Singapore/Jakarta. "Keep killing your ideas until they cannot be killed. If you never kill your ideas, you’ll kill your career," Garin Nugroho told his pupils in a "masterclass" held as part of the Singapore International Film Festival or SGIFF on Sunday (03/12) at the National Museum of Singapore.
Garin meant that budding filmmakers should never rush their ideas into a film. Instead, they should keep revising them until they are rock-solid, with no loopholes.
The legendary director used the one-hour class to share insights and experiences from his three decades in filmmaking.
As a director, Garin is best known for his ability to integrate elements of Indonesian culture in his work, with "Opera Jawa" (Requiem From Java) hailed as one of his best. The musical film retells the classic Ramayana story with gamelan orchestra and Javanese songs and dances.
Recently, Garin also gave his original story to Mouly Surya to be used in her award-winning "satay western," "Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts," which used the beautiful, deserted landscape of Sumba as backdrop.
Garin told the young filmmakers in his masterclass that the most important thing to do when making films that involve local culture is to get your research right.
He advised the filmmakers to observe five key elements of a local culture: body languages, artifacts — including clothes and household tools, sounds, geographical and architectural landscapes and what he called "cycles of life," or the locals’ daily activities.
"A filmmaker is an anthropologist, psychologist and sociologist in one," he said.
Garin likened his filmmaking method to a traditional Indonesian dish, "nasi campur" (mixed rice), believing that any director should try to diversify his portfolio and apply different strategies to turn ideas into fruition.
Over the course of 35 years as a filmmaker, Garin has experimented with almost every form of film including feature and short fictions, documentaries and hybrid projects.
His most recent work "Setan Jawa" (The Devil of Java), for instance, combined silent black-and-white film with a live orchestra.
"Like trees, ideas and talents have different ways to get to the "water," he said. By "water," Garin meant funding.
He said that working with big production houses works for his more popular films like "Aach Aku Jatuh Cinta" (Chaotic Love Poems).
But for his 2011 film "Guru Bangsa Tjokroaminoto" (Tjrokroaminoto, Our Guru), a biopic of Indonesian resistance leader and chairman of Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union) Tjokroaminoto, Garin decided to approach the national hero’s descendants and managed to get funding from the Tjokroaminoto Family Foundation (YKBH).
The Yogyakarta-born director also said all filmmakers have to be prepared to work in big projects and smaller ones where a director often has to multitask. He did the latter for his most recent work, "Nyai" (A Woman from Java), a low-budget but ambitious 90-minute film presented in one long take.
Room for Regeneration
Apart from being praised for his artistic versatility, Garin is also known for his adaptability in the business side of show business.
For example, he used to refuse hiring popular actors for his film, but then, in order to appeal to a younger audience for Tjokroaminoto, he cast local heartthrob Reza Rahadian for the titular role.
He has also left a legacy as a mentor for many younger Indonesian filmmakers. Riri Riza, Hanung Bramantyo, Asep Kusdinar and John de Rantau all used to be his assistant directors.
Garin’s daughter Kamila Andini is also a filmmaker, and her latest work "The Seen and Unseen" was recently one of the Grand Prize winners at the 2017 Tokyo FILMeX International Film Festival.
Garin said he is proud to see so many new filmmakers emerging out of Indonesia but noticed competition is getting even harder.
"Yogyakarta is now full of filmmakers. I started there because I didn’t want filmmaking to be concentrated in Jakarta. In the last 10 years, Yogyakarta’s film industry has grown a lot. There is a new generation of filmmakers that started out in the independent cinema scene," he said.
Garin’s filmmaking and community development initiatives have won him many awards. He was invited to SGIFF not only to mentor the masterclass, but also to receive an Honorary Award during SGIFF’s penultimate event, the Silver Screen Awards.
SGIFF executive director Yuni Hadi said of Garin, "He is out there working with filmmakers as a community leader and his role is really important. I thought it was a good time to recognize his contributions," she told the Jakarta Globe.
She added that Garin’s films contain strong statements about current issues that "not many people are brave enough to touch on."
"He’s always looking back and trying to connect history with the present day," she said.
Garin is currently preparing his next movie, "Merias Mayat," (Corpse Makeover) set in North Toraja, South Sulawesi, and featuring senior actress Christine Hakim in the lead role. The director said filming for this project is "sixty percent done" and hoped to wrap it up in mid-2018.