Indonesian drama Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts by female director Mouly Surya triumphed at this year’s Indonesian Film Festival – equivalent to the Oscars in the US. It won ten awards, including best film, best director, best cinematography and best lead actress.
Described as a “satay western” in industry publication Variety, the film is a powerful feminist work set in the dry, sparse hills of Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara. After screening at Cannes Film Festival and as Indonesia’s entry for the Oscars, it represents Indonesian cinema’s rapid ascent to the world stage.
Marlina competed for best film against three other films – romantic drama film Aruna dan Lidahnya (Aruna and Her Palate) by Edwin (last year’s winner for best director), award-winning film Sekala Niskala (The Seen and Unseen) by Kamila Andini, and biopic Sultan Agung by Hanung Bramantyo.
Indonesia’s best films of the year are rarely the most popular films at the box office. This year’s two top films are romantic flick Dilan 1990 with 6.3 million viewers, followed by horror movie Suzzanna: Bernapas dalam Kubur with 3.2 million viewers.
Despite having no big audiences, the four Indonesian Film Festival nominations are indicative of broader changes occurring in the country’s film industry as it marks two decades since the end of the New Order regime.
Since the collapse of the New Order regime in May 1998, four Indonesian films have been featured at Cannes – arguably the world’s premier film festival. Edwin, the director of Aruna dan Lidahnya, became the third Indonesian to screen at Cannes with his short film Kara, Anak Sebatang Pohon (Kara, The Daughter of A Tree) in 2005, after senior auteur Garin Nugroho with Daun di Atas Bantal (Leaf on A Pillow) in 1998 and Serambi in 2006, and Eros Djarot with epic film Tjoet Nja’ Dhien in 1989.
Recognition at Cannes is a symbolic marker of the rise of a new generation of Indonesian filmmakers and the strength of their talent, innovation and hard work. Other film festivals have also become regular stops for Indonesian filmmakers every year now. Sekala Niskala won awards at festivals in Berlin, Germany; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Adelaide, Australia.
Marlina and Aruna also mark the growing transnational collaborations that are bringing Indonesian cinema to markets outside Indonesia.
Marlina was a multinational co-production that included AstroShaw (Malaysia), HOOQ (Singapore), Purin Pictures (Thailand) and Shasha & Co Production (France).
Aruna is the sixth title co-produced by South Korea’s CJ Entertainment. Its first foray into Indonesian cinema came by way of a US$10,000 production grant for Joko Anwar’s 2015 film A Copy of My Mind, followed by horror hit Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slaves) in 2017. CJ co-produced Pengabdi Setan with local production house Rapi Film. Through the partnership, Pengabdi Setan has been distributed to 40 territories worldwide.
CJ also invested in exhibition when its subsidiary CGV purchased Indonesia’s second major cinema operator, BlitzMegaplex, in 2015.
More and more foreign investors are seeing Indonesia as the next big market. This progress can in part be traced back to the international success of action film The Raid released in 2011. Its main stars, Iko Uwais, Joe Taslim and Yayan Ruhian, have been picked up for multiple roles including a cameo in Hollywood box-office hit Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The big American giants are increasingly looking to Indonesia not just as a location but as a source of stories and talent.
Rich Indonesian flavours
All four films enrich Indonesia’s sense of nationhood by exploring questions of culture and history.
In Sekala Niskala, Kamila Andini follows the legacy of her father, Garin Nugroho, in creating a richly ethnographic image of Balinese culture that speaks to the nation’s diversity.
Aruna celebrates Indonesia’s rich culinary traditions based on author Laksmi Pamuntjak’s exploration of Indonesian food and cooking.
As with Sultan Agung, director Hanung Bramantyo has turned to historical epics as a source of stories that also ruminate on Indonesian history. His next major project is an adaptation of Bumi Manusia, based on the book by Indonesia’s great writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer. The movie is set to be the big story of 2019.
Marlina, Sekala Niskala and Sultan Agung are all made outside the film-making centre of the capital Jakarta. In particular, Yogyakarta is fast becoming a second centre with many filmmakers choosing to live or shoot in the city. Hanung, a native of the city, now often works there and Kamila Andini teaches at the new Jogja Film Academy.
Reducing production costs and avoiding traffic jams might be prime motivations, but working in Yogyakarta also gives filmmakers space to think and create stories that reimagine a different version of Indonesia.
A notable group of filmmakers that includes Yosep Anggi Noen (Istirahatlah Kata-Kata), Ismail Basbeth (The Carousel Never Stops Turning), Ifa Isfansyah (Sang Penari – The Dancer) and Garin now operate out of Yogyakarta.
Indonesia’s film industry is leading when it comes to women making a profound impact as lead figures and vocal proponents of reform.
Director Mira Lesmana, producer Shanty Harmayn, musician Melly Goeslaw, script writer Prima Rusdi and others were leading figures in the Indonesian film society movement. They protested the 2006 Indonesian Film Festival when it awarded best film to Ekskul (Nayato Fio Nuala) because the film plagiarised music. They also challenged the constitutionality of the Censorship Board in court to force legal and institutional reform.
In her acceptance speech after winning best director, Mouly Surya urged: “All the women here who dream of becoming a film director, you can do it.” Alongside Mouly Surya and Kamila Andini, many female directors such as Upi (My Stupid Boss), Viva Westi (Jendral Soedirman) and Nia Dinata (Ini Kisah Tiga Dara) already have prominent roles as directors and scriptwriters.
The stories behind the Indonesian Film Festival tell us a lot about the profound changes and developments in Indonesian cinema over the past two decades.
More local audiences are watching local films, bringing total admissions in 2017 to 42.7 million. That’s more than double the annual figure from three years prior.
Indonesian film production is vibrant, with more than 100 titles released every year. Most importantly, Indonesian films are of a quality that rivals the best in the world. 2019 will therefore be a year to watch in Indonesian cinema.