Into The Unknown – Yudho Aditya (part 2)

In the second and final part of our talk with Yudho Aditya, we discuss the rest of his extensive filmography, the challenges he faced in bringing ‘Pria’ to life, and what’s next for the prolific filmmaker

As we’re talking about subtlety, the communication in ‘Lilies’ was so subtle there was barely any dialogue in it (certainly not between the main characters). In trying something similar in the past, I find myself having to be more vocal as the camera itself was rolling, literally (and ironically) directing with my voice for a film in which my actors wouldn’t use theirs. I wonder what this process was like for you for ‘Lilies’.
‘Lilies’ was technically my first semester project at Columbia. To be honest for that one, I wanted to do something cheap since we only have a $500 cap and a limited timeframe.  At the time I also ended a relationship with someone, and what I was feeling was still fresh on my mind, so I ended up going with a film that had no dialogue. This is to avoid the hassle of on-set sound, and something less structured that deals with memory.

In terms of the process, in general I like working with my actors beforehand on their characters. On set, usually I don’t say much. I would just adjust their performances as need be, and let them do whatever feels natural. I don’t remember having to direct them while we’re doing a take, but maybe I’d say stuff like, “move closer to the window,” or “don’t run too fast”; it was more so on the blocking than the actual performances.

‘Lilies’, ‘Missed’ and ‘Heights’ featured female protagonists. I must admit that, in watching your films, it struck me how comfortable you are going to and fro between the different genders. What kind of preparation did you do in directing these films that is different from a more male-centric film (like, say, ‘Midnights with Adam’)?
I actually never thought about that! In trying to explore a material, I tend to find experiences in these characters that I can empathise with, even though they come from different backgrounds.  I’d like to think that every human being at their core is the same, so once you get past the gender or racial signifiers, it’s pretty easy.  But of course, gender and race are big parts of everyone’s identities, so if I’m representing a person with such different life experiences and backgrounds, I’d definitely would do as much research as possible so I don’t generalise and reduce their experiences.

The film was yet another collaboration with Alicia Goff. What is the creative process between the two of you like?
I mean in addition to being my collaborator, Alicia is also a good friend, so it’s always so fun and freeing when working with her.  Like all of my collaborations that have worked well, I think we’re supportive of and trust each other with our different processes, so that we’re not really confined or censored when we are discussing the material.

However, for ‘Pria’, I notice her name was not featured as in as major a role as your previous productions. Talk to us what the differences are in working with this crew, with someone like Barbarra Cigrarroa and Valerie Martinez, perhaps, relative to your previous crew members.
With ‘Pria’, I think almost every single person I worked with (other than Jessica Yeh, my co-editor) were all people I’ve never worked with before. I must say that much of the heavy lifting comes from the Indonesian crew and from Babibuta Film.  I remembered though, that when I was first introduced to them, I was rather nervous because they were all established filmmakers. My aforementioned assistant director, Tumpal, won the Festival Film Indonesia award for Best Original Screenplay in 2014 for ‘Tabula Rasa’. At the same time, Meiske Taurisia is also one of the creative forces behind Babibuta Film, and I admire and respect these people so much.

With this particular working relationship, I knew that by going there I had to prove myself, so I really worked my ass off and didn’t take anything for granted. With Barbara and Valerie, they are my classmates at Columbia, so we all are a bit more familiar with each other, knowing what kinds of stuff we can do.  All in all, you just need to trust your team, which can be hard to do. I’m a director but I’m not an expert at editing, cinematography or writing, for instance. So I trust the people that are heading these departments. They’re experts in their particular fields, and as I mentioned before, I’m only as good as my cast and crew allow me to be.

In making the film, it’s not only the cast and crew that you had to get used to. In an interview with Faglandia, you mentioned how certain queer organisations did not take you that seriously (if at all) because you were seen as an outsider, even in this context. What kind of challenge did it throw up in terms of researching for ‘Pria’?
First off, I’d like to clarify my comments a bit. I reached out to a lot of organisations, at least ones I can find online and on a list that was given to me by Indonesian LGBT activist, Dede Oetomo. I emailed all of them and most didn’t reply. I completely understand, though, because these are really small organisations with small manpower.  But in the general context of Indonesia, I’m definitely seen as an outsider.

As an aside, do you get the same treatment in the rest of Southeast Asia?
I think Indonesia is the only country I’ve been to in Asia where most people, upon just seeing me, would assume that I’m from another Asian country. When I go to Malaysia or Thailand or East Asia, they’d speak to me in their native tongue, assuming that I’m a local there. It also doesn’t help that I’ve pretty much forgotten my Bahasa Indonesia, and had to relearn it when I got back, so when I did get a hold of some of these people I contacted, they saw me as a tourist and wouldn’t take me that seriously, which was highly frustrating.

In terms of research, what did you do for the film? Did you interview others in a similar plight, for example?
I started with reading a few things to get the general idea of what’s going on there: Tom Boellstroff’s ‘The Gay Archipelago’, a paper by Ed Green on homosexuality in rural Indonesia and its implications for HIV education, and ‘Being LGBT in Asia: Indonesia’, a report done by United Nations Development Programme. Those gave me a basis and some historical context, after which I proceeded to interview people living in the villages through grassroots organisations like Rumah Cemara.

What was the most difficult part of this?
I think the hardest subjects to find were teenagers who identify as gay from rural Indonesia. I felt like I needed their perspective in order to be as accurate and honest as possible. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be able to meet a Fulbright scholar who was teaching in Indonesia and happened to have a gay student in his class. I visited the village and talked to the student, and he gave me access to this private Facebook group with gay teens. I basically interviewed anyone from there who was willing. So, everything that happened in the film were amalgamations of these kids’ real experiences.

That’s fascinating. I suppose in doing so, you had extra sensibilities or issues to consider.
Of course! That was a huge moral dilemma that I had to grapple with. For one, all my sources are confidential, and I made sure that they’re okay with me portraying their stories on screen. Second, in terms of the cast and crew, I had a long talk with the main cast and crew about this topic, especially with Chicco Kurniawan. I made sure that he knew what the repercussions would be, and he was still willing to take on this role.

Aside from that, we didn’t tell anyone what the film was actually about. In fact, we had a discussion early on for the actors to use their own Indonesian accent so that no one could pinpoint exactly where we shot. They’re all very brave and really believe in how important it is to tell this story, so I’m really grateful.

And of course, half the time, I also kept thinking about what gives me the right to tell this story, because it’s not my experience, and I figured that since I have this opportunity, I’m going to do it and do it from the perspective of these kids. I didn’t want to place my ‘Western’ ideals and judge the situation, because this whole thing isn’t just black and white, it’s so complex and systematic. What I saw in these kids were people who knew who they are, and were just confused about how to juggle these responsibilities to their community and religion, and their human desire to connect with people of the same sex.

I suppose in that case, the casting process for ‘Pria’ can’t have been easy. How much convincing did you have to do seal the deal with the actors, so to speak?
I mean, it was super, super hard. I knew early on that we had to have complete unknowns for all the younger kids. We had a casting director and we searched everywhere, clubs, bars, Grindr… I even stalked people on Instagram. It was long and arduous. Even when we find people who identify as being LGBTQ, they still don’t want to play a gay character. So, the options were pretty small. It was especially hard to cast for the character of Gita too, because I wanted someone who isn’t ‘conventionally’ beautiful. All the young actresses I got at the beginning were these petite girls and they just didn’t feel right.

When it comes to casting the teacher, I had my Columbia colleague, Julie O’Leary, search the UK for actors who had just graduated Royal Academy of Dramatic Art or London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. We ended up auditioning Jacob McCarthy via Skype, and he didn’t fly in until a few days before we shot, so he was such a trooper.

I can appreciate the logistics! For me, the actor playing Aris, Chicco Kurniawan, has a very delicate look, one that is fresh-faced yet deeply conflicted. I’m aware he was not your first choice, but I feel like he’s right for the role. Talk to us about your working process with him in creating Aris.
He’s definitely the right person for the role! Like I mentioned before, he was so bad in his audition, it’s a running joke we have throughout the production, and even to this day I still tease him about it. I don’t know how I knew, but I think you just kinda know when someone has it. It’s one of those things. I also knew that he was not experienced, so I made him watch so many films with ‘natural’ acting, like ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’, ‘Weekend’, and ‘The Way He Looks’, amongst others. Then, every day for two weeks before we started filming, I basically gave him acting lessons in addition to rehearsing the script with the rest of the cast (minus Jacob).

In a previous interview with Minji Kang (also an alumnus of Columbia), she talked about having a very collaborative relationship with her cast members. What kind of relationship did you have with your own actors in creating these characters?
I also have a very collaborative one with my actors. The way I work usually is that I would have a couple of takes where it’s by the script, and I’d give them two takes of improvisation. The majority of the scenes with Aris and his mom, where his mother asked him to draw, were improvised from rehearsal that I wrote into the script. Gita originally had only one line, but I loved working with Gladhys so much that we both expanded her role and gave her what ended up being one of my favorite scenes in the film.

I am aware that some of your personal experience may bleed unto the screen, influencing the story and character. How much of yourself do you project unto Aris?
A lot! I know that I may not completely be able to identify with the cultural and religious aspect of Aris, but I know exactly how it feels like to have to juggle different conflicting identities and not really fitting in within a particular community. I also know what it feels like not having your feelings validated and having to sacrifice some of your personal freedom to fulfill your responsibilities.  And of course, we’re both gaysians!

Ideas such as a horse’s tail and red rice appears to play a role in ideas related to sexuality. How real are these ideas? Do people actually use them in real life for these purposes?
All are real things! For the horse hair, people in parts of Java would go to these horse racing tournaments and buy the winning horse’s hair. Apparently, you would wrap the hair around the penis before intercourse, and it’s supposed to boost sexual pleasure for the woman and virility. It’s probably more common than you think! My production designer, Dita Gambiro, actually bought ours online! Apparently the demand is high enough that you can get it shipped. With the red rice, I can definitely vouch for that one myself because my own mom had done that to me a few times. With that though, the idea is to make you stronger and help you rid of any ‘impurities’.

The loneliness in ‘Lillies’ accentuated by the crickets of the night, the rain crashing down incessantly in ‘Pria’: how involved do you get in the sound design of your films? Is it something you partake in directly, or do you delegate to your sound designer?
I get pretty involved, but I also have really great sound designers. Julian Evans, who worked on ‘Pria’, really painstakingly tried to recreate the soundscape of that village.  He talked a lot with our on-set sound mixer, Tommy Fahrizal, who definitely went out of his way to record a lot of the sounds you hear. Julian also brought a sense of subjectivity to the soundscape. For example, the transitions between the marriage proposal and the school, and the way the music and Aris’ breath collided in the dancing scene… they were all Julian’s ideas. And of course, I couldn’t talk about the sound of the film without talking about the award-winning Zeke Khaseli and Yudhi Arfani’s awesome score. I remembered telling them that I wanted an orgasm to the ears at the end, and they definitely delivered.

In terms of making the film itself, can you share a moment that was particularly challenging?
I think the most challenging part was for sure the research. I knew that if I don’t have sources, I wouldn’t be able to make the film that I wanted to make. It took around four months of hard work and luck – living in Indonesia alone was pretty challenging at first – to find the right people.

There was this one time during one of my research trips, where I was stranded on the outskirts of Bandung, and I remembered being so scared and powerless that I just wanted to give up. But of course, that struggle wasn’t nearly as harrowing as some of the struggles that the people I’ve encountered had experienced. So, I really needed to check my damn privilege, and persevere. I think by the time we went to pre-production and had our four days of filming, I was so prepared that I just kinda went with it.

On the flipside, what was the best memory of making ‘Pria’?
It was one of the most pleasant experiences I had in my life, actually! I loved working with these peeps, and would do so again in a heartbeat! But my favorite moment from the set was when the gaffer, Ucok Michael, challenged me to basically take a bath nude in the river in the middle of the night. I think he thought that I’d be scared and would chicken out, like I was this spoiled American brat! But to his surprise, I said yes and he went to take me to this river that he had seen during the day. Only it turned out that he didn’t remember where it was! So we wandered through the jungle for quite a bit until we found the river. And when we got there, I literally just stripped naked and jumped in. After that, I keep telling everyone that Ucok and I had a romantic night together, skinny dipping in the river, much to his chagrin!

That was certainly of the beaten path! Getting back on track, ‘Pria’ was conceived as a thesis film for your master’s programme. What was the feedback provided by your classmates and professors?
‘Pria’ is actually conceived as the thesis film for my producer, Valerie Martinez – I have one more year of school left!

Ah, my apologies!
No worries. I was just a director for hire at the beginning – and of course it ended up being so much more than that. My thesis advisor, Tom Kalin, is always really hard on me. He just kept pushing me to do better – with the script, with the edit, and others. I’m sure he likes it and was very happy with the result, but during the process he would just say, “you can do better,” which I appreciated. I’d like to think that he believed in me enough that he won’t just shell out compliments for no reason.

Fair enough. Having followed your career for a bit, I feel like we’re reaching a particular apex in your journey. Is there a shift in your mentality on filmmaking or storytelling? I ask because for me personally, such a personal film felt like the end of one phase of my life (when I had been relatively prolific in making films), and my objectives shifted slightly to other things in other areas. Are you still keen on staying the course, making more of such short films in the near or foreseeable future, or is there a similar shift in your perspective now?
There’s a shift for sure. If anything, after doing this film I became more ‘woke’ in that now I see a lot of the injustices faced not only upon Asians within the larger community and how they are seen in the media, but also gaysians within the gay community, and especially in America. It hasn’t hit me that there are so few gaysian films coming from the States and beyond. I think from now on, I’m going to really push for accurate, complex and diverse representations of Asians.

To be honest, I’m also getting tired making shorts! They take a lot of time and money, and I realised that I’m not very fond of the short format in general.

I wouldn’t have guessed, actually!
Well, as you can tell, a lot of my films focus on multiple characters and tend to be a bit on the longer end.

Fair enough. What’s next for you?
A few things! I have a web series for ‘Pipe Dream’ in development, so fingers crossed that it will be greenlit! I also just co-wrote a comedic pilot about mental illness, and when I graduate next year, I’m hoping that I get to do a feature that focuses on the issue of intersecting identities and the power imbalance between white people and others (especially Asians) in America.

That’s it for now. Thank you very much, Yudho!
Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me!

You can read part one of our interview here. We previously wrote about Yudho’s films here. ‘Pria’ is currently making the festival round, and 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 other films on Vimeo and Viddsee

Featured image credit: Medical Media Training

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