Sun, 05 Nov 2000

Rayya uneasy with instant success

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): Rayya Makarim's life so far sounds like the stuff films are made of.

Even before her 24th birthday she won a national award for her first script in 1998 that was made into a television film called Mencari Pelangi (Searching for the Rainbow). Soon after, she was given another script to tidy up titled Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sands), a feature film still to be released but already the talk of town.

As curator of Theater Utan Kayu (TUK), for the past two years Rayya has been responsible for choosing six films that are screened regularly every month for a growing crowd of people starved of alternative cinema.

She is also one of the brains behind the seminar that is to accompany the second Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest). After JiFFest is over Rayya will happily return to the three exciting projects she has on hand, one of them involving versatile actress Christine Hakim herself. She is also busy updating the script for a remake of a musical from the 1950s and trying to give shape to a story about a motley group of characters in Jakarta who happen to be at the same bar and who find themselves drowned in existential experiences as the evening ticks away to yet another dawn.

Just 26 years old, Rayya ought to be feeling on top of the world, instead she is ridden with angst wondering whether it has all come too soon and too easy to her.

Born and educated in the U.S.A., on graduating in 1997, Rayya was almost forced to return to Jakarta by her parents who felt that she had been away from Indonesia for too long. Now it is her parents who want her to go back to school to specialize further in script-writing or to work with professional film production personalities and companies in the West before bagging more awards here. The goal is to be able to make films for a global audience and not just for a local jury.

"My family is probably worried that I just might become too smug about being a big fish in a small pond," says Rayya. And the family's concerns make perfect sense to her. She is afraid too, of becoming too comfortable in Jakarta where there is no real competition. The success that she is experiencing in Jakarta is too unreal.

"It is bizarre. I write one film script and I win a national award! I become a well-known scriptwriter? It is too good to be true," she says trying to laugh as she waits to be interviewed and photographed at the eclectic cafe Utan Kayu by three different publications.

Her father Nono Makarim, well-known lawyer and founder of Aksara, a foundation engaged in research, analysis and the disseminating of civil and legal ideas is astonished, and even disappointed at Rayya's maiden performance. For he is of the opinion that youngsters should be allowed to first make their mistakes, fall down, get up, fall, and rise again until they have learnt a little about life, and before they are chosen for Oscars and awards.

Despite being aware of all this Rayya is also resisting the thought of leaving Jakarta. "So much is happening here. Things are looking up. I have so many projects in hand. I am frequently told that my country needs me. I don't want to go," says Rayya who ought to watch out before she reaches the highest peak too quickly and then spends the rest of her life wondering, now what?

It is from her mother that Rayya inherits her love for cinema. It all started when her mother was unable to watch as many movies as she would have liked to after the birth of Rayya. So when her first born was just three years old she took Rayya to a theater screening the horror film, Jaws. Rayya was fast asleep until the gigantic shark was shown feasting on a human body splattering the screen with blood and gore. Rayya woke up just at that minute and very loudly pointed to the screen, "Look mom, fish!" The audience burst into laughter and were thankful to Rayya that day for the added entertainment she had provided in the midst of a tense scene on screen.

Her mother, she says is so crazy about movies that she is known to have seen four to six movies in a day - her grandfather having owned a cinema hall in Pasuruan, East Java. But she remains just a lover of films and is in no way involved in film making. The eldest of three children, Rayya studied liberal arts at a university in up state New York and majored in a general course on films. Eventually, however it is script-writing that has come to really thrill Rayya.

She notes that in the past films were just a continuation of theater. What filmmakers concentrated on was creating pretty pictures, framing good looking faces and breathtaking landscape. She would like to concentrate more on narration, of telling a good story on screen. She is fascinated with characters and likes to explore each person in a story in depth. What the actors look like is of least importance to her. As long as they have a good story to tell, she is hooked.

However directors and producers here have been almost tricking the audience into thinking that a beautiful face and glamorous locations are enough to keep them glued to the screen. The only reason why the audience continues to sit before mediocre productions today put on both television and the big screen is because there is no alternative cinema available to them. Her greatest frustration as a scriptwriter is to see her original story butchered on screen by not so talented directors and even less imaginative producers.

She dreams of the day when it is the scriptwriter who will go with a story to a producer and say put this on the screen for me. Today it is the producer who orders a writer to string together his ideas into a script. This breaks her heart and makes her want to direct and produce her own movies some day. She feels that the audience too will mature and become more demanding as it is exposed to different kinds of experiences on screen.

And this is where activities like JiFFest and TUK become extremely relevant as it is one way of exposing Indonesian audiences to alternative cinema that is not available here commercially.

She is involved with the seminar section of JiFFest, which covers the topics of: Issues in Contemporary Islamic Culture (Nov. 12, 2 p.m.) Human Rights Films (Nov. 5, 4 p.m.), A Tribute to Klaus Kinski & Warner Herzog (Nov. 11, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.), Errol Morris Films (Nov. 4), and Music in Films (Nov. 11). All seminars will take place at the Haji Usmar Ismail Film Center.

The collective mind of the Islamic world is reputed to be against cultural activities like film making but some of the best films are made in Iran today, and countries like Turkey and Lebanon. These films it is hoped will open the eyes of audiences here who will see how other Muslim societies are able to produce wonderful films and also criticize their respective societies without causing obvious offense or resorting to extreme anger and violence.

The Indonesian film industry enjoyed its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. The past decade, however, was a gloomy period with only a few films produced, mostly loaded with sex and violence.

But Rayya predicts exciting times in filmmaking in Indonesia in the next few years as so many people seem so passionate about movies. If this young, enthusiastic scriptwriter is to be believed, the best is yet to hit the silver screen here. That is of course if Rayya does not decide to defect to Hollywood instead.