02 – Liarsip – top row-Julita Pratiwi, Lisabona Rahman, Umi Lestari. middle row-Efi Sri Handayani_ pictured in laptop-Imelda Mandala
Top row- Julia Pratiwi, Lisabona Rahman & Umi Lestari. Middle row- Efi Sri Handayani. Pictured in laptop- Imelda Mandala. Image credit: Liarsip.

Finding Ratna Asmara and the Herstory of Indonesian Cinema

The tale of a pioneering woman Indonesian filmmaker converges with the mission of a group of women film researchers, as Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu highlights how archives and historical records often render some stories invisible.

For many, the history of Indonesian cinema is a tale of great men. It usually begins with Usmar Ismail, who is acknowledged as the first director to produce a film with a fully Indonesian crew. Darah dan Doa (The Long March, 1950), the film in question, is celebrated as a milestone and its first shooting day, 30 March, was declared National Film Day by the state in 1999. Following Usmar, come the auteurs of the 1970s and 1980s, namely Wim Umboh, Teguh Karya, Arifin C. Noer, and Sjumandjaja. 

Post-1998 Indonesia does witness the rise of acclaimed women filmmakers like Mira Lesmana, Mouly Surya, and Kamila Andini, alongside the usual poster boys of contemporary Indonesian cinema such as Garin Nugroho, Joko Anwar, and Edwin. Despite this, the general landscape of the nation’s filmmaking history remains painfully male-dominated.

Pioneering women filmmakers of the past, such as Ratna Asmara and Sofia W.D., remain largely unknown to the public. And as a group of film students discovered, looking into the careers of these filmmakers reveals insight not just into Indonesian cinema, but also on what makes it into today’s historical records, and what doesn’t.

To wonder and wander

Julita Pratiwi, an alumni of the Jakarta Arts Institute, has often pondered on the dearth of women filmmakers in Indonesian history. She wondered whether the truth was as uneven as it seemed, or whether it was simply a severe case of missing files in the archive. So she went on a personal search.

“Since 2019, a few years after I graduated, I got involved with the Indonesian Cinematographers Society (ICS), in the research division. I often talked with Amalia Trisna Sari, Anggi Frisca, Angela Andreyanti. Even now, there are not so many women cinematographers like them in Indonesia, and we often wonder how many there were in the past,” said Julita.

Born in 1995, Julita grew up understanding Indonesian cinema through its long-established historical truths: the men are the minds behind the scenes, while the women are the beauties on screen. Yet, through the network from her studies, she became acquainted with a number of women film crews. Many had worked for films with national and international acclaim.

“I organised my own research. I did come across several names in the 1990s, but they dropped off circulation after that. As far as I know, none held chief positions at the time, and none continued working in cinema. These findings got me and my friends in ICS talking about how a woman could sustain her career in this line of work. We discussed possible policies involving the working environment, menstrual cycles, maternity leave, and so on.”

Over time, Julita found an ally in a fellow film student on campus, Efi Sri Handayani. Julita took great interest in Efi’s experience volunteering for Sinematek, Indonesia’s national film archive, and working for Indonesian Film Center Foundation, a film preservation initiative. 

Born in 1992, Efi is among the few young Indonesians who regularly come into close contact with film reels of various Indonesian classics. Many of these films require great care due to the usual challenges of preservation in Indonesia — the lack of funds, infrastructure, and trained film archivists, among others. For Efi, the history of Indonesian cinema is a great unknown, yet it is also highly fragile and always in decay.

Efi Sri Handayani inspecting the reels. Image credit: Liarsip. 

“I remember Julita and I talked about the possibility of digitising the thesis films in our campus. Jakarta Arts Institute has this long history of producing famous filmmakers in Indonesia, yet not all of its student films are available digitally, especially those from the 1980s and 1990s. We barely have any records left from the 1970s,” said Efi.

“It was really nice to find out that Julita shares similar interests. In Indonesia, it’s not ‘natural’ to have an interest in film archiving or preservation. What the public usually imagines about film culture is either producing films or watching them in cinemas. It’s understandable, but personally, I found it concerning.”

Together, Julita and Efi arrived at a mutual aim, of advocating for the importance of film preservation. Their first step was to organise a forum on the subject on campus, in 2018. They raised several questions to their fellow students, specifically about how their work as filmmakers would survive into the distant future. 

The forum drew positive responses, but Julita and Efi felt more needed to be done. On a personal level, they wanted to learn more about the theories and ethics of film preservation, so that they could organise their projects in a more methodical manner. It is for this purpose that they founded Liarsip in March 2021. By pooling resources and learning from each other, they as a group could attempt to fulfill their goal of identifying and narrating the herstory of Indonesian cinema.

The name “Liarsip” comes from the amalgam of kelas liar (wild class) and arsip (archive). Julita and Efi likened themselves to wild grasses that can grow and survive even in the most challenging places — more or less like starting a film preservation initiative in Indonesia.

To grow amidst the flow

History flows differently for every generation. For Julita and Efi, the real challenge is not just the loss of history to the course of time, but also the sheer abundance of “histories” in modern times. Digital technology, and the age of information it ushered in, enables people to craft their own histories from various media artefacts and present them as something definitive. Julita and Efi sought to understand the proper ethical and methodical frameworks to craft their own histories of Indonesian cinema, and for that they had the right person in mind: Lisabona Rahman.

Lisabona is one of the few people in Indonesia to have trained academically in film preservation. She has been involved in several film restoration projects, most notably Usmar Ismail’s Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew) in 2012 — a joint effort by Sinematek Indonesia, the National Museum of Singapore, Italy’s L’Immagine Ritrovata, and Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project. Julita and Efi sought to draw on Lisabona’s knowledge and experience, and collaborate to further retrace the historical paths of Indonesian cinema.

Julita and Efi also wanted to add more like-minded people to the group. Soon, two of their friends, Imelda Mandala and Siti Anisah, joined. Imelda is a photographer, while Siti Anisah — known as Anis within her social circles — was renowned in Jakarta film circles as a curator and archive manager. Anis in particular, had overseen several retrospective programmes that required her to access and manage old films in Sinematek’s vault.

Together, the group organised a weekly forum. Most of their meetings were online, given that Liarsip’s members are scattered in various places. Julita and Efi lived in Jakarta, but they often travelled around the country for their personal projects. Umi spent her days mostly in Tangerang, and Lisabona and Imelda were based in Germany. Meanwhile, at that time, Anis was facing a decline in her health, and had to check in regularly with her doctors in Jakarta; she often participated in Liarsip’s meetings from her hospital room.

“Each week has a different topic, which is tied to a bigger theme. We read various articles and academic texts, and then present our own takes and findings. One week, we learned about the ethics of archiving. We discussed how we should value each archived item that we find. Is one archival object more valuable than another? Should we even compare? In the end, we agreed that we should treat all archival objects the same,” said Efi.

“There was also a session where we discussed ‘orphan films’. That one’s really stuck in my mind,” said Julita. 

“Normally, the term refers to films that have been neglected by their owners or copyright holders. But in Indonesia, I think it means more than that. Here, films can get lost on their own. Companies go out of business, filmmakers pass away, and the public records here are not always reliable enough to track down the inheritors.”

When away from their keyboards, Liarsip’s members went out to search and take notes. Julita and Efi regularly visited Sinematek’s library and extracted information from texts in the collection. If the literatures in Sinematek did not suffice, they sought out other sources. The mission was simple: identify as many women filmmakers as possible, and retrace the journeys of each subject. The idea was to build a collective history out of those personal stories.

The usual sources were targeted: history books, newspaper clippings, festival catalogues, film memorabilia. Much to their surprise, they had several breakthroughs with women magazines and entertainment publications, which were not archived properly due to their perceived low-brow status.

Representation of the subjects was another challenge. In the past — and largely even today — the media in Indonesia tend to identify women film workers through a peculiar hierarchy. Actresses are mostly mentioned by their name — sometimes individually, sometimes in relation to a man (“the wife of …”). Directors or other crew members, however, are never portrayed as individuals. In several cases, they are not written about at all.

“We try to be critical of every piece of information. How it is written, who writes it, who publishes it. We try to identify the names behind the editorial board, the political orientation of the media if any, and so on,” said Efi.

“In the beginning we simply tried to list any names of women film crews we could find. We did try to focus on Sofia W.D. Her film, Badai Selatan (Southern Storm, 1960), is believed to be the first Indonesian film selected for competition at the 12th Berlinale (in 1962). But very little documentation remains. Even the documents from the Berlinale do not mention Sofia’s name, only the film title,” said Julita.

“We also tried to look at other names. We knew there is a director named Ratna Asmara. There’s also Ida Priyatni, credited as screenwriter for Djiwa Pemuda (Young Souls, 1953). From Sinematek, we also learned the name Kartinah. It was a bit like shooting in the dark.”

To retrace journeys

Liarsip’s search found a definite focal point when Julita and Efi happened upon a scrapbook. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Sinematek had been trying to make ends meet by providing the service of compiling news clippings on particular topics or persons of interest in Indonesian cinema. The findings would then be delivered as a customised scrapbook. Umi Lestari had ordered one such scrapbook on Ratna Asmara, which Julita and Efi noticed during a visit to Sinematek. Intrigued, they contacted Umi and invited her to collaborate with Liarsip.

Umi, born in 1988, had also first come to understand Indonesian cinema through the usual route. In 2015, she investigated nationalism in Usmar Ismail’s films for her master’s thesis, and in the process, felt she found nothing new to talk about. In the following years, influenced by interactions with other practitioners in both film preservation and local cinema in general, Umi began to explore important figures who are often overlooked in Indonesian film history.

In 2018, she examined Nawi Ismail’s comedy, and how his humour built a discourse on nationalism. A year later, she dedicated her time to looking at the works of Basuki Resobowo, a painter who worked as art director for several Usmar Ismail films. In 2020, she encountered the films of Dr. Huyung, a Korean-born Japanese soldier who went into film production after Indonesia’s independence and helped train a new generation of local filmmakers.

“My interest in Ratna Asmara grew from the last two studies. I found her name repeatedly being mentioned by Basuki Resobowo and Dr. Huyung in several articles. I do know some notable women in Indonesian cinema from that era. Like (singer and actress) Roekiah. But a film director, that really caught my attention,” said Umi.

“At first, I submitted the research on Ratna Asmara for the university I worked for (Universitas Multimedia Nusantara). As a lecturer, I’m obliged to organise a research project. In the process, I met with the good people from Liarsip. I believed that together, we could uncover far more stories behind Ratna Asmara than I previously thought.”

Ratna Asmara is indeed a curious figure in the history of Indonesian cinema. Her brief career in film was in many ways groundbreaking, and consistently associated with reputable names. After two decades of performing with Dardanella, she directed her first film, Sedap Malam (Tuberose), in 1951 — just two years after Usmar Ismail’s first feature, Harta Karun (Treasure). Ratna’s film was the first production by Persari, a pioneering film company in post-independence Indonesia, which would later co-produce Usmar’s landmark film, Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew). In terms of professional associations, Ratna walked among giants and pioneers.

Yet, despite this, she was publicly defined as the wife of Andjar Asmara, the stage name for popular writer and dramatist Abisin Abbas. Just like Ratna, Andjar’s career traced back to the days of Dardanella in the 1930s. The couple was connected by the stage — Andjar wrote the plays, Ratna performed in them. And just like Ratna, Andjar went on to become a film director and was often referred to as one of Indonesia’s pioneering filmmakers. Andjar’s early films, starting with Kartinah (1940), predictably starred Ratna.

“Writing about the history of women filmmakers requires me to always take a moment to reflect, to not rush into making conclusions. Many media reported Ratna only as an actress in Andjar’s films,” said Umi.

“But knowing the dynamics of film production in Indonesia, especially with the limited resources during colonial times, there must be more to Ratna’s role in Andjar’s films. And indeed, one magazine (Percaturan Dunia dan Film, 1 December 1941) mentioned in passing that Ratna also served as acting mentor, choreographer, and wardrobe and make-up crew. She’d even served as assistant director in one of Andjar’s productions. She was a multi-talented film crew member, but this was rarely acknowledged.”

The blurring of Ratna’s behind-the-scenes roles naturally extended into the appraisal of her legacy as a film director. When Ratna’s Sedap Malam (Tuberose) premiered on 14 February 1951, the local media largely focused on her domestic affairs.

“I remember this article from 1952, titled Regisseur Wanita (Woman Director), in Minggu Pagi. Ratna was the director in question, but the article didn’t delve into how Ratna directed her crew and cast. No mention of her ideas and inspirations in making her films. No, the article talked more about Ratna’s impending divorce from Andjar during the production of Musim Bunga di Selabintana (Flower Season in Selabintana, 1951),” said Umi.

“Meanwhile, on the next page, Minggu Pagi profiled the directorial work of Kotot Sukardi. Things about how he handled his crew and cast, his ideas behind the artistic choices, all explained in two pages. Ratna only got one page. These are the challenges that we at Liarsip have to face when we try to reconstruct Ratna’s personal journey. If we could just look past Ratna’s association with Andjar, we would find her adventure in cinema to be a very rich journey.”

The reels of Ratna Asmara, seen through the lenses. Image credit: Liarsip.
To record the remnants

After retracing Ratna Asmara’s career highlights, Liarsip entered the crucial stage of their project: presenting physical evidence. The immediate aim was to restore and present a public screening of any remaining film of Ratna’s, complete with the personal histories they’d carefully gathered and reconstructed.

Admittedly, none of Liarsip’s members initially imagined that their humble project would end up chasing such a lofty target. On a sombre note, Julita, Efi, and Umi pointed to Anis’ death as the motivation that spurred them on.

“It was Anis who made sure that the reels of Ratna’s film were indeed available at Sinematek. She communicated with the Sinematek people so that we could access and inspect the reels. I remember her condition was worsening at the time. We had many video calls, she was organising the search for Ratna’s films from the hospital bed. Despite the situation, she kept smiling, always cheerful,” said Efi.

“When we started Liarsip, we didn’t have such a grand plan, let alone an end game. We simply worked our way week by week. Then Anis passed away in August 2021. Such a loss. We then gathered around and dedicated this research to her. We had to see this through, we had to bring the film to the public,” said Julita.

The film in question was Dr. Samsi, Ratna Asmara’s third and arguably most popular film of her career as director. Both the negative print (the master copy) and the positive print (the screening copy) were available. Yet both prints had different content.

“I could say this is the most challenging film I’ve ever handled. At first, we inspected the positive print, because it’s the reel used for theatrical screenings, the version the public gets to see. When we compared it to the negative print, some sequences played out differently, some scenes were missing. In the positive copy, there are scenes that are not from Dr. Samsi. We needed further investigations to settle on a definitive version; after that, we could prepare the reels for digitisation,” said Efi.

“Despite the situations with the reels, seeing the images of Dr. Samsi come to life really gave me chills. After retracing all these histories and her ideas, I could finally see them being expressed in motion. Dr. Samsi’s opening sequence, I could never forget that. The film started out blank. Just darkness. Then Ratna emerged from the shadows, carrying her baby. As a woman and a mother who’s been researching Ratna, I was really struck by that moment. Ratna emerged from the dark and asserted herself as a woman and a mother,” said Umi.

Liarsip planned to restore the film as closely as possible to its best condition. While the film was being prepared, the collective faced another challenge: identifying its rightful owner. Dr. Samsi is an orphan film, and there are no public records available on Ratna’s family heirs, especially after her divorce from Andjar Asmara.

So Julita suggested they work their way from Ratna’s grave. Cemetery administrators usually kept a contact list of next-of-kin in their database. Julita presumed they would find clues there.

On 30 July 2022, Julita and Umi went on a cemetery tour in Jakarta to look for Ratna Asmara’s grave. They first visited Tanah Kusir Public Cemetery in South Jakarta, before moving on to Karet Bivak Public Cemetery in Central Jakarta. Both cemeteries are quite well known as resting places for various luminaries in Indonesian history. They managed to locate Andjar Asmara’s grave, along with the grave of Usmar Ismail, at Karet Bivak. But Ratna’s was nowhere in sight.

“One year after Andjar Asmara passed away (in 1961), PFN (Produksi Film Negara, state-owned film production company) hosted a public ceremony to present his tombstone. The event was attended by Usmar Ismail and his peers. I never heard of such an event for Ratna,” said Umi.

“We did ask the cemetery administration about the next-of-kin of Andjar. We got a name and an address from them, but they’re not sure whether it’s a lead worth pursuing, since it’s been years since anyone from Andjar’s family came to visit the grave.”

Despite the lack of clarity, Liarsip pressed on. They presented the original copy of Dr. Samsi and their research on Ratna Asmara at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, in May 2022. In collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Culture, Liarsip also published a book titled Ratna Asmara: Perempuan di Dua Sisi Kamera (Ratna Asmara: A Woman on Both Sides of the Camera). Released in November 2022, the book had a limited print run, but the digital copy is freely available for members of the public.

As of now, there is still no definite timeline for the restoration of Dr. Samsi. Liarsip targets next year as being ideal, but again, they’ll take things as they come. “The way I see it now: any publication about our research, our project, Ratna Asmara, and Dr. Samsi would be really helpful. On one level, I hope it will spark discussions about other possible ways of looking at Indonesian film history,” said Julita.

“On another level, I really hope the publication of our project attracts the attention of Ratna’s family or relatives, so they can come out in public to present this film. That would be my ideal happy ending.”

This content is produced as part of a project to research and document arts and culture censorship in Southeast Asia, organised by ArtsEquator. For other articles in this project, click here.

About the author(s)

Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu is the chief editor and co-founder of Cinema Poetica—a collective of film critics, activists, and researchers in Indonesia. In 2013, Adrian participated in Berlinale Talent Campus as a film critic, and since then regularly organized or mentored film criticism workshops in Indonesia. He has also curated several film festivals, including Festival Film Dokumenter, Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival, and Singapore International Film Festival. In 2020, as part of Cinema Poetica, Adrian contributed several writings for Antarkota Antarlayar: Potret Komunitas Film di Indonesia (Between Cities and Screens: Film Communities in Indonesia), a book published by Jakarta Arts Council.

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