‘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 fourth feature spotlights Annisa Adjam, a director, producer, and writer from Indonesia. Since 2019, she has independently produced short films ranging from experimental and virtual reality (VR), to documentaries, fiction, and animation that highlight human psychology and social issues. She has participated in several filmmaking training programs, such as the Kyoto Filmmakers Lab, Singapore Film Commission Feature Clinic, IF/Then Southeast Asia Doc Lab by InDocs and Tribeca Film Institute, Objectifs Short Film Incubator Singapore, BIFAN NAFF Fantastic Film School South Korea, and Jakarta Film Week’s Producers Lab.
Annisa is the chief executive officer of the Jakarta-based company Sinema 5, which collaborates with emerging filmmakers and provides screenwriting and directing courses to build a creative talent pool. She is also the chairperson of Inteamates, a creative community dedicated to creating social change through various storytelling forms, digital campaigns, public discussions, and social events.
This interview with Annisa Adjam was conducted on March 31, 2023, and has been edited for length and clarity.
EngageMedia: What is it like working as an independent producer and director in Indonesia? Could you tell us a notable work that you have produced or directed, as well as its relevance?
Annisa Adjam [AA]: As an independent producer, I started four years ago – applying to local grants, local film markets, and attending international labs in order to finance my documentary. [It’s] called Sonorous Melodies, and it’s about disabled artists. It talks about the deaf community, and it will hopefully premiere this year.
Indonesia is growing as a creative industry, but [for me] there are quite limited opportunities in our country in terms of independent [work], so I currently need to seek alternative funding [such as by] getting funding from [non-government organisations] outside the country.
[There are also] local competitions that allow independent Indonesian filmmakers to participate. But in my case, because I come from a background where I studied film abroad, [I feel that] I want to pursue opportunities for overseas funding.
In one of my films, [My Clouded Mind], we worked with EngageMedia to produce an animated film financed through the grant.
Can you share some essential qualities or skills in applying for funding opportunities?
AA: The core skills of pitching yourself or packaging your projects, knowing your strengths, knowing how to showcase not just the artistic value of your work but also your credibility in building relationships with other people from foreign countries – [these] are actually the most important [skills].
[I think that] translating our strengths into paperwork [is] the main skill I’ve been learning from one submission to another. There are a lot of creative people who can be themselves, but [they need to be able to] express what kind of creative minds they are [and] the kind of personality they’re going to bring into the partnership between countries or projects into the paperwork.
What challenges in your work or advocacy have you overcome or are still facing as a young director and producer?
AA: I think the most crucial thing is [film distribution]. Some people might think that the biggest challenge is producing the film, but for me and my team, distribution is really the core of everything. Now in Indonesia, we don’t have distributors. so every producer has to do everything from A to Z.
We have communities from different regions [across Indonesia], but there’s no collective that we can also [engage to conduct] activities related to the impact that we are discussing in the film.
I and my generation of producers are now thinking of how to make the [film practice] sustainable. We want to have a collective movement so that [communities] will know that cinema, or film itself, is a tool they can be creative about. So [our work] doesn’t just stop in watching and discussing the films, but [involving] educational institutions and other organisations.
It’s not just enough to get your film out there. You need to make sure that people who watch it [can] inspire other people as well.
We haven’t really nurtured those kinds of synergies. How far [can we take] impact producing, the collaboration with other parties? It’s still something that I think is very challenging because we have a lot of beautiful and interesting content out there, especially in my country, but if we couldn’t make a conversation out of it, I think it will not be as impactful as we hope [it to be].
I think it’s very important for us to not just give birth to a masterpiece but also to make sure that this masterpiece is being consumed properly by the people, by the audience, and to make sure that the message is transferred well to them.
I think the problem is how to get more people exposed to the films. Opening up access to people is more of the priority, rather than thinking about what cinema is and what cinema is not.
Could you tell us about Sinema 5? What pushed you and your colleagues to establish this organisation? What are your programs and what are the gaps it seeks to address?
AA: In Sinema 5, Sinema Lima in Indonesia, we focus on creative elements, international collaboration, and nurturing local talents. [Sinema 5] is mainly involved in [producing] fiction, narrative films, and feature films.
Sinema 5 was established during the pandemic in 2020. For me, it’s a blessing in disguise because at that time, we were overseas graduates who wanted to fill the gaps in [filmmaking education] in our country. Providing access to online filmmaking courses is very important because the school tuition for filmmaking is very high, and we offer very accessible, affordable short courses for film.
We hope to also nurture local talents from other regions with their own cultures. It would be very interesting if we could nurture someone from particular areas and they can be independent filmmakers there.
Since 2020, we have had eight batches from the filmmaking courses with 50 alumni. We already conducted 40 online screening sessions. We invited local filmmakers and Indonesian mentors to share and break down their works to inspire participants. For us, it’s a forum to learn from each other and be recognised and validated. [Southeast Asian filmmakers] don’t need to go to Europe or America to get recognition. We want to create an Indonesian ecosystem.
At first, we thought [Sinema 5] was just about bridging the gap and knowledge, nurturing local talents, and international collaborations. But then it slowly became a production house. We support our alumni’s projects, develop and distribute these films, and produce them. We also opened a grant distribution for local filmmakers.
How was the feedback so far from your participants?
AA: Whenever we have a short course, we give them a questionnaire or conduct a Zoom session where we can talk about how they felt throughout the course.
Most of them say that it’s a practical but also a fundamental foundation for them to start a film career. Our syllabus contains not just the theory but how the industry is. We are honest with them, sharing about how competitive the industry is and what kind of skill set you actually need to have. Apart from filmmaking techniques, there’s also learning about how to present yourself and getting to know the challenges in every fieldwork.
You have another organisation, Inteamates. What pushed you to establish this organisation? What are some notable accomplishments?
AA: Initially, it was founded by female filmmakers who are tired of the industry. We’re making independent films because we care about social issues, and then we fundraise and make the film.
Inteamates now is composed of a group of people who are concerned about particular issues. We make a safe space for the film crew. The team is not selected based on skill set alone. It’s more of, like, if you’re concerned about this, let’s make something together.
Inteamates is a foundation that focuses on artivism – art for activism. Our work is transmedia. We have done documentary, animation, live action, and VR. Inteamates is a more inclusive space for everyone and minorities. We are also now touching on issues of gender and sex education, and we promote it to the younger generation.
We [recently] made a film and distributed a textbook about sex education to teenagers in rural areas in Indonesia. We’re working on some exciting things. Hopefully, our work is not affected by politics or religion. We are very careful about the voices we want to address, so we need to collaborate with others for sustainable impact.
Since you touch on sensitive issues, even taboo topics, do you also receive criticism or negative feedback from others?
AA: That’s the thing we always anticipate whenever we start a project. We’ve done projects on sexual harassment trauma, one involving a focused group discussion with the deaf community, sex education, gender-based violence, and now we do mental health for teenagers. In every project, we anticipate negative comments during screenings and Q&A, but so far, we haven’t received any criticism. I think what’s helped is before we screen [the films], we have a focused group discussion and screen tests. I make sure that people on the front lines and activists understand what we do.
The latest project is about the racial gap. It’s very sensitive because it’s about racial group assimilation in Indonesia. We make sure that representatives of these groups comment on our works before we publicly release them. Of course, we are open-minded to any comments. People are free to talk about our projects, but we focus our energies on elevating the projects rather than worrying about negative comments.
Why do you think collaborations and building networks are important?
AA: Filmmaking is teamwork, but at the same time, it’s not easy to find your team. For me, I look for people I’m comfortable working with. Building communities is more like finding a home – finding a collective you can rely on creatively and emotionally as a creative person. In a way, it’s like creating an ecosystem for me. That’s the biggest motivation.
It’s very painful when you feel like there are a lot of creative people out there, but there aren’t any who match your creativity or emotional connection when you want to do something. I’m not saying that if you find that team, you stick to them forever. People grow, people change, and their vision evolves. So it’s not like you can’t have creative synergies with others. You shouldn’t be afraid to open up and try other circles for your own sake. I think that helps a lot with creativity. You get a creative block, but you meet someone or a group of people, get inspired by them, and gain energy to work on your projects.
As someone who has gone through many film labs and workshops, could you share how these opportunities helped you? What would be your advice for young filmmakers seeking these kinds of opportunities?
AA: People like myself who are introverts and feel like they can’t hang out and network in film labs [may feel intimidated]. But I think it doesn’t matter what your personality type is like. You can look at the bright side and see this as an opportunity for you to be in other people’s shoes: how people in other countries do film, do creative work, and keep their creativity. I think it’s the best learning experience. Within a week or two, it will seem like you know many people in different regions, and you can see what’s good [in their practice] and take it home with you. At the same time, witnessing the same spirit of loving cinema has actually helped me recharge when I’m fed up with my project or when I’m in a dark time and feel that there’s too much on my plate.
[Film labs] make me look back on why I started this as a profession, as a passion. It’s really like a spiritual journey. It’s not just upgrading your skills but reconnecting with your passion and reminding you to stay grounded. You still have a lot to learn and a chance to grow.
How do you deal with the competition and rejections?
AA: Labs are not for people who are already skilful; it’s for someone who seeks knowledge and is dying to get an opportunity.
I try to be honest when I fill up the application. [I say] I really need someone to talk to, I really need an idea on how to do things because labs are a good way to study in a short amount of time, right? So it’s not about showcasing what you’ve done. Although you really need to showcase [that], at the same time, you shouldn’t forget to explain why this matters to you and how this lab can significantly [boost] your career or your path in the industry.
Tell us about your collaboration with Cinemata. How was your experience?
AA: I collaborated with Cinemata first in distributing my independent short film because that short film talks about a sensitive issue, sexual trauma and healing.
We decided to go on Cinemata because [we think Cinemata’s audiences are] very sensitive and ethical, so we thought it’s best to put it there because the story comes from a very personal place. It’s a safe space for us to distribute it there. Secondly, I got funding from EngageMedia and Cinemata is its partner distribution platform.
It’s great to be surrounded by films with a similar spirit of tackling social issues. At the same time, the platform could enable discussions [around these issues] as well.
I also curated a program, [(Un)censored: Women Breaking Biases], when we celebrated Women’s Month. I think that was also great because I could connect with people, especially in my region, who speak about something similar: women’s empowerment.
What other opportunities can Cinemata provide filmmakers?
AA: For filmmakers, what also matters is publicity, especially for people who have worked on something very important but they don’t have time to flesh out their works. Having another party promoting [their work] is great. Just like a publicist for commercial work, it’s like a publicist for social work.
It’s also good that EngageMedia accommodates articles and publications, which will be huge for filmmakers. Other than that, perhaps if the people behind the platform can also connect partners to showcase the work of the filmmakers and open up a network to other regions through the playlist they put on the platform, I think that also would be great.
[Editor’s Note: Beyond being a video platform, Cinemata is also already working to facilitate connections and collaborations between filmmakers and audiences, host online film screenings, and feature co-curated films and playlists. Learn more at EngageMedia.org/Cinemata.]
What are your hopes for the independent filmmaking scene in Indonesia?
AA: I’m keen to learn about alternative schemes for filmmaking and distribution – to find opportunities within technology, within the network, with no boundaries in the digital age – not to rely on what’s already been done but to try innovations and to be brave enough to try things and know if it’s worth it.
[It’s the thinking behind why] I actually decided to create my own entity. Back then, I thought I would just work with someone or work for a company, but I realised when I got in the field that I’m more of someone who questions a lot about the purpose, the logic of why we do this or why we can’t do this. It’s best for me to have two entities now. One is a company, and one is for creative exploration.
All films should make great messages that would be impactful for people no matter how they package them. [But I’m also exploring questions on sustainability]. If I’m going more into something like Inteamates, which is driven by social causes, then how do we create sustainability in terms of financing [the work]? Sinema5 will also thrive on the quality rather than the commercial aspect of it. Let’s see what happens because I’m still learning about it.
For independent filmmakers out there, especially in Indonesia, just try out things you are curious about. Nothing will stop you and say this is the wrong way to do it. I think everyone has their own path, and they can make it happen. You don’t need to follow certain ways to achieve success.
I’m encouraging people to be themselves and stay curious, but don’t be afraid to try. Don’t just be at a standstill and hope you’ll survive filmmaking. Filmmaking is a very difficult and tough industry, but at the same time, it gives you fulfilment and contentment after you see your creation.
Cinemata is a platform for social and environmental films about the Asia-Pacific. Cinemata highlights essential yet underheard stories, increasing filmmakers’ reach, engagement, and impact, helping audiences discover thought-provoking videos.
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