Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Use your face more!

The principal of my school volunteers his time at a local women's crisis counseling center, and right now the center is making a movie about domestic violence. It's a kind of long-form PSA but one with modest cinematic ambitions. The cast is large, the plot somewhat overdeveloped, and the film will be shown to all civil servants in Magelang. Based solely on the number of people I see wearing uniforms of one kind or another here, I'd say civil servants make up more than half of those gainfully employed in Magelang. So there's a built-in audience--the city government is financing the picture--and its director plans to show it in Jakarta later this year. Maybe there's a competition for civil service films? A Sundance of Indonesian PSAs?

The read-through.

Anyway, my principal, Heru Subroto, thought it would be good for the film to include an American. So he had the director write in a character named Mr. Joe, who speaks almost nothing but Indonesian and who is apparently an art collector of some importance. I became Mr. Joe. The original idea was for me to have a line or two--get in, get out, add some multicultural flavor to the project. At a read-through last week, the director and said two, maybe three lines. But when the script arrived at my house Monday night, I had the the better part of two small-type pages of dialogue to deliver. Needless to say, this presented some serious challenges. Maybe you could memorize them? someone suggested. Maybe. But I don't even know these words. And we start shooting in a couple hours. Maybe you could read the lines? Yes, I can read. You can tell me how to pronounce the words and I can read. We decided on cue cards.

Shooting began Tuesday afternoon in a large and empty house across the street from the women's crisis center. Before I could participate, though, we had to stop at the office of Magelang's education department boss and clear it with him. Pak Heru and an English teacher from my school accompanied me, and after some pleasantries and about three minutes of chit chat, the boss said OK and sent us off to make a movie. While the crew set up their gear, a couple of the other actors and I read through our lines and eventually it was time to shoot.

The crew.

I'm in a total of two scenes, both related to art collecting. In one, I basically commission a painting from a down-on-his-luck artist. As far as I understand the whole sweep of our PSA plot, he's the would-be wife-beater. We meet in my living room (scene one) and I express interest in seeing his work. But later, when he actually shows me the work (scene two), I reject it as crap and tell him deal's off. I wave him away as a talentless hack and storm out of the room. That's it. Total shooting time: Seven hours, including a long lunch break and afternoon prayers.

We did close-ups, long shots, zoom shots, I-don't-know-what-all shots. And throughout we had to be careful to get my cue cards somewhere near but not too near the camera. No looking into the camera! We shot in short pieces--the other actors, who speak Indonesian, couldn't remember their lines either--and I was able to keep up for the most part. In between takes, the English teacher who accompanied me to the shoot, kept giving me directions and acting advice, often drowning out the actual director's directions. Use your face more! This guy was supposed to be translating for me and holding the cue cards but once shooting began he completely forgot about those humdrum tasks. He cajoled the cameraman; he moved one group of lights. He took issue with the director's ideas. And at one point he actually walked out for about 40 minutes, leaving me to figure out the lines and directions for myself. Truth be told, it wasn't that hard to do. The story's pretty straightforward, and the overall vibe was campy.

Mr. Joe.

Highlights of the shoot included hanging out with the crew over lunch and trying to communicate (I no English, mister; I not much Indonesian!), and a visit to the set by Magelang's deputy mayor. He sat for a while in the front parlor, wearing a khaki uniform with gold badge and gold epaulets, and had sweet tea while the entire crew came out to greet him. He asked if I'd help him with his English some time (sure) and said good luck. I don't think the deputy mayor visits the set most days but the city does oversee the shooting. We were all made to sign our names and affiliations in a logbook--both at last week's read-through and at yesterday's shoot--that will be turned over to the local authorities as proof, I guess, that real people participated in the film made with city funds. There are a lot of sign-in sheets here.

Almost done.

After we wrapped up shooting for the day, Pak Heru took me and the English teacher out for lamb satay at an outdoor cafe in downtown Magelang. The food was excellent and the setting homey: We sat on a cement loading platform behind a set of carts where the cook prepared our food. The cafe staff covered the cement with empty rice bags and set out small, low tables. We sat at the tables--no chairs--and ate quickly as the place filled with people. When we were almost finished with the meal, Pak Heru got very excited. The guy sitting next to us, an older Indonesian guy with long white hair, was a famous singer. Heru introduced himself, cracked several jokes, and asked to have his picture taken with the singer.

Heru meets Kuswoyo.

After dinner, Pak Heru went home and the English teacher and I went back to school. I asked about the singer. He's famous, right? Do you know any of his songs? Do I know songs by Nomo Kuswoyo? Of course! And he began to sing. Pretty folk-pop songs from the 1960s and 1970s. Songs about women, and home.


  1. See? New career opportunities are opening up for you already -- women's rights activist and movie star -- Who would have thought? Sounds like a very worthwhile effort even if the plotting was a little hokey....

  2. A good cause, no doubt. But I don't think I'll quit my volunteer day job just yet.