Indonesia is Filming: Documentaries for the Wide World
Shooting in a mountain village near Yogyakarta, Indonesia (Copyright: Goethe-Institut Jakarta)
13 July 2012
Like polar bears at the South Pole – that’s how rare documentaries from the Southeast Asian nation of millions were. Now, a film project by the Goethe-Institut changed that and urged Indonesia’s filmmakers to discover how fascinating the everyday lives of their fellow citizens can be. By Christina Schott
When the first rays of early morning light twinkle over the Merbabu volcano, the moist fog is still hanging thickly above the central Javanese village of Genikan. Farmers lug fresh feed down the mountain slope to the stable. A young woman fuels the fire in her timber house to make tea. While she clips her sleeping baby’s fingernails, an eleven year old readies himself for school.
In the lives of two families, the Indonesian filmmaker Shalahuddin SiregarIn uses poetic images to tell the story of a Javanese mountain village where traditional everyday life is impaired by climate change. With a little luck, the ninety-minute documentary film The Land Beneath the Fog will be shown next year at international film festivals.
“Just a few years ago I would not have imagined making such a film,” says the director from the crisis-ridden province of Aceh, who previously came to note through two socially committed short films. “I used to think of the documentary film mainly as a medium of journalism used to report on a specific event. It only became clear to me that it can be different after I saw a French documentary that consisted simply of observations, without any interviews. I was fascinated and at the same time surprised that the film was nonetheless not at all boring.”
New stimuli and an eye openerIn fact, with the exception of the legendary filmmaker Garin Nugroho, not many Indonesian directors have made it to international screens and certainly not with a cinema-format documentary film. The fact that 32-year-old Siregar managed this escape from the ordinary is mainly due to a long-term project by the Goethe-Institut Indonesia. Seven film crews improved their skills during the multi-part workshop DocLab Indonesia as part of the Culture and Development initiative. “Although the Indonesian feature film scene is evolving rapidly, documentary films have never been considered a form of creative expression here – the subject isn’t even taught at our film academies,” explains the internationally experienced film critic Lisabona Rahman. “Indonesian documentaries deal solely with scandals and major events.”
Changing this was the objective of the first documentary film workshop in April 2008, which the film activist developed together with the German director Sebastian Winkels and Marla Stukenberg, then the programme director of the Goethe-Institut in Jakarta. They were provided support by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the Jakarta Arts Council. “At the beginning, we watched films from morning until evening. That was necessary to create a fundamental understanding of our point. The participants were able to see that films can be made about everyday things such as family or friends, which are quite exciting,” according to project manager Rahman.
Shooting for “The Land Beneath the Fog” (Copyright: Goethe-Institut Jakarta)
Most of the crews quickly recognized what it was all about and got right to work. Under the main heading 10 Years of Reformasi five short films were produced that deal with life in Indonesia one decade after the down-throw of the dictator Suharto. The results were worth seeing. One of the films was screened at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen and the makers were invited to the Talent Campus of the 2011 Berlinale. All of the five shorts were presented at festivals in Dresden, Lyon and Milan. “This intermediate success was very crucial. The Berlinale was like an eye opener once the participants realized that an audience is out there waiting for them,” explains workshop head Sebastian Winkels.
Networking, education and advanced trainingThis success led to the decision by the Goethe-Institut to continue the project for an extended period of time as part of the Capacity Development field of the Culture and Development initiative. In addition, participants were supported with scholarships from the Ford Foundation. “We want to see whether Indonesian filmmakers can make it to the international stage if they have ideal basic financial and technical backup provided to them; admittedly, it is a pretty ambitious approach,” says Katrin Sohns, regional consultant for the initiative in Southeast Asia.
Starting in 2012 DocLab Indonesia will become part of a regional training programme, DocNet Southeast Asia. With support from the European Union, workshops, seminars and film festivals will be organized regularly in Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the Philippines that network the locally active scenes for the first time and offer young filmmakers educational and further training opportunities.
Workshop DocNet Southeast Asia in June 2011 (Copyright: Goethe-Institut Jakarta)
Finally, in 2012, three film crews took on the challenge in Jakarta of producing cinema documentaries. Two of them will be presented for this first time this year: Siregar’s The Land Beneath the Fog and Genok and Gareng by Dwi Sujanti Nugraheni. “I was determined to make a film that shows everyday life,” relates the 35-year old political scientist and literary scholar.
Genok and Gareng tells the story of two former street children who start a family and set up a pig farm in the middle of Muslim Java. They sell their products mainly to Chinese customers to make a living and be able to send their children to school. Not all of their neighbours and friends are pleased, however, with this “impure” undertaking.
Jumping in at the deep endNugraheni, a former social worker, knew her protagonists for many years. In her very personal film she gets very close to the family and repeatedly uncovers new facets of their remarkable lives. “We were the workshop guinea pigs. We were the crew with the least experience, but with the best access to the subject matter. So, we were jumping in at the deep end without much preparation,” the self-taught filmmaker relates. “In the process, I learned a great deal from my main characters: They started out with nothing, were constantly confronted with new problems and nonetheless always kept on going.”
Workshop leader Sebastian Winkels is convinced that it was worth it. “Other crews had more previous professional experience, but they simply lacked the patience for the prolonged production process of a documentary film,” says the graduate of the Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg, who has received a number of awards for his extraordinary documentaries.
In the first stages, however, the goal was not necessarily that every crew put a ninety-minute documentary film on screen, but focused on technical skills, film theory and structured thought processes when writing screenplays and organizing productions. Other important factors were the procurement of two sets of professional camera and audio equipment and two editing suites. “At the end, a DVD doesn’t necessarily need to be put on the shelf – the success lies instead in the process of learning and working,” according to Sebastian Winkels. “It was clear from the outset that this process was not without risks. Basically, no one can promise a successful outcome of a film project before the final edit; even experienced filmmakers often can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Access to equipment: In addition to cameras and sound equipment, there are also two editing suites (Copyright: Goethe-Institut Jakarta)
Director Nugraheni rallies an agonized smile at this remark: It took her months to produce a four-hour rough cut from 130 hours of film material. “I think we only managed to keep going because we wanted to continue to learn.” Now, Nugraheni and her cameraman Kurnia Yudha are considered young talents in Indonesia’s film scene and manage the documentary film festival in their hometown of Yogyakarta.
“Unlike Germans, Indonesians like to improvise”The third film is now in the making. Its working title is To Die Before Blossoming. In it, the 41-year-old documentary filmmaker Ariani Djalal tells about the coming of age of two young girls in the sultanate city of Yogyakarta, who, due to the increasing Islamization of Indonesian society, are under a great deal of pressure to become good Muslims. The director, herself a mother of two sons, mainly observes the teenagers familial and school backgrounds. Djalal was faced with a problem feared by all documentary filmmakers: After three months of shooting, the original protagonists suddenly lost interest in the film project.
The graduate of philosophy did not even allow a boycott by a teacher to dissuade her from her idea and started over again with two other girls. “I never worked from a purely observational perspective before,” says Djalal. “Although I can’t foresee how my film will be received by the audience, I’d like to convince all of my colleagues to work in this method.”
Shooting in the everyday routine of an Indonesian family (Copyright: Goethe-Institut Jakarta)
Mentor Sebastian Winkels also learned a great deal from his time in Indonesia. The 43-year-old, who had already conducted a film workshop for the Goethe-Institut in Cameroon, never accompanied the crews to their shootings in order to avoid further complicating the already difficult interaction between the filmmakers and protagonists. Therefore, the intercultural analyses usually did not occur until the results were presented. However, debate and criticism are not necessarily among the strengths of the harmony-loving Javanese people. The open workshop process in which the work of each film crew was repeatedly discussed and critiqued by others was not an easy one for many participants.
“Unlike Germans, who plan all the details from the start, Indonesians like to improvise,” explains director Djalal. “For the Indonesian filmmakers, the intensive preliminary research for a detailed scheme seemed too cumbersome and they felt they were under pressure. Yet instruction in conceptual thinking was the most important part of the whole workshop: the longer I followed this programme, the more I understood the sense behind it.”
Of course, ultimately the respective directors have the last word on the form of their finished work. “After all, it’s not about me sitting down and doing the film editing for the participants,” says Sebastian Winkels. “Instead I hope that they gain so much self-confidence over the course of the programme that they can assert themselves on the international film screens without our help.”
This article – slightly abridged – was taken from the latest issue of the Goethe-Magazin. You can discover even more exciting reports, backgrounds, and interviews on the subject in Kultur und Entwicklung.