The man popularly known as Indonesia’s walking encyclopedia of film history, who is also credited with having started the country’s first film archives, has now written a book. Film buffs and historians alike will value his work as a comprehensive reference tool.
Misbach Yusa Biran became involved with the motion picture industry in 1954, when he was just 20, eventually directing nine movies between 1960 and 1970, including the award-winning “Di Balik Tjahaja Gemerlapan” (“Behind the Glittering Light”).
The sometime film journalist also wrote the screenplay for “Menyusuri Jejak Berdarah” (“Tracing a Bloody Trail”) and 1987’s “Ayahku” (“My Father”).
But his main contribution to the industry came in the form of film archiving. In 1971, he began collecting films, storing them at the Taman Ismail Marzuki arts complex.
Four years later, he established Sinematek Indonesia, an organization that archives Indonesian films, with a collection that now numbers more than 2,000 titles.
Given his background as a filmmaker and a journalist, the book “Sejarah Film 1900-1950: Bikin Film do Jawa” (“The History of Film 1900-1950: Making Films in Java”) seems a natural extension of his archival work.
The book is a valuable read, as it provides a succinct survey of the country’s film history, which Misbach argues begins in 1900.
Misbach discusses the development of the industry, the filmmakers, the movies and the actors, in great detail.
He also offers plenty of analysis of the different issues that shaped the industry’s growth. Some of the topics he covers include the difficulties from a business perspective, the struggle to find the right audience and how the colonizers of the time influenced the industry.
What makes this book useful is that Misbach doesn’t just give readers the facts about history, but he also provides insight into understanding the industry’s evolution.
Another commendable strength of the book derives from Misbach’s ability to gather and use a wide array of primary sources. Misbach incorporates interviews that he himself conducted with key actors in the industry during that period, he analyzes old articles from reputable film critics and has access to all the films that he discusses in his book.
The use of such a rich selection of materials makes the book both interesting and highly credible.
And although a history book has the potential to be dry reading material, Misbach counters this tendency with two things. Firstly, the book features over 130 archival images, including movie still shots, movie posters and photos of actors and cinemas. These pictures allow readers a visual glimpse of the industry.
Secondly, Misbach balances the heavy information by employing a light, easy-to-read style.
In terms of the content, the book is divided into a prologue and three chapters.
In the prologue, Misbach writes about the very beginning of the film industry in Indonesia. He writes that theatrical performances of adapted foreign plays were the progenitor of the industry.
Then the end of 1900 saw film entering Indonesia, brought in by the Dutch colonial rulers. The initial movies were imported from Europe and Hollywood, then later on, China.
By the middle of the 1920s, “movie theaters needed a supply of 100 films a year,” writes the Banten-born movie buff.
The first chapter of the book, “Mencoba Bikin Film” (“Trying To Make a Film”), highlights the advent of locally produced movies, which was first dominated by Dutch companies, before locals joined the venture.
Misbach then talks about the early difficulties faced by the industry. Some of the main themes covered are the initially uncertain economic prospects of the industry, the poor quality of the movies, the role of the Chinese ethnic group in expanding the growth, and a search for the right audience.
“At this stage, no one had decided which group should be the main target of the film industry,” Misbach writes.
The second half of the chapter looks at the impact of sound films in the 1930s, along with an analysis of some of the movies from that period, including the much acclaimed “Terang Boelan” (“Moon Light”).
In the second chapter, “Ledakan Pertama” (“The First Explosion”), Misbach argues that this period saw movie making “explode” as not only a feasible, but more importantly, as a profitable business.
This led to the mushrooming of big movie companies and he profiles eight of them, including Java Industrial Film, Tan’s Film Coy and Union Films Batavia.
Misbach then examines the common themes of the second-generation movies.
He writes that some of the companies modernized and romanticized the content, leaving behind the traditional for contemporary stories.
Some also tried to reach an upper class audience, who felt that local movies were inferior to imported ones.
The last chapter of the book, “Zaman Perang 1942-1949” (“The War Era 1942-1949”), opens with a section on the impact of the end of World War II, which ended the Dutch colonial rule and was the start of the Japanese occupation.
The Japanese reign saw the closure of all the film studios and Japanese film companies were installed.
They screened Japanese movies, and produced local movies, which were both used as propaganda.
Misbach writes that Japanese propaganda through film was an important lesson for the country’s film industry, as it showed how movies could be used to have a powerful influence on people and how they could also be an educational tool.
When the war ended in 1945, Japan left the country and the Dutch re-invaded, which resuscitated the film industry.
Misbach, however, says that the industry failed to grow, as actors clung to earlier trends, which saw movies merely as an entertainment, and not an educational tool.
For movie buffs, this book is a must read, not only because it traces the evolution of the Indonesian film industry, along with the actors, movies, and film studios, but also tackles the myriad problems that arose during the first 50 years of its history.