Restoring an Indonesian Cinema Classic
Usmar Ismail’s 1954 classic, “Lewat Djam Malam” (“After the Curfew”), is finding a new audience 58 years after it was originally released.
The film was recently shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May, followed by a special screening in Singapore, before it finally came home to Indonesia. The film reopened at cinemas in Jakarta on Thursday.
Over the past year, the film was restored by L’Immagine Ritrovata, a film restoration and conservation organization in Italy. The endeavor was funded by the National Museum of Singapore and the World Cinema Foundation, which was founded by directing heavyweight Martin Scorsese.
In a video, Scorsese calls “Lewat” “a powerful film.”
The film, written by Asrul Sani, tells the story of Iskandar (A.N. Alcaff), a former soldier who struggles to settle back into life after the revolution. It takes place five years after Indonesian independence, but while the country was still at war with the Dutch. Indonesia was in the middle of an important and at times chaotic transition.
It opens with a scene where Iskandar comes to visit his fiance Norma (Netty Herawati) after the evening curfew. Norma’s father (A. Hadi) thinks Iskandar should try to get a job quickly, so he can adjust to civilian life.
Meanwhile, Iskandar is haunted by his guilt over killing a woman and her family, as instructed by his commander, Gunawan (R.D. Ismail). He can’t understand how the laws work, and his former army friends have changed drastically and are becoming money-oriented. To add to his inner turmoil, he finds out that the family he killed was innocent and that Gunawan was only using him.
The film is the voice of forgotten heroes who fought for Indonesia’s independence.
According to film critic J.B. Kristanto, “Lewat Djam Malam” was chosen because Usmar Ismail is the first Indonesian film director to use the medium to express his personal thought.
“At that time, and even now, Indonesian films are usually owned [and controlled] by the producers,” Kristanto said. “It is also a milestone in terms of the aesthetic in Indonesian film.”
Sinematek Indonesia director Berthy Ibrahim said that the restoration in Italy was not a simple digital remastering.
“It’s called forensic restoration and it’s a lot like a forensic work,” Berthy said at a press conference at Pusat Perfilman Haji Usmar Ismail in Kuningan, South Jakarta, on June 4.
“You have to restore the quality of the celluloid film, like working on a collage.”
Other forms of film restoration activity may change the essence of the film, such as color as sound, but forensic restoration keeps the total original look of the film. For “Lewat,” L’Immagine Ritrovata had to match two different sets of negatives, because one of the sets had degraded to the point where the sound was nonexistent.
Berthy added that in a tropical environment like Indonesia’s, climate is film’s biggest enemy because it ruins the material sooner than a four-seasoned climate.
“As the chief, it’s part of my job to make sure that the electricity is always on at Sinematek,” Berthy said.
Sinematek is home to more than 2,000 Indonesian films.
Before the restoration, there were white stains and buzzing audio on the “Lewat” film roll. A split screen demonstration between the original and the restored versions showed how much the process helped. In addition to getting rid of imperfections, the film now has English subtitles.
Alex Sihar, director of Konfiden, a film nonprofit organization, said that a film restoration costs about Rp 1.5 billion ($159,000).
On the opening night, Konfiden announced that the Indonesian government donated about Rp 25 million toward the project.
“The cost depends on how bad the [condition of the] film is,” Alex said. “We didn’t touch the funds at all; it was taken care of by the Museum National of Singapore and World Cinema Foundation.”
For Sinematek, the relaunch of “Lewat” is a good chance to gather Indonesian film lovers and to promote the preservation of the nation’s classic films. Sinematak is launching Sahabat Sinematek, an organization to help the documentation and restoration of Indonesian films.
“Sahabat Sinematek is not a new idea,” said Totot Indrarto, the organization’s founder.
“For the past five years, we have learned that [restoration] should not be based on an informal network because there are a lot of formal documents and financial needs, so it has to be an organization.”