1) “JALANAN” is an incredibly successful movie, screening at 47 festivals around the world and winning 11 international awards. But the movie took a long time to put together. Did you ever think about giving up? What kept you inspired?
“Oh I thought about giving up every three days! What kept me going was the realization that the more I invested in shooting, the greater the payoff would be in story and in understanding the lives of these 3 people and how these lives reflected the issues of Indonesians across the country, especially the working-class poor and how they are affected by globalization, corruption and democratization. I saw these 3 characters – Boni, Titi and Ho – as a microcosm for Indonesia. Every issue affecting their lives represented a common issue in the country, so I became obsessed with digging deeper and deeper. The more I shot, the more I wanted to keep shooting. You get into this fever-like realm where you lose track of time and even logic. But I never lost faith in the power and relevance of their story. It was a unique story because it was both extraordinary and ordinary.”
JALANAN took 7 years to put together: 5 years of shooting and over 1.5 years of post-production like editing, color grading and sound mixing. Daniel spent first 2 months of the project hoping on and off local buses to identify powerful, talented and unique personalities like Boni, Titi and Ho. Their music was originally composed.
2) What is next for the JALANAN crew?
“It’s been pretty transformational for them. They’ve received tons of acknowledgement and even a fair bit of financial benefit from this movie; they went overseas for the first time in their lives – to Australia, Korea and Malaysia. They now have incredible access to opportunities and influential people. Ho & Titi got a recording deal from the Nagaswara label and their first album (as the duo ‘HoTea’) comes out this week. But I’m also very aware of the ‘15-minutes of fame’ factor, so I started a crowd funding campaign to raise $50,000 to buy each of them a humble Jakarta home with a land certificate in their name. This will be an asset that can’t be taken away from them, because the problem is when you give poor people money, they aren’t used to financial management or planning, so cash disappears very quickly. A house will help secure them for the long-term. But ultimately they need to take responsibility for their lives, take initiative to get up and work and create. You don’t become fabulously wealthy by starring in a social documentary. It’s totally up to them to use this opportunity wisely.”
3) With ‘JALANAN’ finished, what are you focusing on now?
“I’m trying not to decide on anything too quickly. I’m quietly researching or developing 6 potential projects right now, and will probably choose just 2 or 3; maybe develop one into a movie, one into a book and one a social entrepreneurship initiative.”
4) Are you planning to make a second ‘JALANAN’?
“Over my dead body. Never. That’s the shortest answer you’ll ever get from me.”
5) What advice do you have for young, up-and-coming documentary filmmakers?
“The first is: story, story, story. It’s not about your choice of camera or your editing platform, but about finding a story with heart and meaning. Use what I call the ‘So What’ factor as a benchmark: why does it matter, what does it mean, what question does it raise or answer?
Secondly, be prepared to do the hard work. There are very few shortcuts. You keep shooting and editing until you have what you need, until the pieces of the puzzle start fitting and it’s coherent and connects with an audience. Until that happens, don’t call yourself a filmmaker because there are far too many projects that start and never finish, or aren’t finished well because people loose patience, focus and heart. A million hipster videographers are out there shooting utter nonsense that looks awesome but has nothing original to say. If you tell a strong story with real heart, one that seeks truth, it will set you apart. And people will forgive you for any technical flaws.”
6) The world is filled with naysayers. What can you say to young people out there about this?
“Don’t pay much attention to negativity, obviously. But to me a more common problem are people who pay too much attention to ‘the rules’. Am I qualified for this on paper? Am I allowed to this or that? They’re too constricted by the rules and agree too quickly to convention, so they don’t think outside the box and imagine something new and exciting for themselves or in their work. There’s no reason someone who hasn’t done film school cannot make an amazing film.”
Also, don’t place too much importance on your college major. Study what you think you love. After that, life gets in the way anyhow, everything changes and you’ll find your path. Nobody’s ever cared about what degrees I did in university. Not even when I worked for the United Nations. And a huge number of the most influential people shaping our world today are college dropouts.
7) How important is it to have a mentor?
“The job market used to place lots of importance on formal education, the pursuit of degrees and prestigious corporate positions. I’m happy that’s changing into a more creative environment where people are judged by what they get done and the skill set they bring. A young person today can create their own job or company from scratch and from anywhere, instead of climbing some bureaucratic institutional ladder. The groundbreaking coworking space I belong to in Bali, HUBUD, is a laboratory and prime example of all that. In this new landscape, mentorship is becoming hugely important: people are finding mentors to serve as teachers and role models, and are becoming mentors to others. I’ve benefited tremendously both by being mentored and as a mentor. It’s a powerful two-way, truly productive relationship. You can learn more in two hours with a mentor than in a week of classroom teaching.”
8) What causes here in Indonesia should we know about? What still has a long way to go?
An issue I’ve long felt strongly about and hope to get influential Indonesians involved in is anti-tobacco. Tobacco is killing this nation, not just health wise, but in terms of livelihoods. Indonesia’s poor are also the most heavily addicted to cigarettes, often smoking two packs a day when they can least afford it, then complaining of not having money for food. Most appalling is that this happens due to methodical efforts by big tobacco to target the young. It’s an ongoing scandal that isn’t being addressed seriously. We need a massive initiative with deep pockets that can counter the influence of big tobacco. The future of this nation depends on it. You don’t measure a society or country’s progress by the number of glitzy malls or high concept restaurants, but by its underlying health, the responsibility of its citizens towards themselves.
Daniel says his own film JALANAN – which depicts the urban poor smoking in nearly every frame – was a stark reminder of the e
xtent of tobacco use and addiction in Indonesia. The male adult smoking rate in Indonesia, 68%, is the highest in the world.
9) You’ve been an outspoken supporter of the LGBT community in Indonesia, can you talk about your relationship with the LGBT community?
“Jakarta in particular is a confusing LGBT landscape. On the one hand it’s still mostly a conservative society, with social discrimination against LGBTs and many LGBT consequently still in the closet. On the other hand tons of LGBT people live openly, gay clubs operate quite freely, etc. It’s not nearly as repressed as other Muslim-majority countries, and homosexuality isn’t officially criminalized. So there’s opportunity
for progress. I’m totally uncompromising in my stance on the issue, and I don’t care what country I’m in. No sexual orientation should be discriminated against in any way, nor should LGBT people have to make any compromises. They should have the right to get married, be recognized as spouses in the workplace and for health insurance, feel comfortable being openly affectionate and everything else. If my gay friends are not equal in society, then as a member of that society I am deeply offended and ashamed. I also think a crucial key to change is in more so-called ‘straights’ stepping out and advocating for LGBT rights. This is not a minority issue. It’s a human rights issue. It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay, anyone can and should be a strong LGBT advocate.
10) As a social activist, what message do you have for society in Indonesia?
“The specific agenda really needs to come from within. Indonesia is a rapidly shifting society, a nation very much still in the making. Important, defining issues therefore come up daily. It’s a young country so it’s appropriate and crucial that the young generation step forward, speak up and get involved. Indonesia is at its best when young people and civil society directly participate in shaping the public agenda, like we saw in the last presidential campaign with the relawan. It’s so important to keep that going. I hope more young, smart, progressive Indonesians roll up their sleeves and step into the political and social arena rather than wasting their minds and talents and careers slaving away for multinational brands.”
11) You’re no longer a journalist per se, but you have a faithful audience on Twitter (80,000 followers) which you turn to when you want to get the word out about a good cause. How important is the Twitter audience to someone who wants to turn their dreams into a reality?
“It’s a helpful tool. I’m a fan of social media. It’s easy to be cynical about social media because it produces so much white noise and nonsense, but it’s a great channel to get word out, generate support for good causes, advocate and spark conversations. It helps in promoting new ideas, openness and critical thinking. A ton of Indonesian journalists and decision makers are active on Twitter, so the resonance is exponential. Even when a majority of people don’t agree with me, it helps me get issues out to a wide audience and trigger debate. Like the internet itself, social media is inherently a value-neutral platform, so it depends how we use it. Many use it to post selfies, cat videos or unfortunate Paulo Coelho quotes. Others to share and analyze news, advocate or mobilize.
12) What do you wish you knew five years ago?
“That’s a tough question, so I’ll try a twisted answer: I’m actually glad I didn’t know much more than I did, because I suspect it would have gotten in the way of my sense of adventure, the blind march into the unknown, the naive tackling of challenges I was never qualified for, the wildness of it all. Not knowing kept me on edge. For example if I knew JALANAN would take me 7 years to finish, I simply wouldn’t have started it. Ditto for ‘Djakarta!’, the urban magazine I set up in the early 2000s with zero publishing experience. But I’m so glad I did. So sometimes ignorance is bliss. And I love not having a 5-year plan. It leaves the door open to practically anything.
13) If you could have dinner with any three people, alive or dead, who would they be and why?
Christopher Hitchens – the atheist thinker and columnist who passed away few years ago from cancer and is now in heaven. His writing has been a huge influence on me and my thinking. He’s one of the most colorful and brilliant minds out there, and if we had dinner I’m pretty sure he’d be totally drunk, which would make things even more fun.
Pico Iyer – a travel writer whose early books were a huge inspiration when in my early 20s I backpacked for a year around Southeast Asia. He’s a playful, lyrical, imaginative writer. I’ve interviewed him via email and had in-depth exchanges, but would love to meet him in person, perhaps in Kyoto where he is now based.
Maria Popova –she started Brainpickings, one of the most fascinating, eclectic and insightful blogs on the internet. She calls herself an ‘interestingness curator’, and her head is full of beautiful ideas, stories, designs and ruminations. She single-handedly created this totally new genre of absorbing and appreciating content. As one young woman sitting in a Brooklyn apartment – and a Bulgarian immigrant no less – her contribution to society is unbelievable. It would be fascinating to dine with her.