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CPR for ailing film industry

Indonesia’s film production industry has been dying, but the government is hoping to breathe some life back into it before it’s too late.

Last year, output slumped to 32 pictures, a faint echo of the 1977 peak of 127 titles. Only two of the 1994 entries will likely end up with a decent profit – comedy “Saya Dulu Dong,” which grossed about $1 million, and “Gairah Malam” (Nocturnal Desire), which made $800,000.

The market share for national films has dived from 50% to 60% in the mid-1980s to just 10% since 1991, while U.S. and Mandarin product prospers.

“It’s like being asked to fight against Mike Tyson,” says director Chaerul Umam of the struggle to compete against foreign – mainly U.S. – pictures.

The crisis has worsened, with only eight films out during the first half of this year, according to Turino Junaidy, head of the Indonesian Film Producers’ Assn.

Reacting to that downward spiral, Information Minister Harmoko appointed a new National Film Advisory Board June 27, replacing the National Film Council.

Announcing the new body, which reps the government, film industry and religious, cultural and educational organizations, Harmoko spoke of the need to reinvigorate the industry.

The minister didn’t explain how this renaissance might be achieved, but the board’s 25 members quickly formed an executive board headed by Johan Tjasmadi, chairman of the Indonesian Theater Owners’ Assn.

Two commissions were formed, one chaired by director Slamet Rahardjo, to deal with film production, and the other headed by Junaidy, to oversee film exports and imports.

The commissions have plenty of issues to tackle. One problem is how to lure back to film production many producers, directors, crews and talent who switched to the small screen to meet the burgeoning demand for TV product. In Indonesia, salaries are generally higher in TV than in the film biz.

Commission head Rahardjo, as well as Teguh Karya, Ami Priyono, Arifin C. Noer, Putu Wijaya and Wim Umboh, are just some of the formerly prominent film folk now happily earning a living toiling for the tube.

Indonesia’s film industry faces some deep-rooted problems. The infrastructure is weak, there are no state-of-the-art film studios, the country has only two film labs, and many producers prefer to have their films processed abroad (chiefly Hong Kong and Tokyo). Also, most of the technical equipment in the country, like cameras and lighting, is old and substandard.

The bit of good news, however, is that the nation’s sole film school, the Faculty of Film & Television at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts, is nurturing some promising talent, such as director Garin Nugroho, helmer of “And the Moon Dances,” in competition at the Asia Pacific Film Festival.

Some Indonesia filmmakers complain it’s tough to get their fims distributed at home. A case in point is Nugroho’s “Letter to an Angel,” made in 1993. So far, the film has failed to earn theatrical release in Indonesia.

Producers find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle, local films perform poorly on home turf, so private investors shy away. Banks are understandably reluctant to lend money to producers in such a high-risk, low-reward field.

The typical film budget is $200,000. “You can’t spend more than that and expect to recoup in this limited market,” Junaidy says.

The National Film Council had been accused of inaction and lacking any clear vision of the kind of national cinema Indonesia should strive for.

One of the few producers turning out films for the international market is Gope Samtani, who specializes in co-productions.

A recent Samtani production was “Outraged Fugitive,” an actioner directed by Robert Anthony, toplining Frank Zagarino and Martin Cove. Now he’s prepping “Black Berets,” an action-adventure due to shoot in L.A. and Bali in October.

Some filmmakers also complain censorship has curbed their freedom of expression.

Until 1991, the Information Ministry routinely pre-censored scripts before they went before the cameras.

Director M.T. Risyaf claimed he could not get government permission to make a film based on the controversial death of a model, and actress-producer Yenny Rachman said she could not get approval to do a film about immigrants.

Writer-director Putu Wijaya wanted to turn his novel “Pabrik” (Factory) the saga of a labor strike, into a film. But the Information Ministry said social conditions prevented them from permitting the story to be shown to Indonesian audiences.

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