A chat over iced lemon tea with Joko Anwar

Coming across a good Indonesian film is a feat not to be taken lightly. For the last few years, this country has produced a numerous amount of movies—some worth mentioning, some even need to be boasted about, while others are better off forgotten. Amidst the confusing array of b-rated horror movies embraced and offered by the local cinema, there are times when the silver screen is graced by some works that are, well, legit. And among the people responsible for those few ‘treats’ we Indonesian moviegoers get once in a while, is Joko Anwar. On a Tuesday evening, I got a chance to chat with the filmmaker himself, on the topics of movies, snobs, love, and—of course—his latest ‘family movie’, Modus Anomali.

In a charming establishment that blends books, food, drinks and movies somewhere in South Jakarta, Joko seems at home. “I come out here a lot, most of the time until the place closes up,” he grins. “There are a lot of other movie directors that hang out here too, so next time you see them you can just come up to them and chat, no worries.” A figure so familiar yet so foreign, Joko can come off as quite a snob on screen, an over-confident movie royalty. “Actually, if you know me, my attitude is more like ‘I’m clueless’, ‘Shit did I do it right?’, and ‘Shit I fucked up again’.” He tweeted to me once. Indeed, in real life he is more welcoming and humorous than he initially seems. In fact, he jokes around so much that sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish fact from farce. Like when asked about the fate of his 2002 film Kala (Dead Time) and its sequels, he answers, “Actually, you have seen the sequel. You just didn’t realize,” he lights his cigarette, “Pintu Terlarang (Forbidden Door) is the sequel. But you haven’t seen the finale, it’ll be released in—2015, maybe? It’ll be called Maya.” Yet when I try to confirm this to Sheila Timothy, the producer of Pintu Terlarang, she disses it immediately, saying that there’s no plan for any sequel so far and that Pintu Terlarang is definitely not a sequel to Kala.

A waitress places our drinks on the table, glasses of iced lemon tea. With shelves of what seems like a collection of both new and second-hand books all around us, at the corner of the room, he places his Macbook on the table, charges his white BlackBerry, sips his drink and smokes his cigarette—comfortably at home. While Joko has always been in love with the movies, he sure doesn’t instantly start as a filmmaker. Way back then, he used to be a film critic, writing for the nation’s front English language newspaper, The Jakarta Post. He worked as a film critic for some time, easily berating the less-than-mediocre movies that were being released at that time. But now that he’s a filmmaker himself, he just feels like he doesn’t “know shit. The more films I make, the more I feel like I don’t know shit.” With his experience, I ask if he’s got some advice for aspiring critics out there. “My advice? Don’t become one,” he says. “When you’re a critic you will inevitably tend to nitpick your choices of movies. You’ll try to find the weaknesses in a movie, points your likes and dislikes, you’ll limit yourself. I just love movies so much that I can’t possibly do that anymore.”

Unlike some of his peers, Joko has never actually enrolled in a film school. IKJ (Jakarta Institute of Arts) was too expensive for him back then so he entered ITB (Bandung Institute of Technology) instead, majoring in Aerospace Engineering—an information we can easily read by accessing Wikipedia. “How do you edit stuff on Wiki?” he asks. Not flattered by some of the things written about him on his Wiki page, he adds “I tried erasing some of it, yet they just keep popping back up again.” Then he just chuckles and laughs it off. His never being a film school student himself is probably the reason why he’s always reluctant when people ask him to teach about filmmaking. “I wouldn’t even know what to teach about. I’d prefer to call it ‘sharing’.”

A call comes to his BlackBerry, he reaches it and answers to the receiver, speaking very softly. I notice the tattoos he has on his arms—LOST HIGHWAY on the right, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE on the left. After he finishes his call, I ask about them. “This,” he points to the tattoo on his left arm, “has a special meaning. I saw this movie during a phase in my life where I was so sick of movies, didn’t care about them anymore, and I also lost my faith in love completely. I thought I’d never ever find anyone,” he smiles at his own sentimentality. “but this movie made me believe in them again.” Believe in movies? “Yes, and also believe in love again.”

Since his first movie, Janji Joni (Joni’s Promise), released back in 2005, Joko has released two other movies, having written all of the scripts himself. With every movie he’s done, he has always learned something new. He makes a certain movie because he wants to learn about a certain thing. Like when he made Kala because he wanted to learn about cinematic storytelling, or when Pintu Terlarang was made because he wanted to learn about shapes within a frame, a room within a room. His fourth movie, called Modus Anomali, was made because he was driven by the idea of pure storytelling, equipped with a camera and an actor. The movie was already screened at some film festivals, most notably at SxSW back in March. Screened four times at the festival, which was held in Austin, the movie received mainly good reviews. The festival being mostly mainstream, Joko admits that initially he was worried about the response. “But the feedback was very positive,” he says. “there was even a critic who didn’t like it the first time, wrote a very bad review about it, but then he watched the movie again for the second time and completely changed his review.”

With only a few days away from its release, Modus Anomali has been getting a lot of attention. Promotions are diligently done by the people involved in the movie, seminars and workshops are held, trailers are screened. The latter, of course, has been the most effective way to get people talking. But what exactly is it about the trailer that ticks people? An inevitable question that is on everybody’s mind and one that is always thrown to the filmmaker without fail: why is the movie in English? Although sure that he’s been asked that question many times, I still ask him anyway. “The movie isn’t set in Indonesia, we can’t find wood cabins in the forests here in Indonesia. And with the situation that the lead character is stuck in, it won’t make sense if he swears lightly. He’d have to swear like crazy and that’d just be censored by LSF (Film Censor Board), right? With English, we can just the word ‘fuck’, it works.” But that isn’t the only reason. Joko believes that language is just one of the medias of communication. Does making an Indonesian movie means we have to do it in Indonesian? “Fuck boundaries,” he always says. A lot of the criticism he has received is that his decision to make the movie in English isn’t a nationalistic move. “We as Indonesians should never ever have an inferiority complex. Why are Indonesians so proud when we see westerners play traditional Indonesian musical instruments or wear batik? We never see them so proud to see us wearing blue jeans, do we? If we are that amazed about those things, it means we place ourselves below other nations. It means that we are proud of other nations taking notice of us, a ‘lesser’ country. We shouldn’t be like that. The language is just a way of communicating, a tool, that’s it. Nothing to do with being nationalistic or whatnot.”

The idea of Modus Anomali has been in Joko’s head since 2006. The actual script writing itself only took about two months, inspired by one of the local indie band Sore’s tracks, titled Bogor Biru. At one of his workshops, he plays the track for the audience to listen, promptly asks the people in charge to dim the lights, and dramatically begins to explain, “When I listen to the song, images came into my head—an alarm clock, and a guy driving in the woods, all by himself.” The movie was shot in ten days, in a pine forest recreation area, and took about two months of post-production. The music is a big part of the movie, and Joko never tires of reminding people to “ask the cinema to put the speakers on really loud when you watch the movie.” What he doesn’t remind people, though, is the fact that he actually sang a track for the movie.

Aware that his previous movies have not exactly been blockbuster hits, he can only joke about it, “I’ve tried making commercial movies. My movies are all intended to be commercial, family movies. But they just didn’t work out.” Well, no matter how his latest movie does in the box office, be rest assured that Joko Anwar will always make movies that he wants to make—nothing less than what we expect from one of the very few auteurs this country has. And apparently religious movies, the kind that gets the easiest financing in this country, don’t seem to be on his to-do list.

Modus Anomali opens in theatres nationwide on April 26th.

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One response to “A chat over iced lemon tea with Joko Anwar

  1. Pingback: KaramelKinema: 1 Year! | kinema kinema to karamel·

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