Oei Eng Goan
One of the most important inventions of the last century was the motion picture, a combination of light, sound and drama that not only entertains but also enlightens people all over the world about the myriad cultures that exist on earth.
Movie buffs and critics agree that motion pictures are artistic creations, like paintings, sculptures and literary works, that need to be preserved for future generations, because they reflect a nation’s social, political and cultural qualities and development.
About 2,000 original feature films are stored at Sinematek Indonesia, a nonprofit institute entrusted to look after the invaluable products of domestic studios, including some silent movies produced in the 1920s, when the country was still under Dutch rule.
Unfortunately, most of the celluloid reels are in poor condition and cannot be shown to the public. If restoration work is not undertaken immediately, much of the treasure from the nation’s film industry will be lost.
The institute was set up in 1972 by Asrul Sani and Misbach Yusa Biran, well-known directors who wanted the country to have its own film center that could serve as a storehouse for local movies. Five years later the institute became a member of the Federation Internationale des Archives du Film, and the Southeast Asia-Pacific Audio Visual Archives Association.
In the early years after its establishment, the institute had no trouble serving its purpose because of the support of then-Jakarta Governor Ali Sadikin, who had an avid interest in art and in turning the city into a cultural center. But it would eventually run into financial constraints.
It would need at least Rp 320 million ($35,000) a year to properly store the movies in its care and repair damaged reels, according to Berthy Ibrahim, the institute’s director. But it only receives a budget of about Rp 48 million for this important task, leaving it constantly short of cash and scrambling for the resources to protect its invaluable collection of films.
Financial problems have affected the maintenance of the institute’s storerooms, which tend toward the damp side, quickening acidification and the deterioration of the reels. The vaults where the films are stored also need repairing.
Without the necessary resources, the institute has been forced to send out some of its most important films to be restored overseas, with the foreign countries picking up the tab. “Lewat Jam Malam” (“Passing Midnight”), produced in 1954, was restored in Singapore, and 1958’s “Tiga Dara” (“Three Virgins”) in the Netherlands.
The Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy should not be indifferent to the plight of Sinematek Indonesia if they want to promote and capitalize on the nation’s cultural heritage and intellectual creativity.
Indonesia could learn from Hollywood, where preserving and restoring classic movies has been a huge success. Copies of the restored versions on DVD have even better quality than the originals, in terms of picture clarity, sound and color, thanks to the use of digital technology. And the work has paid off with billions of dollars in DVD sales.
The United States may be revered because of its military might and technological excellence, but it is Hollywood movies that have deeply impressed people worldwide, bringing the best, and worst, that the United States has to offer to every corner of the globe.
Given that movies are an effective tool for promoting and spreading a culture, as well as for fostering friendlier ties with the world community, the Indonesian government needs to pay serious attention to the restoration of the old films currently being neglected at Sinematek Indonesia as part of its contribution to the preservation of the country’s rich heritage.
Oei Eng Goan, a former literature lecturer at National University (UNAS) in Jakarta, is a freelance journalist.