For a brief period in July this year, shoppers and cinemagoers at Blok M Plaza in Jakarta might have noticed something quite unusual. Strung up on the outside of the building, large hand-painted banners usually advertise the latest American blockbusters to reach Indonesian theatres. However, for a day or so, the lineup included three Indonesian films: Eliana Eliana by Riri Riza, Bendera by Nan T Achnas, and Marsinah by Slamet Rahardjo.
In recent years it has often been said that Indonesian film is dead. Bearing in mind that just 16 feature films were produced between 1999 and 2001, to have three Indonesian films playing simultaneously was quite remarkable. Unfortunately, Bendera quickly disappeared from cinema screens, and when I went to see Marsinah at Blok M three days after its release, the session was almost cancelled because only four people turned up. There were about 12 people in the theatre for Eliana Eliana, however, and it ran in Jakarta for several weeks. For a low-budget Indonesian film, preceded by minimal hype, this was nothing short of a triumph.
Eliana Eliana, which picked up the Best Young Cinema and Critics prizes at the Singapore International Film Festival, tells of Eliana (Rachel Sayidina), a young woman brought up by her single mother in West Sumatra. Her mother, Bunda (Jajang C Noer), has severed all contact and vowed never to speak to her again after she fled to Jakarta to escape an arranged marriage. The film opens in Jakarta five years later. Eliana, who has just lost her job and is facing eviction, arrives home to find Bunda waiting for her. Bunda has come to take Eliana back to Sumatra, but Eliana is predictably resistant to the idea. The story unfolds on the streets of Jakarta in the space of one night, as the pair charter a taxi and go in search of Heni, Eliana's housemate, who has been missing for several days.
Heralding the expanding role for digital technology in low budget film, Eliana was shot using a single hand held digital camera and mostly incidental lighting, evoking the neon and grit of Jakarta at night. One of the strengths of the film is that it is rarely judgmental of the city's seedier side, or of the characters that inhabit it. Eliana may have fallen in with a morally ambiguous crowd, but she has retained her own sense of values - a credit, in fact, to her self-possessed mother. Much of the humor and pathos in this film comes from the obvious similarities between Eliana and Bunda, each as uncompromising and iron willed as the other. In one scene, their taxi driver stops briefly for an herbal tonic from a stall by the side of the road. The woman serving asks why he doesn't invite his passengers to join him. He replies in a tone heavy with resignation, 'Those two? They don't need tonic. They're tough enough already.
The publicity for Eliana quotes US film critic Chuck Stevens, who raves, 'On a variety of visceral and aesthetic levels, Riza's tightly-budgeted, fourteen-day, one-camera production elegantly out-maneuvers anything going on in American independent cinema today.' Certainly, in comparison with the polished American productions that are dominant in Indonesian theatres and even recent blockbusters like Ada apa dengan Cinta? (What's up with Love?), this film conforms to the way you might expect an independent production to look. Yet calling Eliana and its director Riri Reza independent causes a few raised eyebrows in Indonesian independent film circles.
Riri established his independent credentials in 1998 with the release of Kuldesak, a film he co-wrote, produced and directed with Mira Lesmana, Nan T Achnas and Rizal Mantovani, who are some of the biggest names in Indonesian film today. Kuldesak is widely hailed as the first in the recent wave of independent productions, which are self-funded and filmed on the sly guerilla style without the necessary state permits. Since then, however, Riri has been involved with two of the most successful Indonesian films of recent years. He directed Petualangan Sherina (The Adventures of Sherina) and co-produced Ada apa dengan Cinta?, both big budget productions supported by canny marketing and promotion strategies. The production company behind both these films, Miles Productions, was also involved with Eliana Eliana. As Riri and his generation of filmmakers are some of the most successful and active in Indonesia today, some might call them the closest thing the industry has to an Establishment.
Riri laughs this off. 'As far as I'm concerned, there just aren't any conditions under which we could become established. You can call me an established filmmaker, I don't mind, you can call me an independent filmmaker and that's okay too, whatever.' He speaks pragmatically about his alliance with giant television production company Prima Entertainment, which co-funded the production, while waxing enthusiastically about experimenting with new genres and alternative modes of production. The main thing, he says, is just to tell stories about Indonesia and Indonesians. 'About us and our dreams.'
In Eliana, the story is essentially about the vulnerability of relationships and people, and the difficulties they have communicating with one another. It may be a universal theme, but Eliana is most definitely an Indonesian film. Interestingly, it is also a film about women, although Riri has in the past stated that he does not set out to comment specifically on women's issues. Rather, he speaks of his great respect for women in Indonesia, who in his opinion face difficulties far greater than those faced by men. Eliana is a subtle portrait of some of these challenges, such as the problems of living on the mean streets of Jakarta, or bringing up a child as a single mother, as well as some that are even more fundamental.
In one scene, Bunda goes into a filthy public toilet, the floor muddy and wet. Encumbered by her large handbag, she struggles keep her long skirt and shawl out of the mess. As she goes to leave, she looks at her reflection in the grimy mirror and suddenly starts to sob. Clearly the stress of her reunion with her daughter and the events of the evening would be enough to make anyone cry, but her problems with her dress add an extra poignancy. Says Riri, tongue in cheek, 'You can see this scene as Bunda thinking, "All I want to do is help my daughter, take her home, and even peeing is difficult"'
The growing overlap between 'independent' and 'mainstream' film in Indonesian is manifest in 'i-sinema', a movement based on a manifesto signed by thirteen contemporary filmmakers. Both Eliana Eliana and Bendera are i-sinema films. The meaning of 'i' in 'i-sinema' is ambiguous - it stands for the word 'Indonesian' as much as it does for 'Independent', as well as other terms like 'eye' or even the English 'I'. I-sinema films are made in the spirit of independence and even individualism, but they are also national in character. Riri is adamant that his films should not alienate people. 'It seems that alternative film movements in other countries just don't care much about their audience. For us, the audience is still very important.' Of primary concern is that the Indonesian audience has been starved of Indonesian film, and this is the first thing these filmmakers seek to redress.
The first line of the manifesto states that 'Stagnation in the Indonesian film industry means that we must find new ways of making feature films, and much of the short document relates to what these new ways might be. The use of digital technology is mentioned specifically as giving us the opportunity to work more freely and independently'. The members of 'i-sinema' emphasise the importance of film as a form of freedom of expression and pledge to create films of artistic and personal credibility, but they remain aware of the practicalities of production. Essentially, if Indonesian film is dead, filmmakers are being forced to be alternative in the way they produce and distribute their films. As a result, Independent film has become National film, and the independent voice has become a national voice on the big screen, not just due to natural progression but almost by default.
For Riri Reza and those of his generation, whether people regard these films as being independent or not are not a matter for concern, as long as the films are being made and filling the vacuum in Indonesian cinema. 'The next film I make might be commercial, it might be more art house, it might even be a documentary. I'm not a jukebox. I'll make whatever films I want.'
Joanne Sharpe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a student at the University of New South Wales. She was recently in Indonesia on the ACICIS program, researching Indonesian Independent Film for her Honours thesis.