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Nia Dinata: A Woman’s Voice

When film director Nia Dinata screened her latest work Ini Kisah Tiga Dara (Three Sassy Girls) at film festivals in Tokyo and Singapore recently, she was met with not only enthusiasm and joyful laughter but also curiosity about Indonesian women today.

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Starring Shanty Paredes as Gendis, Tara Basro as Ella and Tatyana Akman as Bebe, the 124-minute musical centres on three sisters who struggle to maintain their individuality and career-oriented lives within the confines of traditional family values. Produced, directed and co-written by Nia, she considers the movie as an updated version of the 1956 classic Tiga Dara (Three Sisters) by Usmar Ismail, which mainly follows three sisters’ journey in finding husbands.

The 2016 romantic comedy is packed with messages about female empowerment, but the three sisters’ appearances in the movie were unexpected for some of the festival audiences. Some were delighted to see a new standard of Asian beauty in the movie, from big and curly hair to the tanned hue of their skin. Others found it interesting to see young women, from the most populous Muslim country in the world, wearing skin-revealing attire and talking openly about their life choices.

Speaking to Colours at her newly opened movie theatre and co-working Cine Space at Scientia Square Park in Serpong, Tangerang, Nia said cinemas should not be used to project a society in a single portrayal. She also pointed out Ini Kisah Tiga Dara does not try to represent Indonesian women in general.

“Indonesia is a mosaic of very rich culture. I cannot say Ini Kisah Tiga Dara represents Indonesian women. I think it’s important for foreigners, and Indonesians, to understand this,” she said.

Nia is a fearless filmmaker who consistently deconstructs any kind of traditional notions in her works. A graduate of the film programme at New York University, she returned to Indonesia in 1994, when no Indonesian movies were made. She began her career in advertising, where she met fellow film school graduates, mostly from Jakarta Institute of Arts (IKJ).

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“We did not want to make movies then, because scripts had to go through censorship at the Department of Information. But whenever we had just finished making a commercial, we always felt the itch to make films,” she said. “When [the fall of Suharto’s New Order in] 1998 happened, we thought, hey, we can finally make films.”

In 2000, Nia established her own independent film company, Kalyana Shira Films, and started making pictures. Her 2001 feature debut Ca-bau-kan (The Courtesan) depicts Chinese Indonesian culture, which was rarely represented in local media frameworks at that time. In 2003, Nia stole many headlines and became a rising star by making the first Indonesian movie to feature a gay love story in Arisan! (The Gathering). She also raised her concerns about polygamy in the 2006 hit Berbagi Suami (Love for Share).

Apart from her ventures in making compelling dramas, Nia also makes it her mission to produce documentary films. “Documentary is also one of my passions. It’s very different from doing drama, because the protagonist is not always a human character. It could be a school, a village or even a natural disaster,” she said.

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Kalyana Shira Foundation, the not-for- profit organisation that Nia established in 2006, actively gathers filmmakers in a documentary film workshop through a programme called Project Change that is held every two years. Some of the latest productions in Project Change were Pertanyaan Untuk Bapak (A Question for My Father), a 40-minute show by Mayk Wongkar which follows co-director Yatna Pelangi as he returns home to find his biological father who used to violate him, and Emak dari Jambi (Mother from Jambi) by Anggun Pradesha and Rikky M. Fajar, a 38-minute story about a mother who travels to Jakarta to meet her transgender son.

These films have found their audience in film festivals, universities and Nia’s own Cine Space in Serpong, which has become an alternative screening venue for filmmakers and moviegoers who seek to escape the Hollywood-heavy selection at cinema and movie theatre chains.

Nia is also currently taking her first shot at directing a feature-length documentary. She is working on a documentary about an underground school in Jakarta, which will wrap up filming at the end of February.

“Filming a documentary is very interesting, because it is just like observing life itself. Directors and producers don’t get to act like God because there’s no screenplay. We cannot ask the people involved to act in certain ways. We can only leave the ending to God, to fate,” she said.