The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Afi Shamara
Arisan producer turns Wellywood painter © Duncan Graham 2008

Don’t judge a book by its cover, nor a spouse by their partner’s position – a proverb particularly relevant to Afi Shamara.

She’s a woman driven by her creativity fuelled by reading everything and anything, from the late and once banned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer to contemporary writer and poet Remy Silado – and turning her ideas into action.

“I was so excited to read their books, they made me feel as though I was in another time and space,” said the wife of Amris Hassan the Indonesian ambassador to New Zealand. “My imagination was stimulated.”

Particularly by Silado’s Ca Bau Kan (the Courtesan) which Afi pushed on her filmmaker friend Nia Dinata who was equally captivated. At first they thought about making a 24-episode TV series but soon realised the big screen would be more appropriate.

They bought the film rights and set about raising funds and employing directors and artists for their company Kalyana Shira Films. No so simple.

Women filmmakers in Indonesia are still pioneers in an industry dominated by men who weren’t going to give immediate votes of confidence to tyros in tights.

Like most Indonesian films that don’t fall into the genres of gothic horror or teenage trysts, Ca Bau Kan didn’t please the popcorn-crowd. But it did push the boundaries, positively featuring the Chinese in the context of the Japanese occupation and subsequent revolution.

“I loved it but felt it should have run for three hours,” said Afi. “We had to cut it to two hours to meet the demands of the cinema operators and the result was, well, an impasse. It was short (on financial returns) a little bit.”

Though not enough to dissuade her from further film production. Kalyana Shira released Biola Tak Berdawi (the Stringless Violin) in 2004, again to audience indifference and much criticism of the acting.

This situation changed in 2005 when the women, undeterred by failure and male mockery, produced Arisan, a story based on Afi’s experiences with the Jakarta status-conscious, brand-crazy social set, worked into a screenplay by Joko Anwar.

Even after censor’s cuts the metrosexual comedy was a success de scandale largely because it showed gays behaving like anyone else and in one brief scene, stealing a kiss. The controversy did the box office no harm and an estimated 100,000 people bought tickets hoping to be shocked.

By Western standards Arisan was ho-hum, leaving audiences used to sex and nudity nonplussed. But in Indonesia this was groundbreaking stuff with critics enthusiastically predicting a new era in filmmaking and social acceptance. That hasn’t happened.

“Making films in Indonesia isn’t easy,” said Afi in her home perched above Wellington city at the southern tip of NZ’s North Island. “Raising the money and finding sponsors is difficult, particularly for the films that I want to make.

“I’m interested in educating the audience through documentaries, drama and humor. I want to produce beauty, show slices of life.

“Of course there must be a good story line. Indonesia is rich in many different cultures. There is so much material. Few people know about our extraordinary history.

“The other problems are post-production facilities. We’ve had to use facilities in Thailand and Australia to ensure our films look professional. Distribution difficulties are a handicap. Although we have the Jakarta Film Festival there are no art-house cinemas as in Wellington.”

The capital of NZ is also known as Wellywood because of its top-quality film production facilities. These have been led by local director Peter Jackson whose fantasy epic Lord of the Rings trilogy made the city’s creative artists and NZ’s knock-out landscapes world famous.

Although she’s been approached by a Kiwi cinematographer to get involved with a new script, Afi, 42, knows well how film production can be physically, emotionally and financially draining. “After Arisan I just wanted to retire,’ she said – an improbable ambition for a woman with abundant energy and hunger to learn.

Being a producer also meant absence from her husband and four children for weeks, and spending limitless hours lobbying for funds, negotiating complex deals and placating temperamental artists in the hothouse of egos.

As an ambassador’s wife she does her diplomatic duties at the multiple functions that demand her presence, promoting her homeland and culture with an eye to boosting trade.

This she does with a disarming down-to-earth style, popular in a country that loves informality, and where feisty, multi-talented women with ideas and opinions are respected. Her ‘can do’ approach is at the heart of Kiwi values.

The daughter of the late Faisal Abda’oe, former president of the oil giant Pertamina, Afi spent four years in the US where she studied graphic arts. Back in Jakarta she opened the Sunshine pre-school with five friends. Enrolments raced from seven to 200; she pulled out when success meant expansion into primary education.

“I needed to stimulate my artistic side,” she said. “I have always loved reading and I wanted to express myself.” Producing films provided some satisfaction, but Afi has moved on and is now studying art and attending formal classes.

Although her home offers stereoscopic views of Wellington’s rugged harbor Afi is more interested in portraits, preferring to explore the character of her subjects in acrylic. She takes life classes, enjoys pop art, sees herself as an expressionist and is currently producing some imaginative and confrontational nudes.

“I’m the sort of person who loves to mingle and express myself. I have so many friends and family back in Jakarta, so thank goodness for Facebook (the Internet social network). But I love NZ and don’t mind the cold,” she said.

“There is so much to do and see. In Jakarta we’d be going to shopping malls, but here we can walk through the bush and along the shore, breathe in the fresh, clean air, just being a family.

“I walk down to the bookshops and browse and buy. I go to galleries and exhibitions and enjoy the museums.

“If my husband becomes president (he was a politician in the national parliament with Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P party before taking his present appointment in 2006) I’d be pushing for an art culture as in Singapore, museums for children and films for children.

“And I’d like a film censorship system like the one here in NZ where the censor doesn’t cut but rates the film according to the audience so children can’t see adult movies. We should be stimulating our brains, always trying to learn more, boosting our confidence.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 June 2008)