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Why and for whom do you write/work today?
Feature by: Alexis A. Tioseco

Prima Rusdi

Why, and for whom do I work today?

As easy as the question sounds, trust me, it is not too easy to give you a definitive answer. I would like to think that I work for myself. Though in general, I think, people should contribute to their surroundings if not the world at large. My parents raised my brother and I to believe in ideas. I’ve always believed that you can only work well if you are given the opportunity to do what you like best. And what I like best is stories, and writing them.

As a small child I always remembered how my parents loved going to the movies. I would stay up late to wait for them and asked them to tell me the story of the film that they just saw. My mom is a great storyteller (most women in my family are), so it was through her stories, I guess, that my fascination with films first emerged.

I remembered trying to talk to my parents about going to a film school (the only one in the country, IKJ). My usually open-minded Dad posed me a challenge, “The thing is,” he said, “…all forms of art are about life. It’s not so much about us wanting you to have an academic degree, but it’s important for us to know that you are absolutely sure about your choices, and that you allow yourself to live a life that enables you to finally do whatever you want in the end....” I pondered my options, and when I was accepted to the Faculty of Journalism in the University of Indonesia. I went there instead. And had a great time, I must say. And for sometime I even thought of having a career as a journalist.

Months after I graduated from the University of Indonesia, I got a scholarship from the Australian government and ended up spending two years in Canberra (1992-1994). Back then in my country Suharto’s regime was still powerful and censorship was still really harsh. I saw no point of working in the media. I did try though: for about four months I worked in a private television station before quitting and signing up with a multinational advertising agency instead. So, I started working as a copywriter in that agency.

The deadlines were always tight, but it gave me first handed experience of how to write for many different mediums. I was beginning to get restless because I could not find enough time to write stories or even to read books in my spare time; there were almost no spare times to speak of. And then came 1998. The country took a turn in a different direction when the Suharto regime fell from grace. Our agency could no longer afford hiring directors from abroad, so they began to work with local directors, and this was how I met Riri Riza and Mira Lesmana. It is fair to say that we clicked instantly. They had just finished shooting Kuldesak with Nan Achnas and Rizal Mantovani. It was a very brave move on their part to make the film since nobody besides Garin Nugroho could manage to make films during that era. We talked a lot about film, and I was not sure what got into me when I finally gathered the courage to tell Mira and Riri that I wanted to intern on their next film (Sherina’s Adventure). I remember Mira asked me, “What do you like most about films?” My answer was, “Stories.” Riri nodded and said, “Let’s talk a bit more, you can call us anytime.” He gave me his cell phone number.

It took me another six months or so to finally make the big decision: leaving my day job to join Mira and Riri. I finally handed in my resignation letter on June 2000, and immediately Riri and I worked on the script of Eliana, Eliana. While working on the script, I was also working as some sort on the crew of their other activities; to be specific I was working as on script continuity every time we had to shoot something (music videos, commercial, etc). I was also hired as a contributing writer for CosmoGirl Indonesia. One has to be realistic when she or he chooses to become a screenwriter in Indonesia. The money is not that big, so it is either you push yourself into writing television series’, or have several jobs at once so that you can support yourself. I don’t think I can write for television, so I’d rather earn some extra dimes writing articles or short stories while working on my scripts. By the time Riri and I finished with our 2nd draft of Eliana, Riri got a scholarship to do his Master’s in England. The project was put on hold, and the rest of us, lead by Mira, began to develop Ada Apa dengan Cinta? (English title: What’s Up with Love?).

When the shooting date of AADC approaching, hundreds of application letters came from all over the country. The success of Sherina’s Adventure gave young people the idea that an alternative way to learn about how to make films would be to intern on a film production. We ended up selecting about 10 applicants to work with us on the set. We realized that it was a luxury to make films, and not everyone could easily get into the almost non-existent industry. So in addition to our jobs as filmmakers, we also had to function as educators. It was t he least that we could do, to share our knowledge to these young aspiring filmmakers. The fact that up until today we only have one film school is not much of a help. This was also the idea behind Shanty Harmayn’s persistence to maintain JIFFest (Jakarta International Film Festival), as the festival has functioned as a school of reference to many aspiring filmmakers. In addition to this, filmmakers like Mira, Riri, Nan, Shanty and I myself at one point, also teach at IKJ.

When Riri came back from England in 2002, he and I sat down and went through our 2nd Draft of Eliana. Riri was thinking of shooting Eliana on DV. It was more realistic in terms of budget. We rewrote the script and shot it in 12 days (with less than 20 crew). The film did not achieve the same commercial success as the Sherina’s Adventure or Ada Apa dengan Cinta but it was accepted well in International and Regional Film Festivals.

By this time, I learned that to be able to continue to make films, or write for films I should say, one has to know enough about all the aspects of production. Because we didn’t have enough money just yet to resolve things in the editing stage, the script had to be viable for it to go to the next step; which is the shooting stage. My being involved in the pre-production and production stage has given me a lot of practical knowledge about the process that I can incorporate into my writing.

When I decided to become a screenwriter in 2000, a lot of people found that it was ‘odd’. Everyone else wanted to become a director. Even today, people often ask, “So, when do you get promoted (to be director)?” Although I must note, I’m glad to see that more and more people want to become screenwriters.

The biggest misconception people have is to perceive that making films is a luxury that can only be done by the elite. Such a notion is not true. As long as you have something to tell, you can make films. This was my belief when in August 2005 a group of friends asked me to join them as a mentor who would conduct a film workshop in a Juvenile Correctional Centre. About 20 kids between 11 to 18 years old were selected to attend the workshop. All of them came from very poor family backgrounds. They were being locked up behind bars for various kinds of violations: murder, drugs, robbery, etc. These children could not trust people easily. They had gone through a lot, maybe even too much for somebody their age. To win their trust was difficult. They do not speak the way we do, yet they are sharp and direct, and raw. If they didn’t understand what we said, they would shout or throw their pens across the room. We were told by their supervisor to put on a straight face at all times. And trust me, it is not that easy. We were not sure that they believed they could make their own films for they have been misjudged almost all their lives. So we began by asking them to write their own stories, so that we can select four out of twenty to make them into four short films. The clarity of their stories was overwhelming. These kids have no access to the today’s references such as MTV, etc; so every story was based on their own experiences. But they chose not to expose the downside of their lives to be made into films. After a lengthy discussion among themselves four stories were selected. For the next eight days, they went through the grueling experience of shooting their own films. With the exception of the editing process, everything was done inside the Juvenile Correctional Centre.

We managed to convince the Head of the Correctional Centre that the rights/ownership of the films should be registered under the children’s names. They agreed, partly because they were skeptical that the films were ever going to be made at all. The whole process of working with them taught me that our role there was only to assist these children to find their own voices and turn them into films. We did not really teach them anything. It was their lives that they turned into films, and it was a huge privilege for us to be let into them, ones that we might never be able to understand completely. Yet, to see these young faces filled with pride and joy upon seeing their own completed films was an experience that I will not forget. It was amazing to realize how making films could liberate the minds of these youths though physically their bodies were still being locked behind bars. These films were screened in many places, including the national short film festival in October (Konfiden), and the regional short film festival in November (Slingshorts).
Coming back to the question of why, and for whom, do I work today— I guess I still like to think that I work for myself, a long with other people who share this same vision (there is no way you can do this completely on your own): to continue moving forward and believing that together we can make something good out of what we have, and of the world we live in, by simply doing what we can do the best we can do it.

This might be one of the reasons why some of us decided to return the Citra Awards on January 3rd 2007, for we agreed that there are more important things that need to be resolved before we can sit back, relax and feel that we deserve to accept an award or two…but not until then. As per today, I think I am a work in progress.
Prima Rusdi completed her masters degree from Canberra University in Australia. In addition to writing or co-writing several feature films, she is an educator and, most recently, a producer, for the omnibus film project 9808.

The answers:

Vipavinee Artpradid
May Ingawanij
Khoo Gaik Cheng
Benjamin McKay
Hassan Muthalib
Vinita Ramani
Kong Rithdee
Prima Rusdi
Ben Slater
Tan Bee Thiam
Chalida Uabumrungjit
Jan Uhde
Noel Vera
Zhang Wenjie

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