Joko Anwar speaking during a press conference for 'A Mother's Love,' part of HBO Asia's 'Folklore' anthology, in Jakarta on Sept. 14. (JG Photo/Cahya Nugraha)

Joko Anwar on Going International and Being His Own Critic


SEPTEMBER 24, 2018

Jakarta. Joko Anwar, one of Indonesia's most famous filmmakers, continues to wow fans with his achievements. His commercially successful and critically acclaimed "Pengabdi Setan" ("Satan's Slave") has won many awards in Indonesia and abroad, the most recent being the Scariest Film Award at the 2018 Popcorn Frights Film Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, during August.

Joko has also been lauded for landing international projects. "A Mother's Love," his television film made for HBO Asia's horror anthology "Folklore," will be released next month. He also announced recently that he will be working with several production houses, including "Crazy Rich Asians" producer Ivanhoe Pictures, on three working titles.

What does the director have to say about his success? Speaking to reporters during the recent launch of "A Mother's Love," Joko said that over the years, his experiences have only signified how much he had explored, not his expertise.

"Filmmaking is a profession in which the more you do, the more you understand that there's so much you don't know yet. Growing doesn't necessarily mean becoming more skilled, but having explored more. I've never felt that I'm smarter than I was 10 years ago, but I've charted more territories and become more explorative," he said.

In recent years, the North Sumatra-born director has been working with foreign production houses, beginning with South Korea's CJ Entertainment on "A Copy of My Mind" in 2015. That partnership continued with "Pengabdi Setan."

As for HBO Asia, before "A Mother's Love," Joko directed the first season of "Halfworlds," which premiered in 2015. The series features Indonesian ghosts in human form, in conflict with humans.

Joko was also one of the five Southeast Asian directors contributing to a short-film anthology called "Art Through Our Eyes," commissioned by National Gallery Singapore in 2016. Joko's film, "Wounded Lion," was inspired by Raden Saleh's painting with the same name.

Earlier this month, Variety broke the news that Joko has sealed a three-picture deal with Ivanhoe Pictures, CJ Entertainment and two Indonesian production companies, Rapi Films and Base Entertainment.

Tia Hasibuan, producer of Logika Fantasi (Lo-Fi) co-founded by herself and Joko, also told reporters there would be three movies, namely "Impetigore," "The Vow," and "Ghost in the Shell," slated for release in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

Diverse Portfolio

Joko has experimented with many genres, such as comedy ("Janji Joni"), thriller ("Kala," "Pintu Terlarang," "Modus Anomali"), and most recently, horror ("A Mother's Love," "Pengabdi Setan"). "Impetigore," slated for 2019 release, is also a horror film.

However, he has no plans of sticking with one genre. The film he is currently working on is "Gundala," a superhero sci-fi based on the comic-book character created by Hasmi in 1969.

"I believe a filmmaker shouldn't want to be boxed in. Don't let people say: 'Joko Anwar's movies will surely be like this,' because it would be hard for us as creators to live up to people's expectations," he said.

However, the diversity of his movies does not mean they do not share some similarities. Joko's films usually center on family problems. For example, in "Pengabdi Setan," the root of the haunting is due to the mother having joined a cult to have a child. In "A Mother's Love," the presence of the Javanese ghost wewe gombel represents an irony to people who neglect their children.

There is also one motif he admits that he does not know where it came from: pregnant women, as shown in "Modus Anomali" and "Pintu Terlarang." Joko said that trademark came "subconsciously."

"There was no planning but suddenly there came another pregnant mother. Perhaps it says something about society's convention. If you have a job, you're asked when you're going to get married. After that, you're asked when you're going to have kids. It's like you have to live up to society's demands, even though you don't yet have a plan to raise children. Most of the problems in society stem from parents who don't plan how to give their children the happiness they deserve," Joko said.

On Being Critical

Joko does read and care about the reviews of his films. But on top of that, he said the more important thing is to have a critical eye on his own films – a lesson that can be traced back to his previous career. Before Joko was a filmmaker, he was a film critic.

"The most important thing about how filmmakers have the ability to assess themselves; to be their own first critic. People who criticize or compliment our films come from various backgrounds. They can be objective or biased. Instead of getting too cocky when we're praised or angry when we're criticized, it's better for us to be able to point out our mistakes," he said.

His career in journalism began after graduating from the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in West Java in 1999. Then, after he interviewed Nia Dinata for The Jakarta Post, Nia asked him to co-write the script for her 2003 movie "Arisan!"

Joko's career rose as he sat in the director's chair for his first feature, "Janji Joni," in 2005, and the rest is history.

"I didn't formally learn filmmaking. I learned from watching films and my experience as a critic helped because I had to 'read' film more than just as a fan. Until now, when I make a movie, I must know its strengths and weaknesses myself so I don't just nod when people comment on it," Joko said.

The director is also known for being vocal on social media, speaking up on politics and problems related to the Indonesian film industry. When asked for his views on the government's contribution to filmmaking, he said filmmakers should upgrade themselves.

"The government has done enough. What more can we ask for? … Perhaps taxes can be more accommodating to the country's developing industry," Joko said.

"But the problem now is with filmmakers. Perhaps, since we make more films but we are short on people, the work ethic is not good enough. Many just want to get the job done, like I often tweet about it," he added.

No 'Next Joko Anwar'

Known as a cinephile, Joko said his influences do not only come from the movies he has watched, but also from his upbringing and everyday life. The same applies with other filmmakers.

"We can't imitate the style of any filmmaker or artist because it is the crystallization of what they have been through from when they were born – also, what their family and society are like. They can't just make it up. If we imitate them, we'll be pretentious. A copycat," he said.

He added that no matter how much someone tries to be the next Quentin Tarantino or Wong Kar Wai, for instance, it is unattainable because everyone's history is different. Rather than mimicking someone else, Joko prefers to evaluate their works.

"I'm more likely to learn from the mistakes in others' works. For example, I watch a movie and notice that the intended message and the way it is conveyed are different. Okay, I won't make that mistake. Learning from mistakes is easier and more useful than copying a style of someone who we don't know what they've gone through," Joko said.