Learning to read film
Many Indonesians have tough lives and survive on little. Their prospects are grim. Yet they remain cheerful and friendly - values worth celebrating
That’s the philosophy of prize-winning film-maker Mahesa Desaga (right) . He'd like all to know the giant republic is more than political crises and natural disasters strung into a narrative of dysfunction.
“I want to reflect the lives of the marginalised,” he said. “The best way is through films showing how relationships work, how families cope.”
He does this using gentle whimsy not searing confrontation. His work is contemplative; viewers don’t leave his presentations with blood-drained faces but with a wry smile and thoughtful expression. Seeking escapism? Don’t bother this young man; head to a 21 Cineplex for Tom Cruise and American Made.
Similar emotions must have been felt by judges at the 2017 Australia-Indonesia Short-Film Festival Competition who awarded the 27-year old Malang university lecturer first prize earlier this year.
He took his film Nunggu Teka (Waiting to Arrive) to last month’s [Aug] Melbourne International Film Festival. MIFF bills itself as ‘one of the oldest film festivals in the world and the most significant screen event in Australia’.
Nunggu Teka is a poignant cameo of a lone mother (played by the late Supatemi, a neighbor of Desaga) preparing for a visit by her son during the Idul Fitri family reunions. These climax the end of the Ramadhan fasting month.
Shot in subdued tones the 15-minuter captures mood and emotion through domestic detail and limited movement. It’s more in the minimalist style of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.
The rituals that bond ordinary life are the source of Desaga’s current work, what the British label ‘kitchen-sink drama’ and made mainstream by director Mike Leigh. La La Land is not Desaga’s environment. Nor is the theater of envy where the tired poor watch the dopy doings of the idle rich.
Also absent from his viewfinder are sinetron (TV soapie) stereotype characters. Audience tastes are unlikely to refine until directors get equal treatment alongside respected authors in the Indonesian school curriculum.
Desaga has a script about a family living in a house so cramped all share one bedroom. This frustrates the parents seeking intimacy – a situation common in city kampongs and rural villages.
“Our closeness, our ability to survive, to be positive are all qualities that I want to see recognized,” he said. “This means teaching Indonesians how to read films. Cinema has been tightly controlled with only officially- approved imports allowed. Most have been from Hollywood so the choice is narrow.”
Film was hijacked for propaganda in the Soeharto era when creatives were dubbed disruptors. The government-sponsored docudrama Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (The Treachery of the Communists) was compulsory viewing for school children till 1998.
The idea of film as art has been led by directors like Garin Nugroho, 55, whose offerings can be more esoteric than entertaining. Desaga is not in that generation or genre: Jumprit Singit (Hide and Seek) is a comment on kids besotted by gadgets. It involves the chase of a thief and his contact with a lone boy excluded from Playstation so he retreats into imagination.
There’s a touch of autobiography here though the adult Desaga is funny and engaging. The only child of working public servants he was often alone. His destiny seems to have been set while still nurtured by the umbilical cord for his pregnant Mom took breaks in cinemas – a habit she continued after birth.
“The first film I remember was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles when I was about three,” he said. “Others were frightened by the scary figures - I was just interested.”
At university he studied international relations “because I could not stand mathematics”. Instead of a career in Foreign Affairs he’s turned to being “a diplomat through my films”. After years of watching overseas dramas he’s developed a better understanding of the globe than through academic studies.
This has meant covertly sampling movies banned by authorities determined to keep progressive ideas away from the public. This isn’t a situation unique to Indonesia – Iranian directors film abroad where there are fewer constraints on the topics they want to explore.
“Working outside Indonesia is a temptation,” Desaga said. “However I have a responsibility to society and I can’t exercise this in exile.” He suggests that “limited access screenings in an alternative exhibition space” might liberate directors – but would probably draw the killjoys suspecting subversion.
His parents saw little future for their son in celluloid though he now lectures on the subject at two universities in Malang. He started a filmophile group in 2008.
Although there are several similar clusters in Malang few have double-digit membership. A curious situation in a city of 28 tertiary institutions drawing students from across the archipelago – and where every second lit-grad seems to have a book of published verse.
Desaga reckons too few understand how to make films using ordinary digital cameras and laptop editing programs even though all information can be Googled. “Too lazy,” he says.
Maybe, but they’ve also been brainwashed by the ballyhoo of mega dollar productions where chopper shots, special effects and star names seem essential.
The other factor is a limited knowledge of the great offerings of cinema where the story drives the projector sprockets and the focus is on exposing character rather than the revealing dress spotted by the prurient.
Desaga draws inspiration from the past. He names the 1977 Indonesian romance Badai Pasti Berlalu (The Storm Will Surely Pass) directed by the late Teguh Karya as essential viewing, and the Japanese drama Rashomon (director Akira Kurosawa) as the must-see film of all time.
Before his life reaches the final credits Desaga wants to tackle a feature film, a long leap from shorts. Expect something about mudik, the mass pilgrimage to villages during Idul Fitri. “It’s unique to Indonesia,” he said. “We should tell the world.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 25 October 2017)