Q: Why is Indonesian life and culture so important to you?
A: It was a mixture of academic and personal involvement. Once I moved there, I kind of just stayed there. I got into this pattern, totally unplanned, of moving from one creative project to another. First it was academic research, then a magazine, then a book and then a documentary film. There’s been a lot of scholarly writing about Indonesian culture by both citizens and foreigners. But I was never looking at highbrow scholarship. My focus was primarily on the pop culture. Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world, population-wise. It is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. This is a massive, important country that’s not being written about enough from a street level. And personally, I found the people there incredible, welcoming and accepting. I became fluent in the language very quickly, which opens doors for you to be immersed socially. It’s great to embed yourself in a culture that deeply.
Q: What was the inspiration for your film Jalanan?
A: I’ve been documenting the city of Jakarta through magazines, through my book, my articles. And one day, I stumbled across these street musicians and found they encapsulated this subculture that was so vibrant and provided such a rich frame for Indonesian life. They hop onto buses playing mostly string instruments. The songs they sing reflects the political and social grievances the working class routinely faces. So, I grabbed a handy camera to film an account of their daily lives. I shot this movie for five years, following the same three characters. I’d always acquire enough grant money to scrape by, but it was worth it because the more I invested into this project, the more the film paid off as a vessel for storytelling. As more years passed, I shot events in their real lives: getting married, getting divorced, losing their father, being thrown in jail. I ended up with 250 hours of film, and I had no clue about editing, so there was a steep learning curve. We had nine rough cuts and 12 separate screenings. It’s amazing to see how it transitioned from a rough product into a flowing, polished movie. Jalanan was the first Indonesian documentary film to get a wide, commercial release. I convinced theaters to get it screened for wider audiences because my film hit hard politically, but was also colorful, musical and fun. It is a raw, gritty story about marginalized, poor people, and we managed to get it into movie theaters in luxurious shopping malls. This was a cultural bridging I’d never seen before: rich people watching movies about the lives of poor people unfold in a very direct way.
Q: What attracted you to the medium of film?
A: I had no ambition to be a filmmaker before this project. What brought me to the media of film was this specific story of Jakartan street musicians. I think story should bring us to whatever form of art we choose to portray it in. I felt very limited by the written word. Could it really vividly describe the rhythm, the sounds of the city, the audiences, the hydraulics in the bus doors closing? In order to truly convey these images and emotions, I decided that it had to be through video. If there’s any commonality to my work, it’s that I’m a storyteller. But as to the tools at my disposal, I’m very flexible. I’m not wandering around looking for the topic of my next documentary. I’m looking for my next story. Based on that story, I will decide the medium best suited to present it.
Q: In your opinion, what are some of the primary political challenges that Indonesia faces?
A: So much. Indonesia is a country so full of promise and potential. But it’s also full of politicians who routinely squander that potential. They succumb to short-term thinking. There’s very little social justice in Indonesian politics, too much lip service and not enough consequential acting. Even though the country is officially democratic, democracy is not functioning the way it should. The courts are fundamentally corrupt — judges are easy to buy. Parliament is corrupt and politically inefficient. The executive branch is very weak. I’d also add a fourth branch: the media, which routinely acts very irresponsibly and doesn’t use its freedom of expression to check the political establishment when necessary. Another thing that is a huge issue is environmental negligence. They are deforesting at a truly criminal rate, and there’s very a little respect for the environment in some of the most beautiful rainforests in the world.
Q: Did you initially feel a boundary between yourself as a white male and the Indonesian people/culture?
A: I’d have to say the answer was no, and maybe I’m a bit delusional for thinking so [laughs]. But I think Indonesians are humble and accepting, by and large. They’re not scared of foreigners. They aren’t nationalistic to the point of being hostile to outsiders. And also I really immersed myself in Indonesian life, pop culture, slang, and I think the people respected that and saw it as a genuine desire to learn. I never wanted to be one of those foreign expats who took a cursory glance at the country and churned out a few superficial articles about life there. I learned at the SOAS about the perils of orientalism, about how Asian culture can be overly exoticized in the eyes of white people. It made me make sure to view life there through objective eyes, not my own.
Q: Can you explain more about the Thai Government banning “Bangkok Inside Out” for being “too realistic?”
A: Almost a year after it came out, a Thai journalist brought the book to the Ministry of Culture. They called out the “negative” aspects of the book, including my writing about pollution, traffic, LGBT life, etc. Thailand is obsessed with maintaining a perfect image, which is crazy because they have so many flaws. They saw the book as a foreigner mindlessly denigrating their country. They sent the police to all the big book shops and had them order the shop owners to take the books off the shelves. It became a bit of a big deal. BBC did a piece on it. The Wall Street Journal did a piece on it. I was on the covers of two of the biggest Thai daily papers. I left the country for a while, afraid of being arrested and blacklisted. I don’t know why the ban was lifted, but it’s complicated because the ban was never carried out through official channels and neither was the revocation.
Q: Do you view yourself more as an artist or an activist?
A: If there were a scale, I’d say more of an activist. What drives me is an agenda, or an issue, or social justice. But I’m happy that the form I found to express that activism has been in creative fields because it can be so beautiful and cathartic. I’ve created art that’s been acknowledged, but I don’t know that my soul is the soul of an artist. I have friends who are naturally inclined to artistic expression, whereas for me it’s more like pulling out hairs [laughs]. Art is more of a means for my political expression than a passion in itself. But I never want to do a non-creative job in my life again.
Q: You live in Bali. What are some of your favorite spots to frequent?
A: Oh God, the whole island is like a playground for nature. I’ve been living there for six years; it’s my base. My house has a deck overlooking the rice fields; it’s really cool. I live in Ubud, which is the cultural hub of the island. It’s the place where all the artsy types come for scenery, for meditation, for yoga, for temples. “Eat, Pray, Love” was shot there [laughs]. Bali has a very celebratory and ornamental culture. Flower offerings, incense burning; it’s waterfalls and volcanoes and bright colors. A Balinese form of Hinduism predominates. They have their own set of rituals, maybe overlapping with around 30 percent of Indian Hinduism. There is such a rich culture there that continues to be awesome and exotic for me, even after all this time.