Every year Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (JAFF) focuses on one of unique Asian filmmakers whose works express a fresh and distinctive perspective on Asian culture and society.  This year, JAFF is focusing on Joko Anwar who has unabashedly cross over various genres, experimenting with disparate cinematic styles while at the same time, successfully captivating the audiences. The program of “Focus on Joko Anwar” can perhaps be easily associated with the hype of his recent, commercially successful film Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slave, 2017) as the highest grossing Indonesian horror film ever.  In fact, this program has been planned since last year as Anwar’s films continue to offer innovative storytelling and stylish imageries transgressing the genre framework while possessing a great social and political sensibility.

Born on 3 January 1976 in an impoverished area in Medan (North Sumatera), Anwar grew up watching martial arts and horror films in cheap movie theatres in his hometown. When he was a middle school student, he wrote a play, which was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It seems that the worlds of art and film gravitates towards him unfailingly wherever he goes. It comes to no surprise then, that Anwar pursued a career in journalism in the English-language Indonesian newspaper, The Jakarta Post and later on, as a film critic – in spite of his degree in aerospace engineering from Institut Teknologi Bandung.

In his directorial debut Janji Joni (Joni’s Promise, 2005), Anwar chronicles the life of a deliveryman who encounters various obstacles in keeping his promise to deliver a film reel on time to a movie theatre. Clearly, this film can be seen as the love letter of a cinephile to Indonesian film scene since the special appearance of Indonesian veteran actor Barry Prima can be found.  His second film Kala (Dead Time, 2007) is perhaps the first stylistic Indonesian film noir set in an unnamed country that is rife with political conflicts and intrigues. Meanwhile, Joko Anwar’s award winning film Pintu Terlarang (The Forbidden Door, 2009) is a psychological thriller recounting a patient of a mental health hospital who imagines himself as an unusual sculptor haunted by his childhood trauma. The New York Asian Film Festival 2009 dubbed Pintu Terlarang as “one of the sickest, kinkiest movies.”

Similar to his previous film, Modus Anomali (Ritual, 2012) is a thriller depicting a man’s attempt in saving his two children when they disappear during holiday in the woods.  A Copy of My Mind (2015) is another Anwar’s film related to the rampant film piracy in Indonesia, intersecting with the current political situations. The main character of this film is a pirated DVDs subtitle maker, who falls in love with a cheap salon worker, whose life is threatened by the political situation heating the country. Conceived after almost 5 years, Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slave, 2017) is his homage to the Indonesian cult horror film. The commercial success of Pengabdi Setan indicates the enduring demand of the Indonesian film audience for quality horror films with a masterful craft and captivating plot. At the same time, Anwar has the capability to leave a distinctive mark in the conventional film genre. Moreover, he is able to elevate the status of horror film as a cheap and tacky production into an artistic piece.

Aside from writing and directing his own films, Anwar also wrote numerous scripts for commercially successful films such as Arisan! (Nia Dianta, 2003), Jakarta Undercover (Lance Laggong, 2007), Quickie Express  (Dimas Djayadiningrat, 2007) and Fiksi (Mouly Surya, 2008).  He also appeared as a cameo in several his friends’ films to observe and learn the human psyche in order to hone his actor directing skills. To Anwar, the cinema is a universe where he lives and breathes as a truly brilliant cinephile film director in Asia. It is clear that Anwar’s brilliance and ingenuity is a product of his indefatigable commitment to art and film.

This article is first appeared in the catalog of the 12th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (1-8 December 2017)

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