‘Cinemata Features’ is a series highlighting film practitioners in the Asia-Pacific – filmmakers, film groups, curators, critics, and archivists – who create and disseminate social and environmental issue films in the region.
This third feature spotlights Aceh Documentary, a film organisation from Indonesia’s Aceh region committed to producing high-quality documentaries on social issues to present new forms of cinema development. Aceh Documentary organises the Aceh Film Festival and holds filmmaking workshops for Acehnese people, especially youth.
This interview with Aceh Film Festival’s Program Director Akbar Rafsanjani was conducted on February 1, 2023 and has been edited for length and clarity.
EngageMedia [EM]: Aceh Documentary has been committed to the production, distribution, and enrichment of discourse in film and social issues in Indonesia, especially in the Aceh region. Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your organisation?
Aceh Documentary [AD]: My name is Akbar Rafsanjani. I am from Aceh, Indonesia and I work for Aceh Documentary. Aceh Documentary is an organisation, but we call it a community that focuses on producing and screening documentaries and giving workshops for Acehnese people, especially students.
EM: How would you describe the political and social landscape in Indonesia, particularly in Aceh? How does this influence filmmakers and filmmaking practices in the region?
AD: In 2005, there was an agreement between the Indonesian government and a political movement from Aceh (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) that wanted to separate from Indonesia. This was signed in Finland. After that, Aceh regained peace. And then communities in economics, the arts, and other sectors started spreading. We can now organise and make communities, and especially for filmmakers, to speak up and express ourselves. Previously in the Soeharto (New Order) and conflict era, we are prevented from organising or forming communities in Indonesia, especially in Aceh. We cannot express ourselves.
In our religious institution in Aceh, we’re not allowed to have cinema complexes. We at Aceh Documentary believe that we have to introduce alternative cinema to our people, to screen our documentaries in villages in Aceh.
EM: One of your initiatives is the Aceh Film Festival, which aims to provide space for film activists and showcase films relevant to Acehnese audiences. Can you share more about this and your take on films’ capacity to offer alternative education, perspectives, and solidarity towards social issues not only in Indonesia but also in the Asia-Pacific and globally?
AD: Since we don’t have [cinema complexes] in Aceh, we in Aceh Documentary discussed [ways of providing] people with the [spaces] to watch movies in one place and to have discussions about the issues in Aceh. So we started the Aceh Film Festival because the government doesn’t think our expression is dangerous for them. [It’s just like other festivals], like a culinary festival, et cetera. At the Aceh Film Festival, we screen documentaries that we produce, and that speak about issues from Aceh like political issues, economic issues, and ecology issues. [At the festival] we can also meet the director of the documentary or feature film and discuss the issues in their films.
We think that [the issues in our province] are similar to [those faced by other places] in the Asia-Pacific, like ecological issues, political issues. I think [Aceh Film Festival] is helpful for us Acehnese people, Indonesians, and others from Asia-Pacific [as a hub] to discuss [the similar issues] we have faced in recent years. Since last month, [for example], there has been an issue with the immigration of the Rohingya into Aceh. Until today there are many boats [from the influx of Rohingya migrants] in our area. This is a regional problem that we need to discuss through documentaries, and Aceh Film Festival can provide a space for that.
EM: How does documentary, and Aceh Documentary as an organisation, support the production of documentary films and play a role in preserving Acehnese culture?
AD: In 2013, before Aceh Documentary existed, we made a documentary in North Aceh about education. And afterwards, we screened it and invited the government of Aceh to watch the film. After seeing the film, we [saw] that this brought about change in the education system in Northern Aceh. Through this, we realised that documentaries can be a medium for advocacy and can help preserve the Acehnese culture.
But we cannot make documentaries [just] by ourselves, and we realised that we have to make workshops for Acehnese people to express their ideas. In Aceh, there are 23 regencies, and we want to train people from these districts to make their own documentaries through workshops. We also produce two programs a year, one of which is a documentary competition for students in senior high school to learn how to make a good documentary from their ideas.
EM: What specific challenges are there for filmmakers and activists in Aceh, a province with such a turbulent social-political past and its current unique rule of law?
AD: There is a difference between documentary filmmakers and journalists. Documentary filmmakers usually have no organisations [to vouch for and protect us in our work]. Journalists usually do – when they record sensitive areas or issues and policemen or military officials attack them, [there is an existing law that provides them protection].
For documentary filmmakers, we don’t have that kind of law that allows us to film sensitive areas, unlike journalists. While [we believe] that documentary films can influence change through our work, the paradox is that we, ourselves, face challenges in [obtaining the right to record sensitive footage], that might help in bringing about this change. [Sometimes we have to say that] I am a journalist from so-and-so media organisation, so authorities or religious police can believe us and we will have the right to record footage. Another challenge that we face is that there’s an Islamic law that doesn’t allow us to record particular sensitive areas; for instance, if we want to make a documentary tackling religion, the current Islamic law will not allow us to do so.
EM: Besides the challenges, are there opportunities [for filmmakers] given this context and situation?
AD: In our digital era, people can record everything with their phones, devices, and cameras. People also believe that this medium can be an alternative means to tell their struggles, their stories, and their social lives.
People can easily record an event or an issue and upload it on TikTok, for instance, but filmmakers have the capacity to delve deeper into the issue, beyond just recording it on our devices.
[We think there’s an opportunity] for more [coverage] of stories from Aceh, why our area is this way, the ecological issues here.
EM: Aceh Film Festival’s main program is the Gampong Film, located in five villages, screening the best short films by Acehnese filmmakers that present current issues in this region of Indonesia. Can you tell us more about this? What are the communities’ responses towards these films?
AD: “Gampong” means “village” in English. So Gampong Film means “villagers’ film”. [We created this program] because many people, especially in Southeast Asia, live in villages and don’t have access to good films [and especially not films] about their social lives. [What they usually see are] films about social life in Jakarta, not in their villages. So we think it’s important that villagers can watch their lives and experiences on screen, not just those of people from the capital.
When villagers watch their social lives on screen, it’s beautiful. It’s good to see ourselves on screen. [When we watch] Hollywood movies, we care about their problem, right, [even if] it’s not our problem. That’s why we made the Gampong Film program, to give people good films to watch their own experiences.
As for the communities’ response, they are very happy. When we started in 2016, we thought it would be hard to get villagers onboard because we thought they were more conservative than urban areas. But when we screened the films, they said we must go to their village again next year. They were so happy with our program.
In Aceh, we have a tradition called “Maulid” where we celebrate the birthday of the [Islamic] prophet Muhammad. And at night, we have the “Dakwah”, where the villagers come at night to hear this speech from a religious scholar. And Gampong Film tries to imitate this set-up, but instead of a speech from a religious scholar, we screen documentary films.
EM: Networks and partnerships between filmmakers, video activists, and film programmers are vital in solidarity building. How has Cinemata helped connect your organisation to relevant partners and communities?
AD: I think Cinemata is the first platform, the first community, that helped us [share our issue with] Southeast Asia. Before that, in Aceh Film Festival, we just [discussed topics] about Indonesia or Aceh. But I think we have to talk about other topics in Southeast Asia. And Cinemata helps us so much in programming Aceh Film Festival by connecting us to other communities in the region, like introducing us to Teng Mangansakan of Salamindanaw [Asian Film Festival] from Mindanao, a province in the Philippines; and with Egbert [of EngageMedia]. They shared with us how to introduce our documentaries to a wider audience in the [Asia-Pacific] region.
When I started producing documentaries in 2013 up until 2020, we just screened our films in Indonesia or sent them to some festival. But I think [there is limited opportunity] for change that way. In Cinemata, our films can be watched by an Asia-Pacific audience. And I think that’s okay, because Aceh’s issues are not [limited to us].
I think people from Southeast Asia can learn from what’s happening in Aceh, and vice versa. When I watch movies in Cinemata from the Philippines, Thailand, and Malaysia for example, I learn something. Southeast Asia shares similar cultures and struggles. [Through our films] everyone can relate with our [shared] struggles.
It is the reason why we decided to screen our films on Cinemata, so we can [also discuss] our issues with people outside of Indonesia.
[By screening our films on Cinemata], we have a broader audience in the Asia-Pacific. Maybe in the next year, we can connect with producers outside Aceh Documentary, from the Asia-Pacific, to challenge ourselves to new ways of storytelling, and to learn more from others.
EM: Some of the films you have produced are available on Cinemata, presenting the Aceh communities’ struggles and their close relationship with the environment. Why do you focus on stories about the communities? How has this helped them in return? Are there specific examples?
AD: After the New Order of the Soeharto era, mainstream media talked more about the [national] government, about oligarchs in Indonesia or Aceh, [about business and profit]. Aceh Documentary reaches communities that mainstream media don’t talk to, to speak up about things they struggle with. That’s why we focus on the community.
[We made a documentary] about education, about children that needed to travel far because their village had no school. After producing the film, we screened it in the capital city in Banda and we invited education officials and the governor. And they watched [about] the reality of education in Aceh. In two months, there was a school in that area. We didn’t expect them to build a school, we just thought to screen the reality, but they took action. After that, we thought that documentaries have more impact if we tell a story.
EM: What are you currently working on?
AD: We run our yearly program Aceh Film Festival and our workshops. This year we will focus on [impact production] for our films because we have produced almost 100 short documentaries from 2016 up until last year, but more people [need to be aware of these stories]. Maybe we can discuss this further with the Cinemata [curatorial team].
We are planning to attend EngageMedia’s [Cinemata Filmfest] this May to learn from others and to share our work in Aceh Documentary, how we’ve worked over the past ten years, and the impact on our people and in Indonesia.
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