After his film school studies in Paris, Bastian Meiresonne (31st Dec, 1975) specialized on Asian Cinemas, which are still his domain. He is artistic director delegate of Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema, and long-time consultant for several other international film festivals. His book on Japanese director IMAMURA Shohei (SHOHEI IMAMURA: Evaporation d’une réalité) is only one piece of his writings on films and film-related issues in various collective books, newspapers and magazines (eg. Coyote Mag). GARUDA POWER – The Spirit Within, his first feature documentary about Indonesian (action) cinema, premiered at Busan IFF 2014 and has been selected by more than 40 film festivals worldwide so far. Currently, Bastian works on his upcoming documentary on Thai westerns and has just finished a draft of his first fiction feature based upon an idea (and approved) by SONO Sion. Bastian does not dance.
Personal recommendation: Never skip his lectures, nor film introductions.
Garuda Power is your first film ever. Why Indonesian cinema, Indonesian action cinema?
It all started in 2006, when I walked into the wrong screening room at Cannes Film Market and found myself at the screening of Indonesian film, it was Nia Dinata’s Love for Share. I was about to leave, when she arrived with two of her lead actresses. They acted as if they just walked up the red carpet to receive the Palme d’or – as you know, nobody ever does any movie introduction at film market screenings, since it’s only for film buyers (and we were 4 all in all in screening room at that time). Her behaviour made me stay. And I loved her movie. I was very surprised to find out about Indonesian movies and how little I actually knew about an industry where there are 80 movies produced a year, and more than 4.000 have been shot since 1926.
I went several times to Jakarta, Indonesia, for research, since there wasn’t much material available. I was lucky enough to do two very important retrospectives back in Switzerland and in France in 2011 and 2013, focusing more on s. c. independent art house titles than on commercial cinema. When I told my Indonesian friends about it, they said: “But what kind of movies are you showing to foreign audiences, telling them that THAT is Indonesian Cinema? We’ve never heard about those films, and many have not even been screened over here!” When I asked them what kind of movies they grew up with, ALL of them said: “Barry Prima and action movies!”
I already knew a few of those titles, as I saw them back in the 1980s and 1990s on video tapes – but I never assimilated such titles as Jaka Sembung or Samson being from Indonesia. At same time, The Raid became a worldwide success and all press and critics raved about how Indonesia would become the new action movies Eldorado after Hong Kong and Thailand… This was totally blinkered, since, yes, The Raid was one of a very few of the sole action movies made in the 2000s, but they never mentioned those over 100 action titles produced back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Another thing I learnt is, the Indonesians now have no records or anything made about their own cinema. Film has never been considered something worth protecting, keeping. They don’t see it as a part of their cultural heritage. At the same time it is such a popular form, so close to the people. Also, I think it’s a pity that nobody has taken into account or archived the point of view of the audience. You have so many documentaries about the huge film-makers, which is all very good, but you never have the point of view of audience members. For me, movie audience is actually as fascinating as movie legends.
That’s when I decided to do a documentary and trace back Indonesian action cinema as seen by the Indonesian cinemagoers of the times.
What was the selection key when it came to the question which films to mention and show, and which ones not to?
There has been a little more than 600 action titles made since 1926, many older ones are now non-existent; but through the years I managed to gather around 400 movies and watch them all, well, at least what was left of them. So the most natural selection key became the physical existence of the film itself; many action cult classics were destroyed or lost forever. Then there was the quality issue. Many movies only exist in a very poor quality; there are no more 16 mm or 35 mm prints anymore, nor any digitally archived or restored versions. Lot of sequences I included in the first rough version didn’t make it to final cut, as the picture quality was too bad once put on a big screen. I tracked down old copies in countries like Germany, Norway, Greece, Japan or even Puerto Rico where I knew some older action classics had been released in theatres in the past. Some footage from one 1970s movie has been taken from a German 8 mm print they showed in specialized theatres back in 1974. We managed to include footage from more than 30 different movies, some of them being from the 1930s and 1940s – an Indonesian version of Tarzan and of Zorro, for example, which have never been shown since then! So it is always worth coming to the screening, since everyone should have a blast, whether they know anything or nothing at all about Indonesian action cinema! I wanted my documentary to be for ALL kinds of audiences to have a blast all together!
Hearing this, the state of Indonesian films in archives, or their digitalization or restoration is not a matter of wide interest, is it?
The level of digitization is zero. There is really no money and Indonesians don’t see the sense in digitalization of old movies, because, well, it is not profitable, the old movies. The ides is, you need to take profit out of the new ones. So when a film is out of the circuit, you throw it away, or erase it. They don’t care. Once again, you really have to understand that there are five production companies in Indonesia, and for them it is above all about money, not about cinema. It would be nice if we could say it’s like this for the current moment only. Thus, a lot of films are still left in a very poor state and need more than digitalization, they really need restoration and that costs even more, so they don’t do it.
The only thing is, at one point in the 1980s and 1990s, when the first video cameras were released, Indonesians did “digitalization” on their own: they screened a film on a white wall and recorded the image. Lot of VHS tapes of old films come from those times. The thing is, they didn’t care about the format; they just placed the camera in somewhat “OK way” and rolled. As a result, you have a lot of movies where a part or parts of image is missing or is skewed. Then there is the aspect of the guy that recorded it: sometimes he stood next to the camera, but was sneezing, eating, talking, sometimes he went to pee and… You surely can imagine. BUT thanks to these guys there is something left, and it is not a rare case that this is the only available version of a movie. As I said, there´s lot and lot and lot of films that disappeared, were destroyed, tossed away or so, and then, many films that are just not watchable due to their technical state.
Actually, Martin Scorsese did restore one movie, After Curfew by Usmar Ismael, which was shown in Cannes Classics in 2012. And then it went wrong. The problem with the restoration of movies by Martin Scorsese´s Foundation is that he gets to keep all the rights. That was also the case of After Curfew that now fully belongs to him and not to Indonesians anymore. Plus, they ask quite a lot of money for a festival screening. The big film festivals don’t want necessarily to show Indonesian classics because they say there’s no demand for that, and smaller ones, like Vesoul, can´t afford it as its price is too high, non-negotiable. Thus there is this one movie that has been restored. But it isn´t shown anywhere.
Not surprisingly, the Indonesians are quite… angry. They thought: “Oh! We’re going to go worldwide and we’re going to get some money and some attention.” In the end they only got some small money for the contract which gave Martin Scorsese and The Film Foundation all the rights and they are not getting anything: no commission from the big money Scorsese promised. So they really have feeling that they have been tricked and don’t want to do other restorations with foreigners. Moreover, the visibility was not as big as expected – they thought after seeing that beautiful masterpiece everybody will invest into Indonesian classics restoration, but nobody is interested.
What is the state of own cinema research, historiography, of the Indonesian cinema? What were the responses to your research?
There are not not many people in Indonesia who care about archiving what has been done in cinema, and not many professional film historians or filmologists either. Luckily, there is a book, but only in Bahasa Indonesia, about the early years of the film; then there is J. B. Krisanto, who put together encyclopaedia of movies released. I’d say he would be the first one to try to trace back and put on record all the movies, the only true film historian. I interviewed him for the film, but he was talking very very very slowly, so I couldn’t put him in the movie. More importantly, he said that for him Indonesian cinema hadn’t existed before 1950. As the forty-nine movies shot before 1950 were financed by Chinese that’s not Indonesian cinema for him; Indonesian cinema starts in 1950 with the films of Usmara Ismail and that’s it. As if this wouldn’t be enough, action cinema is not a cinema for him at all. When I asked him for his comment, he just said he had nothing to say about it because it is all garbage. So we talked about Usmara Ismail and independent art house titles. Usmara Ismael did war movies and it is interesting to say that he tried something different from the Chinese rather commercial movies, so I put that part in, but some other parts I couldn’t use. It was quite difficult moment as I really couldn’t find anybody to say anything relevant about the cinema before 1950. And that is why, actually, there is the fake witness – “Rudolf Puspa” the Ghost Spirit within – whose role was to be present and speak about my foundings that came from interviews, written documents, the films themselves. That would be the grey-haired gentleman. I had the idea quite late to my pity.
What films or characters are the immortal for Indonesians? What makes them so special?
Definitely Jaka Sembung with Barry Prima. Everyone in Indonesia either identified with him, or loved him with all his or her heart. He was seen as someone who finally stood up for the people to help them. Even now many many Indonesians told me how amazing it would be, if he were real.
For me, Jaka Sembung is like The Godfather of all the Indonesian action films. It’s based on a popular Indonesian comic book, quite famous and popular in the late 1960s, perhaps even more in the 1970s. Unlike many other Indonesian comics, this one was not inspired by American super heroes, but brought the first truly Indonesian hero with a story full of details rooted in the Indonesian culture. The author of the comics, Djair, used to go to the countryside quite often, staying at one place for several weeks just to learn the local habits and traditions. Drawing from this knowledge he then wrote the stories of the fearless Jaka Sembung who strode the whole country and went through all the various adventures taking place on the – for Indonesians – very specific sites. The patriotism and the pride of being Indonesian are the elements that really matter.
There is one more thing with Jaka Sembung. Its scriptwriter, Imam Tatowi, started his career as a scriptwriter and director of popular comedies in the end of the 1970s and has unbelievable sense for action. What is really important, he didn’t like the action movies that copied the Hong Kong production, and even preferred different, typically Indonesian martial arts – either silat or styles coming out of silat.
Those two aspects, self-definition vis-à-vis both, the American super heroes and the Hong Kong action cinema – make Jaka Sembung the first really Indonesian action movie. Funnily enough, Djar, author of the original comic book, was not happy with the film at all. You see, Tatowi shifted a major portion of the story, as shown in Garuda Power.
Nevertheless, the film became huge success. The reason of it is simple: behind the story of an ordinary man who stood up in the name of the people, the nation, against the Dutch occupiers, Indonesians saw a metaphor of the political situation of those days, marked by the rule of strong dictatorship. So it was clear to everyone that the story of a revolution against the Dutch occupiers is really a revolution against that time regime. Quite paradoxically, the Indonesian government was pleased with the new national hero for the country. It took years and several copies of Jaka Sembung for someone from the government to step up and say: “Hey, this is actually aimed against us.” Consequently the government started with censorship of historic films and fantasy genres. They even came with a new hero, who would be a good cop serving in a city, fighting corruption, prostitution, and so on. You know, all the issues in line with the official governmental politics. No more national hero standing against the government. And that was the beginning of the decline of the Indonesian action cinema.
Jaka Sembung pushed the Indonesian action cinema to the next, higher level. On the other hand, it also started and chain of dozens and dozens of copies, that, no surprise there, were very bad.
Then it is easy to guess that the most favourite action hero for both, Indonesians and you is…
[Laugh] Yes and without any hesitation: Barry Prima. Barry Prima is kind of a legend; EVERY Indonesian said his name when asked about their favourite action star. And I was lucky enough to get the second-only interview of his whole career, which was one of the most memorable remembrances of my whole career. He’s got such a mind-blowing charisma.
Then, while working on the film, I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with almost all important action stars of the 1980s and 1990s, despite many of the interviews didn’t make it to the final cut. One of the most incredible meetings was with Johny Indo, an ex-thug who was put into the most secure prison of whole Indonesia for having killed several people. He was the only one to escape from it up until today. He was caught again later. But, after he had served his sentence, producers proposed him to play his own story – and he became an action star! But he confessed to me he has been very sad about that. He regretted his past very much and would have preferred to play the good guy or even some romantic lover. He has now become a religious political leader.
Are there any female action heroes?
You won’t stop, will you! Once again Indonesian society is a patriarchal society, now, so the representation of women is not very strong. Through the years it was a good mother, staying at home, being a sidekick to THE MAN who carries the whole movie. Woman can be the focal character of the movie if it is a melodrama, as the one fighting for the family, etc. In action cinema, you have a lot of women but they’re always sidekicks of Barry Prima or love interests or evil witches because it’s either the love interest who gets saved by the hero and he wins her over, or the evil witch.
But, starting in the late 1960s and in the beginning of the 1970s, in the comic books you can find a lot of young artists who wanted to go against that stereotypical image and they created some female super fighters and tried to innovate the established thinking with the bad Punjee Pangorak being one of the first in the kung-fu action movies of the1970s. Despite that was a Taiwanese production still we can say the women in Indonesia were getting really strong at the same time in cinema. Before that, you have Sri Asih, female superhero, once again taken from a comic book but already in 1953. But it’s really an exception and the film copy has been burned in the 1960s or 1970s because there was the leading woman. Then, as you mentioned during the Q&A after the screening, Cynthia Rothrock did some films in Indonesia. But that was more because she was quite a star, at the time, in Hong Kong. You still have some women action heroes, but also some Hollywood-influenced ones, like when there was Conan the Barbarian coming out, with Schwarzenegger, then you had Red Sonja with Bridget Nielsen, who was a female counterpart to Conan, which you actually had in Indonesia too. There is The Red Sonja, or rather Bridget Nielsen, Indonesian, which would be Eva Arnaz who was always a sidekick of Barry Prima and his love interest. They were even together in real life. Thanks to that she had some movies on her own.
You speak of big luck having the chance to talk with Barry Prima on record. Why is it so?
In his whole life, he has given only one other interview to the foreigners. This would be for Mondo Macabro and you can find it among bonuses of their Jaka Sembung. You have to understand that Barry Prima is something like a half god, a god back in the 1980s and early 1990s. What happened during the 1990s is, nobody came to see his movies anymore, and he even did some erotic soft porn movies, action soft porn. He’s not at all proud of it, and from the stories I’ve heard it seems that it´s something he “couldn’t refuse” to do. Then he totally vanished for like seven or eight years. He bought a hotel in Bandung, now he’s a hotel owner and spends quite some time there. Then he started doing again some independent productions, and thus quite daring ones – because he played the first transgender character on the big screen, in a Muslim country, and we are still talking about THE Barry Prima. Then he started to work a lot for TV and he´s every night on TV now, but nobody was able to tell me more about the new action series he was shooting.
Also, I had very harsh time tracking him down. We learnt about him shooting a TV series outside Jakarta, we were told around 1 p. m., so we went there. Nobody there. Nothing. We called some contacts to learn that it was postponed to no sooner than 10 p.m. So we waited, did some other work. Midnight came. Nothing. Then, someone came and said the shooting was relocated. We came to the new location. Tired, but full of hope. Still, he was nowhere to be found. Then, suddenly, he appeared. And it was really an amazing view, I will never forget it. Like a gorilla in the mist. There was this light behind him when he appeared. Such a huge charisma, I cannot quite explain it to you, but it was as if the time stopped. Nobody would breathe anymore. Everybody just stopped as he came to us. And he came up to me and he’s really, you know, big muscles, and said: “What can you do for me?” “I cannot do a lot for you, but maybe you could do something for me, if I ask nicely,” and he went on: “OK, you come with me, you take your assistant director, nobody else, and we go there.” And we went. It was on a basketball field and it went really bad. He sat on a bench and he didn’t talk for like 10 or 15 minutes. I was sitting there not daring to breathe. There was something really electric in the air. Then he asked if I really wanted to interview him, to which I said yes. “OK, you have 15 minutes, starting now, and you will really regret it.” My team was like, we need one hour to put up the lights and good framing and so on. “14 minutes left.” So we did it, everybody really nervous. And he only answered in a very bad way, yes – no, or answered straight, not giving the full reply, leaving me with unusable footage. A lot of it. That is why I came up with the fictive conversation between the fans and him. He had quite a high opinion about himself, really playing with his image, you know, being a legend. He showed some sides I didn’t want his fans to see. I didn’t want to destroy what he has built up, with two or three sentences. But then, you still get the sense, I guess of this „I fucked a lot of women, and I was a really nice chap, and nobody else could do my job,” and so on. Then while editing, I let some of the takes last a little bit longer, to drag on, to share the intensity from the shooting, To let it linger in the air so you can feel it, to channel the emotion. And when he left, I pulled out a bottle of water and poured it on my head. So, lucky me.
What was the reaction of the Indonesian audience to your film?
Some Indonesians told me, I should have just focused on just one thing because there is so many information in such a quick flow, going from 1926 until today in 77 minutes; they asked, why I just hadn’t done the comic book influenced movies, or just Cynthia Rothrock ones, and so on. My reply was and still is, nobody has ever done a movie, a documentary about Indonesian cinema, Indonesian ACTION cinema, and in the whole world nobody knows about it. Yes, I could have focused on the films, let’s say from the 1960s on, or just focus on something, but I think it’s SO IMPORTANT to know what had been before, plus I wanted to make a documentary about everything in the first place; and then maybe give an opportunity to other people to do a more focus. I really wanted to make this general overview.
Are you considering some sequels or joint adventure projects concerning Indonesian cinema, Indonesian action cinema?
We actually tried for several months to create a multimedia project – internet website with some add on value, but it costs quite a lot, and we couldn’t find a working economic model. I’m not sure about making something like Garuda Power 2, for the moment I don’t want to do another documentary in this field, or just about comic books, even if it might be interesting. For me, at the moment, it would be too repetitive, I’d like to discover something new. My dream project now is, as the movie is touring around Indonesia in open air screenings, to take up my camera and film the people watching my movie to collect the reactions, their memories and their stories, especially in smaller towns. I would love to understand more about cinema and the impact and the nostalgic feeling, and what’s left over for the next generations. Because, once again, in a few interviews I’d done with the audience member, some gave me so much, things and ideas I would have never think about. This is what I really would love to do. Now, just find someone to finance that movie.
Thank you, Bastian, for your time and passion. Good luck.
23rd June, 2015 at ART FILM FEST; first published in Slovak language in KINO IKON 1/2016 (June 2016)
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