Fri, 27 Jun 2003

Indonesian short films break into int'l scene

Zora Rahman, Contributor, Hamburg, Germany

Students are running the streets shouting "reformasi sampai mati" (reformation until death). Cut. People are watching the exhumation of a mass grave where victims of the 1966 massacres were buried. Cut. A young man is wandering around Jakarta finding himself in the middle of hopelessness facing the huge contrasts in the chaotic metropolis.

Scenes out of Indonesian short films screened at the 19th International Short Film Festival in Hamburg, Germany this month. For most of the spectators these pictures represent a totally strange world, including all its political, cultural and social problems. There are not many screenings there that could reduce this lack of knowledge.

Indonesian films are almost unknown in Germany, especially if not directed by Garin Nugroho. To find it at all, interested people have to wait for special screenings at Southeast Asian institutes of some universities or events organized by Indonesian communities. And then the public still will mainly consist of Indonesian students, exiles or Germans who have some connection to Indonesia -- be it in a professional or private way.

So it was an exceptional occasion that the International Short Film Festival of Hamburg this year focused on Japan and Indonesia in the foreign program.

To confirm this focus, the festival organizers invited Lulu Ratna, former programmer of the Jakarta International Film Festival and founder of KONFIDEN (Community of Independent Films), to become a member of the jury for the no-budget competition. She was accompanied by two of the participating filmmakers - Maria Clementine "Tintin" Wulia from Bali and Dimas Jayasrana from Purwokerto, Java.

Together with Alexandra Gramatke from "thede", a German documentary filmmaker collective, and last year's award winner Borjan Zafirowski from Macedonia, the Indonesian film expert had to decide on the best no-budget work out of 51 films that made it into the final selection.

"The most interesting aspect of this festival is, that it succeeds in showing such a variety from different parts of the world: With around 500 guests from other film festivals and the connected distribution network by the Hamburg Short Film Agency, this is a very precious chance for us," Lulu said, who just started to build up a new distribution for Indonesian short films.

"Short films are everywhere in the world, are rather marginal but have the charm of amateur features. But in Indonesia, they are still an underground phenomenon - so we need all kinds of support."

When the Indonesian team arrived for the opening of the Film Festival in Hamburg, the sun was shining brightly, -- a rare fact, since the city in Northern Germany is famous for its cold, rainy weather, and quite a contrast for the audience to watch the "exotic" films, that could be described as anything but bright and shiny, such as the quite shocking documentary Mass Grave by Lexy Junior Rambadeta or the short feature film Air Mata Surga (Heaven's Tears) by Eddie Cahyono and Ifa Isfansyah.

But although half of Hamburg's population was hanging out at the riverside, other people still waited in long lines to enter the main program at the repertory cinemas. Some of the International contest film blocks even had been sold out. A fact proving that the Short Film Festival of Hamburg is already accepted as an institution offering a platform to hundreds of filmmakers from all over the world, that never would have the chance to get an international audience without the festival's recommendation.

While the mainly professional International and German national competition at the festival competed with famous names and high-tech material, the no-budget competition still has a lot of surprises - in both, a positive and negative, sense. Since Indonesia does not yet have a market for short films at all and consequently almost no money for high-tech film material or extended education for filmmakers, it would be hard to compete with films of nearly Hollywood standard from some Western film makers.

"Some of the Indonesian film makers really have great potential, but because of their standards they can only have a fair competition within the no-budget level," said Astrid Kuehl, manager of the Hamburg Short Film Agency that has initiated and organized the festival since 1985, in its beginnings still under the name No-Budget Film Festival.

The cooperation between Hamburg and Indonesia started earlier this year, when Astrid Kuehl and her colleague Frank Scheuffele were invited by the Goethe-Institute in Jakarta to present the "German-Indonesian Award Winner" short film program that was supervised by Lulu Ratna.

As a result of this ambitious tour around five cities on Java and Bali, the persons involved decided to continue this exchange of experiences at the Hamburg Short Film Festival.

"This decision was probably taken quite spontaneously, but now the impressions are still fresh," Frank Scheuffele said, who admitted that he "did not have any idea about Indonesia" before the tour.

"We had to learn about the cultural understanding that really makes a huge difference in the perception of films", Astrid Kuehl explained.

"Most of the subjects are very political and for our European taste often too pathetic. As a result of the financial issues among Indonesian filmmakers they often try to put too many themes in one short film and finally fail by overload. More international experience could help them with that."

One who knows how to use a small focus and minimal methods in a very sophisticated way is Tintin Wulia. Her experimental short film Ketok (Knocking) creatively uses simple media, for example shadows of hands in front of the crayon drawing on a blackboard to illustrate the story told by her parents voices who once experienced a night of fear in a newly built house because of a mysterious knocking on the door.

Therefore, it was not surprising that Ketok was especially commended at the no-budget award that was won by the Canadian Benny N. Ramsay with his film Live to Tell (Madonna's song performed in an empty office building and recorded by dozens of surveillance cameras).

Even if the German spectators did not understand every joke or problem in the Indonesian films, they seemed to be open to learn more, especially in the direct comparison with the Japanese film programs that focused almost entirely on different kinds of psychological problems.

"Indonesian filmmakers still have a lot of catching up to do concerning their education and technology," Astrid Kuehl said, "but I am sure that we will see them a lot more at International Film Festivals in the coming years. We will try to do our best to support this development".