From the Director's Chair:
Angga Sasongko of Visinema
25 May 2021
Welcome back to Season Two, Episode 20 of the Indo Tekno podcast. I'm Alan Hellawell, Founder of Gizmo Advisors and Venture Partner at Alpha JWC Ventures. Selamat datang kembali semuanya. Now, film & entertainment has been one of the world's most technology-hungry, and experimental industries for decades. Today we have on as our esteemed guest, one of Indonesia's best known and most iconic film directors. Angga Sasongko has directed such award winning feature films as Hari untuk Amanda, and Filosofi Kopi. It's great to have you on today Angga. Thanks for joining.
ANGGA SASONGKO 0:52
Hi, Alan. My pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.
You're very welcome. Now, Angga, you founded Visinema Pictures in 2008. And while I'm looking forward to delving into the company's ever growing use of technology, I'm also keen to explore with you the impact of technology on Indonesian society, as you are in many ways one of society's most famous commentators. But first Angga, what were the chapters of your career which eventually led you to your current status as one of the country's premier film directors?
ANGGA SASONGKO 1:25
Thank you for that. I reckon it was when "The Lights from the East" won the Citra Award at Festival Film Indonesia back in 2014. The Citra Award is equal to the Oscars in the US. And what's more interesting after that, Cahaya Dari Timur: Beta Maluku (We Are Moluccans) was screened at the Presidential Palace with President Jokowi and the whole cabinet back then. For us, Glenn Fredly, as the producer and I as the director, it was a big win. When we put the spotlight on our brothers from Eastern Indonesia, the Hena Masa Waya, the Molukkan Anthem, Echo within the Walls of the Palace. The palace has become a symbol of centralization of our brothers in Eastern Indonesia. And that moment not only gave me a spotlight as a film director, but also gave me the strength to continue the mission of my filmmaking journey.
Fascinating background there. And Angga, I wanted to ask you, what was the one big break in your career which really opened up new opportunities for you?
ANGGA SASONGKO 2:25
This is a very interesting question. I started my career as a film director at a very young age and a humble beginning. The break was when I directed the Close Up toothpaste commercial. That was my first commercial project. And back then I was only 19. I had just started at university. I think it was my second year. And that was my first step as a professional film director. So I've been in this job as a film director roughly about 16 years.
So you could argue that it all began with a toothbrush. Is that right?
ANGGA SASONGKO 3:01
Excellent. Well, God bless dental health. Now Angga you studied at the University of Indonesia with a major in political science. Now, in my coverage of Indonesia's tech space, I see a growing focus on STEM education or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Do you feel that Indonesia should shift more educational resources towards STEM education, particularly if it meant shifting some resources away from the arts and humanities?
ANGGA SASONGKO 3:31
Alan, I think that the problem is not only the shift, but the political will and the public policy framework that leads to STEM, that is yet to exist. Science, it's not the priority yet. To answer your question, do we need it? In my opinion, balance in knowledge is necessary. It has to be equal. I think because philosophy and exploration in the art world and humanistic studies are still needed, especially in such a civilization like Indonesia. But I think it should start from the top. It should start from the political and the public policy framework in the developing country like us. I think we don't have enough independence in the education space, because it's still too political. So I think it's still important to see the direction of our political and public policy.
Understood. That makes real sense. Now Angga, I'm sure that COVID has had an impact on basically everything you do. What have been the most painful aspects to it? And on the other side, have you seen something positive emerge from it?
ANGGA SASONGKO 4:39
Of course, the closing of the cinema hurt, because as a filmmaker and a film studio, cinema has been our main distribution channel. But I believe that when this pandemic is over, the cinema will be back to normal or even bigger, because Indonesian people like to gather and to do communal things. And that's what the cinema offers for them. But the growth of the digital space, like the streaming service and the subscriber number, I think it will create for the industry a double track. So the cinema and the streaming and the digital space will grow together. So the challenge will be the talent. We need more talent to produce more content, given the growing demand after this pandemic.
Understood. And speaking very candidly, Angga, has online distribution helped backfill the losses from the closed cinemas? Or has it just been a drop in the ocean?
ANGGA SASONGKO 5:42
The number of subscribers is still low. Hollywood Reporter just reported the subscriber number in Indonesia. It's only about 3.6 million. So that's not enough. I think digital and cinema still will grow together side-by-side. Because in cinema, also, we still have room to grow very big Alan, because our screen per capita, for example, compared to the US with 167 screens per capita. In Indonesia, we only have 0.4 screens per capita. So I think at this moment, digital has not yet become the solution. But this pandemic will teach not only the audience, but also the industry, to grow even faster and take any opportunity after this crisis has finished.
Yeah, well, let's hope for that, that parallel growth in offline and online, the pandemic ends.
ANGGA SASONGKO 6:39
Now Angga, I had the pleasure of watching your 2018 film, "Keluarga Cemara" (or Cemara's Family in English).
ANGGA SASONGKO 6:47
Oh, thank you.
Yeah, I loved it. Now the patriarch, or the man of the household Abah, in this movie loses basically everything; his house and all of his wealth. He his wife and two daughters are forced to move into the countryside near Bogor, if I'm not mistaken. And he and his family have to get used to a new, much less privileged life. What inspired that story?
ANGGA SASONGKO 7:09
Thank you. So it's inspired from the events that occur among us, and our own experience, as well. We, me and my wife Anggia, who is also the producer of that movie, and also the president of the Kids and Family business that leads all the kids and family content. We were new parents back then. We had just learned how to parent a child. And Keluarga Cemara was also our window to see the challenges the Indonesian family faces these days. So I think Keluarga Cemara is like a love letter from me, not only for the audience, but also for me and Anggia in the future. So we can see someday that movie again, and it will remind us about how we process the journey as parents and how to cope with all the challenges in front of us.
Wow. So, a wonderfully personal connection you have in this film, and thanks for sharing that. I have to say I absolutely loved the film.
ANGGA SASONGKO 8:10
Thank you so much.
You're welcome. I think it's because as a foreigner, that sweet Indonesian family value that emerges in the movie really made me nostalgic for the more innocent days of my youth. But by far my favourite moments in the film occurred at minute six, and again, at one hour and 38 minutes in. Do you have any idea what I'm talking about? Can you guess what the two scenes are?
ANGGA SASONGKO 8:37
I can't. I can't remember. Sorry.
All right. It's when Abah, the father, backs out of the driveway with his two daughters. And his wife lovingly crosses her arm over her chest and goes, "Ahhh". Are you familiar?
ANGGA SASONGKO 8:53
And then, after they've had that third baby at the end of the movie, they do the same thing. And so you recall this same?
ANGGA SASONGKO 9:00
Now, is that a universal greeting in Indonesia? Is that a thing in Indonesia? Or is it just Keluarga Cemara that does it?
ANGGA SASONGKO 9:10
I think that's the way we want to give the sense of change with two same expressions, but different situations, and how they still are grateful for all the things, the bad things the good things, that happened to their life.
It was such a wonderful touch to the movie. Now Angga have you collaborated with many foreign partners? And if so, what has been your most memorable and formative partnership?
ANGGA SASONGKO 9:40
Definitely. We have had a lot of foreign partners, not only in on the equity side, but also on the project side. We are collaborating with Astro Show in our film fund, a Malaysian media conglomerate. And also we have Intudo Ventures and XRM Media from the US as our equity partners But personally, the interesting part is how we came together with Michael Chow from XRM Media and how he believes in Visinema so much. And when he decided to invest, he decided without complicated paperwork. And now he has become a very supportive equity partner. And also I'm very grateful for the partnership with Intudo, although Eddie Chan is based in SF and Patrick Yip is based in Jakarta, they are always very supportive of Visinema.
Yeah, there are two great guys. And we have had the privilege of interviewing a number of their entrepreneurs over the past year. Now Angga, how aggressively do you apply technology as a director? Are you closer to James Cameron, or closer to the extreme of a very traditional director? Where does technology come into Visinema?
ANGGA SASONGKO 10:49
I can say my role models are Christopher Nolan and like you said, James Cameron. Those two guys happen to be very visionary, not just in terms of technology, but their vision on storytelling. So as a director, of course, I wish to use the latest, most sophisticated technology such as Stagecraft; the new technology invented by Industrial Light and Magic. But in Indonesia, there are limitations in making films, and that is the budget. So far, I explore more in stories and experimenting with the style of storytelling to constantly look for what Indonesian characteristics in storytelling can be accepted by everybody. And also, I wish it will resonate well globally.
Understood. Just to follow up on that Angga, what are ultimately in your mind the pros and cons of introducing cutting edge technology into your work?
ANGGA SASONGKO 11:47
I think, like I said, it's the budget of course. In Indonesia, because the market is still in the growth stage, we don't have the luxury to shoot or produce with big budgets. My biggest production, it was already co-produced with 20th Century Fox, the studio from the US. And that's the first production of 20th Century Fox in Southeast Asia. The budget was also not that big. It was only less than 3 million US dollars. So with 3 million US dollars for all the production; from the pre-production to release; I think there is very, very minimal exploration and technology we can do. But of course, in the camera space, in the post production space, we still follow the latest in cutting edge technology. But in the production space, like I said, for example, Stagecraft or 3D filmmaking, I think it's still far from us here in Indonesia. Because we cannot afford that kind of technology yet.
Understood. Now Angga, are you worried about how smartphone-centric the world has become? is it changing the way people absorb or appreciate your work in your mind?
ANGGA SASONGKO 13:00
Interesting question. Thank you, Alan, for asking this. So, I believe that the smartphone cannot replace the experience of watching films in the cinema. Because in the cinema, we are not only watching content. It will also become an experience and connection. This is reflected from pre-pandemic data. When streaming services started to grow exponentially, so did the growth of the cinema audience. For example, the box office records were constantly broken, right, from Avatar to the Avengers Endgame. This is very good for the content business actually. Because like I said, there will be the double track. If we can be smart in creating new content, then digital and cinema-going will be able to go hand-in-hand. I keep asking myself this question, not only as a filmmaker or producer but also as an audience member: Am I satisfied enough watching a Pixar film on a small screen like "Soul", for example? It's very painful to see that kind of beautiful story, beautiful picture, beautiful design only on my 55 inch television. The magic suddenly is gone. And that's the moment I believe that cinema will be hard to replace. But digital, the smartphone growth will be like I said, complimentary for the content industry. Because if we can go creating new content, and digital and cinema grow hand-in hand, I think it's good for everyone. Not only for the industry side, but also for the audience.
Understood. Going back to your film, just imagine the older sister in Keluarga Cemara, "Euis", being on her smartphone for nearly the entire movie. Because that's basically what my 12 year old daughter's existence is today.
ANGGA SASONGKO 14:48
My kid is a six-year-old boy, with all the gadgets in front of him. I think the change in behaviour because of technology development is an issue for every generation. In my time. it was TV and video games. So I think it's like the cycle of life, Alan. But I believe that humans are a species who's not only interacting with each other to become a collective, but also have the ability to adapt to new inventions.
Fascinating. Now, Angga, what contacts do you have with Indonesia's startup industry?
ANGGA SASONGKO 15:20
About the startup industry: it's in very, very close proximity to us, as Visinema has become an entertainment and technology company. And being in the same environment as a lot of startup companies, we are constantly seeking ways to collaborate. One memorable collaboration must be when we partnered with Gojek in Keluarga Cemara, as you know. Because back then, the core of IP was in television series in the 90s. In the 90s, Abah can be a "beca" (three-wheeled cycle) driver. And when we rebooted the IP into the movie in 2018, we collaborated with Gojek. And it was a very fun and memorable partnership with Gojek.
Very cool. Yeah, I can see that: updating of Abah's vehicle. Now Angga, what are the next steps for the Indonesian film industry as it expands its presence on the global stage?
ANGGA SASONGKO 16:12
I think first, we must aim for the regional market. Because we are the most populous country in Southeast Asia with the biggest resources also, we have to prove that Indonesia is the creative powerhouse in Southeast Asia. And after that, let's talk global. We can take learnings from Korea. If we look into the past, they did not reach this point in an instant. There were times when they competed fiercely with Japan, with J-Pop and all the Japan comics, characters, and so on. Japan wanted to be the leader of the industry, too. But when Korea managed to beat Japan, they become the winner of East Asia, which is the first region. Since then global has become a near, feasible horizon. So I think our homework is how to manage to make Indonesia a creative powerhouse in Southeast Asia. That's the first step. And then after that, I think that the global market will open by itself
It will be an exciting expansion of profile. Now Angga, you're also known for your activism. And I'd like to ask you what causes do you support most fervently? And why?
ANGGA SASONGKO 17:22
Tough question. Let me think. Since the early stage of my career, I have had huge interest in human rights and democracy-related issues. I think it's because I studied political science, so I am very close to that issue. I also believe that without the freedom of speech, for example, without the value of humanity, there won't be any growth in the film industry. I won't take it for granted. And at least I want to get involved in the constant fight for the issue. Because like I said, democracy and humanity are what make the film industry today. It's the place, the space where I make my living, where I exist, and I actualize myself. So I won't take it for granted. So that's why I fight for those issues.
Understood. Now Angga what new directions are you considering taking in your future work?
ANGGA SASONGKO 18:17
I've been thinking about this for a time. I think I want to be more involved in the works related to the public and marginalised people, like what I experienced in the early days of my career, when I went to Mendawai (a major river in Borneo). And I went to Ambon (capital of Maluku), and found the story about the Lights from the East, the film that gave me a tipping point back in 2014. So as a filmmaker, as a founder and CEO of Visinema, I have the platform and I want to utilise it to have more impact. I have a small family Alan, which I reckon is not very difficult to take care of, right. I only have one child and a very supportive wife. So I feel that God has given me the energy to do more than just taking care of my family, or taking care of my company or making films. I don't want to live just thinking about, for example, how much money I can get or how big I can grow my company. Because I think that will ultimately be very selfish. So my question to my life, to my own self is: with all I have today as resources and as power, how to use it to give impact to more people, especially for those who are marginalised? That's my answer, maybe for today. And it could be very open to change, with myself also developing as a human being in the future.
Wow! I will need some time to really understand and appreciate that response. Angga, thanks so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to join us today!
ANGGA SASONGKO 19:56
Thank you so much, Alan, for considering me for this Indo Tekno podcast. Very honoured to be here.
Well, it's a real pleasure. Your candid insights and heartfelt opinions have really added, I can say, some unique colour to the Indo Tekno series. Now I think I'll just watch your 2020 hit film, "One Day We'll Talk about Today". I think in Bahasa Indonesia, it's ”Nanti Kita Cerita tentang Hari Ini”. And by the way, our audience will be pleased to know that Netflix carries several of your titles. So you can binge watch Pak Angga's work at your leisure. And we hope our listeners have enjoyed today's episode. As always, please consider sharing any feedback that you have about the Indo Tekno podcast with us. Terima kasih telah mendengarkan. Sampai jumpa lagi!