The Ubud Handbook « Cinema Paradiso
"Native customs, native music, native cast".
'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' (1935) bare native Thirties' film poster, Bali.
BOOBS AND POLITICAL CENSORSHIP have never been far from the Silver Screen. In Indonesia, they're its bedrock.
The silent flicks of Thirties' Bali sucked hungrily on the island's bare-breasted cabinet-postcard image that encouraged so many gilded tourists – and dodgy stars like Charlie Chaplin – to visit its sultry, forbidden shores.
There's the technicoloured 'Legong: Dance of the Virgins' featuring an ill-fated love triangle between a topless adolescent market girl and her barely older squeeze, with plenty of torsos on show. Or 'Balinese Love' from 1931. Or the 1932 'Virgins of Bali (Land of Love and Romance)', tagline: "A Garden Of Eden! With Dozens Of Eves!"
But the most famous of Bali's 'bare native' film sub-genre has to be 'Goona-Goona', known alternatively as 'Love Powder' and 'Man's Paradise' when it hit the salles of New York. Directed by Belgian Armand Denis and his aristocratic but penniless sidekick André Roosevelt of US presidential fame, it had bare breasts galore and squeezed in a taste of cannibalism to spice up the script.
To the thrill of New York's backrow 'nudie-cutie' fans, 'Goona-Goona' shimmied past the censors – the skin on show was National Geographic brown, not prudish pink – and it became a huge hit. No surprise that guna-guna – a reference to a Balinese aphrodisiacal narcotic, or 'love magic' – swiftly entered the North American lexicon as a street-level synonym for the F-word.
Exploitation has been part of the script for Indonesian cinema since its inglorious, naked inception.
Just as the Cannes Film Festival debuted on the eve of the Second World War, Bali's boatloads of cruise-liners briskly made way for plane-loads of Japanese Imperial storm-troopers – who not only seized the jewel of Holland's crown in record time, but quickly commandeered the archipelago's fledgling film industry for its own profitable propaganda machine.
Post-war: enter stage-left the communist-leaning General Sukarno – Indonesia's founding father and first president – who swiped the director's chair in 1945 and banned all foreign film imports as he tore into his own anti-Western, 20-year epic.
1965? Enter stage-right the US-backed General Suharto – cue red dogs and The Year of Living Dangerously – who managed to bat any remaining lefty film buffs into the gods with his steel-fisted debut that ran like a bad soap until his audience pelted him with tomatoes during the dangerously violent out-takes of 1998.
I meet up with Happy Salma – model-turned-soap-star and now a writer and serious actress in her own right – who recalls her own more innocent exposure to the moving image as she grew up in Eighties' Sukabumi, West Java:
– "Look, we weren't exactly out in the sticks: our city had two studios [cinemas] that we caught films at. But I remember going to the recreation ground where a big white sheet was hung between two trees and a car drove 'round with a guy leaning out the window with a massive loudspeaker rounding us up for an evening's entertainment.
"It was quite romantic, actually..."
With few exceptions, adult-themed B-movies and TV soaps were the order of the day for Happy's generation. But with Reformasi – Reformation – and the vicious toppling of Suharto's New Order in 1998 came a new breed of film that tackled previously banned topics such as religion, politics, race and the underworld.
Happy's own career has followed the maturing of Indonesian cinema.
She acted in Riri Riza's 'Gie' that narrates the tragic tale of Sixties' activist Soe Hok Gie, and was the country's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards. Then there was 'Xia Aimei', the story of an underage Chinese girl trafficked into Jakarta's pitch-black nightlife. Happy also won Best Supporting Actress at the Indonesian Movie Awards for her delicate portrayal of a prostitute in 'Tujuh Hati, Tujuh Cinta, Tujuh Wanita' ('Seven Hearts, Seven Loves, Seven Women') – and ended up in Cannes as part of Indonesia's delegation sent there to promote the country's film industry.
On the other end of the camera is Bali-born Soma Helmi, 25, who won a place at Sundance for her contribution to the ground-breaking, crowd-sourced film 'Life in a Day' produced by Ridley Scott.
For Soma, her experiences of talkies in the 1990s weren't exactly 5D wrap-o-vision.
– "It was all videos when I was young – there was no cinema in Ubud. Growing up here, we had to go down to the video shop in Denpasar and rent like ten at a time so we wouldn't run out.
"TV? I remember watching it for the first time when I was about six – there was just one channel. It used to start at about five in the afternoon with the news, and then there was half an hour of cartoons for the kids. Then there was news, more news, and then some more news until it went off-air at about half-past ten. It wasn't that interesting to tell you the truth. I mean, we would just wait for the cartoons and that was it."
Soma Helmi takes a sip of her cappuccino, pauses for effect.
– "The local production houses here in Indonesia still tend to see film-making as venture capitalism rather than a mirror for ideas and self-expression.
"Let's say they produce four or five films a year. There'll be a love film scheduled for Valentine's, a couple of horror flicks for the holidays, and an Islamic religious number to coincide with Ramadan. And their big investors are happy because they turn the all-important profit."
The latest horror fodder includes 'Suster Keramas' (plotline: mystical monster takes on the form of a murderous hair-washing nurse that drew the crowds with sexy scenes featuring Japanese porn star Rin Sakuragi) – and the astoundingly named 'Hantu Puncak Datang Bulan' – or 'The Menstruating Ghost of Puncak'.
But the dog-eared recipe of horror-stroke-love seems to have lost its sweetness: Indonesia's chocolates-in-a-box film industry has suffered a downturn in recent years. Rampant counterfeiting and the open sale of pirated DVDs don't help.
– "All the beautiful, thoughtful Indonesian indie films – and they're being made in abundance – just don't get the exposure," says Soma.
"They aren't being sent to the right people. In fact, they're hardly being sent at all because the submission fee for a short at a festival like Sundance" – about US$70 – "is often more than the production cost for their whole film."
It's telling that the two most-watched shorts of last year were a viral sex-tape featuring a famous boy-band frontman – he got three years inside for breaking anti-pornography laws – and a YouTube clip of an on-duty police officer lip-synching to his favourite Bollywood hit. (Policeman 'Rapid Response' Norman got fired after spending too much time on chat shows, and decided to pursue a job in serious acting instead. He ended up co-starring as the immigration officer investigating the nightclub that pimps the trafficked, underage Xi-Xi in 'Xia Aimei'.)
How the reels change.
The internet, and a people's revolt in '98 burst the information dam that had been shut tight during General Suharto's 32-year steel grip. Online forums such as the Bali-based MiniKino.org now act as a hub for talented Indonesian film-makers who live three, or 3,000 islands apart. Upload sites such as Vimeo provide the global screen that is so badly needed for significant Indonesian films to find an audience.
Logistics? A borrowed Canon 5D, a laptop and a good broadband connection are all that's needed to produce the next low-budget super-hit with a difference.
Indonesia isn't a poor country.
It has copper, oil, tin, natural gas, palm oil, the biggest gold-mine in the world... and lots and lots of stories. Its 17,500 islands hide a deeply rich seam for the right scripts and cameras – see Jakarta's recent Chinese-Indonesian blood-letting in 1998, or the communist exterminations of 1965-'66. Or Bali's mind-blowingly dramatic mass-protest suicides – the puputan – staged against the Dutch in 1906 and 1908. Or the lonely, imprisoned, genius-writing of Javanese playwright and humanist Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
You want raw material for a documentary? Backcloth for a historical drop? Just start walking, and take your pick of the threads and diamonds at the sides of the road.
It's easy. As Happy says:
– "Indonesia isn't just made up of seven hearts or seven faces or seven islands. There are a thousand islands, a thousand faces all wanting their stories to be told. We are a country rich beyond words. We have the instinctive artistic talent, and we are ready to start talking – now."
© 2020 John Storey.
The Last Word
Portrait of the Day
Portraits from Bali by Ubud High
© 2020 Ubud High.
© 2020 John Storey. All rights reserved.
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