Whose eyes are these that we are placing on the subject?
Interview with Yuki Aditya, Forum Lenteng
What is the origin story of Forum Lenteng? How did the project come about and how has it evolved over the years?
The story of Forum Lenteng strongly relates to the political history of Indonesia. During the dictatorship of President Suharto, who was president for 30 years from 1966 to 1998, everything was controlled from Jakarta, including all media production. You could not just make a film outside of the industry, because every screening had to pass through the censorship board, and you had to have a permit from the Ministry of Information to make a film. When Suharto resigned in 1998, there was a kind of euphoria. Rules were lifted, and anyone could make a film. Lots of smaller independent productions began to be set up by people who were previously unknown to the scene, and many festivals also began to emerge.
Film had originally come to Indonesia via Dutch colonial powers, as a tool which was used to document the colonised country. Because film had arrived as a commodity, it did not arrive with a discourse. As a result, there is barely any written history of cinema in the country during that time. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, lots of short films were produced. We came as a response to that kind of situation. People were thinking about film production, but not so much about the criticism or education behind it. We were concerned that the medium had come without an associated discourse, such as the film theory movement which had emerged in the western hemisphere.
The collective has evolved over the years. In the early 2000s our focus was alternative education, and building a socio-political discourse through film. Later on, there was a phase where we began talking about media empowerment, because back then all of the media in Indonesia (which consists of thousands of islands and 200 million people) was being produced in the capital city. So we began collaborating with local collectives all around the country, speaking with them about how to produce their own media, tell their own stories, and build their own infrastructure. Since 2013, we have also been running a festival, ARKIPEL, and over the past few years we have been moving further into film production.
You describe your focus as being on using audio-visual media as a tool for learning and awareness raising. How do you go beyond simply “screening films” and embed activism and education into your programme?
We have a programme, akumassa, that has been running since 2008. “Aku” means I and “massa” means masses, so the title means “I and the masses.” It’s a programme about media empowerment, through which we collaborate with local collectives, not just film collectives but any kind of collective, to make films through an intensive workshop process.
As people who live in the capital city, our perspectives on the rest of the country are shaped by media made in Jakarta. We are aware though that these areas have unique histories and points of view, which is why we build activism and education into our programme. Everything we make is free to the public. We also try to leave some infrastructure, for example a library or a film studio, so that there is something sustainable left behind once we are no longer there. Even now, 10 or 15 years after a programme has ended, we are still connected to those collectives we worked with. Because of this, we now have a network with 15 different cities or regions across Indonesia. This means that there is now an archive of work made by people across the country, and they are all able to network with each other, share work and exchange ideas.
There is also something special about the way that we screen films. When we first started our film festival, the only festivals existing at the time in Indonesia were screening what had already been shown at Cannes, Berlin or Venice. They were built around a culture of celebrity and passivity; films were being shown just because they had been seen at a big festival. With ARKIPEL we did not want to start a festival like this.
We feel that a film festival should amplify the socio-political situation around us, so every year we use a different theme to explore how the festival might respond to the national and global context. In 2015, for instance, that theme was “The Grand Illusion” (after the 1939 Jean Renoir film) because it was 50 years since the 1965 Indonesian massacre, and we wanted to discuss how media power can be used to strengthen authority. In 2016, to respond to the economic crisis, the theme was “Social Capital.” In 2021, the theme was “Twilight Zone”, to respond to the feeling of unease around the globe due to the COVID pandemic. We pick films not only because they are famous but because we feel that they also have something important to say to the public. We also often invite guest curators from around the world to respond to a theme with their background, knowledge and everything else.
You regularly work in collaboration with local collectives in other cities and islands around Indonesia. What advice do you have to other organisations who would like to build these kinds of relationships in a reciprocal, fair and non-hierarchical way?
When we start a programme in a new place, we always tell ourselves that we are not the ones who know best about the location or even about filmmaking itself. Especially nowadays, everyone has a camera or a cell phone and can make a film. We position ourselves as facilitators who are interested in filmmaking or in the location, and we invite local people to enter into a dialogue with us so we can make something together.
This kind of work should be done at eye level, shot from the perspective of the people who live in these locations. We reduce the subjectivity and authorship of our films, and we ask ourselves: whose eyes are these that we are placing on the subject? Our work was originally very much influenced by Italian neorealism, by the idea of showing a location from the perspective of everyday people. Sometimes we spend one or two months on this process of intensive discussion, shooting footage, writing, taking photographs, recording sound and talking about the whole situation, our past histories and cinema history, discussing everything.
When you first meet new people, you need to start by talking a lot about what they have, what they can do and what we can do. We are careful never to talk bluntly or simplistically about sensitive issues. Everything has to be seen from different perspectives, because all these situations are complex. We are always transparent about what we are doing, about why we are collaborating with each local collective. We even make sure we are transparent about our budgets and how much money we are bringing to the project. That openness is important because it reduces the distance between people.
What does Cinema of Commoning mean to you?
I think it is a kind of programme that is new to us and not new to us at the same time, because Cinema of Commoning is a project similar to what we have been doing. Through this process, we get to know many cinemas and theatres that are also working like us in other parts of the world, showing films not made by the mainstream and making alternative audio-visual production more accessible to many people. This type of collaboration can initiate conversations about the economics of this kind of work that combines film screenings, production and activism. Through Cinema of Commoning, we have been asking ourselves collectively: how can we shape something that has economic capability and possibility in the future? This peer-to-peer interaction between film collectives allows us to talk about how we can share knowledge, and how we can create economic possibilities for people who haven’t been previously involved in non-mainstream film cultures.
Yuki Aditya (b. 1980) graduated from the University of Indonesia majoring in Fiscal Administration. He formerly worked as a tax auditor in Jakarta. Since 2013, he has been Festival Director of ARKIPEL International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival, as well as a producer of films made by Forum Lenteng such as Golden Memories: Petite histoire of Indonesian Cinema (2018); Om Pius…This is My Home Come the Sleeping (2019); Dolo (2021). Along with I Gde Mika, he has worked as realisator on the films The Hypothesis of Wandering Images of Jakarta (2021) and The Myriad of Faces of Future Challengers (2022).