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, April 19, 2014


Nosey neighbors and the Indonesian voice  

Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni (Heni) is 38 and not yet married.  So what?  That’s hardly a knock-out issue worthy of an opening line.
Except that Heni, like many Indonesian singles, still lives at home.  She’s not a lesbian.  Her mother asked, concerned that might explain her daughter’s apparent disinterest in men.
And not just her Mom.  The family, neighbors, friends – just about everyone is concerned about Heni’s marital status as the barren 40s approaches.
So what’s a gal gotta do when faced with such outrageous personal intrusions?  Get mad, get even? If you’re Heni you make a film.
“It will be called 30 Something and will focus on my life,” she said.  “It’s going to be funny and a little bitter. The pressures I’m under are common for Indonesian women, particularly in small communities.  I hope it will help me better understand our culture.
“My Mom thinks that if I wed I’ll be safe, but I know that’s no guarantee.  She tells me: ‘I don’t care who – just marry before I die’.
“I appreciate her concern and that of the neighbors.  I don’t want to hurt them.  They’re good people, though like all Indonesians, nosey. I’ve already broken many cultural rules, like coming home late which arouses suspicion.
“You’ll only find me in the malls if the weather’s hot and I need to cool.  I prefer angkringan (eating cheap food and sitting on the sidewalk.)  I can live frugally.  My life is borderless.
“I know what I’m doing. I’m not a prostitute or doing drugs, I’m working as a film maker.  I want to live my life my way. I have many men friends, but marriage is not my priority.”
Instead her prime interest is shooting documentaries and running the now well-established Yogyakarta Documentary Film Festival, turning 13 this December.
What could be finer for a film fanatic than watching, criticising and selecting the nation’s best creative work?  The downside is that the genre has still to find clear focus in the Republic.
“There are many problems, including that documentaries are seen as patriotic and nationalistic government propaganda” she said. “That’s what we had to watch during the Orde Baru era when I grew up.
(The government-sponsored docudrama Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI  (The Treachery of the Communists) was compulsory viewing for school children till 1998 when President Soeharto lost power.)
“The standard of entries is getting better but it’s a slow process. Directors’ styles remain conventional, often imitating overseas trends, so I hold workshops to encourage film makers’ creativity.
“Schools have the ability to show films but that’s not on the curriculum.  My dream is to change that situation – we need to start with the young.
“The other concern is screening.  We don’t have a tradition of art-house movie theaters.  Selection and distribution are dominated by the Cineplex 21 chain, the biggest in the country. We have to pay to get them to show our work.
“Television stations aren’t willing to buy documentaries, arguing that screenings give crew and cast exposures so that should be enough. So far there’s been no interest in crowd funding.
“You can’t make a living making documentaries in this country.  That’s the reality.  I fund my films through working as a researcher and other jobs.  I can make US$ 1000 (RP11.5 million) go a long way.
“I try to get my films shown at festivals overseas where they are given respect.  Then people in Indonesia start to pay attention. I don’t submit them for censorship.”
Heni grew up in Yogya, the daughter of a college administrator.  She started to study political science at the University of Gadjah Mada but found little connection between the theories she was being taught and the life she saw around her, so dropped out.
She’s a self-taught film maker who has won four awards. Her 90-minute film, Denok and Gareng, tells the story of a courageous couple trying their hand at pig farming after years of street living.
Janji Jabrik (Jabrik’s Promise) features a young man struggling with an HIV infection from using dirty needles.  While his friends rapidly perish from AIDS he stoically tries to stay alive for his wife and child. Jabrik has since died.
Pengabar Kematian (The Herald of Death) is about a man who uses a trumpet in a village to announce the death of residents instead of broadcasting the news through the mosque’s loudspeakers.  He does this to give the passing a more personal touch.
Heni found these and other stories while working for a community health clinic in Yogyakarta.  She has also helped deaf people make a film and is now working on a feature about villagers’ beliefs in mountain spirits.
Her skills have been refined through an internship with the non-profit media arts organization Women Make Movies in New York.
 Last year she was one of two Indonesian women given the inaugural John Darling Fellowship (named after the late Bali-based Australian director) to attend a post-graduate course at the Australian National University called Thinking with a Video Camera.  She has also been supported by the German cultural organization the Goethe Institute and attended the Berlinale film festival.
“I’m not into poverty porn,” she said.  “This is my job and I do it seriously. I respect the people I film and their stories.  I want the audience to get closer to the subjects.  I hope my work encourages viewers to be reflective.
”American films tend to be issue-driven, while European cinema is character-driven, a style I follow.  I don’t intrude with commentary – I’m more of a fly-on-the-wall director.
“I love to travel.  I’ve found Europe, and Germany in particular, to be the most accessible for independent documentary makers. I also admire Japanese documentaries because they reveal that nation’s culture
“We Indonesian film makers have got to find our own voice, not imitate others. Documentaries should hold up a mirror to society.  It’s not about nationalism; it’s about understanding who we are, and to make a better society.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 April 2014)

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