Saving Indonesian Cinema Treasures


Jakarta Globe, Aug. 2009

Posters of classic local films line the corridor leading into a cool, white room of the Indonesian Cinematheque in Kuningan, South Jakarta, where two men are hunched over, dutifully cleaning spools of film stock.

Surrounded by some antiquated mechanical machines, they take reels of 35-millimeter film from their canisters and place them on metal plates. Then they wind the film around a spool and manually clean it using a piece of white cloth that has been soaked in a special solution.

“This is the first roll of Si Doel Anak Betawi [Doel, the Betawi Kid],” says Hartono, the head of the cinematheque’s maintenance division. “It’s one of several old films that TVRI [Indonesia’s state-owned television station] wants to borrow.”

The Indonesian Cinematheque, known locally as Sinematek Indonesia, with about 2,000 film titles and more than 3,000 film reels and videos in its archive, is one of the few places researchers, students, film festivals and television stations can turn to if they need to watch or borrow old Indonesian films. Located in the Haji Usmar Ismail Film Center (PPHUI), the film archive has been around since Oct. 20, 1975. Usmar Ismail was one of the more prominent directors here in the 1950s.

The idea for the cinematheque began when Misbach Yusa Biran, a journalist turned director and screenwriter, saw that an organization focused on the documentation and archiving of Indonesian films was needed.

He started the endeavor at the end of 1970, after a senior reporter who specialized in covering Indonesian cinema died, and Misbach realized that a lot of knowledge had disappeared with him.

“I entered the film industry in 1954, and I saw the same mistake happen time and again: There was no archive for our films,” Misbach says. “Films produced by Persari [film company] were gone, and I did not know what had become of Usmar Ismail’s works. So I thought there needed to be a film archive organization.”

Misbach received moral support from many people to start such an organization but began the endeavor without any external funding, let alone a salary, out of a small office in Taman Ismail Marzuki arts complex in Central Jakarta. Friends of his, especially reporters, contributed film-related material to the collection.

In 1973, the Dutch government granted Misbach a scholarship to study the film archiving system adopted by a cinematheque in Amsterdam. Two years later, then-Jakarta Governor Ali Sadikin simultaneously opened the Indonesian Cinematheque and the Usmar Ismail center. Misbach headed the nonprofit private organization, which is the first film archive in Asia, until December 2001.

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“The Indonesian Cinematheque was initially funded by the government of the Special Municipality of Jakarta, which was then presided over by Ali Sadikin,” says Adi Pranajaya, director of the Indonesian Cinematheque since September 2004.

“But after Ali Sadikin was replaced, an argument arose that film-related issues should be handled at the national level, not just by the local government of Jakarta.”

Only three years after it was launched, the cinematheque was put under the Indonesian Ministry of Information, which supported it through the National Film Board (DFN), now renamed the National Film Development Agency (BP2N).

According to Adi, the board focused on covering the salaries of the cinematheque’s staff, with little money left over for acquisition or other operational costs.

Misbach says that while the Indonesian film industry was blossoming throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the cinematheque was dying because of its meager budget.

“Even though various film organizations were located in the same building as the Indonesian Cinematheque, they didn’t care about how much help we needed,” Misbach says. In his opinion, the cinematheque is in even worse condition these days than it was back then.

“Since 1997, the Indonesian Cinematheque has been placed under the PPHUI Foundation, whose people represent film organizations but have little idea of the importance of archives,” he says.

In 1999, during Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid’s presidency, the Ministry of Information ceased operations, compelling the Usmar Ismail center to rent its building out to help support the cinematheque.

The organization today employs 13 staff in its data management, film maintenance, library and documentation divisions, and for much of its existence, has been capable of only modest maintenance of its collection.

“We manually clean the reels in the entire 35-mm collection in rotation, usually around 20 to 30 titles per month,” Hartono says.

Adjacent to the cleaning room in the basement of the building is the cinematheque’s storage facility. Row after row of tall metal shelves hold thousands of plastic and tin canisters containing film reels that date as far back as the early 1930s.

Trunks containing 16-mm films and a collection of Betamax and VHS videos occupy a smaller number of shelves.

The dimly lit facility feels neglected, with many cardboard boxes of film-related items stacked carelessly at the back. Kept at a temperature of 9 degrees Celsius, with the air conditioning on at all times, the room smells of rust and fungi. Its relative humidity must also be maintained at an ideal 45 percent.

Not all of the movie reels are complete. Sections of very old films such as Siluman Ti Pat Kay Kawin (Ti Pat Kay the Animagus Gets Married, 1935) and Serigala Item (The Black Wolf, 1941) had been badly damaged by acid before they were acquired, and therefore had to be excised. Films that can still be saved are taken to another room within the building, where they are unreeled and fanned so the acid will dry and blow off, to be removed by a suction system.

Adi says the cinematheque is gradually converting its film collection into digital format.

“The organization’s functions consist of cataloging and maintaining Indonesian films, as well as providing them to the public. We dream of being able to carry out these functions digitally, but the lack of funding prevents this ideal from becoming a reality,” Adi explains.

Efforts to add film-related documents to the archives have been helped by various media outlets, which send copies of their newspapers and magazines for free, adding to the library collection in a 10-meter-square room on the fifth floor. Those who wish to watch films can reserve an audiovisual hall on the fourth floor for no charge.

Adi says the archive would find it hard to add to its collection of recent Indonesian films if it relied on funding alone, and so has to approach producers personally to donate copies of their films.

“Very few producers have come to us and donated money for the maintenance of their films. If only all producers had the initiative to create such cooperation, it would be ideal,” Adi says.

“Those in the film industry, in related private sectors, as well as in the government, all say that the Indonesian Cinematheque is important, but there have not been any concrete steps taken in the spirit of the word ‘important.’

“Cinematheques in other countries are very much supported by their governments, even though they are managed privately. Policies regarding their existence remain the same regardless of who is in power.

“Elsewhere cinematheques are seen as doors to anyone who wishes to become acquainted with a country’s culture. Indonesia has yet to muster up such a spirit.”

sidebar Contemporary Directors Look Back to Golden Era of Indonesian Filmmaking

The history of Indonesian cinema began when Loetoeng Kasaroeng (The Lost Monkey) was produced in 1926 by NV Java Film Company. The actors in the story about a god who turns into a monkey and meets and falls in love with a cast-out princess were local, and it was shot somewhere near Padalarang in Bandung, West Java. The silent film was first screened in Bandung in December of the same year.

Many of Indonesia’s oldest classic movies told fantasy or martial arts stories, such as Terang Boelan (Full Moon, 1938), an adaptation of The Jungle Princess; or Serigala Item (The Black Wolf) and Singa Laoet (The Sea Lion) — both 1941 adaptations of Zorro.

Indonesian cinema peaked in the 1970s and ’80s, when as many as 120 films covering all types of genres could be produced in a year. When asked about their favorite classic Indonesian films, three of four Indonesian directors chose movies that came out of that golden period.

Joko Anwar cited Chaerul Umam’s Kejarlah Daku Kau Kutangkap (Chase Me and I’ll Catch You), a 1986 comedy featuring Deddy Mizwar and Lidya Kandouw. The story revolves around characters Ramadhan and Ramona, whose romance begins at a volleyball competition, where Ramona is playing and Ramadhan takes her picture for a local newspaper. Ramona intends on suing Ramadhan for photographing her without her consent, but instead falls in love when they meet.

Nia Dinata’s pick is Badai Pasti Berlalu, an adaptation of a Marga T. novel of the same title. Directed by Teguh Karya and featuring Slamet Rahardjo and Christine Hakim, it tells the story of a woman who seems to always fall for the wrong man, until one man who intends to fool her for a bet truly falls in love with her.

The director of Kado Hari Jadi (The Anniversary Gift) and the soon-to-be-released At the Very Bottom of Everything, Paul Agusta, chose the 1987 Nagabonar, directed by M.T. Risyaf. The situational comedy features chameleon Deddy Mizwar, who plays a Batak pickpocket-turned-soldier who uses his charm and wit to win against the Dutch during the colonial era.

The director of Eliana Eliana and Tiga Hari Untuk Selamanya (Three Days to Forever), Riri Riza, selected a movie from 1961. Pagar Kawat Berduri (The Barbed Wire Fence) by Asrul Sani tells the story of men in the Revolution Movement during Dutch colonial times who seek to find out who among them is a traitor.

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