EXCLUSIVE: Joko Anwar talks “Halfworlds,” “A Copy of My Mind” and the future of Indonesian cinema

Having just won the award for best director at the Indonesian Film Festival for his latest film, A Copy of My Mind, and with his highly anticipated HBO fantasy series Halfworlds premiering this Sunday, filmmaker Joko Anwar could easily be labeled the hottest director working in Indonesia right now.

It was a warm day in South Jakarta when the 39-year-old graciously agreed to meet us at his South Jakarta office. “Please, make yourself at home,” he said with a big smile as soon as we walked in the door. His office was organized neatly, with a massive DVD collection taking up one of the walls and a flat screen TV on another. 

However, there was no sign of the numerous awards and honors he has picked up over the years for his critically acclaimed films. He has them, of course, but they’re simply not on display. 

“I don’t work for the acceptance of others and awards are not important to me,” Joko said. “I believe in creating good works for its own sake.”

He may not have been looking for it, but Joko has earned numerous accolades over the years for his innovative storytelling abilities.  His movie career actually began while he was working as a journalist for the Jakarta Post when he had the opportunity to interview film producer Nia Dinata. She was so impressed with him that she asked him to write for her new film project Arisan!, which went on to earn rave reviews and numerous awards including “Best Film” at the 2005 Indonesian Film Festival. 

“I don’t work for the acceptance of others and awards are not important to me. I believe in creating good works for its own sake.”

Joko’s film directing career is filled with similar critical hits. He went on to direct the romantic comedy, Janji Joni, which won “Best Movie” at the 2005 MTV Indonesia Movie Awards. In 2007, his neo-noir Kala won a Jury Prize at the New York Asian Film Festival. Forbidden Door, which was released in 2009, was screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, New York Asian Film Festival, and Dead by Dawn. 

And last but not least, his latest movie, A Copy of My Mind made it into many of the world’s top international film festivals, including the Venice Film Festival, Busan International Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, before winning Joko the best director honors at the Indonesian Film Festival.

A Copy of My Mind is about a young woman who works at a cheap beauty salon and ends up falling in love with a man who makes the subtitles for pirated DVDs during a turbulent presidential election in Indonesia. It’s set to be released in local theaters in February.

I think the common people are the ones who suffer the most from the political turbulence, although they have very little to do with it.

A Copy of My Mind is meant to be a time capsule for Indonesian society; a contemporary Indonesian portrayal of this age where the political state is very turbulent. And I think the common people are the ones who suffer the most from the political turbulence, although they have very little to do with it. But I don’t want to portray the situation in a heavy way, since I am not a fan of politics. I want to portray it through the eyes of common people, so I made it into a love story between two people that we can meet everyday in our own lives,” he said.

With it’s mix of personal romance and politics, A Copy of My Mind is unlike any of Joko’s previous projects, the same of which can be said of most of his movies. 

“I always try to make films without putting myself into a box. When I decide to make films, I decide to make stories. I don’t decide what kind of filmmaker I want to be. Janji Joni, the first film [I directed], was a romantic comedy; my second film was film noir; third was a psychological thriller. Every movie that I did was different than my previous film. A Copy of My Mind is also different, because I want to explore my film making style. Some of the storytelling in A Copy of My Mind is similar to my other movies, but the technical style is very different. It’s more natural, very close to documentary.”

One aspect of A Copy of My Mind that Joko clearly relates to is the characters’ love of movies, even those contained in pirated DVDs. Having grown up watching pirated movies but now a filmmaker himself, we had to ask Joko what he thought it was okay for people to watch pirated films in Indonesia. After some thoughtful consideration he answers:

“I grew up in Indonesia with pirated DVDs. So it’s a very difficult subject to talk about. If you look at my DVD collection now, they’re all authentic and legitimate DVDs, but when you need to watch certain films – when you think watching films is your primary need – and it’s not available very easily, then you start looking at other sources for those movies.” 

“So to say if it’s right or wrong is very difficult. The deed itself is illegal and it’s a crime. I think what the government should do is to make movies more available, to make it easy for people to access films, while at the same time, they should also try to make piracy really feel like something that’s illegal. Right now, if you go to some malls you can easily buy DVDs.”

“Halfworlds” Apart

Fortunately though, it is becoming a bit harder to find pirated DVDs these days as people’s access to other sources of movies, such as cable TV, become more widespread. Although we’re sure we’ll eventually see it packaged as a series of pirate DVDs, there are many people who won’t be able to wait and will watch every episode of Joko’s new HBO Asia fantasy series, Halfworlds, as soon they air on TV.

Halfworlds actually takes place in Jakarta, but a highly stylized, darkness-tinged version of the Indonesian capital in which humans are waging a secret war with demons from Indonesian mythology. It’s a fantastically original concept that Joko worked together closely with HBO to create.

“They wanted to do something that was Asian, but at the same time would be interesting to a global audience. We cooked up the concept together and came up with Halfworlds,” he said.

Obviously going from making films into making an entire TV series was a totally different challenge for Joko, which he said requires a different kind of approach to storytelling.

… when making something for TV, where people can easily switch the channels, so you have to try to keep people interested. So you can’t linger too much on your style. You have to make it really gripping sp people want to stay and watch it.”

“I think you have to consider that, while you’re making films, they’re aimed primarily at theaters, where people deliberately make time to go to watch films. But when making something for TV, where people can easily switch the channels, you have to try to keep people interested. So you can’t linger too much on your style. You have to make it really gripping so people want to stay and watch it.”

Even with the first season of Halfworlds completed, Joko is not resting on his laurels and already has plenty of other projects on his horizons, which he was kind enough to drop a few hints about to us.

“The first one is called The Executor, which is about five people killing politicians in Indonesia; the second one is a children’s film for adults. The characters are children but adults can also reflect on the story too. Another one is a romantic comedy called The Last Wedding On Earth. I’m also working on the second part of the trilogy, called A Copy of My Soul.”

Despite having a potential hit show coming out soon on HBO, Joko doesn’t seem to have any plans to leave Indonesia for Hollywood. He seems cautiously optimistic about the future of the local film scene and its potential.
“I think the Indonesian film industry is getting better. I choose to be enthusiastic and say yes, it is getting better. I think there will be more new talents emerging in the industry because I’m seeing more and more new people coming up with good work and I believe these people will get projects. There will be more talents that will emerge, that will try to break the stale ways of filmmaking in Indonesia – bad ideas, uninteresting story telling. Now is a really exciting time for our film industry.”


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