Interview: Indonesian Director Joko Anwar on “Halfworlds” and “Pengabdi Setan”

Joko Anwar is one of Indonesia's most critically acclaimed and commercially successful directors.

By , 12 Jan 18 00:01 GMT
Joko Anwar (Courtesy of HBO Asia)

If you’re interested in Indonesian film, then Joko Anwar is probably a familiar name. Anwar is one of the archipelago country’s most famous directors. His diverse repertoire ranges from festival-pleasing dramas like 2015’s A Copy of My Mind to rollicking rom-coms like 2005’s box office hit Janji Joni.

Cinema Escapist briefly caught up with Joko Anwar at the end of another prolific year. In Indonesia, Anwar’s remake of the popular film Pengabdi Setan topped domestic box offices. Abroad, Halfworlds, a HBO drama which he directed the first season of, hit HBO’s US streaming services earlier this month.

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Halfworlds features supernatural beings called the Demit, which are inspired by Indonesian mythology. As a non-Indonesian, I’m curious about how direct that “inspiration” is — for example, will Indonesians who haven’t seen the show know what a “Palasik” (Demit that feeds on children/fetuses) is? Or are the Demit something you created by applying your own artistic license to existing mythological stories?

There are 48 well-known ghosts in Indonesian mythology or urban legends. “Demit” means ghost in Javanese. Indonesia is comprised of some 200 ethnic groups, where each group has its own mythology. Often these ethnic groups share similar ghosts.

About 10 of them are very popular across the archipelago — including all ghosts featured in Halfworlds Season One.

Those include..

  • Kuntilanak: Ghost of a woman who died for love.
  • Gendoruwo: A flamboyant male ghost who kidnaps women and kills men.
  • Tuyul: Little devils who died when they were only a fetus to serve their human masters.
  • Banaspati: Spirits that exist in villages. They can be evil or good, depending on the attitude of the villagers.
  • Palasik: Spirits of women who commit suicide from not being able to bear children. They kidnap children who are not loved by their parents.

While many characters speak Bahasa Indonesia, a lot of Halfworlds dialog is in perfect English. Was there any particular reasoning behind having that blend of languages, as opposed to having only one?

These demits have lived for hundreds of years and have traveled to many countries. They’re back to Indonesia for the big event known as ‘The Gift”. So they speak as they have for a long time.

On a related, practical note: what were the practical consequences of having a TV series toggle between Bahasa Indonesia and English? Was it hard to coordinate script writing, for example?

As most Indonesian actors are able to speak English, it was not difficult to write an English and non-English script.

How does working with HBO on Halfworlds compare with working on your other films with local Indonesian companies, or Asian production companies like South Korea’s CJ Entertainment?

The working experiences have been fun with both companies. As the projects I did with these companies have been so different in terms of genre and scale, the challenges were also different. I enjoyed the learning experience with both companies.

Indonesian film seems to be undergoing a resurgence lately. There’s your work, as well as the work of directors like Lucky Kuswandi and Teddy Soeriaatmadja, enjoying success at either the box office or festival circuit. Do you agree with that characterization and, if yes, why do you think this resurgence has been happening?

Yes, there has been an increase in recognition received by Indonesian films at both commercial and festival circuits.

Arthouse films like Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts by Mouly Surya received very warm responses during its screening at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, as well as Kamila Andini’s The Seen and Unseen.

There has been new level of awareness amongst film makers in Indonesia and, [as a result], we are all encouraged to make better films with better production values to create a sustainable audience.

At the same time, there’s a perception among Westerners that Indonesian society is becoming more Islamicized, for example with the controversy over former Jakarta governor Ahok. What are your thoughts on this as it relates to creative freedom in Indonesia, especially since you’ve helped make films like Quickie Express and Arisan which have themes (prostitution, LGBT) that conservatives might not like?

I think all this is part of the so-called global trend of conservatism.

I must admit it’s more difficult for movies with politically-incorrect themes to pass the various censorship boards. I do feel that the repression comes more from hardliner groups, and the censorship board seems to accommodate their demands.

We, as film makers, will keep on pushing the boundaries for more creative freedom.

You released Pengabdi Setan (translated as Satan’s Slaves, remake of a popular 1980 Indonesian horror film of the same name) earlier this year to great fanfare in Indonesia. Any plans for it to come to American audiences in a wide release or online distribution?

I’ve been very encouraged by how well Satan’s Slaves has performed. Since its premiere, it has become the highest grossing film in Indonesia this year. The movie has already been sold to 42 countries, including the U.S. Stay tuned for updates on its release date there.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

Together with HBO Asia, we’ve just recently announced a new horror series that will be premiering next year called Folklore.

Folklore is a six-episode hour-long horror anthology series that takes place across multiple Asian countries including Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand.  Each episode will be based on each country’s deeply-rooted superstitions and myths.

Helmed by different directors from various countries in Asia, each episode will seek to modernize or update Asian horror, exploring societal dysfunctions in a manner that is specific to the country but possessing themes that will resonate across the continent. I will be directing the episode based in Indonesia.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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