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Interview Indonesia

Didn’t want to make a voyeuristic film on the lives of blind people: Director Carya Maharja

Indonesian producer-director Maharja speaks after the screening of his film Listening To A Smile at the 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival.

Still from the film

Prateek Rawat

The Indonesian short documentary Listening To A Smile was screened on the final day (25 November 2018) of the 6th Woodpecker International Film Festival at Siri Fort in Delhi. Co-director Carya Maharja was present for the screening and interacted with the audience during the Q&A session later.

Listening To A Smile follows the journey of a blind boy from his suicidal depression to a chance at a normal life in a rehabilitation centre. After the screening, Maharja spoke to Cinestaan.com about documentary filmmaking and lives of specially-abled persons in Indonesia.


There is a very impressive sequence in the film where an extreme close-up of Rusim’s eyes during the flag hoisting is shot with a patriotic soundtrack along with a radio voiceover talking about the high happiness index in Indonesia. It elevates the narrative from the individual to a larger national and political comment. Could you talk about your thought behind it? How specially-abled persons are left on the wayside of the march of national progress.

That is a very deep question [laughs]. My intention of putting the radio announcement of the happiness index in that sequence was to try to put in a wider context. It is a very simple tale and I wanted to avoid a simplistic takeaway. The strategy was to use the radio, so we scouted the internet to find announcements broadcast by the Happiness Index Mission of Indonesia as it is such a big thing there.

By linking those two aspects, I wanted to tell the people that you might be living in a better condition than the person you see onscreen, but that person has his own definition of the worthiness of a life lived happily. This definition can come across as a challenge to the status quo.

Focusing on Rusim’s journey and the conceptualization of the film around him, what kind of Rusim did you meet and what kind of Rusim did you leave?

Well, he was known as a depressed character because of his dark history. He tried to kill himself because his parents wouldn’t let him go to school. Then, he got accepted into a vocational school. He found it challenging to mingle with his peers there. That is the Rusim we meet in the beginning of the film. Later on, he became more talkative. The sense that he was the main subject of the film boosted his confidence. It made him more open to people. He considers himself as an actor now because of this film!

What kind of infrastructure or aid is available for specially-abled young adults like Rusim in Indonesia? Is the government actively involved in their rehabilitation? What do you think about these rehabilitation centres? Do you think they are spaces that normalize life itself for people like Rusim?

Centres like where Rusim lives are trying to equip these specially-abled persons with skills that can help them earn money. They learn mainly techniques of massage, because it a major area opening directly for them and without any prejudices in Indonesia. It is quite normal for blind persons in Indonesia to work as massage therapists.

Outside that, there is scant support provided by the government for people with disabilities. They are usually left at home, jobless and without access to education or skill training. They become isolated individuals apart from the few who can enter centres like Rusim’s. These centres don’t really equip them with intellectual pursuits, but simply practical skills to make money.

During your Q&A you said that Indonesian documentaries are more observational and detached, unlike the Indian documentaries where the directors are intimately attached to their subjects. What kind of formal or aesthetic ideas were you and your co-director working towards in this film?

From the very beginning, we agreed that since the film will be about people who cannot see but be watched by people who can see, it must reflect the condition of sight difficulties. That is why the picture is also quite dark in places because they can’t see but then what gives the viewer the right to see through their lives. I didn’t want to make a picture that is voyeuristic on the lives of blind people for the public. The film follows this central idea.

What do you think of festivals like Woodpecker and their attempts to posit social-issue based cinema so centrally? What has been the journey for the film in Indonesia?

The film has not travelled extensively in Indonesia due to the lack of film festivals. To ensure its distribution beyond mainstream circuits, we are searching for festivals like Woodpecker which focuses on certain issues like disability. This gives us the chance of the film being received and seen widely.

Since you work as a producer-director who also works with fiction apart from documentary, could you talk about the projects you seek and work with?

As I said in the Q&A, I found Rusim from an audition I held for blind persons who want to be actors. The reason for that audition is that we are preparing a fiction film on a blind transgender. I thought it would be more appropriate for a blind person to play the character than an actor pretending to be blind. That is the immediate project. It is independent and I think production can begin in the first quarter of next year.

What kind of funding do such projects receive in Indonesia?

In Indonesia, there is a central body that accepts proposals from independent filmmakers and grants them funds. Also, the standard pathways of finding funds through families and relatives for exchange of film credits [laughs].

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Woodpecker International Film Festival