Riri Riza was born in 1970 in Ujung Pandang. Graduated in 1993 from the Jakarta Arts Institute, his final film project, Sonata Kampung Bata won third place in the 1994 Oberhausen short film festival. Starting to work for television, he directed his first feature film, Kuldesak, together with Mira Lesmana, Nan Triveni Achnas and Rizal Mantovani in 1998. He’s currently one of the most important Indonesian film directors. “Emma” is his latest film.
On the occasion of the screening of his film in Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema, we talk to him about the film, Indonesian cinema, his career, music, cinema, and many other topics.
Your films have screened all around the world, netting awards from many festivals. How difficult it was to reach this point, and are you proud of your achievements until now? What are your plans for the future?
The films I did were all released in Indonesia first. I intended strongly to communicate thoughts that I think are relevant to Indonesian people, but I love cinema, classic to modern films from all over the world. So I tried to respect the medium as much as I could. Some people agreed, so I started to get invited to festivals. I think that this is it. I’m proud and happy for all this attention, although it’s also not an easy thing since you have to work, and filmmaking is a time consuming job.
I’m writing another film now, while also developing another one. Mira Lesmana, my producer for the last 20 years, is keeping the pace for us. She is doing very well…
Apart from a director, you are also a producer. Can you tell us a bit about this line of work? In general, how is the state of the film industry in Indonesia at the moment?
As a co-producer. I help Mira as much as I can. I graduated from Screenwriting school – so most of my responsibilities on the producing side is overseeing the script. And general comments on editing.
We were on our highest productivity, in terms of cinema, last year. Indonesian film has a 35% market share in multiplexes releases, 150 titles last year. We are still developing I guess. Cinema is still very dynamic and we all try to make it better…
Regarding “The Warrior with the Golden Cane”, you managed to have quite a large budget. How did that occur, and was the film successful, financially, at the end?
Miles Films (the production company of the film) had a number of success stories in the box office the last 15 years. Our film “The Rainbow Troops” (2008) was one of the biggest grossing films. Martial arts is a genre that was once very popular in Indonesia, in the 80’s and 90’s. When we mentioned the idea of a film of the genre, many investors were convinced. The film has an ensemble cast and is almost a martial arts classic. However, it did not do well in the box office.
Why did you decide to adapt Alberthiene Endah’s novel “Athirah”? What is the situation with polygamy in Indonesia at the moment, and what is your opinion about the matter?
I wanted to do this story because it’s culturally rich and close to me. I was born in the city, and my mother has Athirah’s quality in her devotion to family. I think it has lots of potential to be a story that can reach out to many level of audience. It’s a great playground. Polygamy during that time was a normal practice, but most of people disagree with it now, because it hurts the feelings of the women.
In the film, you also highlight the beauties of the area, its traditions, with a focus on the culinary and the music. Why did you choose to do that and what is your opinion of the area?
I think film has this power. I love to read magazines like National Geographic, stories and photographs are amazing. South Sulawesi is very rich, in natural resources, therefore culture is also rich.
There is not so much dialogue in the film, but the characters’ silences are more than meaningful. Why did you choose this tactic?
I think it’s a natural choice, it came from the character. I mean Athirah is very much a lively woman, but for her, what happens is dreadful, so there is the silence. She respects him, but she can’t handle her own emotions. The family is facing a difficult time when the mother is going through something. So there you go, silence.
Cut Mini is truly great in the protagonist role. Why did you choose her for this role, and in general, how do you cast the actors in your films? And how do you guide them in the movie?
Thank you, I will let her know your compliment. We worked together in “The Rainbow Troops,” which was very successful. I think she has the right age and maturity to be Athirah. She also has that edge, of exploding, being cynical and also silence. She got the Best Actress Award in Indonesian Film Festival, our national Oscars, for her role in “Emma”.
Juang Manyala’s music plays an important role in this film. Can you tell us a bit more about him and the role of music in this film?
I know Juang as a post rock musician, he has this amazing alternative rock band in Makassar (the city whre the story is set). Young and very talented. So we talked. And I had this inclination to know more, so we worked and learned together. I’m glad that you noticed it. It’s his first feature film after working with some young filmmakers for short films in the region.
Which are your major influences as a director? What kind of films do you like to watch? What kind of music do you like to listen?
I love Yasujiro Ozu’s film. And that’s why I love the cinema of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. I watch also a lot of Abbas Kiarostami and other Iranian directors. I saw Edward Yang’s Yi Yi many many times.
I listen to a lot of music, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis.
I think I like something that is loosely structured. In Vesoul, I got a chance to watch again “An Autumn Afternoon”. Which was the last film of Yasujiro Ozu. It’s very emotional for me.