Indonesia's cinematic diversity is the focus of this year's event.
17 Aug 2011 - 4:03 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

In an article published in The Jakarta Globe in February, writer Marcel Thee complained that the film production scene in Indonesia was in a poor state, so much so that they were moved to write, “It's fair to say that the local film scene has been a laughing stock for years.” This is because, Thee argues, Indonesian cinema has been overwhelmed by a production slate dominated by genre films offering an “exhausted circus of cleavage and ghouls”. Of course this kind of sweeping critique needs to be qualified, contested, and interrogated; similar statements about other small filmmaking nations like, say, Australia, Britain and Canada, are loaded with cultural baggage and influenced by the notion that all filmmakers, no matter where they are from, must in some way compete one-to-one with the corporate US production model.

One of the aims of the Indonesian Film Festival, says festival manager Yolanda Yasinta, is to express not just the diversity of the nation, but also the diversity of the filmmaking.

More Indonesian Film Festival coverage
Listen to an interiew with Batas actor and producer Marcella Zalianty (in Indonesian).
Listen to an interiew with Tebus producer Harris Nizam (in Indonesian).
Listen to an interiew with Red Umbrella director Edward Gunawan (in Indonesian).
Listen to an interiew with Boy's Diary director and producer Putrama Tuta (in Indonesian).

In its own modest way, it's a pointed rejoinder to the assertion that Indonesia cinema must compete with Hollywood to be relevant. Though small – the IFF, which opens in Melbourne on Friday, has only programmed nine pictures – Yasinta says that as a group, the films in the program express the multicultural nature of Indonesia, its conflicts, its promise and its beauty.

“Indonesia is very modern but it also, in parts, has great poverty,” she says. “It's a place where the government recognises five religions officially… and we have tried to show [all of these] in our program.”

Perhaps the most controversial of the films says Yasinta, at least in Indonesia, is '?' Question Mark (Tanda Tanya). Directed by Hanung Bramantyo, the film is a frank plea for religious tolerance in the form of a domestic melodrama and it's been a big hit at home. But it's also been scorned by fundamentalists who, according to one commentator, have described the film as a “hate piece against Islam”.

“We thought it was brave and truthful,” says Yasinta. By contrast, Boy's Diary (Catatan Harian Si Boy, pictured) is as light, buoyant and frothy as '?' Question Mark is serious. As fans of Indonesian cinema would know, Catatan Si Boy (1987), directed by Nasri Cheppy, has become a cult item with Indonesia's twenty somethings. A huge hit in its day, it grew into a franchise with five sequels. In the series, star Didi Petet kept a diary and it's this key prop that figures significantly in the new film, which is the directorial debut for Putrama Tuta. The plot involves the teenage daughter of Boy's sweetheart and her efforts to reunite the former lovers.

The IFF's opening night film, Batas (Border), explores tensions in the remote rural regions of Indonesia, and the very different lifestyles from the upscale life of urbanites. Directed by Rudi Soedjarwo, the film concerns a volunteer who is working on the border with Malaysia, in the jungles of Borneo; it's a place where corporate ideology collides head-on with poverty and tradition. Producer Marcela Zalianty and actors Ardina Rasti and Piet Pagau will be guests of the festival.

Genre filmmaking gets a run in the IFF with a number of pictures, including the award-winning short supernatural chiller Red Umbrella (Payung Merah) by Andri Cung and Edward Gunawan; the revenge thriller Redemption (Tebus) by Muhammad Yusuf, about a successful businessman and his family who are plagued by a deadly force of mysterious men. Then there's The Perfect House, directed by Affandi Abdul Rachman. This is the producing debut for actor Vera Lasut (a festival guest). The film seems modelled in the current fashion for psycho-thrillers that offer a core of dramatic sophistication while delivering horror-style shocks and shivers. The plot involves a remote location (an old plantation, in fact), a spooky house, and domineering matriarch and a 'gifted' child.

Yasinta says that amongst her favorite films in the festival is Belkibolang, which features nine short films, all made by young, emerging and different directors, and all set during one night in Jakarta. The film, which explores the urban experience, the fateful chance encounter and the way our environment impacts on our emotions moment to moment, has already met with some success on the international film festival circuit.

Supported by the Victorian Government and the Indonesia consulate, Yasinta says that the IFF is essentially a grass-roots operation. Most of the volunteer staff are students from Indonesia, like Yasinta, who are currently enrolled in courses at Melbourne University. The program was curated by Yasinta, Zendi Rizki Tjandra and Ronald Wicaksana. She says that even though about 70 or so movies were made in the last year in Indonesia, their selection was restricted to films that have yet to be released on DVD Indonesia. In the end, though, Yasinta and her colleagues are very happy with this year's IFF program. Like so many small festivals, it's a low-budget affair, driven she says by enthusiasm and the desire to expose non-Indonesians to their lives and film culture. “We hope we can bring the festivals to a few other national capitals next year,” she says.