During the 11th edition of the CinemAsia Film Festival, film directors and members of the CinemAsia competition jury Joko Anwar (Indonesia) and Martin Koolhoven (the Netherlands) talked to each other about their films, their experience as directors and the differences and possible similarities between the European and Asian markets. What were their most important lessons? 11 highlights from this Masterclass.
Text: Hugo Emmerzael
1. Joko Anwar about the cinematic influences of his youth
Indonesian director Joko Anwar (Kala, Satan’s Slaves) was a film critic before he started making films. Long before that, it all started in a cinema in the poor North of Sumatra. Anwar says: “In the vicinity of my youth, you became a criminal or you got married. I chose to escape by going to the film. For a six-year-old Anwar, this meant a 45-minute walk to the nearest cinema. If he didn’t have the money to sit in the theatre, he watched the films through the grid of the ventilation shaft. In the end, he was the projectionist’s assistant in film theatre. In 1982, for example, he saw Satan’s Slave (original: Pengabdi Setan) by Isworo Gautama Putra from the window in the projection room. It was this horror film that made Anwar realise that he wanted to become a filmmaker. In 2017 he finally succeeded in remaking that film as Satan’s Slaves.
2. Joko Anwar about becoming a director
From his parents, Anwar was not allowed to do a film course. The money was not for that. So he did the most challenging study he could come up with: aeronautical engineering at the best university in Indonesia. He graduated as a film journalist in order to bluff his way into the industry. He succeeded in doing so when he interviewed up-and-coming director Nia Di Nata about her debut film Ca-bau-kan (2002). Anwar liked the film, but had problems with the script. According to Di Nata, he had no right to speak because he was a journalist and not a scriptwriter. “I also have scripts,” Anwar replied. He says: “I sent her the first twelve pages of Janji Joni. That same night, Di Nata called me to let me know that she was impressed. She then asked if I wanted to join her in writing her second film. Arisan! Became a very successful Indonesian comedy. After that it became possible for Anwar to make his debut film Janji Joni.
3. Martin Koolhoven talks about what you need to know to direct
“You need to convince people of your vision,” says Martin Koolhoven (Oorlogswinter, Brimstone) “For a good film, you need two things: a good idea and the power of persuasion to make people believe in it. If you can’t convince people, you don’t have a film. If you have a bad idea that you can convince people of, then you still have a bad film. You have to get your noses in the same direction, which is difficult because on a set everyone is a specialist in his or her own profession. The cameraman knows more about cameras and the actor knows more about acting. And yet they like it when you tell them what you want. It’s not for nothing that it’s called directing in English, you send people somewhere.
4. Martin Koolhoven and Joko Anwar about dealing with nerves
Are the now experienced makers still nervous on the set? “Of course! according to Koolhoven. “Once you are a confident filmmaker, you can also show your insecurities and indifference. Making a film is always making choices, always considering things, without losing sight of the important. So sometimes you have to leave decisions to others. ”I’m still nervous every time I start a film,” Anwar adds. “That’s a good thing, because it makes me better prepared. All my films are the result of a vision: I can see a film from the opening logo to the credits and I have to communicate that to my cast and crew. If they are experienced enough, they will help you to strengthen that vision.
5. Martin Koolhoven on the idea of author director
Artistic director of CinemAsia Maggie Lee asks the makers if they study recurring themes. For Koolhoven it is up to the public to name the recurring themes in his work. For him, his authorship lies mainly in the style with which he shapes his story and his characters. In his films he feels like a “slave to his stories and characters” and he wants to make that come across as well as possible.
6. Joko Anwar about drawing on his own emotions for scenarios
Anwar doesn’t choose a specific style when he is working on a film script: “I focus on the characters and the stories. I write quickly, but the characters I carry with me for years. I am lucky to have experienced a lot in my youth. My films are very personal. I take emotions out of my emotional storageplace and put them into my characters. In my youth I was neglected as a child. My father was never there, my mother was there every three weeks. That made me wonder: why is a child born when the parents can’t make it happy? That theme is in all my films, whether it’s drama, comedy or horror.
7. Martin Koolhoven about the reviews of his films
“Most of my films are well received. Brimstone was also well received, except in America. There they had moral problems with the film. It’s a bit true that if you get enough positive reviews they come in balance with the negative ones. Very often I read something that bothers me. For example, Brimstone’s first international reviews were not so favorable and they also came from influential film journals Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. I was on the red carpet of Venice, just before the world premiere of Brimstone, when those reviews flooded in. They had ruined the premiere a little. I care less now that my film rights have already been sold to 80 countries around the world. Then you won’t read anything about your film that surprises you anymore.
8. Joko Anwar on how he relates to world cinema as an Indonesian director
“Every time I go to another country to show my films – like here and now during Cinemasia – I am surprised that people are watching these Indonesian films. I make films in Indonesia and I tell Indonesian stories. It’s special that these films travel around the world, but I don’t feel like an international director. It feels a bit crazy. Even though there are so many platforms today that you can access to watch movies from anywhere in the world. That’s why it feels increasingly stronger as if we’re all making films for a global audience.
9. Joko Anwar about the financing of films in Indonesia
“Producers I’m not trying to bullshit”, tells Anwar about the way in which he gets his films financed in Indonesia. “I won’t tell them that an arthouse film is going to attract millions of people. I say, for example, that it has a good chance of attending the film festival circuit and will be watched by cinephiles. By the way, Indonesia is the easiest place on earth to make films. It’s a hive of the rich who want to spend their money on movies, so they can parade on the red carpet during the premiere. There appears to be a downside to this: “too many bad Indonesian films are released in the cinema, as a result of which the Indonesian has lost confidence in his national cinema”.
10. Martin Koolhoven about his new film, which he wants to screen in Indonesia.
“Brimstone was banned in Indonesia,” says Koolhoven. He is sometimes worried about the film he now plans to make in Indonesia, a historical noir in Indonesia immediately after the Second World War. He is concerned about censorship because, among other things, it contains a homosexual character. “When I was in Indonesia a few months ago, producers said that as an Indonesian I could not get away with my story, but because I only come to film as a foreigner, it would still be good. We are now a few months down the line and I am not sure whether this is still the case. It’s all changing so fast…
11. Joko Anwar on censorship in Indonesia
Censorship in Indonesia has hindered several film projects. “It works very strangely in our country”, Anwar explains. “If you are lucky, you can get away with anything. And if you are unlucky… The elections three years ago have divided the country a little more between liberals and conservatives. This has a huge impact on our daily lives, including censorship. Now there is almost no room left for homosexual characters. A film was banned a few years ago because of a homosexual character. Instead of pleading for the freedom to tell stories the way you want, I tipped the director to go to the censorship committee with a sly story. He explained that the film showed that homosexuals will not lead a happy life. He also said that his wife’s savings were in this film and that his marriage would be destroyed if this film did not appear. The director is very gay, so it was a big bluff. But that’s how his film went past the censorship. Anwar had to hang up similar stories in order to get his own films in the cinema.