Ordinary People the Stars of New Film Set in NTT Village
Indonesian movie buffs will be more than familiar with Riri Riza, one of the most outstanding film directors the country has ever produced.
Revitalizing the film industry with “Kuldesak” in 1999, Riri has rekindled the love for Indonesian films through works like “Petualangan Sherina” (“Sherina’s Adventure,” 2000), “Eliana, Eliana” (2002), “Gie” (2005), “Tiga Hari untuk Selamanya” (“Three Days to Forever,” 2007) and “Laskar Pelangi” (“The Rainbow Troops,” 2008).
Behind the shy smile and the messy hairdo that has become part of his signature look, Riri remains on a quest to keep the creative juices flowing. He pours all his energy into the local film industry.
He has recently built Rumata, an art space in Makassar, his hometown, with the aim of sparking a new energy in the local cultural scene. He will also start shooting a television show about disaster reduction that is scheduled for a first screening on Dec. 24, about the same time as the anniversaries of the Aceh and Flores tsunamis.
It has been three years since Riri directed a movie — his last one, “Sang Pemimpi” (“The Dreamer”), the sequel to “Laskar Pelangi,” was released in 2009 — and he is finally about to launch his 11th film, “Atambua 39° C.”
For this latest film project, Riri worked with his lowest budget ever. With the 20,000 euros ($25,000) he won from the Hubert Bals Fund at the International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this year, he funded the digital production for “Atambua.”
Producer Mira Lesmana, Riri’s long-time partner, added Rp 313 million ($33,000) which she collected from a local crowd-funding project. This additional money will be used to fund post-production.
With only 12 crew members brought from Jakarta, the main cast consists entirely of locals from Atambua, a city in East Nusa Tenggara (NTT). Riri said he had no difficulty directing them because the story he wanted to present was nothing other than their real life stories.
The film is now in post-production, and it should come out later this year, Mira said.
With such a low budget, Riri and Mira had to work extra hard to make the production happen. Mira, for example, worked not only as producer but also as the make-up artist.
Even without a lot of money, Riri and Mira thought “Atambua 39° C” was a film that needed to be made. Riri sat down with the Jakarta Globe to talk about it.
Tell us about the film. Why 39 degrees?
It is a film about refugees who live in Atambua. We went to Atambua, Kupang and Labuan Bajo to shoot and we took 15 days to finish. We had a very small crew, only 12 people from Jakarta, so everyone had to multitask. My assistant had to handle art, Mira became a makeup artist.
To answer your question on why we have 39 degrees in the title, it’s because of the heat. It’s very hot there in Atambua. Thirty-nine degrees is also the normal temperature of the body.
How did you approach directing people with no acting experience?
If we are used to making documentaries, we have the sensitivity to see if someone can speak in front of a camera or not. Some people have it, some don’t. The trick is in knowing who these people are.
In writing the script, we must have a vision about their life. We have to choose people who quickly recognize their talent too. These people really went through the story that we tell in the film. They are mostly refugees from Timor-Leste [East Timor] and they had to move out of there because of their political beliefs. There are a lot of young people, age 12 or 13, who grew up without their mothers because they live in Timor-Leste.
So these people are emotionally close to the story in my film. They didn’t really have trouble acting because it was their own experience.
Mira Lesmana said she was still looking for funds to distribute the film. How big do you think this film is going to be?
I think it’s difficult to go big today, and the question is, how big it really can be? Especially for a film like this, for which we have cast no popular actors — although the story is really easy for everybody to enjoy. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
How many locals are involved in ‘Atambua 39° C’?
There are three main characters plus the extras, and they all come from one kampung [neighborhood] in Atambua. We don’t use their real names in the film. As for their citizenship, they clearly have chosen Indonesia.
They believe in the concept of this nation, they have family members who are members of the Indonesian Army, National Police or civil servants. They lived in a camp for five years where they were fed regularly, so the economic problems they are having now could also be related to that.
The film also portrays some of these issues too. This is not an entirely new subject, “Tanah Air Beta” (2010, directed by Ari Sihasale) also speaks about the same matter, but you can later see differences.
How important is this film for your career?
Well, the idea to make this film came to me because I previously made a documentary [commissioned by Unicef] in Flores last year. As a film director, the constant discomfort in looking for a new situation, a new language and a new story to be presented is always there.
After I made “Sherina,” I felt it was very mainstream and well-designed, so I made “Eliana, Eliana,” and later, “Gie.” And after the huge success of “Laskar Pelangi,” I needed to find another new extreme point.
What do you think about crowdfunding projects for filmmakers?
I think any effort that helps us to stand for ourselves and not be dependent on only one source is a good thing. Especially now that digital production has cut the budget for film production significantly.
“Atambua 39° C” is the most low-budget film I’ve ever made in my career. We collected about Rp 300 million from our budget of Rp 1.6 billion [from crowdfunding], so that was helpful. We can’t rely on money from film festivals only, because applications take a very long time for approval — you need to go through a selection, and you also have to have the skills to fill out the necessary forms. They also look for credibility, which makes it tough for new filmmakers to get grants.