Cobwebs and celluloid: Indonesia’s propaganda past in the present

An old warehouse with a unique history in Jakarta is a literal laboratory of film. Inside filmmakers have worked with rare equipment they discovered in the building, resurrecting old celluloid film.

Senin, 23 Jan 2017 14:29 WIB

Film equipment at Lab Laba Laba, that has been salvaged from PFN and restored. (Photo: Nicole Curby)

Film equipment at Lab Laba Laba, that has been salvaged from PFN and restored. (Photo: Nicole Curby)

An old warehouse with a unique history in Jakarta is a literal laboratory of film.

Inside filmmakers have worked with rare equipment they discovered in the building, resurrecting old celluloid film - old-school reels of film - and producing experimental modern cinema.

Nicole Curby met with several of the filmmakers from Lab Laba Laba, or the Spider Lab-Collective, to find out more.

There’s a warehouse in East Jakarta that’s several stories high, and until recently was crawling with spiders, cockroaches and rats.  

It was covered in dust and reeked of chemicals and vinegar, the pungent scent of disintegrating celluloid film.

On the first floor, filmmaking equipment had been ransacked, while rolls of film were left scattered across the floor.

Even the containers that the film was stored in were melted, not to mention the film itself. It was dark, with no electricity.

When filmmaker Anggun Priambodo discovered the office upstairs, it looked stuck in time.

“The glass, pen, book, the candy, the coffee, still there,” he recalled.

Everybody had finished their last day of work, and left things exactly as they were. Magazines, newspapers, paperwork, were still sitting on desks. 

Back in the day this warehouse was known as Produksi Film Negara, the State Film Production Centre, or PFN for short. 

It’s where thousands of Indonesian films and propaganda materials were produced during the more than three decades of Suharto’s dictatorship.

After he fell, the doors of PFN were shuttered too.

But a decade on a group of artists searching for a darkroom and filmmaking equipment pried open its dusty doors once more.

Filmmakers Anggun and Aditya Martodiharjo told me, “it’s like opening a factory of propaganda at the time. It’s like in the ‘80s-‘90s, Suharto used PFN to help him to spread the propaganda with audiovisual, with moving image.” 

In those years there was only one TV channel, TVRI. All it’s content was produced at PFN.

For the millions of Indonesians who went to school in the ‘80s and ‘90s, violent propaganda films were played every year at school, on TV and also at the cinema.

Anggun remembers, “every year I go to the cinema to watch that kind of film. We are very little, but we saw a very dangerous scene, they are killing people.”

“I think that film is only for adults, not youngsters, but elementary school must watch that movie, that’s very strange. It’s very, very violent, with a lot of blood,” he said. 

Through these films, Suharto’s version of history – especially the story of how he became President in 1965 – was screened to the masses. 

It’s a history that Indonesia is still hotly debating today. 

In typical dictator fashion, Suharto threw money and resources at these films, explains Aditya.

“They’re really passionate about it. They put everything into it. It’s like a bunch of engineers, film directors, and everything put into one building, and Suharto really put everything into it, the budget, and everything, because maybe he knew the power of moving image,” says Aditya. 

Some of the films made at PFN lab are now stored in the national archives.

But a lot was left abandoned. And in the tropical heat, have quickly decomposed. 

And that’s where the Lab Laba Laba – or the Spider Lab Collective comes in.

A group of artists and experimental filmmakers, Lab Laba Laba have used the film rolls they found at PFN to produce new creations altogether. 

Some use the old footage to address the history that it’s part of – tackling propaganda and censorship.

While others, like Aditya, have used the old film rolls in totally different ways.

Using ‘Direct Film Technique’ Adit takes old film rolls, cuts them, and draws on the celluloid film, creating animations that play across the backdrop of old film footage.

“Why not damage some archive for fun?” he joked. 

“I think it is a bit contradictory with what we said before with how big the contribution of the archive is.”

But Aditya continued, “what is already done is already done, and I can take it and make a new thing with it. That’s more fun for me. Rather than take the old story and try and make people care about it. I don’t think it’s too interesting for me. It’s more interesting to make my own story.” 

It’s something that they’ve been able to share with children. They have run workshops for kids as young as 5 years old, who make their own animations by drawing on the old film rolls. 

But as new layers of stories are told over old, not all the cobwebs of history have been cleaned out.  



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