One of the very last panels for this years Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, “Capturing the Change You Want to Seeç” focused on Indonesians recording  their country. Unfortunately for UWRF passholders was not that well attended as some of the other Left Bank evenst, perhaps because it lacked a more international context  –in any case their loss. The panel featured two award winning Indonesian documentary film makers whose films have stirred controversy in their own ways. Journalist Wayan Juniartha moderated the conversation  between Ucu Agustin and Dwitra J. Ariana (a.k.a.  Dadap). Rio Helmi listened in.

If there is anything that characterizes Indonesia at the moment, it is change. In reference to the recent political dramas in Indonesia, Ucu started off by asserting that in her experience of change all large events in reality are a kind of compilation of smaller events that  finally come to a head. “In order to help bring about change, the most important thing is to change ourselves first.” As one can immediately surmise from this statement, her films are driven by the spirit of advocacy. Ucu is a bright, intense woman who is obviously made for the political front line.

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Ucu Agustin: “In order to bring about change, the most important thing is to change ourselves first.”

One of the most important areas in Indonesia which has yet to see significant change in Ucu’s view is the lack of autonomy that Indonesian women have over their own bodies: “The system reinforces this lack of autonomy through patriarchal authorianism”. Her film Ragat’e Anak, which won the 2013 Denpasar Film Festival best film award, takes a very raw look at the harsh reality of women living in poverty in East Java.

Her subjects work during the day breaking stones into gravel, and at night work as prostitutes servicing their low end clients in a nearby Chinese graveyard.  Though the film’s production values could be deemed basic, the incredible access she gained into the lives of her subjects and the brutal honesty with which they share their lives with the camera are astonishing. One of her subjects explains her desperation simply: “This is for my children”. Men in this film mostly feature as clients, and fathers are not present.

For the much more funky and seemingly laid back Dadap, making optimistic documentary films is important “as there are still models which exist that can be examples for us”. In his film award winning Lampion-Lampion (2011 Festival Film Dokumenter Bali best film) he records the integration of an old Chinese community in the mountains near Kintamani. Descended from soldiers brought in to Bali centuries ago to form part of a royal guard of an ancient kingdom, this community have blended their cultural identity with local Balinese traditions.

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Dadap makes optimistic films because “….there are still models which exist that can be examples for us”.

While maintaining certain core aspects of their heritage, their members have served as heads of the Balinese banjar communities and participate in Balinese ceremonies, their children dance at the temples. Conversely when members of the Chinese community die, the Balinese banjar comes together to help out during the funeral. A model of harmony. The film won praise from many for its message of spontaneous, unselfconscious racial and cultural tolerance.

Dadap  says “As I don’t live in a city, in the village I don’t really feel the change as it happens, only when it all peaks into major events”. For him one of these major events was Reformasi, or the so-called reformation era that began when Soeharto fell. “Reformasi was a major change. One very significant change it brought was freedom of speech.”

However as Dadap points out, things aren’t always that “free”.  Interestingly his message of harmony is not always understood as such. When his documentary “Pura Tanpa Babi” (Temple Without Pork) was released it unintenioally created an unforeseen stir. The film tells the story of a Balinese temple where for decades even Muslims regularly come to pray to ask for blessings. Instead of seeing this as a paragon of tolerance and interfaith harmony, couple of fanatical Hindu organizations were incensed and have protested to authorities demanding the temple “be returned for use only by its rightful owners”. Ironic would be a mild way to describe this outcome.

Ucu sees basic human rights and needs as the everyday challenge and subject for her films, but she doesn’t see that as a separate issue from the big political picture. “Images have impact that can capture the attention of people living outside of Indonesia”. Ragat’e Anak was the first Indonesian documentary film shown at the Berlin International Film Festival.

In a more down to earth manner, Dadap talked about the difficulties of getting films like his distributed. Almost quixotically, he has decided to tackle the problem in quite an original manner. He has set up a project which he calls “Film Masuk Desa” (Film Enters the Village”). The project sets up temporary screens in villages and shows films to villagers, with the aim to build up a regular network completely by-passing the regular distribution circuit.

Such an interesting contrast – one focused on international advocacy, the other focused on grass roots level alternative networking. 180 degrees opposite in their focus, both valid, and not contradictory to each other. Lastly, once again, kudos to the masterful Wayan Juniartha a.k.a. Jun for his skillful moderating.

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Wayan Juniartha a.k.a. Jun

all photos ©Rio Helmi