BEYOND BIG DRAMATIC MOMENTS:
Indonesian Documentary Films in the 21st Century
During the shooting period I did not expect
to find big dramatic moments or tearjerking scenes.
My intention is to build meaningful narrative
from simple scenes.
Shalahuddin Siregar (2012)
Without much media blitz in Indonesia, Shalahuddin Siregar’s Negeri Di Bawah Kabut (The Land Beneath the Fog) won a special jury prize for Muhr Asia Africa Documentaries at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival. Previously, Daniel Rudi Haryanto’s Prison and Paradise screened at the gala premier in the same festival in 2010 and eventually won the Director Guild of Japan Award at the 2011 Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival. While the achievement of Indonesian documentary filmmakers reflects an international recognition of the accomplishment of Indonesian documentary films, at the domestic level documentary films still struggles to gain a wider appreciation and recognition. When I attended the government-sponsored Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) in 2011, the award presentation for documentary category was not broadcast by the festival official television station, instead it became an off-air event. People who attended that event felt that the festival organizer as well as television had sidelined documentary films since it has no ‘prestige’ and ‘glamorous’ artists.
The marginal position of Indonesian documentary films perhaps is not unique compared to other countries, although documentary in the form of newsreel was the first foreign film that entered into Indonesia (which was known as the Dutch East Indies, back then) in December 1900. One of the reasons is probably that a documentary film in the Indonesian past was loaded with an image of propaganda without any innovation or variation. While the 1998 Reformasi (political changes) opened up a lot of democratic space as well as freedom of expression, it did not yet change substantially the general perception of documentary films in Indonesia. However, Indonesian documentary filmmakers strive to produce many interesting works.
This article will illustrate the trajectories of Indonesian documentary films from the early development period to the contemporary time in the 21st century. It aims to give a glimpse of the long but slow development of documentary filmmaking in Indonesia. Moreover, it will assess the development of Indonesian documentary films in terms of theme, narrative style and aesthetics by locating them within particular socio-political context as part and parcel of the development of the Indonesian society. The first section will provide a brief history of documentary film in Indonesia followed by a section on the documentary film festival as a showcase of independent documentaries. The last section will look at closely some contemporary documentaries that show some interesting transformations from the previous development of Indonesian documentaries.
A Brief History of Documentary Film in Indonesia
Documentary film in Indonesia started during the time of the Dutch East Indies and it was made by the Dutch to serve a home audience in Holland to inform many activities of colonial government and the culture of colonial society in faraway location. Therefore, most documentaries were characterized by distance of framing and little emotional closeness to their subject. In 1939, R.M. Soetarto listed having made a documentary film for the Dutch. However, some documentary films were made specifically for Indonesian audiences that commonly called as a “Film Pes” (Plague Film) because the earliest of them dealt so frequently with issue of hygiene and disease (Hanan, 2012, p. 107). In addition, documentary film was also used to persuade local people to support the colonial policy as can be seen in Magnus Fanken’s Lan Aan de Overkant (The Land Across)(1939). The aim of this documentary film was to persuade Javanese peasants to migrate to the newly opened plantations of Sumatra.
During the Japanese occupation (1942-1945), documentary film had been used as medium for war propaganda in order to mobilize Indonesian people in supporting the Japanese war in Asia-Pacific and the integration of them into their hoped for ‘Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.’ Documentary film was the only film genre allowed by the Japanese as they closed down many film studios owned by the Dutch businessmen. During this period, Nippon Eigasha, under the control of Seidenbu (the Propaganda Department of the Japanese Army) produced many documentaries (predominantly newsreels) and features of Japanese war propaganda (Sen, 1994, p. 17). They also developed portable projector equipment and screens to take films into villages (Hanan, 2012, p. 107). Not surprisingly, there are two common forms of documentaries in this period, namely propaganda and instructional, such as Di Bawah Bendera Nippon (Under the Nippon Flag)(1942), Bekerdja (Work)(1943), Tentara Pembela (The Guardian Soldiers)(1944) and Perdjoeangan Kaoem Moeslim Soematra Baroe (The Struggle in New Sumatra)(1945) (Prakosa, 1997, pp. 180-181).
After the declaration of independence in 1945, documentary films were mostly produced by state film company to document all government programs and, most importantly, activities of Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno. The government used the documentary film as a tool for both political and social mobilization. On October 6, 1945, the Japanese transferred the Nippon Eigasha studio to the Indonesians. Its name was changed to Berita Film Indonesia (BFI), and it came under the jurisdiction of Minister of Information of the Republic of Indonesia, Amir Syarifuddin (Sen, 1994:17). In the first year, BFI produced 18 newsreels and documentaries, such as Indonesia Raya (Greater Indonesia), Kapok (Learn of Someone’s Lesson), Indonesia Fights for Freedom and the like(Prakosa, 1997:182). There was one notable record (Pandit Nehru Visits Indonesia) of an historic visit by Indian Prime Minister Nehru to Indonesia in June 1950, in which Nehru was shown travelling through Java and Bali, accompanied by Soekarno (Hanan, 2012, p. 107).
During Soeharto’s New Order period, documentary films had been extensively used as a tool of development propaganda to sustain the legitimacy of the developmentalist and authoritarian regime. These documentaries were generally funded by a ministry, and they celebrated developmental projects initiated by a ministry, and they celebrated developmental projects initiated by that ministry (i.e. Ministry of Agriculture) and exhorted people (often from the villages) to join in to support them, frequently presenting the minister himself as a key protagonist (Hanan, 2012, p.107). The only television station sponsored by the government (TVRI) during that time broadcast via terrestrial lines across Indonesia. At the same time, Perusahaan Film Negara (The State Film Cooperation) produced several documentaries under the title of Gelora Pembangunan (The Dynamics of Development) that screened in commercial cinema prior to the main show. The main features of New Order documentaries are the excessive use of authoritative voice-overs with instructional messages; the use of the bird’s-eye view and maps to show a particular location in Indonesia; a lack of intimacy with the subjects; and an absence from the narrative of personal (unique) experiences of the subjects themselves (Irawanto, 2010, p.157).
Meanwhile, there was ethnographic documentary that presented a portrait of a lesser-known ethnic group (suku pedalaman), showing examples of their rituals or arts as the backward recipients of the paternalism of the state and had little embraced with modern Indonesia (Hanan, 2012, p.107). Another type of documentary film was intended to promote a tourism industry. These documentaries were about various exotic places as well as authentic cultural identities across Indonesia. In these documentaries, Indonesia is depicted as a collection of idyllic and nostalgic places. Many remote or isolated areas of Indonesia become the best exemplars of the cultural differences of the rural ‘Other,’ whose cultures need to be recorded, preserved, celebrated and harmoniously incorporated into the national culture. Moreover, from 1980 to 1990 the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) nominated some touristic documentaries for the best non-fiction films such as Balinese Dancer (dir. Dea Sudarman, 1983), Pulau Pompo (Pompo Island) (dir. Des Alwi, 1986), and Pariang Marapu (dir. Dudit Widodo, 1990). (Prakosa, 1997, p. 194-195).
Not surprisingly, the ‘touristic’ view (as obvious in some travelogues) and the ‘exoticization’ tendency (predominant in the colonial era and further developed in New Order documentary aesthetics) has been a norm in documentary filmmaking during the New Order era, particularly when films encounter indigenous communities. Of course, the nature of these documentaries was almost apolitical since they tend to represent culture as a spectacle or performance for tourists’ consumption and treated the local people as an unchanging community. In the New Order era, government had monopolized the documentary filmmaking either through state film company or government television channel across Indonesia. As a result, there was lack of variation, if not homogenization, in terms of theme and narrative style.
The marginal production of documentary films outside the state/ government production came from the final project of students of film school at Institut Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Arts institute/ IKJ). Unlike state-sponsored touristic documentaries, the works of film school students had an excellent artistic quality filled with an experimentation spirit and enriched by personal vision. One prominent alumnus of IKJ is Garin Nugroho had been a pioneer in combating the New Order aesthetics of documentary film. For instance, in his film Air dan Romli (Water and Romli)(1991) that is about a cleaner of the polluted river in Jakarta, Nugroho used the voice over of protagonist himself as a way of organizing his material (Hanan, 2012, p.108). Unfortunately, those documentaries from students of IKJ remain relatively unseen by local audiences since they were film school final projects and only circulated at international film festivals.
Indonesian Documentary Film Festival (FFD)
The 1998 Reformasi was a watershed in Indonesian socio-political landscape. Despite the fall of the long authoritarian New Order’s Soeharto, Reformasi marked the new era of Indonesian documentary film in which Tino Saroengallo’s Student Movement in Indonesia (originally entitled The Army Forced Them To Be Violent, 2002) could be screened at the commercial cinema. This documentary follows closely student movement in Jakarta, which has made a huge wave of resistance across Indonesia against the New Order regime. In this documentary, Saroengallo also shows the brutality of military apparatuses when they cracked down the student demonstrations in the streets of Jakarta. While this film was an invaluable documentation of political event in Indonesia in the late 1990s, it tends to be ‘journalistic’ in narrative style as marked by a collage of many footages from various mass media and interviews with some student activists. The journalistic style of narrative also can be found in Lexy Rambadetta’s political documentaries such as Mass Grave (2001) and Bade Tan Reda (Strom Never Subside)(2004) on mass killings in 1965 and Aceh Free Movement respectively.
As part of the proliferation of independent film festivals in Indonesia after Reformasi, Indonesian Documentary Film Festival (Festival Film Dokumenter or FFD) is the only film festival in Indonesia focusing on documentary film. FFD was initiated by student, cultural and art activists and supported by independent cultural organization located in Yogyakarta, a vibrant cultural city in Central Java (443 kilometers from the capital Jakarta). Initially, FFD aims to give opportunities to young people to learn about documentary, but now it serves as a platform of independent documentary film and a meeting point for independent filmmakers in Indonesia. The deep concern of FFD for the marginalized position of documentary as well as marginalized subject is clearly reflected in its slogan “recording what has been cast aside, searching for what hidden, and discovering the world’s wisdom” (merekam yang tersisa, mencari yang tersembunyi, menemukan kearifan semesta).
In general, selected films for competition are about the people at the margins such as disabled persons, mentally ill people, transsexuals, older people, traditional art performers and indigenous communities. Interestingly, most of previous winners of FFD were documentaries about old people such as Grabah Plastik (Plastic Pottery) (dir. Tonny Trimarsanto, 2002), Tulang Punggung (The Breadwinner) (dir. K. Ardi, 2003), 10 Jam Lebih (More Than 10 Hours) (dir. Irwan D. Nuryadi, 2004), Restaurant Indonesia (dir. Dhani Agustinus) (2007). Grabah Plastik (Plastic Pottery), for instance, narrates a story about the struggle of a traditional earthen potter competing with the big factories that produce plastic wares en masse. Likewise, Tulang Punggung (The Breadwinner) tells a story about the daily life of an old woman working in Yogyakarta’s traditional market. Meanwhile, 10 Jam Lebih (More Than 10 Hours) charts the struggle of an elderly couple amidst the passengers on a crowded train three days before the biggest Islamic holiday (Idul Fitri). Although Restaurant Indonesia tells a story about Indonesian political exiles in Paris; the subjects are elderly persons. Not surprisingly, FFD is jokingly called as the “film festival about old people” (festival film orang tua).
From the beginning of the festival, the number of entries slowly increases which indicates a lukewarm interest of young people to make a documentary film compared to feature or fiction film. It only attracted 30 amateur filmmakers when the festival started in 2002, and after 5 years (2007) it only attracted 50 participants (26 amateurs and 32 professionals). It can be argued that documentary filmmaking is not popular, particularly among young people in Indonesia. They likely prefer to make fiction films which are less demanding in terms of collecting evidence through an intensive research process. In the broader context, perhaps there is lack of “documentation culture” in Indonesia in which most people tend to forget many events and have less attention to their close environment rather than to record or document them.
The social problems such as poverty, violent conflicts, corruption, and environmental degradation have been the popular themes among independent filmmakers. However, poverty tends to be constructed in documentaries as a fate of individual rather than as being structural to political problems. Such documentaries unconsciously reproduce dominant ideology and middle-class bias by interpreting poverty as social pathology rather than as bad policies or exploitative structure in society. For instance, Nita Sang Penarik Getek (Nita, a Puller of Small Craft) (dir. Hidayat, 2005) tells the daily life of Nita and her poor family living on the bank of a river in Medan, North Sumatra. A primary school dropout, she must work hard as a scavenger (pemulung) and as a puller of a small raft (penarik getek) to support her family. In this film Nita’s family problems is what stand out most clearly, such as the death of her uncle and the suffering of her mother dealing with cancer almost without medication. Although this film depicts the struggle of Nita in seeking little money quite successfully, we do not find any criticism against government social policy or unjust social structure. It seems that these independent filmmakers do not conceive the documentary form as a platform for radical questioning of dominant socio-political systems and for putting forward alternative and oppositional views (Irawanto, 2010, p.159).
While marginalized subjects and various social problems in Indonesia have been popular themes among independent filmmakers, past and contemporary political issues rarely can be found in documentaries. Some documentaries raise the issues of former communist party members and mass killings 0f 1965 such as Saya Bangga Jadi Aktivis PKI (I’m Proud to be a Communist Party Activist) (dir. Sony F. Thios, 2005), Rante Mas (Golden Chain) (dir. B.W. Purba Negara, 2006), Perempuan Yang Tertuduh (The Accused Woman) (dir. Widhi Nugroho, 2007) and Restaurant Indonesia (dir. Dhani Agustinus, 2007). The other political documentaries narrate many social protests against in justice such as Sebuah Catatan Perjuangan Kebebasan Pers (A Note on the Struggle for Press Freedom) (dir. Mateu, 2006), Perjuangan Menembus Batas (The Struggle Crossing the Borders) (dir. Widhi Nugroho, 2007) and Aksi Demonstrasi Amrozy (Demonstration Against Amrozy) (dir. AA Ngurah Bagus Kusumayudha, 2007).
The narrow scope and limited number of political documentaries are rather surprising given Reformasi in Indonesia has opened up for democracy and broke away the past’s political taboos. This may reflect the reluctance of independent documentary filmmakers to passionately engage in political issues arising in contemporary Indonesia. Meanwhile, some independent documentaries portray marginalized people as distant others, framed by ‘touristic’ view and tendency of ‘exoticization’ (Irawanto, 2010, p.161). This probably reflects the reluctance of filmmakers to intimately approach their subjects. Although some documentaries invoked various persistent social problems in Indonesia, they ironically tended to reproduce the dominant ideology in viewing social problems rather than resisting it or forwarding alternative (oppositional) perspective. Not surprisingly, the independent films in FFD are still dominated by the narrative style of which is rooted in New Order visual culture (Irawanto, 2010, p.116).
Contemporary Development of Indonesian Documentaries
One of recuperated criticisms of FFD jury members to documentaries in FFD is that most of them tend to emulate the formula of television documentaries popularized by the Eagle Award program in Metro TV. Started in 2005, the Eagle Award is an annual documentary competition for first-time filmmakers held by private news station Metro TV with In-Docs (Indonesian Documentaries) carrying its slogan ‘merekam Indonesia’ (documenting Indonesia). All participants in this competition must choose one of five major issues in Indonesia such as education (pendidikan), environment (lingkungan hidup), health (kesehatan), social welfare (kesejahteraan) and humanity (kemanusiaan).
The best documentary in the Eagle Award was judged by the television standards in which tend to be explanatory in presentation. Not surprisingly, the narrative is structured by several interviews with the subject, excessive use of voice-over and subjects as ‘distant others.’ The winning documentaries of Eagle Award were mostly about communities or underprivileged people living in the remote areas such as Joki Kecil (Little Jockey) (dir. Yuli Andari M and Anton Susilo, 2005) and Suster Apung (The Floating Nurse) (dir. Andi Arfan Sabran and Suparman Supardi, 2006), but the protagonists were a symbol of self determination and extraordinary courage of local people. For instance, Suster Apung (The Floating Nurse) tells a story about Nurse Rabiah, a lone fighter who attended to the sick in isolated areas of 25 islands located along South Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara and Bali ocean territory using outdated medical tools and a heavily damaged boat unfit for the rough sea crossings that was needed to visit her patients.
While the winners of Eagle Award traveled in various festivals both national and international and got a warm appreciation, the competition has failed to foster a vibrant documentary filmmaking in Indonesia. In fact, Eagle Award has been responsible for shaping the way many novice documentary filmmakers perceive what the best documentary is. The narrow understanding of documentary among novice filmmakers perhaps has discouraged them to make a documentary film continuously as they thought that documentary should be about the underprivileged people from the remote areas in Indonesia with their extraordinary life rather than their familiar environment (the community).
However, despite the sluggish development of independent documentary filmmaking in Indonesia, the impulses to make an excellent documentary are very much alive. Some filmmakers in Indonesia persistently produce documentaries although without any constraint and limitation. Although there are no political restrictions and taboos in documentary filmmaking since Reformasi in 1998, the funding is still a major challenge for documentary filmmaker in Indonesia. Some documentary filmmakers seek out sponsorship from government institution, private companies or local/global non-governmental organizations, but they attempt to maintain their creative integrity and refuse to be simply an extension of sponsor’s interest. The example of this case is Aryo Danusiri’s Kameng Gampoeng Nyang Kuonong Geulawa (Village Goat Takes the Beating) (1999), funded by the human rights organization ELSAM. This documentary explores the human rights violations committed by the army in Aceh during the military operation (DOM) to fight against Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM).
Another example of commissioned documentary by human rights organization is Tonny Trimarsanto’s Renita, Renita (2007). Although this documentary received funding from the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komas HAM), it does not fall into a blatant propaganda film. Instead, it was an excellent portrayal of one of minorities groups in Indonesia. Renita, Renita tells a story of transsexual as one of sexual minority groups in Indonesia that continuously experienced violent as well as repressive treatments from both state and society. Unlike stereotypical representations of transsexuals in Indonesian mainstream media, this documentary amazingly presents an image of transsexuals without any dramatization of their life. It focuses on a single character, Renita (her original name is Muhamad Zein Pundagau) who came from Muslim family background in Makassar (South Sulawesi) and graduated from one Islamic university of her hometown. Since Renita’s father cannot accept her sexuality, she must leave Makassar to avoid any embarrassment of her family. She ended up in Jakarta as an assistant at the beauty parlor by day and a street prostitute by night.
In Renita, Renita, Marsanto was able to approach the subject closely and built up a trustful relationship without being too intrusive during the filmmaking process since he used a minimal crew, equipment and natural lighting. It seems that Marsanto made careful observation since this documentary made the audience get to know the subject intimately (personally) through her daily life as a transsexual filled with a lot of bitter experiences. Therefore, this documentary successfully created a sympathetic view of a sexual minority group by using an observational mode in presentation without pretention to be ‘objective’ and impartial.
In the same vein, Aryo Danusiri’s Lukas Moment (2007) explores the efforts of a young West Papuan student working with other indigenous students from his tribe (Marind tribal) to develop a trading venture of their own in prawn fishing and marketing. Although the filmmaker has a formal training in anthropology, his film is far from ethnographic documentary style. Rather he employed an observational approach by simply following events and neither intervening nor organizing reconstructions of situations (Hanan, 2012, p. 110). While Lukas Moment uses long takes and the filmmaker seems reluctant to use editing to make points, it is not an ‘objective ‘ film in some sense. Rather it unashamedly partisan as it engages with the actual social wellbeing and economic rights of the people of Papua (Hanan 2012, p.115).
Meanwhile, in order to deal with issue of funding, filmmakers are making a documentary film collectively through omnibus production. Omnibus film entitled Pertaruhan (At Stake)(2008) was produced by Kalyana Shira Foundation and sponsored by Body Shop as part Project CHANGE, a masterclass film workshop dealing with contemporary women’s issues. Pertaruhan consisted of four stories made by five Indonesian film directors (Ani Ema Susanti, Iwan Setiawan, M Ichsan, Lucky Kuswandy, and Ucu Agustin). It portrays the conditions of Indonesian women from various social backgrounds and deals with many issues: female migrant workers, prostitution, health service, and female circumcision. This omnibus explores the female subjectivities dealing with the various problems faced by ordinary Indonesian women from different perspectives, particularly related to the issue of female body.
The first segment of the ominbus entitled Mengusahakan Cinta (Effort for Love) directed by Ani Ema Susanti narrates the story of two Indonesian women migrant workers (Ruwati and Riantini) in Hongkong. It also reveals the lesbian relationship among migrant workers and the difficulties for mature woman migrant workers to get married with Indonesian men due to her virginity. The second segment entitled Untuk Apa (What’s the Point) directed by Iwan Setiawan and M Ichsan is about the practice of female circumcision in certain Muslim community in Indonesia, although there are ongoing debates among Islamic scholars on this practice. Moreover, in certain hospital, female circumcision is part of its service for a newborn baby girl. The third segment entitled Nona Nyonya (Miss. Mrs) directed by Lucky Kuswandy, follows the quest of unmarried women in getting a right treatment of their reproductive health as they face unfriendly gestures from nurses and doctors. This film reflects the tension between health service and moral judgment in Indonesia. The last segment entitled Ragat’e Anak (Our Children’s Fund) directed by Ucu Agustin dwells the life of two single mothers (Nur and Mira) who are hammering and selling stone by day and being a prostitute by night in order to support the education of their child.
While omnibus production encourages many documentary filmmakers collectively taking a single issue, there is still a documentary film production by one filmmaker with support of local non-governmental organization. Daniel Rudi Haryanto’s Prison and Paradise (2010) is an exemple of this type of documentary. Supported by Prasasti Production and Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian, this documentary was intended as part of the trauma healing process for both the Bali bombing victims’ and perpetrators’ families. It also offers different images of radical Islam in contemporary Indonesia, in non-stereotypical ways. As Haryanto states: “I would like to show the problem arising from Jihadis and their families. I would like also to address the discourse on terrorism, jihad, Islamist political movement, war on terror agenda, and how this discourse shapes the future of the children, both of perpetrator’s as well as victims.”
Prison and Paradise took almost 7 years (from 2003 to 2010) of production during when Haryanto continuously recorded the daily lives of both families and combined with 14 hours incredible interviews with those whom masterminded the bombings such as, Ali Imron, Amrozi Nurhasyim, Ali Gufron and Imam Samudra who are behind bars in Nusakambangan island in Central Java, before they are sent to the death penalty. Although Haryanto interviewed the subjects (masterminds, victims’ and perpetrators’ families) in his film, the way Haryanto won the trust of their subject was simply amazing, as it required extra patience, understanding and negotiations.
This documentary opened with the Quran reciting by Aldi (a son of convicted bombing perpetrator Mubarok) and Qonita (a daughter of the bombing victim Imawan Sardjono) to highlight that both victims’ and perpetrators’ families of Bali bombing came from the same Islamic background. This film delicately weaves the confessions of the masterminds of the bombing and the impacts of the bombing to both victims’ and perpetrators’ families. The bombings in Indonesia have obviously created many orphaned children, both in perpetrators’ and victims’ families. Interestingly, after many years of the Bali bombings, those two families reconciled and gradually built up a warm relationship. Therefore, the main concern of this film is precisely a humanity element aftermath the Bali bombing rather than a comprehensive explanation of the root of terrorism that caused the bombing. As Haryanto says in the interview: “Families on both sides are suffering equally. In later life, the children of these bombers tend to be more introverted and keep to themselves because they are alienated from their friends and society. The strong stigma of it hampers their education, since they have to move around a lot. The children of bombing victims, on the other hand, need support to grow, not only in terms of education, but moral support as well.” (Fitri, 2010).
Using a minimal crew (in fact, only Haryanto himself, recording visual and sound), having the voice-over by the former journalist Noorhuda Ismail as one of the perpetrators in structuring the film narrative, and make the subjects speak their mind and express their emotion, this film offers a personal perspective of violence that is motivated by religion. In certain parts, Haryanto simply inserted some television footage of the Bali bombing to provide general background information for the audiences who do not have any prior knowledge about that incident. He even lent his other camera to a daughter of the bombing victim to record anything she likes while Haryanto was continuously recording her activity. This perhaps reflects the level of intimacy between filmmaker with the subjects and the immediacy of the events recorded by the filmmaker.
Meanwhile, Shalahuddin Siregar’s Negeri di Bawah Kabut (The Land Beneath the Fog)(2012) captures the unseen changes in a remote mountain village, Genikan, at the slope of Merbabu Mountain in the Java Island, dealing with issues of access to education, traditional farming system, climate change, and other cataclysmic changes. On the surface, there are no dramatic changes in Genikan village, but along the personal narratives of the subjects and meticulous observation, Siregar incredibly captures the subtle yet significant changes happening in the village. Moreover, climate change, rather than an elite discourse, has a real impact on those families as everything in the village is closely connected. As Siregar says, “During the shooting period, I did not expect to find big dramatic moments or tear-jerking scenes. My intention is to build meaningful narratives from simple scenes. Each scene traces complexity of ‘feeling’ or ‘moods,’ more than focusing on facts and information. I preferred to use rather still and static pictures, because I want to preserve the slow and repetitive rhythm that dominates everyday life in this village.” In this documentary, Siregar shows how he has wonderfully built up a close relationship with the characters rather than presented their external milieu.
Negeri di Bawah Kabut (The Land Beneath the Fog) documents the lives of two farmer families (Muryati and Sudardi), who always relied on the traditional calendar system to read the seasons. However, the season became unpredictable and caused the failure in the harvests. This situation was even getting worse, and the farmers were distressed as the crop prices were always low in the market. Meanwhile, a son of one of the families (Arifin) has to face the uncertain future of his education after graduating from the primary school, as his family cannot support him financially.
The interesting thing from Negeri di Bawah Kabut (The Land Beneath the Fog) is the viewer gradually got intimate with the characters as the stories evolved. Instead of focusing on events, the viewer more interested in the characters. This is precisely the aim of the filmmaker to make all the characters in his film as close as possible to the viewer (audience). In an interview, Siregar remarked that one of the flaws of Indonesian documentaries is a lack of characters (Sekarjati, 2011). This is understandable since most documentary filmmakers in Indonesia are too busy with the theme/issue and story, thus, overlooking the characters or argue and justify the issue is being raised. By using many long takes (almost no interruptions), Siregar captures events in an authentic way and records the characters (subjects) in their natural environment. Another way to capture the naturalness of the characters in this film was having almost no interviews and voice-over; hence, the characters speak to each other in their own way and provide some interesting or unexpected conversations.
Ucu Agustin’s Konspirasi Hening (Conspiracy of Silence) (2011) was part of public advocacy which dealt with the issues of public health care and medical malpractices in Indonesia. This film records the difficult struggle of the victim of medical malpractice to get a justice and the lack of access to the health care, especially for poor people in Indonesia. There are three subjects in this film whose right to health service have been violated: two victims of medical malpractice (Siti Chomsatun and Juliana) and one poor man (Agus) who has no access to health service. In other words, this documentary illustrates the failure of health service in Indonesia from different perspectives.
Given difficult access of the filmmaker to get information directly from the hospital regarding medical malpractice, the filmmaker used a hidden camera attached on the body of a subject to record the ‘honest’ response from the doctor and hospital. From the encounter between the victim and hospital, the audience knows that the route to get justice in Indonesia is long and tiring. Meanwhile, this film also captures the difficulties of poor people, who are living along the railway in the bad conditions, to get health care since they do not have an identity card issued by the local government.
In different way, Dongeng Rangkas (Rangkasbitung, A Piece of Tale, 2011) is a collaborative documentary between Forum Lenteng (founded by Andang Kelana, Andy Rahmatullah, Hafiz, Maulana M.Pasha, Mahardika Yudha, and Otty) in Jakarta and Saidjah Forum in Lebak that is part of ‘Akumassa’ project organized by Forum Lenteng. This project is a form of media education for local communities across Indonesia to raise awareness of the potency of media for social/political empowerment. Through facilitation in filmmaking, local communities are expected to record their own environment and local issues by themselves. Documentary film is an apt medium to achieve this objective.
Dongeng Rangkas tells a story of ordinary life of two young people (Yadi Supriadi a.k.a ‘Kiwong’ and Iwan Mulyawan a.k.a. ‘Iron’) living in a small town called Rangkasbitung (120 kilometers from the capital Jakarta) who play death metal music at night and sell tofu at day. The interesting thing from this documentary is not the stark contrast of the protagonists’ lifestyle, but rather the spirit of independence. For the young people from a small town, playing ‘underground’ music is likely a statement of their independence. Kiwong and Iron play music not for gig or public performance, but simply in order to nurture their own interest in music. This documentary also portrays the dynamics of a small town and the aspirations of Indonesian young people to get a better life as promised by the political changes in 1998.
This film chooses a bold and uncommon theme compared to most documentaries in Indonesia. Instead of dealing with common social issue in Indonesia, such as poverty, this documentary captures aspirations of ordinary young people from a small town through a subtle and delicate treatment. Unlike most documentaries, this film keeps its rhythm by weaving the mundane or routine of Kiwong’s and Iron’s life at the day with the high speed of music played by them at the night. Interestingly, this film avoids offering a simplistic conclusion of the conditions of its subjects and leaves open the interpretation to the audience. It can be argued that this film is a successful collaboration between local community with a non-governmental organization since it was able to capture the details of local problems and unique characters from a small town.
There has been a significant transformation of Indonesian documentaries from propaganda and explanatory to observational mode of presentation. The use of long takes, natural lighting, direct sound, minimal voice over/interviews, no re-enactment, and a sense of minimal intervention, as main characteristics of observational documentary are becoming a common practice in contemporary Indonesian documentaries. However, unlike the contemporary documentary in the West, it is still hard to find out reflexive documentaries which give emphasis on the encounter between filmmaker and the viewer rather than the filmmaker and the subject, as a form of an interrogation of the possibilities of cinematic representation. This is perhaps caused by a moral obligation of documentary filmmakers to response both politically and aesthetically to the tremendous social problems in Indonesia. Moreover, the marginalized position of documentaries in Indonesia itself has unavoidably made filmmakers articulate their ‘critical’ (oppositional) views on current socio-political conditions.
Clearly contemporary documentaries have various themes that are in tune with contemporary situations in Indonesia such as sexual identity of minority group, access to the healthcare and education, the impacts of terrorism, effects of climate change, and the youth aspirations in the midst of tremendous social and political changes. Rather than exploring and presenting these big issues in such a dramatic way, documentary filmmakers are choosing experiential and personal approach as reflected in the way they portray the daily life of their subjects. This makes contemporary Indonesian documentaries are less didactic, but it rather invokes an emphatic view towards the subject and reveals the multifaceted social issues from a personal point of view.
Meanwhile, in order to reduce the cost of film production and give more flexibility in the production process, most contemporary documentary films in Indonesia are made in digital format rather than celluloid (either 35 mm or 18 mm). Moreover, given that the funding is still a big challenge for filmmakers, there are different modes production in documentary films in Indonesia. While some documentary filmmakers work alone (both as film director and scriptwriter) with the support of non-governmental organization, some prefer to work collectively by doing an omnibus production. Another mode of production is working together with the local community as part of a media education project or social/political empowerment. Finally, it is too early to figure out the future of Indonesian documentaries as they are deeply affected by many factors: the contour of political landscape, the revolutionary development of audio-visual technology, and the passion of the young filmmakers to shape their society through film medium.
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Hanan, D. (2012). Observational documentary comes to Indonesia: Aryo Danusiri’s Lukas’ Moment. In T. Baurgartel, (Ed.), Southeast Asian independent cinema. (pp. 105-118). Singapore: NUS Press.
Haryanto, D. R. (n.d.). Dimana posisi Prison and Paradise? Unpublished paper.
Irawanto, B. (2010). Contemporary Indonesian independent documentary in the Yogyakarta Documentary Film Festival: a note from juror’s seat. Asian Cinema, (21) 2, pp. 150-162.
Prakosa, G. (1997). Film pinggiran: antologi film pendek, film eksperimental & film documenter. Jakarta: FFTV-IKJ & YLP.
Sekarjati, A. (2011). Salahuddin Siegar: uang penting untuk kesinambungan karya. At http://filmindonesia.or.id/article/shalahuddin-siregar-uang-penting-untuk-kesinambungan-karya#.T6kbW2AwjLY (Access 09 May 2012)
Sen, K. (1994). Indonesian cinema: framing the New Order. London: Zed.
Trimarsanto, T. (2011). Renita, Renita: catatan proses membuat film dokumenter. Klaten: Rumah Dokumenter.
Budi Irawanto is director of Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (JAFF), a premier Asian film festival in Indonesia. He is also a lecturer of film studies at the Department of Communication Studies, Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
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