Palu’s film backyard

Yusuf Rajahmuda’s Halaman Belakang (The Backyard, 2013) has won accolades in Indonesia.

For many decades, Indonesian cinema has been synonymous with the capital Jakarta, where all the stars were made and from which all the dreams were distributed to the silver screens throughout the country’s vast archipelago. This centralized nature of Indonesian cinema was influenced by the tight control of Soeharto’s regime over the contents of the films made under his thirty-two-year reign. Before starting a production, a producer must submit the screenplay for government approval (to the Departemen Penerangan, a ministry with mainly propagandistic functions) to check for contents that were viewed as threat to national security, or those that espoused anti-government sentiments and communism.

When the Soeharto regime fell in 1998, it coincided with the emergence of digital video technology which Indonesian film people saw as a medium of opportunity for greater freedom of speech. In the early 2000s, this freedom of speech, a consequence of a new political environment, combined with digital technology provided not only accessibility to a cheaper technology but has allowed the development of film communities outside of Jakarta. One of the first film communities to emerge was in Jogjakarta, in central Java, more than 500 kilometers from the capital.  The Jogjakarta filmmakers initially produced short films that earned wide acclaim and recognition. Today, Jogjakarta has produced several well-known filmmakers in both mainstream and independent cinema including Ifa Isfansyah, Eddie Cahyono, Yosep Anggi Noen, and BW Purbanegara.

The decentralization of Indonesian cinema did not end in Jogjakarta. Farther away from Jakarta, in central Sulawesi, a film collective has emerged in Palu, a town notable for the non-existence of movie theaters. Growing up in Palu’s suburb in the 1990s, I did not have the chance to watch a film in a theater or an open-air cinema because there was none. The film collective started to make films to fill the town’s desire for audiovisual entertainment.

The most recognized of Palu’s filmmakers is Yusuf Radjamuda. His latest short, The Backyard (Halaman Belakang, 2013) won the highest accolades at one of Indonesia’s highly respected short film festival, Festival Film Solo. There is no dialogue in this eleven-minute film in monochrome. Relying on its visual strength, Radjamuda questions the problem of loneliness in a non-metropolitan city. What does loneliness mean when the being lonely is already a habit?

The film tells a story of a boy who plays in the backyard. He draws his own world and renders the rest irrelevant. The boy seems very lonely. His mother, on the other hand, is very busy with her own routine. It is a question whether the game that the boy plays and his mother’s routine are really a routine or an escape from something bigger. The distant relationship between the boy and his mother is told through tranquil sound of coconut trees, a water poured onto the plants and the unspoken tension between them.

Radjamuda has directed eight short films, including Only Five Thousands (Cuma Lima Ribu, 2009), a brave visual experimentation concerning street children and petty violence in Palu.

Radjamuda’s films delve on the effect of developmental gap between West Indonesia (Java, Sumatra) and the East Indonesia (Sulawesi, Maluku, Papua, Nusa Tenggara). The Backyard contemplates the meaning of staying idle when the tempo of life is already idle. In Indonesia, there is an obvious difference between the tempo of life in the metropolis like Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan, compared to lesser towns like Palu. This is obviously not just a matter of tempo. The tempo itself is just a consequence. There is a long history of developmental gap between the two regions of the country. During Soeharto’s reign from 1966 to 1998, development programs were focused on Java and Sumatra leaving the other regions of Indonesia underdeveloped. Having transplanted myself from Palu to Jakarta, there are things I remember about living in two different worlds not so much for their significance but for their contrast. Films are shown on Palu television a year after they were released in the Javanese movie theaters. Jakarta’s highways were and still are so different from the muddy lane in front of my house in Palu. The hustle and bustle of Jakarta is a stark contrast to the slow rhythm of a day in Palu’s backyard.

Aside from Radjamuda, Palu has produced other young filmmakers like Eldiansyah Latief, whose meta-film Umar Amir stole the spotlight during its premiere in Festival Film Solo in 2013. The film satirizes the very limited facility of filmmaking in Palu (I remember shooting one of my short films in Palu where no one owned a boom, so we had to dub and rely on foley for sound design. The Backyard shared the same problem. The film’s entire sound was made through foley during postproduction).

Umar Amir tells a story about a director and editor who constantly squabble over which shots are important and which ones are not during the editing of their film. In the film we see the computer screen during the editing process. Throughout the editing, the computer is having a hard time loading and rendering the materials because the computer’s processor cannot handle them.  The process is far from being smooth. Umar Amir is a metaphor for the inequality between West and East Indonesia. While filmmaking resources are accessible to people in Java, Palu presents a different reality.

– Makbul Mubarak

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