KULDESAK AND THE BIRTH OF THE INDONESIAN NEW WAVE

December 23, 2018 – 3:51 am

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A generation in motion. That’s what Kuldesak was when a group of four friends - Riri Riza, Nan Achnas, Mira Lesmana and Rizal Mantovani - made that zeitgeist anthology film 20 years ago. This was the film that signalled the birth of the Indonesian New Wave in 1998. That achievement cannot be overstated but it can easily be glossed over. So much of history has been swept away in Indonesia, so many bodies buried in mass graves. But this generation that refused and resisted were not the baby boomers of the ’60s as what the counter culture movement was in the West. Here in Indonesia, the generation that took to the streets to make their reformasi happen, the generation that went behind the cameras to mark their movement, these were the ’90s post-punk kids, the grunge rockers, rappers, hip hoppers and no-hopers who knew that blind chances are sometimes the best ones to take. This was no cul-de-sac, this was not a dead end. This was Kuldesak, the birth of a new generation of faces that the old didn’t want to see. In-yer-face was what they stood for. And they have stood the test of time. Philip Cheah tries to remember that moment again with an interview with Riri, Nan, Mira and Rizal.

PHILIP CHEAH: I want to take you all back to the late ’90s when Kuldesak was made before President Suharto’s fall. What was Indonesian society like then? Did that reflect on the film’s title?

NAN ACHNAS: I just got back from studying for my master’s degree in the UK when Mira asked me if I would like to direct a documentary for the Anak Seribu Pulau series. At that time, Indonesian cinema was at a standstill due to various factors such as the restrictive mode of film production due to government constraints, the sharp increase of private television channels, the contradictory open-sky policy that allowed access to international entertainment and the lack of creative expression in Indonesian films.

All four of us were involved in the audio-visual industry, other than the mainstream cinema, and were using the latest technology. We refused to be in the system created by the Ministry of Information that regulated the national cinema. Kuldesak, in that sense, reflects the dead-end atmosphere to creative work at that time. The only way in and out was to start anew with a film that defies the stifling environment of that time.

MIRA LESMANA: The ’90s for the young was a mixed feeling of excitement (celebrating pop culture), confusion (monetary crisis), chaos (political heat) and also resistance (fighting for freedom). KULDESAK, or as we’d like to interpret as ‘Dead End’, represents our feelings at the time. We have so many ideas yet the political and social situation does not allow us to do what we want to do. However, the result of the film had the opposite effect for us - It was a way out for us!

RIRI RIZA: It was actually quite exciting, there were lots of movements happening around us. I was particularly taken by the growing visual and music culture, underground concert with some weird punk or Brit pop influence, popular DJ’s, MTV and also the growing of world ‘art’ cinema that we can watch on laserdiscs. That was a very dynamic and exciting period.

I just started to make music videos and got some commercial jobs too. This contrasted against our very strict political situation since we started seeing actual opposition movement against Suharto. I started to hear names such as Budiman Sujatmiko and People’s Democratic Party. It was I should say quite colourful. We were in the middle of doing Anak Seribu Pulau (produced by Mira - Miles Films) which was my first real job as a director, and Mira asked me to talk about doing an omnibus film with Nan, and one of our favourite music video director Rizal. But Kuldesak took us two years, at one point i almost thought we would never finish the film. And, at the same time, things got uglier with the economic crisis towards 1998, so then we speeded up to finish the post-production of the film.

Isn’t it ironic that Indonesia’s reformasi took place earlier but Malaysia’s reformasi only succeeded this year, after 18 years. Yet a number of Indonesian reformasi leaders are now collaborating with the military figures that they once opposed. How do you feel? Ironic isn’t it?

Nan: Yes, they say that history repeats itself after 20-25 years. We are right on track!

Mira: History repeats, people forget. We even needed to be reminded by you that it’s now 20 years of Kuldesak, that it’s history and we need to commemorate it!

Riri: All I can say is that reformasi in Indonesia created a huge opportunity. Some people chose to stick to what they believed in and some people changed. Apart from bad politicians and corrupt ex-activists, we should be grateful that reformasi also ‘gave birth’ to some of our young leaders today, including Jokowi and some of the people around him.

RIZAL MANTOVANI: The irony happens politically in all countries, so no, it’s not a surprise. One might say it’s inevitable.

Kuldesak has generally been seen as the door opener to this new generation of filmmakers? But 20 years later you have all become senior figures. How similar or different are the creative struggles that you face now?

Nan: The cyclic nature of history applies to our nation’s present cinema. The repetitions are happening with the creation of associations based on job descriptions (editors, directors, producers, etc) very much like the film worker union… of 20 years ago. Cliques and consolidation of power are formed, aligning with the government. I personally have not found the need to be in any of these organizations. Creatively, the filmmakers have now the freedom to make works beyond the boundaries along national lines.

Mira: I guess in a way it should be the same, but then I was young so I didn’t question my ideas too much. I wish I could still be like that. Haha. Unfortunately as you get older, supposedly more knowledgable, you question everything, right? A lot more distractions about financing the idea, Haha!

Riri: I was 25 when we started Kuldesak. I think when you are young you have less on your plate, so the stakes are less too. During Kuldesak, we were basically a group of filmmakers who were not connected with the previous generation of filmmakers. There were lots of even younger people waiting to join the club, as we had punk spirit, rebellious in statement, in form and style. Today, the creative struggle has not changed much for me. I still doubt a lot, whether my Idea is compelling or engaging enough. I just have more experience now, and a bit more solid structure. Especially since I have been working with Mira and almost the same team for 20 years.

Rizal: The struggle remains but they are different in nature. Creative struggles are needed because without it, creative solutions would not arise.

What came first - the anger or the inspiration? How did four friends find the common spark to start this film anthology?

Nan: It was just an obsessive need to create something out of an environment that was corrosive and outdated.

Riri: Both. We were so disappointed with the stagnant film culture that only reflected very old voices and tolerated censorship plus restricted room for experimentation and new approaches in film. But we enjoyed our camaraderie, our creative likemindedness. I was so excited every time we met to talk about what we just saw or what we heard or read.

Rizal: Definitely inspired by my three colleagues. Working with the cast and crew with their hearts and passion out on their sleeves inspired me more.

For each of you, what are the moments in each film segment that still rings true today and still speaks to a modern audience?

Nan: The love interest between the male characters in my segment. The kissing scene, however, will still be censored by the Indonesian censor board, the only institution left standing from the Suharto era.

Mira: The Kissing scene of Nan’s segment. Moshing in Riri’s segment. Rape in Rizal’s segment. Aksan’s nightmare.

Riri: I love Aksan’s struggle about his own voice in film, that he doesn’t want to be this or that filmmaker. I love Nan’s sequence of friendship between sexes in many delicate moments: rolling ball between rooms and the conversations within. I still see kids hanging out in 24-hours Circle K stores today. But you can’t buy beer anymore in that shop now. That must really suck for kids today.

Rizal: The moment when Lina the character in my segment finds out that she is being watched. This is part of the ‘big brother is watching you’ mentality that shrouds people working under big corporations, more so nowadays with corporations stalking social media of their employees. Or Mira’s character saying aspiringly: ’I just want to make a film’, or Nan’s ‘bride in a bus scene’ and Riri’s Ryan Hidayat’s character holding a gun to his cheek while the television is on.

Name the talents and careers that were launched by this film?

Nan: I have only three characters in my segment. Harry Dagoe, one of the gay characters, became a filmmaker.

Mira: Our own careers! Haha. We were practically unknown before Kuldesak. The actors were mostly famous people already, so were the singers/songwriters that have their songs in the films! Oh definitely the careers of the DOPs - Yadi Sugandhi, Nur Hidayat, Roy Lolang and Yudi Datau) and the film scorer - Thoersi Argeswara - were launched (or re-launched)…

Riri: Hmm… I should say many. My DOP Yudi Datau is one of the busiest today. Thoersi Argeswara also works in lots of films. Most of them are actually legends today hahaha… Like rapper IWA K. He was actually quite popular at that time but he’s one of our legends who is still working today. I think I’d like to highlight that making Kuldesak was like gathering with a pool of friends. It was exciting to see young people come work on set, in camera or art team, sometimes I see new faces every night. It’s pity that Ryan Hidayat passed away, he could’ve been one of our greatest actors working today.

I remember some of the controversies of the film - the lesbian kiss in Nan’s segment and Ryan Hidayat’s OD in real life. In a way these elements of realism were signs of the times - Pulp Fiction, Nirvana, grunge. What were the key generational influences that went into Kuldesak?

Nan: In one scene of my segment, the characters sit on a street with a huge billboard of Suharto looming benignly behind them. The New Order was filled with a visual culture promoting the jingoistic and nationalistic fervor of the Suharto leadership. After the reformation, it disappeared almost overnight.

Mira: It was two guys Kissing, not two girls, Phil! (Looks like history didn’t repeat itself for me - Ed). Definitely the music (and songs). We have so many great songs of the time, from different kinds of genre. A sign of the times indeed.

Riri: For me it was the music scene definitely. Grunge and Punk and Post Punk. There were many underground music movements in that time, interestingly some started in the visual art dept of IKJ (Jakarta Institute of the Arts), and, on the other hand, we started to see young pop musicians enter the industry and sell thousands of records. It was almost a revolution of youth in many levels. Politics and arts, especially popular arts.

The sense of alienation is very palpable in Kuldesak. This wasn’t the rock n roll of the ’60s. This was the brutality and anomie of grunge in the ’90s. When Kuldesak was conceived, did you all agree to communicate a certain emotion or a certain psychology of the times?

Nan: We did not discuss the emphasis of alienation felt by young people in each of our segments. I suppose it came out of our subconscious when we created the film.

Riri: I think we talked about it in very general terms. Like maybe the character should be a young person in an urban setting. But we agreed that all characters are connected around the gun (though we were OK and happy it didn’t appear in Nan’s story). I was young, I still listened to Nirvana, or watched Taxi Driver for inspiration…

What were some of the criticisms against the film? What did the critics/audience misunderstand at that time?

Nan: I represented the film in a film festival overseas a year after it was released and during the Q&A, the head of the Indonesian delegation, who was an influential television and film producer, stood up and said that the film does not represent Indonesia for its portrayal of violence, guns and rebellious youth. I told the audience, yes it does!

Riri: I read that some thought the film too ‘playful’ or light… that the film was disconnected with the history of Indonesian cinema in general… In one discussion, Hanung mentioned that the story is not about him!???

I have spoken to Mira on this issue before - of the paradox of being independent in the film industry. How is it possible to be independent these days when the temptation to sell out and be corporatised is so rampant? Wasn’t that the whole Kurt Cobain story and tragedy?

Nan: It is very much possible to be independent in the commercialization of the industry now. It is about making sure that struggles of the past are there to guide you to a better future and not repeat the same mistakes.

Mira: I think we need to define independent. I tried to keep my independence one way or another since Kuldesak. We deal with corporations on a day to day basis in the film industry since day one. We chose to show our film in the big cinema chain, that’s a choice with all kinds of consequences. But I chose the film that I want to produce, no corporation could make me do otherwise. Perhaps that’s my definition of being independent!

Riri: Well, Kuldesak is an independent film that from early stage was planned to be distributed widely in mainstream cinemas. Mainstream cinema (Studio 21) in many ways were threatened by the independent filmmakers, even today. But we were their first good friends in the industry (I think). I like Kurt Cobain’s music but didn’t want to end up dead like him. I always think Spike Lee is my hero. He is loud, in real life and in his films. But he worked with studios from very early stage of his career to spread his words, and the studios agreed to work on his terms.

Note: This interview was first published in a 20th anniversary commemorative book on Kuldesak, the film. The new digital edition of Kuldesak was specially screened on December 19, 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia.

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  1. One Response to “KULDESAK AND THE BIRTH OF THE INDONESIAN NEW WAVE”

  2. Ironic article title.

    By wow on Dec 23, 2018

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