Erasmus’ Documentary Festival Aims to Open Eyes to Social Issues


Scene from “Orang Gila Juga Manusia”. Photo courtesy of Erasmusindo Film Festival

Few film genres rival documentaries for their frank, first-hand view of the world around them. Unencumbered by scripts or contrived plots, documentaries are also renowned for their warts and all portrayal of the human condition. However, public awareness of documentaries still pales compared to feature films, a situation that the Erasmus Huis Cultural Center set out to change through the Erasmusindocs Film Festival, which was previously known as the Golden Lens Film Festival.

“The Erasmusindocs Film Festival will feature 28 Indonesian and 29 foreign films. The Indonesian entries will be classified in three categories: the university category for university student filmmakers, high-school category for filmmakers still in high school, and the open category for professional filmmakers and the general public” Erasmusindocs Film Festival director Patar Simatupangsaid.

“The documentaries come from all parts of Indonesia and reflect the country’s diversity accordingly,” Patar added. The films, he said, cover aspects of Indonesian life, which feature films or news reels do not cover.

These include films like “Ksatria Sembrani” (Steel Knight) by high-school student Hestin Febriani, “Orang Gila Juga Manusia” (The Mentally Ill Are People Too) by Budiyanto, and “Aku Ingin Berhijab” (I Want to Wear The Hijab) by Wahyudi.

The films highlight the changes that Indonesia is undergoing. “Ksatria Sembrani” chronicles a group of children’s efforts to keep in touch with their roots through a traditional pastime, while “Orang Gila Juga Manusia” raises an important health care issue, seen through the eyes of two mentally ill people. On the other hand, “Aku Ingin Berhijab” takes on the choice between one’s religious beliefs and their secular allegiance to the state. Foreign entrants like “Trashed” and “Chasing Ice” cover global warming, while “The Doors: When You’re Strange” takes a new look at band The Doors and their legendary frontman, the late Jim Morrison.

Patar added that “Trashed,” narrated by acclaimed British actor Jeremy Irons, will open the festival on Tuesday. Another foreign entrant, a behind-the-scenes look at showbiz called “20 Feet From Stardom” will wrap up the festival on Nov. 16.

For Erasmus Huis director Ton van Zeeland, the films convey Erasmusindocs’s message: the important role that documentaries play in Indonesia.

“Documentaries are now more important than ever to Indonesia, as the country is a budding democracy. This form of filmmaking opens the eyes of the [Indonesian] elite and public about conditions in various parts of the country in a critical, accessible medium” he said.

“The festival reflects our commitment to support Indonesian filmmakers. This includes developmental training in five Indonesian cities, among them Yogyakarta, Ambon and Jayapura, and discussions on the films at various universities in Jakarta,” van Zeeland said, adding that Indonesia has long been a subject of films, as film inventors Auguste and Louis Lumieres were among the first to shoot documentaries in the country.

Indonesian filmmaker Hafiz Rancakale agreed. “Dutch filmmakers, among them Johan van de Kooken and his documentary ‘Beras Ambon’ [Ambon Rice], were among the first to shed light on life in colonial Indonesia or the then Dutch East Indies. Indonesian filmmakers owe a debt of gratitude to them in technical aspects, as well as starting off a chronicle of Indonesian history through film,” he explained. “Since then, documentaries have portrayed shifts in Indonesian history, starting off with government propaganda films from the 1950s to the 1970s, to being used by NGOs to highlight the plight of marginalized people throughout Indonesia from the 1980s until today.”

Hafiz highlighted the sorry state of documentaries in Indonesia. “Documentaries in Indonesia are only seen in art film or documentary festivals [like Erasmusindocs] and the Yogyakarta Film Festival, as they are deemed less profitable than feature films due to their ‘heavy’ content,” he said. “This is a sad contrast with Indonesia’s role in the history of documentaries. I hope that Erasmusindocs will play a major role in turning this around.”

On his part, van Zeeland hopes that Erasmusindocs will be a turning point for Indonesian documentaries, as well as the country’s filmmaking sector as a whole. “I’m happy to say that the quality of Indonesian films at Erasmusindocs continues to improve, though they still have a long way to go in catching up to their foreign counterparts,” he said.

“I’m certain that the festival, and the resulting public demand for documentaries they bring, will bolster the founding of an independent Indonesian film house. I hope that the film house will be independent of foreign institutions like the Goethe Institut, Institut Francais d’Indonesie and even Erasmus itself.”

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on November 10, 2013

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