With his latest film, ‘Pria’, released to critical acclaim, we sat down with filmmaker Yudho Aditya for the first part of an extensive chat on his filmmaking career thus far, his issues traversing different planes of identities, and his thoughts on how gay films could be better made.
Hi Yudho! Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start from the start. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Hello Fikri! Thanks so much for taking the time to ask me these questions, I really appreciate it. I grew up on this small island south of Singapore and at the time, from around 1993 to 1998, it wasn’t the most developed place in the world. We didn’t have nice tropical beaches, because it was mainly used as a port; there were two schools at the time and one ‘mall’. It was just boring! It didn’t help that my mother didn’t let us play video games and such.
Is this why you turned to films for salvation, so to speak?
I guess I started to watch movies to alleviate the boredom. Later on, when I got to the United States, I started making really stupid short films when I was around 13 years-old. Again, they were just to alleviate the boredom, but I didn’t realise then that I had used them as a form of expression.
What were you expressing?
I was such a shy and introverted kid. The films I made back then somehow also reflected my day-to-day experience.
Which figures in cinema have inspired you the most? Being someone familiar with your offerings, I would imagine someone like Pedro Almodovar featuring relatively high on that list…
I think this is such a hard question to answer, something that I’ve mulled over for a while as I get asked this all the time! A friend recently told me that I should just tell people that I really love Ang Lee because he does a lot of different things gay/straight/white/Asian, which is supposedly similar to what I do and would make people understand my work more.
But to be honest, I feel like the stuff I make are amalgamations of my favorite films. And I like a lot of different ones! I’m sure you can find traces of ‘Almost Famous’, ‘Lost In Translation’, ‘Marie Antoinette’, Andrew Haigh’s ‘Weekend’, ‘Dol’ by Andrew Ahn, and ‘Mysterious Skin’, amongst others.
As you mentioned Almodovar, I really love ‘Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!’. And of course, Penelope Cruz in ‘Volver’ was just straight up fire! I must say that growing up on American films, I probably have that influencing me more than any other type of cinema. But, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy them other films. I think as a filmmaker you should be consuming everything.
Absolutely. Of course, as covered above you’re not originally from the States, but Indonesia. How did it come about that you would be based in the United States?
My mom went to high school in Singapore, and did her undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States. So growing up, the idea of the United States have already been hammered into us, at least when it comes to stories about her life when she was there.
When I was nine years-old, she remarried to an American, and so they moved us here. We’ve practically been here ever since, so I guess I have my mother to thank!
All credit to her, definitely! I ask this because, given Indonesia’s context in dealing with identities considered alternative to the mainstream, you probably could only have developed as a filmmaker in the way you did in a country like the United States of America. How much of this did I get right? Can you perhaps provide an example that illustrates the relevant difference(s) between these two nations?
In truth, I’ve never felt very Indonesian when I was growing up. Being of Chinese or East Asian descent, I was actually made fun of a lot. It didn’t help that I didn’t know any Chinese customs, such as the food and what not. I may look Chinese, but I’ve never felt like one, so it felt like I had two communities I never fitted into.
For a youngster, that can’t have been all that fun…
I always felt like an outsider when I was in Indonesia. And when I got to the States, I was the immigrant who looks Chinese, with an Indonesian name and citizenship, who doesn’t speak Chinese, so that was rather confusing for a lot of people. I also spoke English with an American accent, so yeah.
Was it a problem in the United States, though?
Many people also think that America is this beacon of freedom and acceptance, but honestly they try to box people from different ethnicities here, too. So I guess, to answer your original question, my development as a filmmaker with this ‘alternative’ point-of-view stems from being an outsider in both countries.
How do you fit as a filmmaker in the American landscape? I read an interview with Faglandia where you mentioned once being the only non-white on stage during a Q&A session of your film. Is your ethnicity or nationality (assuming that you’re still Indonesian; my apologies if that’s not the case) something that affects people’s perspective on you or your films?
You ask such tough questions! But the real answer to this question is that I really don’t know. The Asian-American landscape is in a tricky position. On one hand, we are considered to be a model minority, which affords us certain privileges that other minorities here, like African Americans and Latinos, don’t get. For example, I don’t have to worry when I walk out in the streets about police brutality.
At the same time, the misconception of Asians as being feminine and weak can definitely be a hindrance in the way we are treated in the media. There seems to be an erasure of experiences and history when it comes to Asian Americans here, and that’s very unfortunate.
I suspect in this case, adding another layer only enhances that isolation.
As a gay man, I’m already a minority within the very bro-ey ‘masculine’ American culture, but as a gaysian, I feel like a minority of minorities. Like I said before, how many Gaysian American films have we seen in the last five years? Probably just a small handful, at most. I think the less you see of yourself on screen, the more invalidating your experiences can be, so I’ve really been trying to put more Asians on screen, even though I don’t necessarily fit the mold as a filmmaker.
When it comes to the film industry, in general Indonesia has a relatively thriving scene, especially if compared to a lot of its neighbours. What is your perspective on Indonesian cinema?
Prior to coming back to Indonesia and doing ‘Pria’, I honestly didn’t know much of Indonesia’s film industry. However, what I can say now is that, aside from the mainstream romantic comedies and horror films produced, there is a lot of exciting filmmakers like Edwin (who directed ‘Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly’), Joko Anwar and Mouly Surya, who are making exciting and challenging stuff.
Since you mentioned Edwin, officially at least, Babibuta Film is a partner of yours in this endeavour. What kind of support did you receive from them?
I can say firmly that without Babibuta Film, we would not have been able to make this film. When I got there, I know literally nothing and no one from the Indonesian film industry. When Babibuta came on board to be our co-producers, that’s when I got introduced to my fantastic team, which includes my assistant director Tumpal Tampubolon (who is a fantastic screenwriter/director in his own right), my strong ass line producer Shirley Tamara, and Cristian Imanuell, my talent coordinator who is now a casting director for feature film. I am honestly indebted to them; in addition to the manpower, they supported and challenged me creatively, mentally and emotionally. What more can you ask for?
Because of how Chinese Indonesians and homosexuals are seen in Indonesia, is there any correlation we can make between these two minorities in how they’re represented on screen?
I think in general, representation within these communities tends to be very generalised and can border into the stereotypical. It’s kind of hard to find an honest portrayal of these minority experiences that aren’t preaching to the choir or, going to the other end of the spectrum, providing a glossy view of such an experience.
Can you give us an example of this?
I can, but first I’ll give an example of what the end result should be. I think what’s great about Edwin’s films is that it offers a very specific experience that showcases the struggle of Chinese Indonesians, while at the same time not allowing the materials to be a ‘message film’. His films are about characters who happen to be Chinese Indonesians, trying to navigate their way in a society that sees them as ‘the other’.
Is this reflected in gay films as well?
When it comes to gay films involving minorities, I find that it tends to be way too general. For example, I saw this film called ‘Naz and Malik’ about gay black Muslim teens living in post 9/11 America, and I felt that the treatment of their experiences to be very reductive: that is, they’re Muslims so they’re “obviously” suppressed, and there’s a white Federal Bureau of Investigation agent who is investigating them because she thinks that they’re terrorists, and all that stuff. It’s a very black and white (pun not intended) film, when with everything, especially the intersection between these conflicting identities; there are always gray areas. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, like Andrew Ahn’s ‘Spa Night’, but by and large, there are plenty of disappointments.
I once wrote that you, as a storyteller, “treats issues of love, matters of the heart, and desires of the body as only and exactly that.” What has the reception from other people been like to your films? Do a lot of them get hung up on the more outer layers, perhaps stopping only at the films’ representations of sexuality and such?
I read some of the reviews about ‘Midnights with Adam’, and either people really liked it and understood it… or completely missed the point. I think the biggest thing people were hung up over was how mopey the character was and how he’s falling in love with this white saviour character.
Ah. I didn’t quite see that, actually.
Well, what I can say was that I was imagining the character as having depression, and I think once you’re in that state, you tend to feel isolated and mopey, I suppose. As for the white saviour bit, like you I can say that I wasn’t even thinking about that. When we were auditioning the actors, it was narrowed down between Ben Whalen and Ryan Tsang (who ended up being in ‘After Hours’), and I remembered Alicia [Goff] really wanted Ryan for her film. After an arduous argument, we decided that Ryan was the better actor for what Alicia had envisioned in her film, and so I decided to go with Ben.
Of course, because gaysians are seldom represented truthfully in the media, I understand where people’s frustrations were coming from. For my part, I think I took that criticism to heart. But in general, I actually don’t mind being labeled as a queer filmmaker. I wear that badge with honor. I hope that people can get beyond that, of course, but I don’t think it’s something to be ashamed of.
How much do these representations mirror your own experiences?
As a gay person, an Asian-American immigrant, and an Indonesian, I mentioned before that people tend to like to box me within one of these categories. But, again, unlike in the stereotypical films, I feel like an amalgamation of these intersectional identities. I’m not just one or the other, but all of these different identities combined. To define me within just one identity is reductive, because it doesn’t encapsulate my experiences embodying all of them.
At the time of this interview, I’m currently attending the Frameline Film Festival in San Francisco, which is the oldest and arguably the biggest LGBT film festival in the world. And I was at the centerpiece party the other day, and realised how the majority of the people here are white men, so that says something about who gets to create what and what things are normalised and validated. It’s funny how Asia contains more than half of the world, but how many gay Asian films are shown at these things?
It’s a good question. In terms of sharing your stories, the starting point is the writing, and I am curious about your creative process. Is it something that comes largely from you, or is there a more collaborative element involved here with other cast or crew members?
I can fully admit that I hate writing! So I think with most of the things I’ve done, I work with co-writers. In general, each of the projects I’ve done spoke to me in some way or form. Whether it was navigating a one-night stand (‘Inbetween Nights’), figuring out what to do after coming out (‘Midnights with Adam’), or wanting to see what it’s be like to have a teenager (‘Pipe Dream’), I have a connection to everything that I’ve done. Of course, I’m not a one-man band and honestly, I never really believed in the auteur theory. In fact, I think it can be quite dangerous. Though you need to have your own perspective, you’re only really as good as your cast and crew members.
I have to say that while you have other films that are probably more well-received and well-known, I want to start with one of my favourites, ‘Inbetween Nights’. It’s a very simple setup, with minimal characters and such; in fact, I feel like the film could have been a classroom exercise of sorts. Yet as a short film, it works incredibly well because it captures a very unique sense of intimacy. I would like to know more about this film, and what the process of making it was like for you.
The film was indeed a classroom exercise! We had a production class in my undergraduate days. It was a series of three classes you take in your last year of film studies degree. I think the idea was that after analysing and watching all these films, now it’s our turn to make something. It was pretty loose. But my teacher wanted us to only have 10 lines of dialogue, I think the film has maybe five or so? Looking back on it, I probably should’ve cut out all the dialogue. It would’ve been subtler!
It would have been, yes! What was it that inspired the story, though?
I wanted to do something about one-night-stands for a while and I was really a fan of Rachelle Rose Clark, who was in the theater department in my university. I wrote the part especially for her. It was my first time doing handheld camerawork, and doing something that is thin on plot, so the mood and, as you said, this sense of intimacy was very important to capture.
You ended working with this style a fair amount.
I loved working with that style so much so that I expanded it with ‘Midnights with Adam’ a year later. Many people don’t know this, but the characters of Annie and Ryan from ‘After Hours’ and ‘Midnights with Adam’ are actually the same people from ‘Inbetween Nights’. I think we made references to their one-night-stand encounter in both films. It just so happened that when we were in production of both films, Rachelle was unavailable, so we ended up recasting both parts. But if you ever wondered what happened to them, just watch those two films! Also on that random note, ‘Heart & Soles’ is technically a sequel to ‘Midnights with Adam’.
What was the most difficult part of directing this film?
I think the hardest thing with ‘Inbetween Nights’ is definitely the long sex scene at the beginning. Obviously we didn’t want to make it gratuitous, and at the same time we had to have all these beats embedded in the scene. Otherwise, there was no point of showing a sex scene. I think we had to practice a few times and it was my first time doing a sex scene, and it was also Rachelle’s first on screen role, so we had a lot of pressure to get it right. I’m still surprised that she trusted me! But, we had a closed set and made sure that there was a woman present on set as well. I think it turned out well.
I would agree. The same goes for ‘Midnights with Adam’, which is a lot longer than most of your films thus far. Was there a big shift in your directing mentality that you had to make in making that jump? The story, which concerned a young man grappling with ideas of sexuality and love, was also very frank and direct. Many of your other films, like Lilies and the aforementioned ‘Inbetween Nights’, was subtler. What precipitated this shift between the films?
As I mentioned earlier, after ‘Inbetween Nights’, I wanted to expand on this type of mood piece film, but doing so through a character with more complex internal crisis. I really wanted you to be there, to feel how alone and left out you can be, even amongst your friends who have ‘accepted’ you after coming out.
At the time, people were making coming out films, but no one really talks about what happens after. What happens when you still don’t feel like you fit in because you can’t relate to anything or anyone around you? I felt like it was an important thing to explore, and I haven’t made any films dealing specifically with sexuality and identity. I may have had queer characters, but their sexuality was never front and center, so I took this opportunity to tackle this topic head on. At the time, I felt like the best approach would be seeing this whole movie through the perspective of the main character. I had hoped that you felt everything that he felt the whole way through: the angst, the loneliness, the pain, the confusion and such.
Part two of our interview will be continued next week. We previously wrote about Yudho’s films here. His latest film, ‘Pria’, is currently making the festival round. You can find out more about the film at its official website. Alternatively, you can follow the film’s progress on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and you can watch his films on Vimeo and Viddsee.
Featured image credit: Medical Media Training