drew his inspiration from the wayang character Savitri, a woman who struggles to wrest her husband from the claws of death. The inspiration became a symbol, and the symbol gave birth to the screen characters in the films Kuldesak (1998) and Sri (1999) .

Those three reviews above are descriptions of the latest (and scant) additions to the ever growing number of world cinema coming from Indonesia, the land of ; opulent in natural resources, but indigent in silver screen treasures for more than 10 years.

In today's global communication age, films and its distribution channels (i.e. theaters, HBO, Cinemax, VHS, LD, CD-ROM, VCD, DVD, and the Net) have all played such profound roles in both preserving and reshaping the society's culture. In the United States, where the number of films released each year can be summed up toward infinity, it can be said that the American films are the American culture itself, and vice versa. [The most pertinent examples are the back-to-back releases of and last year.]

However, in Indonesia, the circumstances are barely the same - if not entirely the opposite. Feature films have been nothing but missing in action for the past 10 years due to the government's rigorous mishandling and censorship on the industry that fatally resulted in an ongoing stagnation in the flow of the public's creative ideas through the medium. Throughout the 1990s, the people's needs for a certain form of audio-visual entertainment were fulfilled by sinetron (a sobriquet of sinema elektronik or electronic cinema in the form of TV series) which have been highly productive, but hardly inventive.

The ideas portrayed in general have just been nothing but uniformly 'soap' - revolving around utopian dreams, glamorous lifestyles, pseudo violence, and excessive gloom, all performed in such predictably staged and low- quality acting methods that in the end have done nothing except misguiding the viewers into the concept of inordinate materialism, disproportionate consumption, and an unattainable standard image of beauty. But in the past three years, the new generation of hungry filmmakers has started to show its reaction to the irresistible impulse coming from the growing number of independent films from North America and Europe along with the commercial success and critical acclaim they have all achieved. An effort to revive the national film industry has been seen of late through the production of a number of films like and. They were all produced and released in the past three years and instantly generated promising reviews from the local and international audience and critics.

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