Sun, 13 Jul 2003

Christine Hakim sets her priorities

Bruce Emond, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

When Christine Hakim's eyes glaze over and her voice trembles when she talks about the conflict in Aceh, the first thought might be, uh-oh, here comes a touch of the crying game to get her point across.

She is a very good actress, after all, but she is also one public figure who has done her best to keep the press at a safe distance, setting her own parameters about what information she wants to divulge and what she keeps for herself.

While she is undeniably warm and lacking in pretension, she keeps her guard up. She has perfected her own version of the polite brush off, offering a smile and a few carefully chosen words to journalists before moving on at public events.

"It's irrelevant," Christine said about media snooping in an interview in this publication in August 1992. "I would say that 90 percent of the journalists here aren't interested in my films, they just want to know about my private life."

Today, that same defiance could be dangerous ground amid the abundance of celebrity-obsessed tabloid and infotainment shows, wielding the power to push up -- and then tear down -- public figures.

But, at 46, Christine really has nothing more to prove. She is undoubtedly the most accomplished Indonesian actress of her generation, with accolades seemingly falling at her feet. She has received cultural and acting honors from India, Japan, Singapore, Taipei and, most recently, France, been named an "Asian Hero" by Time magazine and hobnobbed with Sharon Stone and David Lynch as part of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001.

Despite her marriage to Dutchman Jeroen Lazar three years ago, her private life remains pretty much off-limits to the press.

"I always say, if this is really not in the interest of the public, then let's not talk about," she said last week at her home in Bendungan Hilir, Central Jakarta.

"I think we have to keep some of the mystery."

Still, she is disturbed by the fervent interest in everything about the lives of celebrities.

""Yes, they're celebrities, they're public figures, but they also have a right, as human beings, to space for their private life," she said.

"We all have problems, things that we wouldn't want our parents to get involved in, let alone an outside party. They (the tabloid press) don't have any interest in solving the problem, they just add to it."

She is also taken aback by the media frenzy over gyrating singer Inul Daratista.

"I don't really understand why the press isn't tired of all the exposure. Maybe it's here that Inul's manager needs to be a bit more selective. It's like we're overloaded by it already."

Christine has not entirely escaped the media's snipes. Her batik attire at Cannes was roundly criticized as stuffy and old- fashioned, more suited for a bigwig function in Jakarta than the sun, fun and sex of a filmfest on the Riviera.

She is careful to couch her answers in palliative terms of accepting input, taking the positive from the situation and being grateful for the criticism. And then she gives as good as she gets in responding to what could also be seen as a catty exercise in cutting down to size the local girl who got to go to the top and attend the big bash.

"I'm very grateful they (the critics) gave me input, it's just such a pity they waited until I got back from Cannes," she said, her voice rising.

"Nobody helped me before I went, it was only after that they said, 'Christine, can I help you? When you have an occasion, let me know, I'll sponsor you'.

"It's very easy to criticize people. It seems like they know what they're doing, but they don't. I feel sorry for them, but I also understand now what their real quality is ..."

At the end of the day, however, she said it was about being true to herself.

"First, I have to be me. But I also realize I am contributing to the reputation of Indonesia, and also Asia -- I'm an Asian artist. I'm not going to behave like a Hollywood star. Why the heck should I? I'm Christine, I'm proud to be Indonesian and Asian.

"That's why I look up to Indian women. They are very proud and confident -- it doesn't matter to them if someone says their clothes are old-fashioned. And they are now inspiring Western designers -- even Madonna is following it."

Marriage to a foreigner (although his grandmother was Sundanese from West Java) has not been a problem, she said, because of her own crosscultural background, born in Sumatra -- she also has Middle Eastern ancestry -- and raised in Java.

They have kept her husband pretty much out of the public eye. "He doesn't want to be going somewhere and have people say, 'hey, there's Christine Hakim's husband'... I understand that."

Although she does not rule out the possibility of children ("It's God's will ... my husband's mother had him at 48, so you never know"), she has devoted her energies in recent years to activism, particularly on education.

Part of it was due to the drying up of local film production, muscled out of business by the inundation of Hollywood movies. While the film industry is doing better than 10 years ago, with the emergence of young directors like Mira Lesmana and Riri Reza, it still has a long way to go to return to the heyday of the 1970s and early 1980s.

"One thing that is good about the film industry is that it has had regeneration, which cannot be said for this country, for when Soeharto stepped down, there was no one who could replace him," she said.

"The new filmmakers have such great spirit and energy ... but it's still difficult to grow in this situation. It's not impossible, but support has to come from all sides ... We have a huge market ... Look at the success of Ada Apa Dengan Cinta and Jelangkung ... but it can't be done by Mira Lesmana or myself alone ..."

She once considered Merriam Bellina and Nurul Arifin as her successors, but, starved of film opportunities, the former now picks and chooses TV series roles and the latter has gone into HIV/AIDS activism.

"I see there are several actresses who have potential. But doing one or two (films) isn't enough. Dian Sastro has a lot of potential, but after Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, she hasn't had another opportunity ... There is also Marsella and, if she doesn't go to pop, Agnes Monica. They're all very clever.

Christine returns to the bigger problem of the leadership vacuum in the country.

"Indonesia still has a big opportunity to develop our country in the future, including the film industry. But the problem is that we don't have a good leader -- we're in a leadership crisis. It all depends on who will lead this country, it's very important," she said.

"You can see for yourself how Malaysia has developed because of Mahathir (Mohamad) ... Before their capacity as a leader, what we need is a sincere leader who wants to sacrifice for the country, putting aside their personal interests, those of their party or group -- the interests of the people must come first ..."

Education is her passionate cause: She is working with Plaza Indonesia and private TV stations RCTI and Metro TV on the Untukmu Guru (For you, teacher) program to improve the welfare of teachers in rural areas.

"We need a leader who has a clear concept and view to the future about where he or she is taking the people. And the number one priority, aside from improving the economy, has to be education and culture, no compromises," she said.

"How can you develop the nation when education is still not considered important? It's the human resources who will run this country, but how can you develop them when education is only 1.3 percent of the budget ... Look at Malaysia, 5.5 percent. Or Bangladesh, a country that is so much poorer than Indonesia, but it still has an education budget of 3.5 percent ..."

Now, there is the conflict in Aceh, a place close to her heart. Playing the title character of the Acehnese freedom fighter Tjoet Nja Dhien (1988), probably her most famous role, Christine spent several months filming in the province.

In a corner of her living room is a stack of boxes, containing milk supplements to be sent to the children of Acehnese fishermen who have been unable to go to sea since the conflict started.

It is here that she loses her composure, tearing up when she talks about the shame she felt when her Malaysian hosts told her that the military operation had begun in Aceh.

"(U.S President George W.) Bush set a very bad example for the people of the world (with Iraq). It's like he's inspired other countries to do the same thing, to use violence as the way to resolve problems. How can you make a better world when violence is the means? ... It doesn't make sense ... and war is now a commodity, a project for the 'post-Aceh' operation ... "

She realizes that, amid the current rally-round-flag nationalistic ardor, speaking out against the operation could cause misunderstandings in some quarters. She points out that the milk distribution is being done in cooperation with the Army's Special Force (Kopassus).

"My opposition to the military operation doesn't mean I support GAM (the Free Aceh Movement). What I'm saying is that it doesn't have to be like this. OK, sit down, make a deal, get it done. As an Indonesian and a Muslim, it would be difficult for me to accept Aceh as separate from Indonesia."

Despite her pain about Aceh, Christine is in a good place right now. She will receive another lifetime achievement award, this time from the Philippines, in August.

"I thank God for all I have. I have my health, harmonious family relations and I've become more focused since I married. Those things that aren't really that important but I used to think were important, I've put them aside now," she said.