Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Film Festival Confessional

As many who pay close attention to local news know by now, the Jakarta International Film Festival (JIFFEST) will not take place this year unless its organizers are able to secure more funds, and it seems that its very existence is in question. My Twitter feed recently informed me that the festival would have been the only venue to watch Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright), and Waiting for Superman (Davis Guggenheim) in a cinema, two films that I would have gone out of my way to catch with an audience. An article in the Jakarta Globe points out some of the differences between government participation in JIFFEST as compared to the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea, and unsurprisingly, the main difference is the amount by which the festival is subsidized. Some may think it's a waste of money, but the same article goes on to point out the many fringe benefits which the Busan Festival has brought to the city. Indeed, there is a multitude of ways in which the local city administration could improve the city, not least of all being to make it more attractive to tourists. Something that also sprang to mind immediately when seeing the two festivals compared is that when comparing Korean and Indonesian films that I've watched, I must say that the former have been close to 100% better, and it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to conclude that this situation would also benefit from a higher level of government participation in terms of funding, and less in terms of mandating what cinematic content is suitable for the youth of Indonesia.

I attended JIFFEST a few years back and without a doubt, it was one of the happiest fortnights of my life. Having bought the gold pass, I had a nicely full schedule of titles to see, averaging three a day for the duration. This may seem meagre in comparison to the number taken in by an industry professional, but alas, my day job does not involve going to the movies. However, there are advantages to having to limit the number of films you watch; you are less likely to have to sit through clunkers, and you are able to fully experience the film and all it has to offer, letting your senses absorb much more of the detail being transmitted from the screen and sound system, with longer intervals for reflection.

Any notion that there is no market for this type of event in Jakarta was belied by the immense numbers of people at almost every screening, the exceptions being free showings of older movies like The Blue Angel (Joesef von Sternberg), which I went to see again as previously I'd only seen it with an English soundtrack. But despite the fact that such titles with limited popularity among modern crowds were being shown at lesser venues, via extremely poor digital projection, there was still a significant audience for them. All titles being shown at bona fide cinemas were packed to the rafters, with people even sitting on the floor at certain screenings.The festival had eschewed the usual - very agreeable - practice of Indonesian cinemas, of allowing assigned seating when purchasing the ticket, and consequently, long lines formed in front of most of the films up to three hours ahead of start times, in order that festival-goers might get optimal seats. To be a part of such enthusiasm was fulfilling in itself, never mind the fact that some of the best movies of recent times lay ahead.

While the festival was very well organized (people formed long, orderly queues! in Jakarta!), there was at least one area for reasonable complaint. Some, though not all, of the prints were in pretty bad condition, which again is testimony to the film's lack of funding if they are having to acquire prints that have been screened more than fifty times, thus showing excessive signs of decay. There were also a few films at the main venues (which cost money) that were again shown in very shoddy digital, so bad in fact, that items in the background would become completely undiscernable. The promise of classic silent films being shown with live music sounded like an unmissable opportunity on paper. So it was with deep disappointment that I tried attending one such screening of City Lights (Charlie Chaplin), only to find that it was being shown right in the middle of Plaza Senayan shopping mall, so not only did  the sound of shoppers distort the quality of the music beyond recognition, but in a moment of decision making lacking any foresight whatsoever, the screen had been placed in front of a very large window, so light was streaming on to it, making the film literally unwatchable.

As for the films themselves? I will always remember watching the following films not just with a very large audience in cinemas, but with an audience who were bubbling over with an express joy at being able to participate in an important cultural event: Pan's Labrynth (Guillermo Del Toro), The Queen (Stephen Frears), Match Point (Woody Allen), 3-iron (Ki-duk Kim), Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola), and Volver (Pedro Almodovar). I would have liked to have seen some of the documentaries on offer, especially Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro), a film about full-contact paraplegic rugby, which I have yet to see. However, all the documentaries were being screened for free at the main venues, were subject to massive hordes of interested parties, and I couldn't see any way of getting into these screenings shy of sleeping outside the cinema's entrance.

There were a great deal of Indonesian films being shown, and other than Opera Jawa (Garin Nugroho), their titles, contents and posters all gave the unwavering impression that they were absolutely worthless. Opera Jawa was another film sans admission charge, with an inderteminable line of starved-of-art punters waiting to get in - many very young. I thought that its being an Indonesian product meant I would easily get another chance to watch it, but bizarrely its theatrical run consisted of one single day. Since then, the only Indonesian titles I've noticed playing at cinemas have been more ponderings on the supernatural, and teenage romances. Their titles alone hardly inspire confidence; Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan, anyone? Or, Menstrual Cycle Peak Ghost, not the best translation perhaps, but the source provides little to work with.

A quick look here indicates that the fate of JIFFEST is not destined to be a happy one, inevitably meaning the same for the future of Indonesian cinema in general.

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