Daniel Ziv’s first documentary, STREET BALLAD: A JAKARTA STORY premiered last year on PBS Television’s acclaimed Global Voices series, and was chosen by the NY Times as one of its Best Shows of 2012. JALANAN, its feature-length theatrical version, has its world premiere today at the Busan International Film Festival in Korea.
Questions by Rio Helmi
Daniel, what drove you to make JALANAN? Why street musicians?
I came up with JALANAN not because of any ambition to become a filmmaker or a pre-meditated quest to find a ‘good topic’ for a documentary, but because one day on the streets of Jakarta I stumbled across a gang of unique individuals whose amazing life story I could not ignore. I was drawn into their world, and the more time I spent with them, the more I realized their tale deserved to be told.
I’ve been documenting people for years through magazines, books and photographs, especially in Jakarta. And I’ve always been more fascinated by those living in the margins of society rather than the mainstream, because their stories are more interesting, they are frequently more honest, and their lives reveal more to us about society in general. In Jakarta I’ve always found the best stories on the street. And one of those stories – a sub-culture, really – was the community of street buskers known as pengamen. They were totally unique: their lifestyle, their music, their social and political outlook. To listen to them is to hear a side of Indonesia we barely know is out there. And while it’s an unusual perspective, it’s also utterly human and endearing, because these people are the real deal – flaws and dreams and challenges and all. Their lives aren’t just about mimicry.
But the project shifted its focus over the course of time: I started out shooting a film about Jakarta street buskers. About a year into it, it was clear that this was a much wider film about Indonesia – a sort of raw snapshot of the country at a fragile time – and that street buskers were really just the lens through which we could manage a far bigger, more complex view of the country today.
You’ve been working on JALANAN, and the TV version STREET BALLAD: A JAKARTA STORY (and I bet a 3-hour director’s cut) for six years. Personally I would go on hunger strike if it doesn’t win at least one award. So what’s next, another film already conceived?
That’s very kind, and I will try to support you during your hunger strike. It’s been an exhausting journey with these films, but I’ve learned a ton in the process – like a film school and PhD rolled into one, at alarmingly similar cost in both time and money. But there’s huge satisfaction in being able to bring a really heartfelt and important story to the big screen, to create a meaningful body of work that didn’t exist before, to potentially influence how people view Indonesia and social justice issues.
I’d love to keep making films, but I want to see how JALANAN is received and whether it finds a wide audience. I have no desire to be one of those vanity artists who makes films for just himself and his highly objective mother. So we’re now aiming for a theatrical release in Indonesia, which is very unusual for a documentary here. If JALANAN resonates strongly, I’d love to do another film. But I’ll choose the topic very carefully, because I now know what a huge commitment it is, how deeply immersed you need to be in your subject and the stamina required. Werner Herzog famously described documentary filmmaking as a long-distance sport. That’s so true, and probably even an understatement.
What were your dreams when you were 21? We know you are a bit more mature than that now, but just out of interest, have your dreams changed radically? Are you living them?
That’s a terrific question I’ve barely ever thought about. When I was 21 I didn’t know what I wanted to do except to live an exceptionally interesting life full of travel and adventure and meaningful work. So I think the 21-year-old me would have been very happy with how things have gone. I write books, I make movies, I participate in conferences and festivals, I’ve traveled to over 50 countries, I been lucky to find hugely talented mentors and I occasionally mentor very gifted young people. I have amazing friends doing unbelievable things in very interesting places. Sounds like the kind of dream life I’d have signed up for in a heartbeat. But my appetite for that stuff is insatiable and the same impulse is still strong, so half a life later, at 42, I don’t feel the need to know what I’m going to do between now and hopefully turning 84.
Daniel Ziv is currently working on his first Indonesian-language book, on Indonesian identity, to be published by Bentang Pustaka in 2014.
JALANAN (‘Streetside’) tells the captivating story of Boni, Ho & Titi, three gifted, charismatic street musicians in Jakarta over a tumultuous 5-year period in their own lives and that of Indonesia. The film follows the young marginalized musicians and their never before seen sub-culture, while also painting a striking, moody and intimate portrait of Indonesia’s frenzied capital city. Using the powerful soundtrack of the musicians’ original compositions to drive the film, it traces their elusive quest for identity and love in the day-to-day of a city overrun by the effects of globalization and corruption. 107 minutes | Indonesian & Javanese w/English subtitles | Indonesia 2013