The Future Of Indonesian Films: From Domestic Oblivion To Global Recognition #3

The government's promise for a more democratic nation through the reformation era can positively (and hopefully) open up a whole new perspective of creative thinking for the people. However, it still can not be interpreted as 'anything is possible'. Film certainly does not (and can not) glorify anarchy. Why? Because freedom is never supposed to be an infinite entity. With every man's freedom, there must always be freedom of someone else's that bounds it. Thus, one's liberty of creativity will always have its limitations coming from his own society's liberation that protects itself from being the object of his idealism marching behind 'creative freedom' serving its purpose more as a hapless cliche than as a living truth.

The censorship committee acts as cultural filters, but it must not be assembled to reduce (much less curb)creative independence. Its most crucial task is to serve and protect the film audience from being situated in an unfavorable position girdled by the filmmakers' boundless spectrum of artistic imagination. And to accomplish that, all sorts of irregularities and deviation from its proposed liability are very much common to happen along the way, just as they would in any other institution. The fact is, the committee has its own formal mechanism which can not be violated just for the sake of providing more insights for the audience. It has its own superiors to whom it must justify its own actions. But it definitely has to be aware of the possibilities of slipping into a hazardous territory where its job of protecting the prospective viewers' rights is suddenly replaced by an act of abridging them by viciously slaughtering the tidbits and tiny pieces here and there.

Putu Wijaya, one of Indonesia's eminent writer and independent film poet once wrote: "An effort to obliterate any kind of danger that threatens a nation's safety can only differ slightly from an action revealing arbitrary despotism; especially when it comes to generalizing matters. Therefore, the urgency in each institution's schemes is to reconsider as many different cases as possible as a sole event." (Putu Wijaya, "Sensor", p. 3, The Jakarta Cine Club Bulletin, November 1999)

Nonetheless, questioning the issue about whether the censorship committee is acting as the government's watchdog more than as the people's safeguard or vice versa will only add more complications to the subject matter if not digressing to a whole new topic of debate like whether the state has the right to forbid the public's access to information or not. The common ground is that it would be wise enough to say that the people must still respect the examiner's decisions, no matter how unfair they seem to be.

On the other side, however, I still think a film, let alone a film festival, can not be called off simply because it is declared 'risky'. Especially not in this time and age where information is being more and more put in such a global context where consequently more and more individuals are being given the opportunity to select and choose the appropriate facts and knowledge according to their own needs.

In a recent interview with Bangkok's daily paper The Nation, Wych Kaosayananda, a hot-and-rising Thai director who has just signed a two picture deal with New Line Films and will be directing Wesley Snipes in a US$70 million action flick Ecks Vs Sever, explained why he - being a product of the Hollywood system who eventually had to go back to the U.S. after finding it impossible to apply his workmanship in his own country - believed the Thai film industry will always be in tumult.

These were his words: "The problems with the Thai film industry starts with the way films are distributed. Filmmakers and studios ... first they will blame the audience, then they will blame Hollywood movies, blame this, blame that ... but it's all garbage, because it is the studio heads. And that is why countries like Thailand or even Hong Kong will never be able to compete with Hollywood. What are exactly the problems with the distribution system? Just look at the market size alone. The way movies are being done in Bangkok, or in
Thailand as a whole, you invest 12 million Baht in a movie and there are about 100 screens in Bangkok and, if you are a Thai film, you'll be lucky if you can get to 20. I say Bangkok because Bangkok is the only city where you can get the box office revenues. In everywhere else outside Bangkok, it goes to the, I'm going to say the Mafia distribution system, where it is like 5 guys who pay 2 million or whatever the designated price is and that's that. The studio doesn't want to disturb that, because some movies make 2 million in Bangkok so they need the extra 10 guaranteed. They won't challenge the system. And as long as that is happening, you will
always have a cap on the amount of money you can theoretically make. And the numbers you get are ridiculous... there are no checks and balances." (Quoted from "Kaos In The Film Industry" by Brian Bennett, p. 9, The Nation Weekend, January 7, 2000)

So what is it like in Indonesia? Simple. Just highlight the words 'Thai', 'Thailand', 'Bangkok' and 'Baht' respectively and replace them with 'Indonesian', 'Indonesia', 'Jakarta' and 'Rupiah', whereas the digits are arbitrarily the same and 'the Mafia' remains unchanged except for the fact that it is comprised of different types of homo sapiens talking in a different dialect - with the same kind of mentality.

For more than a decade, the largest chain of cinemas operating in Jakarta and other large metropolitans 'where you can get the box office revenues' has also been the only one. Studio 21 cineplexes, controlled by an oligopolistic oligarchy led by Javanese conglomerate Sudwikatmono (yes, he's also one of Soeharto's closest allies too), has been imperiously dominant in getting the moviegoers to queue for an admission ticket to watch the latest releases from Hollywood since it started its business in 1988.

And to make matters even worse, besides planting at least two of its tributaries in one municipality, 99.7% of its screen spaces have been used to show nothing else besides the Arnold Schwarzeneggers, the Bruce Willises, the Julia Robertses, and the Meg Ryans. Not to mention its willingness to also act as the dumping ground for box office disasters every once in a while by exhibiting the likes of One Tough Bastard, In The Army Now, Police Academy 4, and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.

Only an infinitesimal percentage has been given to cinematic treasures from other parts of the globe like Anglo, French, Mandarin, Hindi, or even Indonesian films themselves. So what other options do the visual-art- appreciation aficionados (including your discontented friend and narrator) have? Not much besides checking out the video store while waiting for the infrequent film festivals to take place at the Cine Club. In 1998, the Jakarta Art Council conducted a research on the history of Indonesian motion pictures that eventually revealed some interesting main points as follows: Indonesian Films - Past To Present First year of existence (B/W): 1926 (2 films) First year of existence (Color): 1968 (2) The most productive year: 1977 (124) The least productive year*): 1926, 1927, 1998 and 1999 (2) *) Not including the post-independence revolution years (1945-1947) when there were no films released.

While emphasizing the fact that the total number of films released in the year when the survey was conducted has barely equaled what was accomplished during the freshman period, the article in which the facts and figures were spelled out stated that there were 115 films released in 1990 before the industry started going on a steep downfall, never reaching above 32 since 1992, including only 4 in 1997 - all of which were categorized as (Adults Only). It has certainly been a very long time since the Indonesian film industry can hoist a handful of honorable talents such as the late Usmar Ismail, Sjumandjaja, Wim Umboh, Arifin C. Noer and Teguh Karya whose enthusiasm, idealism, nationalism and fanaticism persisted to 'defend' the perpetuity of their fatherland's film history with virtuous common sense.

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