The Thinker: Making Indonesia A Cinematic Paradise

16. September, 2009 Feature No comments

Around the turn of the last century, the center of the world’s movie business wasn’t Hollywood. It was New Jersey.

After Thomas Edison invented the motion picture camera and did his level best to sew up the patents on everything from the film stock to the movie screens, the Garden State became the only place on earth where commercial motion pictures were produced. But long winters interrupting location filming, mounting costs and a great many debts (mostly to Thomas Alva Edison), and the requirements for shooting permits and other forms of official intrusion into the new business/art form sent the young and ambitious cinephiles looking for more salubrious climes.

They packed up their hand-cranked cameras, grabbed their megaphones, jodhpurs and canvas chairs, and headed west. Eventually they settled in the suburbs of a sleepy California town with perpetual summer, great scenery and within a day’s run of the Mexican border, should the bailiffs come calling. Best of all, there was the freedom to film what they wanted with little interference from officialdom. Thus was Hollywood born.

Fast-forward a little over a century and zoom in on Indonesia. The country has a rich pool of talented filmmakers. Both technically and artistically, Indonesian filmmakers are on a par with those of any other country that boasts a young but growing film industry. Obviously, long winters are not an issue for location shooting. It goes without saying that Indonesia’s scenery — urban as well as rural — is incomparable, providing location possibilities that could only be dreamed of by the New Jersey refugees. As democracy becomes entrenched in Indonesia, the country is poised for an explosion that could very well make this country the artistic and economic center for filmmaking in Southeast Asia.

All the film industry in Indonesia needs, if it is to develop into a world-class industry, is to build a portfolio. There is a need for many films to be made; good films, bad films, indifferent films. There is a need for cross-pollination of creative sensibilities, and a system to enable skills transfer from other countries that have produced large bodies of world-class cinema like the United States, Hong Kong and India. This can be achieved through co-production deals and through the promotion of Indonesia as a desirable location for exteriors in major motion pictures.

To accomplish all this, the government needs to do two things: stay out of the way and help where it can.

As far as the latter is concerned, the country’s suitability for location shooting could be made part of Indonesia’s foreign investment and business development strategy. Indonesia’s foreign delegations to countries with strong film industries ought to be brought up to speed on what filmmakers are looking for; location, location, location. They also want lower labor costs than are available at home; a major motion picture is extremely labor intensive and requires hundreds, even thousands, of unskilled and semi-skilled workers on location shoots. They also want qualified technicians (Indonesia has them), and they want talented people for the art department (the country has them, too). But mostly they want their shoot to go smoothly and without interference from officialdom.

The most off-putting thing you can tell a film producer is that a shooting permit is difficult to acquire; that many layers of bureaucracy will be involved; that the process will take a long time; but above all, that the scenario or title or script must be approved.

Yet this is actually being proposed in a bill at the moment, along with another bill that restricts product placement in films. There is also a talk of creating a new censorship board. There is virtually no hope of attracting foreign film production to Indonesia until the country’s lawmakers reject the idea of such a strong level of control over this art form.

But more important, the proposed legislation will hamstring the possibility of the development of a world-class indigenous film industry. The Indonesian film industry needs to be nurtured and cultivated, not tamed and restricted; any creative activity grows better without needless interference.

It would be good for Indonesia as a whole if the artistic community were to make a concerted appeal to lawmakers to reject the legislation. The best thing legislators could do at the moment is to seek ways to eliminate, not increase, restrictions on the freedom of expression that film requires.

Patrick Guntensperger is a Jakarta-based journalist and journalism teacher. His blog can be found at

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