Indonesia spreads its wings
For decades, Indonesian filmmakers have toiled away in relative obscurity. Apart from the occasional festival appearance, and a fanboy following for the nation’s low-budget exploitation flicks, the world has been mostly unaware that Indonesia has a bustling domestic film industry.
“There hasn’t been much awareness of Indonesian cinema at an international level,” says Jakarta-based producer and festival programmer John Badalu. “We don’t have the same position in world cinema as Thailand or the Philippines. We’ve had a lot more festival exposure recently, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
However, Badalu adds that Indonesian action movie The Raid [pictured] is starting to open doors in a way that the country has never seen before. Directed by Welshman Gareth Huw Evans, and produced by his Indonesian-Japanese wife Maya Barack-Evans, this lightening-paced martial arts film was released by Sony in the US this March and has been kickboxing its way onto global screens ever since. With a sequel, Berandal, and English-language remake already in the works, it’s shaping up to be a successful franchise that could raise interest in Indonesian film in the same way that the Ong Bak series did for Thai movies.
But action is only one aspect of what Indonesian cinema has to offer. The country churned out hundreds of trashy horrors in the 1980s during the Suharto era, films with racy titles such as The Queen Of Black Magic and Virgins From Hell, which later developed a cult following on Western video labels including the UK’s Mondo Macabro. The good times ended with the rise of Hollywood and Hong Kong cinema in the ‘90s and by the start of the millennium local production was down to a handful of films a year. But in the post-Suharto era, a wider range of producers emerged, who made more and better films, and output climbed steadily to around 80 films a year.
While the trashy horror still exists, Indonesia now produces films ranging from mainstream dramas, romances and comedies – sometimes with patriotic or Islamic themes – to new wave horror and festival-friendly arthouse fare. Naturally, it’s the action and horror that is starting to win international distributors’ attention, while the arthouse films are building momentum on the festival circuit.
This year, Edwin’s Postcards From The Zoo became the first Indonesian film in Berlin competition, while Peculiar Vacation And Other Illnesses, directed by Yosep Anggi Noen, premiered at Locarno. In March, Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s Lovely Man picked up best actor at the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong for Donnie Damara’s portrayal of a transvestite prostitute bonding with his devout Muslim daughter. Several other titles are expected to appear at festivals either late this year or early next (see list below).
Meanwhile, experimental filmmakers such as Joko Anwar and the Mo Brothers have turned Indonesia’s horror tradition on its head. Anwar’s Modus Anomali left viewers shocked, slightly puzzled, but certainly not bored, at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, while expectations are high for the Mo Brothers’s upcoming Killers, a co-production with Japan about serial killers competing on the internet.
The creative spirit of the country’s genre filmmaking was recognised at this year’s Network of Asian Fantastic Films (NAFF) at PiFan in Korea, which selected Indonesia for its annual Project Spotlight. Five projects were pitched, ranging from Lucky Kuswandi’s comedy crime thriller,Curious Grandmas: The Murder Of Annet Van Houten, to Rusli Eddy’s hardcore slasher Homestay. If nothing else, the pitches demonstrated that Indonesia, with its myriad mythologies and hundreds of deserted islands, is fertile territory for making a horror movie.
The big question is whether all this creativity has a solid domestic market in which to flourish and the simple answer is that so far it really doesn’t. The market peaked in 2008 with 32 millions admissions for local films but has since been steadily declining to just 14 million in 2011. In fairness, last year was an exceptional case – local distributors stopped importing Hollywood movies following a dispute over unpaid back taxes, which ironically hit the local industry as audiences decided to give cinemas a miss. Overall box office slumped by more than 50%.
This year started on a better footing – Hollywood films have returned to screens and The Raid racked up 1.8 million admissions in March. But the market is not growing as it should due to the uneven quality of local films and the fact that the cinema industry remains heavily monopolised. Cinema 21 Group retains a stranglehold over distribution and exhibition and there are stringent restrictions on foreign investment. As a result, Indonesia only has 675 screens for a population of 245 million.
However, production volume has remained constant and the local industry still has access to private funding. “Most films are financed by local private investors, although for arthouse films you still need to turn to Europe,” explains local film industry consultant Lalu Roisamri. “Of course there are limited screens for arthouse films and they usually play only one or two weeks.”
Local producer Shanty Harmayn says it’s important that producers focus on quality and innovation, otherwise the finance that it is still available will start to dry up. “Right now there’s a lot of low-budget horror and horror comedy being made for a quick buck, but box office is going down because the audience is getting tired,” explains Harmayn, who works with acclaimed filmmakers including Rudy Soedjarwo and Ifa Isfansyah. “Audiences have more income now and therefore more choices. We need to take more care about what we’re doing otherwise the investors will find another industry and go away.”
It’s clear that the country could use a policy rethink – and that area looks more promising than it has done for several years due to a government reshuffle and talk of the creation of an Indonesian Film Council.
Understood to be a priority of Mari Elka Pangestu, head of the recently formed Ministry for Tourism & Creative Economy, the new body would be independent of government, but review film policy and establish support programmes for local film. “Support would cover production, marketing and promotion and encourage foreign films to shoot in Indonesia,” says Roisamri who is part of a planning committee. “However we haven’t started talking about numbers yet.”
Harmayn says the new body could be a crucial step in the development of the local film industry, but many questions remain: “Who will run it? What will it’s scope be? And will it support the industry with significant funds and smart policies? But we’re hopeful and the government has already been supporting our films at festivals – for example they had a big presence at Berlin this year.”
Indeed, the new body has the potential to help develop Indonesian film in the same way that the Korean Film Council did 15 years ago for Korean cinema, which now has a high profile both internationally and at home. One of the first issues it could examine is Indonesia’s chronic lack of screens – rumours constantly swirl that Korean exhibitors such as CJ and Lotte want to access the market but are finding it difficult. Harmayn says there is also a need to train local producers and increase knowledge of international marketing. With so much talent emerging and a huge domestic population behind it, this could be the perfect time to put Indonesia cinema on the map.