Singapore. Forty-year-old Bowo Leksono has seen everything in the decade that he has managed the Purbalingga Film Festival, or FFP -- from the proud faces of award-winning students to shouting mobs threatening to disband the festival.
Bowo’s struggles are featured in Yuda Kurniawan’s documentary "Bala Balada Sinema" ("The Ballads of Cinema Lovers"), which shows footage shot between 2015-2016 and older archival footage from Cinema Lovers Community (CLC), the filmmaking community behind the festival.
The annual film festival, as its name suggest, started in Purbalingga, Central Java, in 2007. It was first named the Parade Film Purbalingga (Purbalingga Film Parade), but Bowo later changed it as the festival expanded to surrounding districts, abbreviated as Barlingmascakeb (Banjarnegara, Purbalingga, Banyumas, Cilacap and Kebumen).
As shown in the documentary, the festival was established a year after CLC was inaugurated in March 2006. CLC had been operating for about three years as an indie production house that produced works by Bowo and his friends, most of whom worked day-jobs as wedding videographers. One of the films they produced includes the 2004 "Peronika" ("Veronica" pronounced in the local dialect).
The purpose of inaugurating CLC was to reach a wider audience by providing a medium to watch films and learn the basics of filmmaking. Purbalingga did not — and to this day still does not — have any movie theaters. The only entertainment available in the area was national television, which to Bowo was too Jakarta-centric.
However, still in its first year, the Purbalingga administration attempted to stop CLC’s activities by banning them from using the only building available, Graha Adiguna, to host screenings.
"We understood that film is closely associated with politics. The problem wasn’t only because it was a government-owned building, but the government considered film dangerous as it can be a way for us to criticize their policies," Bowo said at a discussion on Saturday (25/11) at The Arts House, Singapore.
Bowo, a former student protester against the Suharto regime in the New Order era, thinks government opposition is nothing to be afraid of. He decided to take a guerrilla approach by traveling across villages and schools to hold open-air screenings as well as meeting students after school to teach filmmaking.
In 2007, a compilation of student-made short films were showcased at the very first festival, in addition to other Indonesian fiction and documentary films, and the tradition has continued ever since. FFP has since been the platform for young filmmakers to launch their creations, compete with each other and are appreciated by people of all ages through the open-air screenings.
As of last year, when Yuda’s documentary was made, CLC facilitated the production of 245 student films, 60 of which have bagged awards from various Indonesian festivals, including FFP itself.
Though support from local government is still scarce, schools have been more than welcoming over the past seven years.
"In 2010, one of the schools established its own movie club, which was followed by others. With that, the activities are now more well-organized and the clubs recruit new members every year," Bowo told the Jakarta Globe.
The former art journalist added that there are more or less 15 school movie clubs now in junior and senior high schools in the festival’s region.
This recognition was triggered by the students’ achievements. For example, a 2014 short called "Ijolan" ("Trading Places") by Eka Susilawati won the Best Student Short Fiction Film at the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK)’s Anticorruption Film Festival (ACFFest) in 2014 and a similar award from the Ministry of Education and Culture's Indonesian Film Appreciation (AFI) Awards in 2015.
As shown in the documentary, 1999's "Ijolan" director bravely pointed out during her winning speech at AFI that it was ironic that her work kept winning awards at government-sponsored events, whereas the Purbalingga administration never showed support for her. Even her school didn’t support her during the production of her film.
On Sunday, the Javanese-language film had its international premiere at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) in the "Shorts: Grassroots Cinema" selection.
One of the key moments in Yuda’s documentary came when Purbalingga district head Tasdi attended last year’s festival amid a heavy downpour. It was the first time a district head came to officiate the festival’s opening, signifying how the government had warmed up to the idea of allowing locals to channel their ideas and concerns through film.
Bowo told the Globe that back when Tasdi was still running for public office, he asked Bowo’s team to produce a campaign video for him and his running mate, Dyah Hayuning Pratiwi. Tasdi reportedly wanted to test if he could have boosted his popularity through film.
"We were like his unofficial success team because we didn’t want to be listed as such. We were just given a challenge, which was whether we had a good film concept to win them," Bowo said.
What did Bowo ask in return? A proper screening space in Purbalingga. Considering that Tasdi won the election, Bowo still expects to see his wish come true. The screening space so far has been in the government’s budgetary plan, though it is unclear when it is going to be built.
"The effect is quite good, at least the local government finally sees us now. Now if we request anything from them, they have to take it into consideration," Bowo said.
Going Against the Current
Not all authorities have welcomed Bowo’s initiatives with open arms, however. The climax of the documentary showed an angry group from Pemuda Pancasila (PP) threatening to disband the screening of "Pulau Buru: Tanah Air Beta" ("Buru Island: My Homeland"), Rahung Nasution’s film about a former political prisoner during the 1965 Communist purge.
Bowo, with police already on his side, said that he was only going to screen students’ works, so PP had no right to demonstrate. He even invited the group to watch two student films first to see that they were harmless.
The angry mob reportedly had no idea that the two were 1965-related. "Kami Hanya Menjalankan Perintah, Jenderal!" ("We Were Only Following Orders, General!") is a documentary by Ilman Nafai, who interviewed three former Cakrabirawa soldiers about the fateful Sept. 30, 1965 night. The other film screened was "Izinkan Saya Menikahinya" ("Let Me Marry Her") by Raeza Raenaldy Sutrimo about a young soldier who was forbidden to marry a girl because her grandfather was an ex-political prisoner.
The PP members ended up watching the films yet they walked away dejectedly afterwards, but not before expressing their animosity to the camera.
Bowo claimed that the District Military Command (Kodim) mobilized PP to cause chaos. The two films won awards at the FFP, as shown in the documentary. But what viewers did not see was what came after, as the threat spread to the school. Both filmmakers studied at SMA Negeri Rembang Purbalingga.
"The school disbanded its movie club even though the films were getting more popular and won awards at many festivals. The students still carry on making films but it was back in guerrilla mode. They meet me outside school. We’re back to the time when there was no club," Bowo said.
Bowo’s persistence in running both CLC and the film festival is not to produce professional filmmakers, but simply as a creative vehicle for small-town students to express their concerns. Apart from political issues, the festival is also a financial struggle each year because it mainly relies on crowdfunding and prize money from winning awards.
But Bowo is proud to have continued producing young talent despite a lack of facilities, including internet access.
Film critic and Cinema Poetica founder Adrian Jonatan Pasaribu, who was present at the "Bala Balada Sinema" screening and talk, said that FFP may not be the first Indonesian student film festival, but is the most consistent.
"There are many film competitions for students and usually one or two participants from Purbalingga are among the finalists. People keep wondering why," he said.