Just shy of 34 million residents, the greater Jakarta area (Jabodetabek) has roughly the same population as Canada (and is the world’s second largest urban area after Tokyo). As the capital of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, Jakarta is beyond dense. Amidst the constant buzz of traffic, sudden rain showers, food stalls for kilometres, and the constant smell of diesel fumes and clove cigarettes is an incredibly thriving film festival scene. There were no less than half a dozen film festivals within a four-week period this past November with focuses ranging from Human Rights (100% Manusia) to Documentary (Film Festival Dokumenter) and everything in between.
ARKIPEL (taken from ‘archipelago’ or chain of islands, of which over 17,000 make up Indonesia) was established in 2013 as the Jakarta International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival and is produced by the group Forum Lenteng. I’ve been lucky to be present at most of their nine editions as their commitment to showing non-fiction and hybrid docs at the intersection of social justice and non-traditional forms is singular and inspiring.
The festival establishes a theme when they launch their call for submissions (free to submit through their website) each year. After taking the requisite COVID-19 hiatus in 2020, they returned in 2021 under the theme “Twilight Zone,” which was serendipitous to say the least given the pandemic and resulting suspended realities. In 2022, ARKIPEL’s theme was “Catch-22” taken from Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel of the same name as a starting place to address a world with seemingly never ending wars. The festival, which received over 700 film submissions, included ten international competition programs alongside two programs of Indonesian films, plus five special presentations, which included retrospectives and guest programmed shorts. The theme strongly resonated throughout the eight days of screenings — many of the films and engaged discussions intersected with the violence of wars and/or the violence of capitalism.
“Catch-22. Paradoxical truth. A contradictory choice with an absolute conclusion. The sane tries to avoid war by pretending to be insane. The other party didn’t realize their madness and was drawn into the war…Contradictory rules ultimately keep the sane and the insane on the battlefield. Conditions that are relevant in digital culture, where platforms seem to provide media and space for marginalized groups to talk about themselves, but on the other hand, are also commodities for the platform or perhaps themselves. And so on, there is a circulation with choices, but the conclusion remains the same, drowning in the flow of capitalism. – from introductory text by Hafiz Rancajale, Artistic Director
Forum Lenteng built a new home for their operations during the pandemic in South Jakarta in the Lenteng Agung neighbourhood not far from the University of Indonesia. It’s a three-story brick house that includes libraries, classrooms, editing facilities, and a new 40-seat microcinema, dubbed Bioskop Forlen. The cozy informal environment means there’s always food, coffee, and space for conversations before and after the programs just outside and above the microcinema. While the intimacy of the microcinema is wonderful for connecting, I do hope the festival will re-engage cinemas such as the new cinematheque venues at Kineforum and perennial favourite Goethe Haus in central Jakarta to maximize potential audiences and to provide stronger projection and sound capabilities to maximize the film experience.
The 2022 opening program featured brief opening speeches, dinner, and a selection of short films from the International Competition including the stellar Tvornica filmova / The Film Factory by Croatian photographer Silvestar Kolbas. At once a document of the former Fotokemika film factory, which produced film stock and photo paper, the film also captures how the transition to capitalism destroyed workers’ rights alongside the analogue film materials themselves. Beautifully shot on expired Fotokemika stocks, The Film Factory is an elegy to a workplace and a medium that continues to thrive despite, or because of, capitalism.
The opening program also included two essay films wrestling with capitalism and political power. Parasite Family by Prapat Jiwarangsan (Thailand) is a mesmerizing collage of portraits created from film negatives found in an abandoned film lab. Jiwarangsan deftly constructs an analogue and digital portrait of Thai families and institutions that live parasitically off the masses. It’s a powerful statement given Thailand’s ongoing military dictatorship.
One of the more classically experimental films in the festival this year, The Deep by Gavin Hipkins (New Zealand), rounded off the opening program with a riveting assortment of found photography and reflections on late capitalism and its ongoing impacts. I particularly enjoyed the auto-generated English voiceover that invited a mysterious layer of interpretation to the dystopian text.
Those three films were culled from program 1 of the International Competition, which also featured standout The Efficiency Exhibition by Di Hu (China/Ireland). Named after a Dutch newsreel from the 1960s, The Efficiency Exhibition is an incredible essay film that densely navigates histories of efficiencies from Henry Ford’s assembly lines to Nazi Germany’s death camps and the ongoing exploitation of workers labour.
International Competition Program 6 included two very different portraits of intimacy. These films explored the gifts and tragedies of human memory and the impacts of secrets. The feature Broca’s Aphasia by Ming-yen Su (Taiwan) is a fascinating portrait of a sex doll rental business in Taipei. The term “broca aphasia” is a neurological condition wherein the sufferer has difficulty making any communication. The dolls are the keepers of their companions’ secrets and provide temporary and anonymous comfort. The film is a stark yet intimate cinema verité portrait of the workers behind the interactive dolls and the soon to be demolished hotel from where they operate their thriving business that provides intimacy and anonymity. This film was nicely paired with short Sedap malam / Agave Amica (Indonesia) by photojournalist and first time filmmaker Gembong Nusantara. Sedap malam juxtaposes the tuberose flower harvests from farm to cemetery where is the flower is commonly used for funeral services. This portrait coincides with a devastating 2021 COVID-19 outbreak and subtly shows the intimate moments of the workers and the families brought together through loss. The abundance of the tuberoses floral bouquets lightens this sublime portrait of loves, labours, and loss.
Another highlight is the feature Mayday! May day! Mayday! by Yonri Revolt (Indonesia). The film is an evocative black-and-white portrait of what is the world’s longest worker’s strike of the 21st century (so far) at the Freeport Indonesia-owned Grasberg copper mine in West Papua. Mayday! May day! Mayday! is a deft combination of intimate portraits of workers with their families, engaging in cooking, karaoke battles, and even recording their Instagram videos with which they sell used clothing as they try to squeeze out a living from alternate sources while out of work. Without voiceovers or onscreen text, the film lets audiences witness the workers, mostly local ethnic Papuans going about their day-to-day lives, intercut with footage of demonstrations, government propaganda, police violence. and archival footage. Revolt presents these elements collaged together to create intimate and subtle portraits of lives suspended and hanging in the balance of government indifference while capitalism marches on.
Neighbour Abdi / Buurman Abdi, a mid-length experimental hybrid doc by Douwe Dijkstra (the Netherlands) comprised the entirety of International Competition Program 4. Running only 28 minutes, one must appreciate how densely the film explores civil war, racism, criminality, punishment, and reflection. A vivid portrait of Dijkstra’s studio neighbour and furniture designer, Somali-born Abdi, the film unfolds through a series of re-enactments combining devastating personal history via special effects and reconstructions of Abdi’s life before emigrating from Somalia to the Netherlands in 1995. After spending time in jail, he was classified a “restricted patient,” a Dutch-specific form of therapy dictated by a judge, which allowed Abdi to focus on furniture making. It’s a tour-de-force reflection and examination of Dutch racism and militarism with behind the scenes green screen magic and outtakes cut within the monstrous collage. Try to see this winner of Locarno’s 2022 Leopard of Tomorrow on the big screen if you can!
Each year, ARKIPEL presents Indonesian films gathered under the title “Candrawala” which comes from two Sanskrit words: ‘candra’ generally translated as ‘moon,’ but also as ‘a lovely phenomenon of any kind’; while ‘wala’ is taken from the word ‘cakrawala,’ which means ‘horizon.’ This year, the festival presented two programs featuring five films with almost all of the creators present, including the previously mentioned Sedap malam. Once again, this section included some of the strongest of the films I experienced this year. I was especially taken with Muhaimin Nurrizqy’s (Padang, West Sumatra) What Eri Testifies at the End of the Roll, a 30-minute portrait of the last independent cinema in West Sumatra, which, thanks to the dedication of the projectionist, only shows 35mm film prints from its collection. The film is an exciting portrait of a building and its cinephile inhabitants (both workers and audiences). It celebrates the magic of the flickering light from celluloid projectors and the people who keep the lights on during and after the films roll. Nisan Tak Terukir / The Unengraved Tombstone by Abdul Ghaniy Rosyidin (Banyuwangi, East Java), meanwhile, is a stunning 60-minute exploration of memories of Communist purges and cleansing in the 1960s told through interviews and documentation of graveyards. The film invites us to reflect on our own process of memory recall and/or forgetting of traumatic histories.
I’ll close with a special highlight: seeing the most recent film with ARKIPEL jury member and director Shalahuddin Siregar in person entitled Pesantren / A Boarding School, another of late 2019’s films whose distribution was impacted by COVID-19. This stunning observational portrait of an Islamic boarding school debuted at IDFA and continues to find its home in a variety of festival and community settings. Its generous portrait of current Islamic education is such a conversation starter. The film feels like an intimate conversation with students, teachers, and administrators at Pondok Kebun Jambu, one of the largest Islamic boarding schools in Java and one of the few in the country run by a woman, Nyai Masriah Amva. Siregar’s camera shares an inside view of how students and parents struggle with being separated. We see the students’ sadness when a teacher is transferred and the day to day stresses the teachers face. The film is a compassionate portrait of some of the 1,700 students and it subtly challenges ingrained notions of what “traditional” Islamic education is really about, namely kindness, acceptance and honouring differing opinions—quite the contrast to both western assumptions about Islam and the rising tide of conservatism in Indonesia and beyond.
The 2022 ARKIPEL Jakarta International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival ran November 25 to December 3 in person.