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GARIN NUGROHO――A Daring Cineast Led by Untiring Inspiration

Interview / Asia Hundreds

ASIA HUNDREDS is a series of interviews and conference presentations by professionals with whom the Japan Foundation Asia Center works through its many cultural projects.
By sharing the words of key figures in the arts and cultures in both English and Japanese and archiving the "present" moments of Asia, we hope to further generate cultural exchange within and among the regions.

A photo of Mr. Nugroho and Miss. Yui during interview 1

The Path to Film

Reiko Yui (hereinafter Yui): I heard that this is the 12th time you've been invited to the Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF). I think that itself is evidence enough of your active work in producing films.

Garin Nugroho (hereinafter Garin): It's fairly difficult for any director to come 12 times.
I've assigned myself the task of producing films regularly, at least one every two years, and I try not to spend more than two years unoccupied. It's all right to create out of obligation. I can control things myself, and I can set up my own management system. I can get involved in a self-directed way by having a 2-year target, looking for sponsors and reference materials.

Yui: I looked at your filmography again; you've shot so many. Your first feature film, Cinta Dalam Sepotong Roti (Love in a Slice of Bread,) was made in 1991.

Garin: At that time, I was producing commercials side-by-side. I was creating advertisements for Gudang Garam*1 , Sampoerna*2 , Bank Indonesia and the like, as well as publicity for the general election. That was around 1992 or 1993. Besides that, I had also been writing film critiques since 1986. From around 1983, I worked as an assistant at Institut Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Institute of Arts). I still teach a master's course today.

*1 An Indonesian tobacco manufacturer.

*2 An Indonesian tobacco manufacturer. Both 1 and 2 are huge industrial conglomerates.

Yui: The 1980s and 90s were still during the Suharto administration, the Orde Baru (New Order). Film directors during that time were restricted in their freedom of expression.

Garin: In the Suharto era, it was difficult to shoot a social awareness documentary like Air dan Romi (Water and Romi) (1991). It was the same for NHK's Dongeng Kancil untuk Kemerdekaan (Kancil's Tale of Freedom) (1995). I shot a documentary about a street kid named Kancil. I made it in 1995, and then based on it, I produced Daun di Atas Bantal (Leaf on a Pillow) in 1998 and released it in theaters. It was just around the time the Suharto regime collapsed. Before 1998, there were hardly any documentaries that dealt with social issues. Documentaries were ethnological content, how rural areas were developing, stories of indigenous peoples, things like that; they weren't doing anything like criticizing the government. Water and Romi was produced with funding from Germany, and Kancil's Tale of Freedom was an NHK program. After that, I traveled to other islands besides Java to produce films, then returned to Java and made Opera Jawa (2006). So, I came back home.

Yui: You have many films, but they're pretty hard to access. They're not out in the market, like on video or DVD, so they're quite difficult to find.

Garin: They haven't been distributed in Indonesia. Some of them, like Leaf on a Pillow (1998) and Opera Jawa, are available overseas, but not all. I had been right in the political transition period between administrations. The film industry was devastated at the time, and distribution had also stopped. It was a period of economic crisis, you see. Since around 1991, the number of films produced domestically had decreased, and the crisis continued even after the change in government in 1998. For ten years from 1991 to around 2000, the film industry had all but stagnated. It was certainly a period of crisis for myself as well.

A photo of Mr. Nugroho during interview 1

Yui: It's incredible that in such a difficult time, you were able to keep shooting! Only the late Gotot Prakosa*3 could survive as a filmmaker of your generation at that time. Were there sponsors?

*3 Gotot Prakosa (1955-2015)
Invited alongside Garin Nugroho as a budding film director to the 1993 Indonesian Film Festival, hosted by the Japan Foundation's ASEAN Culture Center. He produced many experimental animated works, and was engaged in raising the next generation at Jakarta Institute of Arts.

Garin: He was shooting short films. There were barely any directors shooting feature-length films. Most of them probably gave up after shooting two or three because they couldn't get any of them released. That didn't bother me. I didn't have any sponsors, but I managed to get by, writing articles for the newspaper and teaching. I wasn't able to make a living with film alone.

Yui: Were you able to continue on because you weren't considered anti-government?

Garin: No, it wasn't that. Perhaps my methods worked. My works actually reflect full of government criticism. In Surat untuk Bidadari (Letter to an Angel) (1994), I criticize centralization. There were no social commentary films before Leaf on a Pillow. Puisi Tak Terkuburkan (A Poet) (2000) depicted the "red hunt"*4 that took place after the 30 September Movement, but there are still many people who are too afraid to portray this period. Tjokroaminoto in Guru Bangsa: Tjokroaminoto (The Hijra) (2014) was also involved with Comintern*5 , and there is no one in the country who would bring it up. Aku Ingin Menciummu Sekali Saja (Bird Man Tale) (2002) used hundreds of flags from the Free Papua Movement*6 Mata Tertutup (The Blindfold) (2012) is the story of the radical Islamic party, NII*7 , the Negara Islam Indonesia (Islamic State of Indonesia). Who brings up such a dangerous topic? On social media, "I'll kill you!" gets posted all the time. I've actually been threatened like that numerous times. Soegija (2012) was my first portrayal of Catholicism, which is a sensitive issue in Indonesia. It's the story of Muslims being converted to Catholicism and becoming bishops. No one has mentioned it up until now. Many of my films are much more challenging than others, and stir up controversy. But you have to have courage. There's no point in just shooting hero movies.

*4 A large-scale "communist hunt" was carried out in order to stamp out members of the Communist Party, considered to be the ringleaders of an attempted coup d'état on September 30, 1965.

*5 Communist International

*6 Organisasi Papua Merdeka, (OPM); a movement for the independence of the West Papuan territory from Indonesia that has been in operation since 1965.

*7 A radical Islamic organization which aimed to establish a state in Indonesia with Islam as a state religion; also known as Darul Islam (DI, House of Islam).

Yui: In the early stages of your career you had already been invited to overseas film festivals, including in Japan, and had become well-known internationally. Was the government unable to interfere with you because of that?

Garin: That did help, actually. Mr. Tadao Sato gave me a great support. In 1991, the Indonesian government had endorsed director Arifin C. Noer's*8 Taksi (Taxi) (1990). Around that time, films to be shown overseas were selected by the Ministry of Information's Film Commission. During the Suharto era, I couldn't freely take my films abroad. Then, Tadao Sato and Philip Cheah came to Indonesia, and saw Love in a Slice of Bread (1991) at the Indonesian Film Festival. Mr. Sato didn't tell anyone involved in the Indonesian film industry, but said to me, "Garin, I'm going to select Love in a Slice of Bread, so don't tell anyone," and I kept quiet. Then the film was invited to and screened at the 4th Tokyo International Film Festival in September 1991. The screening in Tokyo was the first time it was shown overseas; after that, it was screened in Singapore as well. It was all thanks to Tadao Sato and Philip Cheah.

*8 Arifin C. Noer (1941-1995)
Poet, theater director, screenwriter and film director. One of the establishers of the 'golden age' of Indonesian film in the 1970s and 1980s.