My interview with film director Nia Dinata

Nia Dinata is one of Indonesia’s most important film-makers. Known for tackling subject matters such as abortion, polygamy, and sexualities in a profoundly refreshing way, the films of teh Nia have received worldwide acclaim outside the geographically parochial national film industry of Indonesia. I had the valuable opportunity to ask teh Nia about her views on gender in Indonesian cinema and the current trend of religiously themed films. This interview is one of my many interviews with members of Indonesia’s film community, its producers, directors, critics, and scholars.

The formidable film director and producer Nia Dinata. Source: The New York Times.

Length of interview: 24 minutes
Location: Kalyana Shira Films, South Jakarta, February 2012.

Alicia Izharuddin: Do you think there’s been a change in representations of women in Indonesian film?

Nia Dinata: Little change. Not as significant as people expected just because there are more women behind the scene does not mean it translates immediately to just portrayals of women on the screen. I don’t think it happens directly. But I see little changes here and there. It’s not as significant as the number of women who are now behind the cameras and behind film-making. I think we still need to work on that.

AI: What are we looking for? What kind of images of women that are not being shown enough in film right now?

ND: I feel that it’s still very rare for women to be heroes, as the major protagonist in a film. Not Or other minority characters, not just women – gay men, lesbian women. Mostly the heroes are still men. The kind of portrayal of women if they are female heroes like the films I watched last year, they are mostly women who are religious. If they are heroes, they should be religious. Have you done that research?

AI: Yes, I am doing that research.

ND: Most of the heroines have to be healthy, very religious, very conservative in their choice of lifestyles. So there’s still not enough room for women who are not religious. Or religious but they do not want to show it, they think religion is a private matter.

AI: So they don’t wear the jilbab.

ND: Yes. Women who are less ‘white’. Maybe a bit ‘grey’. Because we have a lot of films where we have the hero or heroine who have ‘grey’ characters – not black or white.

AI: Grey, as in ambiguous?

ND: Yes, ambiguous. I think it’s very rare to have that kind of characters. Ambiguous characters. I think Indonesian people are afraid of ambiguity. They are still afraid to admit that actually human beings can be a saint and evil. We are complex.

AI: But is that one of the problems with film-maker is that they’re too scared that audiences cannot accept complex characters.

ND: I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. It’s more a matter of ignorance. They didn’t even realise that ambiguity exists, that there are different gender portrayals or characteristics. Because there are not many women film makers who are also aware of gender issues.

AI: You’ve been known to make films about women that have been discussed before, like abortion, polygamy. What do you think is your approach to portraying men and masculinities?

ND: Oh I don’t know what my approach is. I’m not an expert in masculinity! If you like this world is already very masculine. The earth, I believe, is very feminine in the beginning. But in time, it became more masculine. Maybe there’s no relation to film at all. But in general, femininity is still considered a threat, a weakness. I have no approach to portraying masculinity.

AI: Because one of the films you produced, Quickie Express, was used in my class to study masculinities. The reason why I found it interesting is because …

ND: They’re not masculine at all.

AI: Even though they’re not masculine, they try to be. But in their efforts to be masculine, it becomes comedic. What is also interesting in the film is that you find many examples where you find the male sexuality is humiliated, being undone. Did you have to anything to say there about men in that film?

ND: Actually, the film was a parody. I love doing satire. And the film was a satire of society. And the reason why it’s so successful in terms of box office [sales] is because the public was mistaken. The film was mistaken for a very masculine film. People who have power and decide what films to watch are generally men – the masculine force. Of course it’s fun for me to see that actually they’re being put into this strategy and they eat it all up. And most of them still find it fun to watch. A small group [of male audiences] find it the opposite. Even the Om Rudi character who is very masculine and turn out to be gay. It’s an expression of while we can make films, we might as well use it to express our beliefs.

AI: Unfortunately the film was never really rigorously analysed. But when I watched it, I thought, so many things that could be unpacked. In your opinion, do you think it is possible for male film-makers to make representations of women that are very meaningful?

ND: I do. But we’re lacking is consciousness, mindfullness. Especially when we’re making films. Most of the male film-makers I believe they’re capable of making films about women in a very inspiring light, not necessarily positive. However, when they do it, they do it unconsciously. And when they don’t do it, they [also] do it unconsciously. We’re not brought up to do critical thinking of trying to analyse, criticise the society, and the imbalanced portrayals of men and women in the media. Unless it’s people like you or me who’ve taken classes on gender, women’s psychology or stuff like that in college. Most people are not trained especially in Asia to see with critical eyes about those things. I believe that male film-makers are not also not trained in those things. And when I point out, ‘oh I like that portrayal of women in this film or several others’. But I believe a man did that portrayals unconsciously, but not without real intention but because the story flow very well, it looks very artistic, the characters, not the women look stronger but not with mindfullness that it is important [to portray women in a meaningful way].

Film poster for Berbagi Suami (Love for Share, 2006) directed by Nia Dinata

AI: When I ask that question, I keep thinking about Perempuan berkalung sorban as an example of a male film-maker who is trying to say so many things about a woman’s experiences in a difficult and conservative environment. I just wondered why more women were not involved in a project like that?

ND: I cannot stand watching Perempuan berkalung sorban because there’s a lot of pretentiousness in it so I don’t know.

AI: Did you think it was too preachy?

ND: Yes, too preachy and that’s why I thought it was pretentious.

AI: Another thing I was wondering, back to women behind the camera. Why do you think there are not as many women behind the scenes? There is definitely a rise in the number of women producers. But the one who is calling the shots, the director, women in that role are still so few. Is there are reason why?

ND: It’s generally like all over the world right?

AI: Yes, of course. But is there a specific reason here in Indonesia? Because I’m comparing Malaysia. In Malaysia, we don’t have many women film-makers. We don’t have a very big population, but that’s not a good enough reason. But I wondered if there’s about the culture in film industry that is probably macho, not just male-dominated. Does it make more difficult for women in any way?

ND: I don’t think so. The environment is making it difficult but it has to come from the woman herself. Because I think this kind of progress that we’ve been through, the environment is very friendly at least the one that I’ve been through to both women and men. I think it has to come from the women herself to have the need and longing to call the shots. Because if they don’t try it they don’t know how exciting and invigorating for anybody to be able to visualise their thoughts.

AI: Do you think it’s something to do with power and leadership, and maybe women are not as willing to take up that role?

ND: Yes, I think it has something to do leadership, and something to do with the belief that women are better at organising and managing so they become very good producers. Which is true. So most people, they end up falling into that belief and decide for themselves, ‘I want to be a producer, instead of I want to be a director.’

AI: My last question; pertaining to films that feature a lot of Islamic elements in them. In the last few years, there have been a number of films about Islam and Muslim people. It was like a trend, however, they were not many women were who responsible for these films. Is there a reason maybe that Islam as a topic that may be too sensitive for women film-makers to take up?

ND: But for me, it’s all about trends. It’s all about big waves in Indonesia that have been for the past 4,5 years. It’s very trendy to even wear the jilbab, to be a born-again Muslim, to belong to a certain group of pengajian, another form of arisan. All my friends, say ‘Let’s join this pengjian. The ustaz is very nice. Let’s meet once or twice a week’. For them, it makes them happy because it is very trendy. It is trendy to launch your fashion, and after fashion it is movie and music. Which is why men love to do something based on their brain, not their heart. Their brain says Islam will make a lot of profit. But if you look deeper, the men are not even Muslims. So it’s just making a commodity out of Islam.

AI: But there are also a number of film-makers who get questioned about their qualifications to make films like that. Hanung Bramantyo gets questioned a lot about the kind representations of Islam and Muslims in his films, because they are more you could say ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’. He is questioned about how good a Muslim he is, his actors are for example. To me, I find it interesting because the personal side of the film-maker is also being put in the spot.

ND: Well, it depends. When Hanung made Tanda Tanya, he has every right to make it because he has questions about Islam [in Indonesia] himself. Somebody whose name I don’t want to mention, who are Catholics who make religious films I don’t think it is fair. Because for me, it is fair for business. But content-wise, it is not. Everybody can make any film for the sake of business but I won’t watch that film because I get to choose what I want to watch. But it depends, if somebody makes a film that has questions about religion criticising religion, that’s fine, anybody can make. Anybody in their stage in life will have questions like that. It would be nice to have those questions up on the big screen. But if you’re making films that are very, very conservative, very black and white, without any critical thinking at all in your film where you are not even a Muslim. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s like putting business as your religion. I think people who are criticising film-makers who make films about religion are very shallow people because anybody can question about their religion, or question the existence of God.

AI: In Malaysia, we’re very conservative and we can’t just make films that question Islam. But in Indonesia, I also notice that those who are conservative share that same view.

ND: But that’s the risk of being a film-maker. If you want to tackle those issues you have to be prepared. But the difference between Malaysia and Indonesia is that you can actually do anything in Indonesia, it’s just a matter of whether you’re ready to be criticiesd or not. But in Malaysia, even when you have the intention it doesn’t mean you can materialise that intention.

AI: [Laughs] Yes, it’s tragic like that.

ND: Move to Indonesia to make films. [Laughs]

AI: [Laughs] OK, I think that’s all we have for today. Thank you, Teh Nia.

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