Feb 23, 2024 Last Updated 12:52 AM, Feb 22, 2024

Maximum impact

Published: Jul 03, 2023

Egbert Wits 

Around the world social issue documentaries have become mainstream. In Indonesia the documentary Pulau Plastik had a general cinema release in 2021, while streaming platforms now offer a variety of social issue documentaries to local audiences. But the traditional method employed by filmmakers of screening at festivals abroad and then, once a bit of a buzz is created, having a successful release in Indonesia, is becoming outdated. The industry is changing and Indonesian filmmakers are increasingly aware of the need to catch up if their work is to have the impact they hope it will.

Film impact production is the creation and management of strategic campaigns of social action and movement-building around films aimed at contributing to positive change. It is a relatively new field globally, but especially so in Indonesia. The job title ‘Impact Producer’ given to the person responsible for designing and implementing a film’s strategic impact campaign, was coined by Britdoc in 2012 and became well known via a blog post by Jennifer MacArthur. Since then, efforts to maximise a film’s potential to contribute to social change have accelerated and become increasingly strategic and well funded. 

Pulau Plastik screened in cinemas across the country and was later released via streaming giant Netflix

In a meeting with Indonesian filmmakers in preparation for Goodpitch 2024 Indonesia in April 2023, it was clear that impact production is still largely treated as an afterthought. Most of the filmmakers in attendance had either already finished or were about to finish their films, and it was only then that they were beginning to turn their attention to their distribution and impact campaigns. Arguably this is too late. There is great potential for Indonesian filmmakers to contribute to pressing social and environmental issues, but to do so they need a strong impact distribution plan that will help them to reach their target audience and ultimately, to have a chance at effecting real change.

Strategies for impact

The Impact Field Guide, regarded as the bible of impact production by many, was released in Indonesia this year with the help of In-Docs. This is a useful resource for Indonesian activists and filmmakers wanting to know more about impact production. However, it remains Western-centred and out of its large collection of case studies only one, The Act of Killing, is focused on Indonesia. Another guide recently made available in Indonesian is the Video for Change Impact Toolkit. This extensive guide focuses on short-form, mostly low-budget, documentaries. Videos that are aimed at contributing to social change in close collaboration with affected communities. The toolkit offers more Indonesian case studies and context, but again has its limitations. Its strong focus on change and co-creation with local communities might discourage more artistically inclined filmmakers who want to make feature-length documentaries, for example.

Very valuable lessons on the role a social documentary film can play in public debate can be drawn from WatchDoc’s recent film Sexy Killers (2019). Viewed online nearly 40 million times, it sparked a nationwide debate about the hegemony of the political oligarchy behind Indonesia’s coal mining activities. The film asks serious questions about Indonesia’s reliance on polluting fossil fuels for its electricity needs. Its release, just before the Presidential elections of 2019, could hardly have been more timely. 

In a similar way, in 2018 a scandal about the marketing of condensed milk for babies (susu kental manis) was triggered by a Remotivi short video. As a consequence of the public uproar that ensued, the word ‘susu’ (milk) is no longer included on the packaging of this ubiquitous household product. What’s more, nearly everyone in Indonesia today knows that the contents of these little cans or sachets have very little to do with milk.

How big is the potential for Film Impact Production in Indonesia?

Advancing the field of impact production in Indonesia includes identifying the unique challenges and opportunities faced by filmmakers, activists and impact producers there. Most filmmakers struggle to produce their films let alone secure funding for impact campaigns. Securing impact-oriented funding for social issue films in Indonesia is rare. Western donors that focus on film impact production, like IRIS, Perspective Fund or the Storyboard Collective, are largely absent from Indonesia’s funding ecosystem. There are also barriers to writing competitive proposals to receive such overseas-based funds. 

At the same time, Indonesians are known for their generosity and support can come in many forms. Impact producer Sofia Setiyorini once had a graphic designer offer their services for free because their organisation aligned with the impact goals of the film. Community support, self-organised screenings or other forms of in-kind support can be leveraged in unique ways. Ahu Parmalim is a short documentary film on religious minority issues produced by Yogyakarta-based Kampung Halaman. It was screened over 100 times predominantly through community support. Without the passion and idealism of Indonesian filmmakers themselves many social issue films would not have seen the light. The large collection of excellent films produced by the Papuan Voices collective is an example of this.

Access to government funding for social issue documentaries also remains a challenge. The new Dana Indonesiana initiative from the Ministry of Culture and Education (Kemdikbud) provides funds for Indonesian filmmakers to tackle social and cultural issues. Established in 2022, most films funded by this initiative so far have focused on the (traditional) performing arts sector. The creative economy agency (BEKRAF), originally a non-ministerial agency tasked to develop and harness the huge potential of Indonesia’s creative economy, listed film and video as one of its focus areas. Today it has become part of the new Ministry for Tourism and Creative Economy (Kemenparekraf). 

A co-creation lab was held in Jakarta in 2019, in an effort to make sure the translated Indonesian version of the Impact Toolkit met the needs of Indonesian impact producers /Egbert Wits

Cooperation with government agencies for impact production efforts requires stamina. If films are vehemently opposed to government interests or tackle overly sensitive issues, there is little to no chance for cooperation in the first place. Watchdog’s Endgame (2021), a documentary about the dismantling of Indonesia’s once independent Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), fits that category. For filmmakers willing to take on the pervasive bureaucratic hurdles in order to cooperate with local or issue-specific government agencies, ultimately there can be benefits. Homebound (2022), an award-winning short animation film directed by Ismail Fahmi Lubis, is such an example. The creators of this film, which aims to contribute to the protection of Indonesian migrant workers, collaborated successfully with the Indonesian Migrant Workers Protection Agency (BP2MI) to generate greater awareness about the rights of migrant workers.

Shifting contexts

The journalistic freedom young filmmakers enjoy today was unthinkable during the New Order era. For the generation of activists born after 1998 and the reformasi era, issues like the 1965 atrocities, West Papua and state oppression have different meanings. The younger generations’ ability to speak up about these issues has provided a new impetus for debate and efforts towards reconciliation. The distribution of A Daughter’s Memory (2020), a short animated documentary by Kartika Pratiwi about the 1965-66 mass killings, was accompanied by a successful outreach campaign involving screenings and discussions in Indonesian high schools. The documentary Masean’s Messages (2017) by Dwitra J Ariana is another example of films exploring this dark period in Indonesia’s history. The short film follows a Balinese community in the events leading up to the uncovering of a mass grave of victims from massacres occurring in a Balinese village in the 1960s. 

Progress has also been made on women's and children’s issues and the rights of people living with a disability. In the last decade various films highlighting the strength and resilience of ‘diffabled’ (differently abled) Indonesians have been prominent. The Unseen Words (2017) by Wahyu Utami, about a blind Ketoprak troupe in Yogyakarta, which won best short documentary at Festival Film Indonesia, is a great example. Films including Menjadi Teman (2019), How Far I will Go (2021) and The Train Between Us (2019) have also contributed greatly to presenting a more positive public image of diffabled people in Indonesia. 

For other marginalised groups, the trends are less positive. Films tackling LGBTQI+ or industry-induced environmental destruction issues are prone to increased risk. The types of forces that impact campaigns for these films have to confront, are strong and require extensive risk management efforts. Funding opportunities, distribution options and platforms for screening are also limited for films tackling sensitive and taboo issues such as these. 

Seeking safeguards

The safety and security of everyone involved in social issue documentaries is an important aspect of impact production work. Ensuring such safeguards are in place for those working in this industry in Indonesia presents particular challenges. Increased polarisation and democratic decline have led to a rise in majoritarianism in Indonesia, wherein additional freedom and primacy are given to those belonging to a society's majority. This has made it harder for alternative views to emerge, be heard and openly discussed. Lara Beragama Di Mayantara (2022) (The Hurtful Religious Cyberspace), a short film co-produced by EngageMedia shows how this has affected minority religious groups. Online hate speech and threats to those representing minority views have become increasingly prevalent. 

Filmmakers or activists planning to produce or screen films representing minority views must consider assessing and mitigating their risks. A risk management template produced by EngageMedia and the Video for Change Network, helps identify and anticipate the risks involved in film projects. Alternatively, filmmakers may find the Safe + Secure Handbook useful, a standard work within the global documentary film industry. It is important to stay safe while you keep filming, organising and presenting screenings.

This is a critical time for social issue films in Indonesia. The challenges are many, but so too are the opportunities for launching successful impact campaigns. Early stage strategic thinking about how a film is going to contribute to change is critical. Impact producers working in collaboration with the communities affected by the issues tackled in the film, must support filmmakers in advancing the change they want to see happen through their films. The best impact campaigns are born out of these dialogues between creative and committed film directors, strategic yet realistic impact producers, and an informed public willing to give their support. 

Egbert Wits (egbert@engagemedia.org) is Senior Research and Program Manager at EngageMedia and anthropology PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, Australia.

Filmmakers and activists looking for an impact producer, this directory of the Global Impact Producers Alliance is likely the best place to start.

Inside Indonesia 152: Apr-Jun 2023

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