Before Joko Anwar became a filmmaker, he was a journalist and film critic for The Jakarta Post. After a fortuitous interview with Indonesian producer Nia Dinata, he was asked to write the screenplay for her upcoming project. Then, when this film, Artisan! (2003) won critical praise and received the Best Film prize at both the Indonesian Film Festival the MTV Indonesia Movie Awards, he began his career as a film director. In 2005, his directorial debut Jani Joni (Joni’s Promise) had the highest grossing box office success in Indonesia and was the Best Film winner at the MTV Indonesia Movie Awards. Since the early 2000s, Anwar has written screenplays and honed his skills as a filmmaker while working in both Indonesia’s commercial and independent sectors. Anwar’s passion for cinema runs deep. This extends to the tattoos inked on his body, which are dedicated to his muses David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson.
I had the chance to catch up with the filmmaker at this year’s Jubilee edition of the Five Flavours Film Festival in Warsaw, Poland where his latest film A Copy of My Mind was in competition under the New Asian Cinema category.
A Copy of My Mind sets the tone for the current unsettling state of mind within the Indonesian capital city of Jakarta where the film takes place. Although this is a fictional story that involves two lovers who inadvertently get embroiled in government corruption and fall victim to violence on the back streets of Jakarta, the film’s backdrop contains actual footage of the festivities during the country’s 2014 presidential campaign. So, Anwar’s film acts as both metaphor and [in his words] ‘a time capsule’ for this tumultuous historical period in contemporary Indonesia.
A Copy of My Mind is shot at street level and involves an ordinary love story. However, it suddenly spirals into a thriller entangled in real life government corruption. It is such an intense experience as a viewer on a Hitchcock-like rollercoaster ride. What inspired you to mix everyday realism and romance with the thriller genre?
2014 was a turbulent year in Indonesia. It was the time of the presidential campaign and I think it was the most turbulent presidential campaign we ever had, not in terms of physical clashes but in terms of the fighting in-house, it was very polarising, even now we can still feel the effects of the election. What was so particular about this election was that were so many black campaigns and lies thrown to the people from the electoral candidates.
Somehow this gave the Indonesian people justification, people who had for such a long time—many of us—not been using our logic when we think and you know, we believe in the supernatural. So this was something that was fuelling the candidates to say to them, ‘hey it’s okay not to use your logic. Use whatever you think is right.’ This caused such a damage to the Indonesian people so I felt I had to make a time capsule of what happened at that time.
So, if Indonesians want to look back on what happened maybe in ten or twenty years from now, we’ll be able to evaluate what went wrong or what went right depending on the outcome. This film was shot in real locations with real people with real opinions. This is something that is happening in the U.S.A. and to many places in the world, even here in Poland. I think it’s a global trend.
What was your experience of shooting in the busy streets of Jakarta and did you have issues with obtaining film permits?
Most of our production method was to shoot first and ask questions later. For some of the locations, we didn’t even ask for permits. For instance, the area where we shot in the pirated DVD shop, we tried to ask the police because the police station is right next to it and they said ‘you cannot shoot this.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘It’s run by the mob.’ ‘Yeah, but you’re the police.’ ‘We can’t give you permission.’ Then we tried to ask for help from the military and they said, ‘Are you nuts?!’
So we shot with very small cameras. But it was not without trouble. There were four of us: I went with my actress [Tara Basro] and my DP went with the actor [Chicco Jerikho]. Every time I took out my camera, someone grabbed my hand and asked, ‘what are you doing?’ I said, ‘I am just taking pictures of my sister.’ ‘You cannot shoot it. You cannot use your camera here.’
I suppose you felt compelled to make the film as close to reality as possible.
When you decide to make a time capsule, it has to be authentic. We shot the film in eight days because I thought I could shoot all the footage that I would need. It gave the film a sense of urgency and organic feeling to the film.
So, how did you source your acting talent?
We didn’t hold auditions. When I finished the script, I knew which actors I wanted for the film. They are pretty famous. Basro is a well-known actress and model. Jerikho is one of the best we have right now.
Even though this is a fictional narrative, it mixes with real footage surrounding the presidential election. What is your interest in politics?
I hate politics but I was compelled to say something. You have to be part of the resistance. Even if your life seems detached from politics and politicians, you cannot just be ignorant about it because it will eventually affect you. The reason why the film turns into a thriller is because that’s how it is. One minute you are living in a bubble and you think you are not involved in its evil or corruption. The next day, you are in the middle of it and your livelihood can be turned upside down. That’s why I made the film change from what it was in the beginning.
More recently, you have transitioned into the television sector, directing and writing for a TV series from HBO Asia called Halfworlds. Could you tell me a little about your experience working on this dark fantasy thriller TV series?
I always wanted to do a TV series but the kind of series I wanted to do could not be accommodated by local Indonesian television stations. Indonesian television is more into soap operas so when HBO Asia approached me with this, I said definitely yes.
With your national and international success of your films Kala, Forbidden Door, A Copy of My Mind, and now your TV series for HBO Asia, you are becoming a household name in Indonesia. Are you looking to expand your filmmaking or television career geographically or are you satisfied making your mark in Indonesia?
Actually I have received a few offers recently outside Indonesia but for me it’s not where you make your films but when you can have projects you really believe in. You can always go someplace else that can give you more spotlights and popularity but to make films that you don’t believe in…mmmm…well let’s just say that I’ve been there before and it’s not a nice feeling. However, I’m in it for the money when I make commercials. When I make commercials, I make the product look how they want it to look.
Commercials allow you to fund your passion.
Yes. Yes. It’s very important to be able to make commercials because then I can make my own films. And when I make my films I am not tempted to make something I don’t like or believe in. I have friends who are hoping they can make their mark in the film world in Indonesia by making only the films they believe in. Years later, they are in the same place or they are just drifting away. Your filmography, there is nothing compared to it. Everything in your life you can mend if you make a mistake but something that you have created you cannot undo. The books that you write, the films you create, the records you have recorded. So, you have to take care of it. A heartbreak can be mended.
Also, a heartbreak is an introspective experience whereas filmmaking is a very public display of your passion.
Yes. A heartbreak enriches you. If you can learn from it then it can help bring you higher but when it comes to filmmaking, I prefer much more calculated small steps.
So, heartbreaks aside, what is on the horizon for you?
I will be releasing a continuation of A Copy of My Mind called Remarkable Things during a Killing. It’s about the guy [Ario Bayu] who kidnapped the lead character in A Copy of My Mind. It’s about his determination to move his family out of a neighbourhood that is being radicalised by Islamic extremists. And I have one horror film that was shot in April that is called Impetigore and it’s a new word I invented. Impetigo is a chronic skin disease. And finally, I have one small movie that I want to shoot soon. It’s called the Hall. Twenty years ago it was meant to be a temporary settlement for traditional dancers but twenty years later these families still remain here.
 Since the election, the government has made considerable efforts to crackdown on the pirated DVD market, more specifically the porn DVD market which features in A Copy of My Mind.
A Copy of My Mind was shown on November 18 and 21 at the Five Flavours Film Festival.