Interview with Hikmat Darmawan

Interview with Hikmat Darmawan

Hikmat Darmawan is a film critic, arts curator and member of Jakarta Arts Council.

Hikmat is the deputy director of the Jakarta Arts Council, an autonomous cultural body endorsed and funded by the province of Jakarta, whose role is to formulate policies for supporting and developing cultural activities in Jakarta. Pak Hikmat is also a film and literature critic, and a comic curator. 

In 2007 Hikmat co-founded Rumah Film, a film criticism site that contributed to the revitalisation of the national cinema conversation. He has served as a jury member for the Indonesia Film Festival and the Madani Film Festival, and has been a representative for Indonesia at the the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Brussels Europalia Indonesia and the London Book Fair.

Hikmat currently runs cultural events programmer and brand journalism provider Pabrikultur.

Speaking with Pak Hikmat was a real pleasure, his passion and enthusiasm for Indonesian cinema is infectious and his expertise invaluable. As a founding member and active critic in the Rumah Film criticism team from 2007-2012, Hikmat was a vital component of a new generation of filmmakers and film goers in Indonesia. He remains an engaged participant in Indonesian cinema, and a keen supporter of new cinema forms. We sought Hikmat’s insight into Indonesian screen and cinema culture to gain a better perspective on where our project might sit in the contemporary Indonesian screen landscape. 

As both critic and participant in the national cinema conversation, pak Hikmat has unique insight into the preoccupations and challenges faced by Indonesian screen culture. We were particularly interested in discussing how our current project fits into the broader ecosystem of cinema and video culture in Indonesia, in particular documentary practice and the representation of Indigenous culture and community on Indonesian screens. During this interview, Pak Hikmat gave us a very brief overview of some of his favourite Indonesian films and filmmakers, which we look forward to looking into with more depth.

In the interview we are joined halfway by Yogi Pumule, a director and co-founder with Pak Hikmat of Sahabat Seni Nusantara, a contemporary arts and cultural discussion forum. 

A huge thanks to both Hikmat and Yogi for their time and insight, we look forward to chatting further about movies with them in the future. 

Sam: Hi Hikmat, we’re really excited to speak with you about your expertise on Indonesian cinema and screen culture. Maybe you could introduce yourself?


Hikmat: I work at the Jakarta Arts Council and with Pabrikultur, an organisation that I founded. I usually work in creating and/or organising the exhibition of popular culture, in particular comics. I’ve got experience in actually exhibiting Indonesian comics, introducing Indonesian comics at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Brussels Europalia Indonesia and also the London Book Fair in 2019. Pabrikultur also created a programme, a platform, a festival, the Madani International Film Festival in collaboration with the Jakarta Arts Council, and I became part of their film committee. 

Aside from that I entered the field of film as a writer and a critic in the 1990s. I wrote movie criticism in Republica and Tempo magazine, and from the beginning, I  view movies, popular movies as a cultural text. It is fascinating to see Indonesian movies in that light. But during the 90’s, there was not so much happening in Indonesian movies. If you look at Indonesian cinema history, you can see that the period of the 1990s is a low point. And then in the early 2000s, my focus shifted from movies, but I still kept in contact with movie communities. There were new developments that I watched closely, but didn’t write about until 2006. Now, with the development of the Indonesian movie community, there has been a really fascinating evolution of Indonesian movies, in Indonesian screen culture. 

Now we have many options to circulate our work through film communities and through mainstream media. Of course, since the pandemic, we can see a shift in the patterns of screen time in Indonesia to much more online or digital viewing, because of the isolation and the social distancing policy, (even if it's not really perfect in Indonesia). People have found out that they can watch so many movies on their devices and so many people have been introduced, via digital platforms, to Indonesian cinema, new and old. In cinema theatres, it's a really tough choice between The Avengers and some local Indonesian movie. Although, admittedly in 2019, just before the pandemic, the preferences in mainstream cinema were already shifting to Indonesian movies. The numbers were good. The numbers made local filmmakers optimistic about Indonesian movie production. Documentaries started being screened in big cinemas also, though admittedly mostly limited to screens in Jakarta. More than 60 percent of Indonesian cinemas are in greater Jakarta.

I saw the short movies you sent me [proof of concept short films made prior to this project]. I am really interested in your approach. Right now I really need the observational and the more experimental approach to documentary. I think many people, especially this generation, realise that this kind of approach is an interesting direction for cinema.


Sam: Thank you very much. A lot of our questions today will be about your take on Indonesian cinema, as well as asking for recommendations, because I don't know that much about Indonesian cinema. Afifah has given me some things to watch in the past, and so has Wahyu, our other collaborator, but I would love to get some of your recommendations as well.


Afifah: I would love to start with a bit about your background, especially in film criticism. What influenced you to become a film critic?


Hikmat: I would like to show you this book [Tilas Kritik: Kumpulan Tulisan Rumah Film 2007-2012 (Review Criticism: Compilation of Rumah Film Writings 2007-2012)], still in storage in the Jakarta Arts Council building. It's so thick. This is one of six books in a series of Wacana Sinema books from Jakarta Arts Council. This particular book has a personal meaning for me because this is the anthology of articles, essays and movie critics from Rumah Film. Now the website is dead, but it was active from 2007 to 2012. 

Initially, it was six friends who shared the same love for movies and Indonesian movies. We started this project as a platform for serious movie criticism. It was Eric Sasono, Ekky Imanjaya, Krisnadi Yuliawan, myself Hikmat Darmawan, Asmayani Kusrini, a journalist who had lived a long time in Brussels and became our correspondent for international cinema in Europe. Later on, we added Ifan Ismail, now one of the best selling screenwriters in Indonesia. For example he wrote Habibie & Ainun, one of the most successful box office movies in Indonesia. He was and is a really good movie critic, because of his humorous approach toward movies and writing movies. 

During that period we wrote so much about movies, world movies, and we also developed a kind of distinctive mechanism and approach to movie criticism that excited us. We created this project in the first place because we weren’t satisfied with the existing movie criticism practise that existed in Indonesia, especially in the mainstream and respected national media, such as Kompas. We think that all the movie criticism at that time at Kompas and Tempo magazine was really crap. 

Rumah Films developed a distinctive mechanism and approach to movie criticism that excited us. We created Rumah Films because we weren’t satisfied with the existing movie criticism practise that existed in Indonesia.

Sam: Can you describe what you mean by crap criticism?


Hikmat: For starters, there was so much false data. For example, they wrote about Bourne Identity as a science fiction, it's not accurate! The biggest media company in Indonesia and you still have it wrong, such basic data. Another example, they wrote about the movie Disturbia, which was based on the premise of Rear Window, they said that it was based on a novel! And of course, their perspective and the way they wrote their critiques was just like a movie guide. It only provided the reader with information about how to spend their money and what kinds of movies there were, solely based on the personal like or dislike of the critics. So it wasn’t really criticism, not really developing a critical thinking approach to movies. It was the same thing in Tempo Magazine and all other media, tabloids and websites at that time. 

I think that the Indonesian reader didn't really have the proper knowledge to critically approach movies. Of course, we could afford to think like that because we were younger then. Because of our love of cinema, we’d get excited if we found not merely a good movie, but a movie that we can talk about. It can be a bad movie, a junk movie, but if we find something to talk about, we would write about it excitedly. It’s also a problem of space. When we had our own platform without any capital at all in the beginning, we would write as long as we can and as much as we can. So there were so many long reviews. But, we also developed just for fun, a haiku movie review. We experimented a lot in our writing about movies, and we created a list of 100 best films in world cinema from 2000 to 2009, and also 33 best Indonesian movies in the first decade of the 2000s. 

So that's the thing that we created, and amazingly enough for us, the things that we did for fun created a broader conversation about movies. So we feel that after a long period of vacuum, with Rumah Films, we each developed our own style of movie criticism and activism. A few years after it ended we looked back and we decided to compile all those writings into one book, nearly 1700 pages.

Sam: Do you think that Rumah Films has had an influence on the current generation of film critics or cinema discourse in Indonesia?


Hikmat: Yeah, according to many testimonies from younger critics such as Adrian Jonathan from Cinema Poetica. He said that it definitely had an influence on him. Directors like Joko Anwar and many movie activists have also said that it has had a big influence on movie discourse in Indonesia. 

Besides Rumah Film, there were some other movie critics who were also influential on contemporary Indonesian movie discourse. But Rumah Film has a special place within it. Afterwards, each of the members of Rumah Film has also developed their own personal journey in Indonesian movie criticism. For example, Eric Sasono and Ekky Imanjaya have both become academics studying movies in the UK. Both have PhDs in film studies. 

Eric Sasono developed a more philosophical approach to movies. For example, his PhD focussed on the publicness of movies, the movie as a part of creating public spaces, linked to the movie activism of Dandhy Laksono. Laksono’s subject is not just limited to movies, but all kinds of projects. The activity of screening and watching the documentary itself becomes the object of Eric’s study.

Ekky developed a focus on studying B-movies of Indonesia as an aesthetic movement. Currently, he has a project researching “Pocong” exploitation movies, a subgenre of horror movies in Indonesia. “Pocong” is the cloth, in the Indonesian Muslim way of processing the dead, that you wrap a dead body in, a white cloth. So it's become quite a popular horror subgenre, especially from the mid-2000s. If I'm not mistaken, Ekky has found the word “Pocong” embedded in around 300 movie titles in Indonesia, so quite a lot! He’s also developed a study on movie maestros from history such as Usmar Ismail. His collection of essays about Usmar Ismail are already published, some of them are even in English, it’s called Mujahid Film: Usmar Ismail. The word “mujahid” has a connotation of terrorism or something like that. But Ekky is a scholar of Arabic literature and Arabic studies at the University of Indonesia. So, he uses “mujahid” with a different meaning, and applied it to Usmar Ismail’s activities and his contribution to movie history. 

Myself, I’m now busy with the ecosystem of Indonesian movies, but still writing and now struggling to finish a book about Garin Nugroho’s movies. I have focused on critical thinking in reading his movies, his movies as cultural texts.

Garin Nugroho states that his movies are rooted in a visual aesthetic, focussing on the movement of the camera, the composition, the colour, more than previous generations of filmmakers in Indonesia. This was a totally new thing for Indonesian cinema in the 90s.

Sam: It's very difficult for us to see these films in Australia unless you catch them at festivals, but they're not available, they're not available in very many places!


Hikmat: If you want, I could share with you some of the video files I have access to for my studies. 


Sam: I'd love to see more, I’ve only seen Opera Jawa, which absolutely blew me away!


Hikmat: Have you seen the movies of Rafi Bharwani, like The Rainmaker? I think he’s part of an interesting new generation of Indonesian cinema. He makes short films as well. 

So, that’s basically the background to my work now. Nowadays I don't really have a routine for writing or a regular column for movie criticism. But I’ve set myself the task of writing a book. 

Eris is also now writing a book about Islamic Indonesian movies. 


Sam: Our project has to do with a very small community, the Torajan community. For Australian filmmakers, and Australian’s in general it’s important for us to reckon with our colonial history, and to recognise and empower as much as possible local Indigenous community and authority. I was curious if you had any thoughts or ideas about the representation of indigeneity or “adat” in Indonesian cinema. 


Hikmat: My friend Yogi Sumule will join the chat now. He is a documentary filmmaker.

In terms of the representation of Indigenous people or culture in Indonesian cinema, I think it must be linked to Garin Nugroho’s movies. 

This is Yogi. Yogi spent many years in Australia, I think in Sydney.


Yogi: Hello! Yes, I lived in Sydney, for about five years,


Hikmat: So, Yogi is a filmmaker and editor. Together we are a part of the Sahabat Seni Nusantara collective. 

Puisi Tak Terkuburkan introduced traditional Aceh poetry as a form of documenting the genocide and the resilience of Aceh people at that time. It was also the first narrative film in Indonesian cinema about 1965 genocide from the victims point of view.

Sam: What are the collective’s activities? 


Hikmat: It's really disorganised! We haven't got a structure yet, but we have activities beginning just before the pandemic last February. The idea is to make an outlook of Indonesian culture for the year to come. We will follow routine activities to structure our knowledge about cultural development in Indonesia. It’s such a big task, but I think it's a bit like a Rumah Film, it’s for fun. We’re tackling big ideas with a fun attitude. 

We have had such a good time doing it during the pandemic, we’ve had to focus on digital platforms and we’ve created so many discussions, published on our YouTube channel. Because of the disorganised approach to our activities, we haven't had the discussion subtitled. Sometimes, we just wake up and someone will say “why don't we have a zoom together and talk about something and publish it on YouTube?” But we also have many structured discussions on the issues facing contemporary Indonesian cultural scenes. Some of our activities propose to create a cultural hub for connection and networking. Hopefully we can follow it up with physical activities later.


Sam: Is it mostly based around cinema and film?


Hikmat: No, anything! We are a disorganised collective, so anything at all. Literature, poetry, art for children, we’ve already spoken about all of these things. We’ve discussed the opening of an exhibition of our friend in Germany, that was really interesting. We also talk about how we fund creative activities during the pandemic. We discuss female artists networks. I encourage you to check out our YouTube channel.

Maybe you could introduce your work to Yogi, he originally comes from Toraja.


Yogi: My parents were originally from Toraja, but I was born and raised in Jakarta.


Sam: What part of Toraja are they from? Do you go back there sometimes?


Yogi: They’re from Rantepao. The last time I went was for my mother's funeral, about four years ago.


Sam: To give you a bit of context, Yogi, Afifah and I have been working together for a couple of years. We have been producing a documentary about Toraja and the latest incarnation of this documentary project is an installation work. The installation is built from the digital archives of a videography company in Toraja, DSTV, who film and broadcast local ceremonies, funerals, weddings, some rarer rituals, but also big social gatherings. They’re footage is intimate, but also public and social. 

One of the elements of our work together involved Afifah and I doing research together that informs our collective creative practise. This is hopefully the beginning of a long partnership between Melbourne and Makassar film communities.


Hikmat: Yogi, when you entered the Zoom, we were talking about the representation of indigenous people in Indonesian cinema. 

I should say that Garin’s work is one of the main sources for understanding the representation of indigenous people. Let’s take for example Surat Untuk Bidadari (A Letter for An Angel), his second feature film. From what I read, it didn't screen in Indonesian cinemas, but gained cult status in certain circles of young moviegoing Indonesians as one of the best Indonesian movies of all time. It was set in Lombok. It's a fictional movie, but as a documentary filmmaker Garin also includes quite a lot of footage of an actual death ceremony in Lombok. This was a new thing for Indonesian cinema at the time. In this movie one can find an interesting take on local cultures at the time. 

Garin said that after the success of his first movie, Cinta Dalam Sepotong Roti, his directorial style became based on visual aesthetics, which was kind of a revolutionary take in Indonesian cinema at that time. Indonesian cinema is rooted in theatre, so the aesthetics were mostly focussed on dialogue, themes, acting, and how the camera serves that purpose, to achieve the theatrical form in cinema. In Cinta Dalam Sepotong, and in so many other of Garin’s movies, Indonesian viewers and critics were always confused about the stories. Even one of our prominent poets,  Goenawan Mohamad, has said several times to me or in the media, that Garin Nugroho doesn't have the ability to tell a story, that he’s not a good storyteller. Most viewers' approach to Garin’s movies at that time in Indonesia is rooted in the theatre approach and stories. And not even contemporary theatre, but classical and traditional theatre from the early 20th century, a theatre we call Stambul, a popular theatre. In Stambul tradition, we can see classic drama from Europe adapted into the local popular theatre. Garin firmly stated that his movies are rooted in a visual aesthetic, focussing on the movement of the camera, the composition, the colour, more than previous generations of filmmakers in Indonesia. This was a totally new thing for Indonesian cinema at the time, and because of that Garin slowly gained prominence. 

Then came his second movie, Surat Untuk Bidadari, and he began his focus on Indigenous people and ethnic issues faced with the modernisation in Indonesia. So, approaching Indonesian modernisation from the point of view of local village people. We can see throughout his works many introductions of local issues. For example, he was the first to introduce the subject of the 1965 genocide in Aceh with his film Puisi Tak Terkuburkan (A Poet) from 2000. This movie was also interesting in its achievement as the first digital movie in Indonesia. This was so difficult at the time, because the technology wasn’t like today. It also introduced traditional Aceh poetry as a form of documenting the genocide and the resilience of Aceh people at that time. It was also the first narrative film in Indonesian cinema about 1965 genocide from the victims point of view. The victim’s narrative of the 1965 genocide. 

Even before that, he explored representation with a different point of view than previous generations who always viewed local cultures, Indigenous cultures from the point of view of Jakarta, from the state's point of view. In the movie Aku Ingin Menciummu Sekali Saja, for the first time for many Indonesian viewers we were introduced to the problems in Papua. The main character was a Papuan activist for the independence of Papua. You can see how that's still relevant today in Indonesia. During the making of his movies, as his fiction work is usually commissioned, Garin records so much footage and sometimes develops it without the consent of the producers to edit his own take in documentary movies about the subject of his fictional works. So, for example, for Aku Ingin Menciummu Sekali Saja, he also created a short documentary movie about a meeting of Papuan independence activists. 

Before that, Garin was a student at Institut Kesenian Jakarta (Jakarta Institute of Arts). One of his teachers was Sardono Waluyo Kusumo. In the 1980s Sardono took his students to many remote areas of Indonesia, to Lombok, to Bali, to Kalimantan to record with a 16mm camera. In 2017, some of that footage, structured as experimental movies, was screened in Brussels. I haven't watched them, actually. I will contact Sardono and maybe we can watch it together, later on. But it is quite an important step toward the proliferation of the representation of Indigenous people in Indonesian cinema. From 2000-2008, we can see the seeds of the representation of local or Indigenous cultures in mainstream cinema. Now we’re seeing successful comedy movies that use the local languages, such as Bahasa Ngapak

Yogi: Indonesian languages have different levels, and this is probably the lowest level.


Hikmat: It's become a mainstream movie and quite a successful one. Yowis Ben is a good example. It has had sequels and a series developed too. Initially, the reception was quite interesting. On Twitter, for example, many mocked it as a movie for Kombantu, for lower class people, many sneered at it. That negative reaction created a backlash, and people actually went to see the movie to make the statement “No, this movie is good!” Even if they didn't understand the language and had to watch with Bahasa Indonesia subtitles. 

I think now the most interesting developments in the representation of Indigenous culture, probably are still in short movies and independent cinema. There are new problems emerging. During the New Order era that ended in 1998, even representing the Javanese language, which is viewed as the most dominating culture in Indonesia, was still very rare, still considered very exotic. The use of Javanese language was considered as an achievement in and of itself. Now, we can see the use of Acehnese, a very localised language, represented in movies, sometimes even in mainstream movies, competing with Javanese movies. Meanwhile on the island of Java itself, there are so many local languages that are actually repressed by the dominant culture of Java. This is an interesting development now. 

From 2000-2008, we can see the seeds of the representation of local or Indigenous cultures in mainstream cinema. Now we’re seeing successful comedy movies that use the local languages, such as Bahasa Ngapak

Sam: What do you think, Yogi? In Australia, we have a particular colonial history and we must be very aware of the Indigenous communities and the lands on which we create, work and live, which necessarily has an impact on Australian cultural and cinema history. There are evolving relationships and representations of Indigenous cultures that I think are reflective of changing attitudes in Australia towards First Nations communities here. So, seeing as you spent some time in Australia and you might have been privy to some of these conversations or ideas, I wondered if you had anything to add to that.


Yogi: During my time there I was hanging out, I went to NIDA and I joined the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. Correct me if I'm wrong, but when I was in Sydney, I hardly met any Aboriginal people. In Sydney, Aboriginal people were localised in the Redfern area. But I don't know, I mean, I haven't been there for the last 15 years, so I can hardly comment.


Sam: I’m more asking whether you would like to comment on Indonesian cinema and the Indonesian conception of indigeneity, as opposed to the Australian conception of indigeneity. I wonder how that's reflected in Indonesian cinema culture if at all?


Hikmat: Yogi himself is probably an example of this complexity. Do you consider yourself as a Torajan person or a Jakarta person?


Yogi: We're talking about identities, how you identify yourself. In Australia. you identify yourself from where you come from long ago, like the origin of the nation that you come from. But in Indonesia, especially if you were born and raised in Jakarta, like myself and Hikmat, we hardly spoke about that. You can even say that we lost our roots. Like, Afifah, were you born and raised in Makassar?


Afifah: Yeah, I was born in Makassar, but my parents are from a lot of places, they are from Sinjai, from Sidra, they are from a lot of places but I don't feel like I myself identify with those places. I identify myself as Makassan.


Yogi: Talking about complexity in Indonesia indigeneity, I'm actually writing a script on that subject. It's about a man originally native to Karo in North Sumatra, but born and raised in Bandung in West Java. So people always call him “Batak”, which is the most famous tribe in North Sumatra. So the complexity is: he was born and raised in Bandung, he speaks and acts like a Sundanese, he even thinks in Sundanese, but the Sundanese people call him “Batak”. Even though Batak and Karo are beside each other, they kind of dislike each other historically. It’s kind of like the people in Makassar and Toraja. Like 50 or 60 years ago, if my parents come from Toraja, and hung out in Makassar, they would be called “tribal people”, or “highlander” and “uncultured”, you know. People in Jakarta, like myself, don't think about that, probably Afifah too. The way I see it is like you, Sam, if you come to Jakarta and what you do is you try to remember every name, every street name, every building. But for us, we don't see names, we see memories and incidents, like we know this place is good because there's a good restaurant for example.


Hikmat: It’s probably food related!


Yogi: Food is a great identifier! 

Once, when I was joining the demonstrations in Sydney, a free East Timor demonstration, I was there supporting the people of East Timor and I was hanging out with this East Timorese girl. And we were just hanging out and this local guy came to us and asked us where we were from. I said I'm from Indonesia, and she said from East Timor. As soon as we told him where we were from, suddenly he ignored me and started talking to her and asking her why she would want to hang out with me. Because Indonesia is the coloniser, the oppressor. So I told him, and I even quoted Bob Dylan back then, “don’t criticise what you can’t understand”. Me and her, we were there for one purpose, to demand that the Indonesian government release East Timor. The funny thing is, I have never been to East Timor, but it’s my government’s wrongdoing. So I asked him “where are you, man? You are in Australia. Where your people are genocidal of Aboriginal and have even wiped out the whole Aboriginal population in Tasmania. And you told her not to hang out with me?” Indonesians are not the Indonesian government. These are two different things.


Hikmat: The policy of the Indonesian government throughout the years since the Sukarno era, through the Suharto era and even up to Jokowi, have faced the complexity of representing Indigenous peoples, and even difficulties defining indigeneity in Indonesia. 

I almost forgot to mention one of the most interesting developments in the representation of indigeneity in Indonesian cinema to date. The director Dirmawan Hatta, in 2018 developed a new approach to filmmaking. He calls it “Sinema Rakyat”, the “People's Cinema”. The method is, and he’s still continuing the project, as a director he facilitates local people. He chose five remote areas in Indonesia to develop a project together and create feature films based on the life stories of the participants. So the script is not really a script. 

They have already produced, created and published five movies. I've seen three of the movies. One in Java, one in Palu and one... I forgot the name of the place. One of their movies is Istri Orang. I was on the jury of the Tempo Film Festival, and I think that is one of the best movies of 2019. After some initial research, Dirmawan would arrive in a place, he would gather the locals and listen to their stories. For example Istri Orang, it's about an island where a lot of its inhabitants have gone abroad as migrant workers. Yeah. So many women on that island are left without the clarity of their status. They were married, but they don't really have a marriage situation. That's what the title is about, “istri orang” means “another’s wife”. It’s about gender and how love can develop, romance, relationships, the need for companionship and the economical side also. These are important local issues. The film is based on the participants' stories, the script is discussed and explored, then the script is formatted in Microsoft Excel. So he is not really the director. The role he gave himself is as a facilitator, he is a facilitator of the local stories. I really like these movies. 

In the 2020 Indonesian Film Festival, the FFI, that movie didn’t really get the appreciation that I hoped it would. The FFI is an industry event. So they’ve developed a certain kind of standard, and technique is important, so for them, it's a bad movie because it doesn't meet their technical standard for the Indonesian movie industry. Of course, I would argue with that supposition, but I think it's no use. I think this is a different kind of movie, but I think it's one of the best. I even included it in my list of the 250 best Indonesian movies of all time! 


Sam: That's the kind of filmmaking process that we're interested in learning about as well. Representation is all very well and good, but if there isn’t representation from the very beginning, and redistribution of positions of power in storytelling, then it's superficial. 


Hikmat: As a footnote, Dirmawan Hatta was the student of Garin Nugroho.


Sam: Well, thanks so much for your time and we hope to speak with you again soon!