Clippings: ‘After the Curfew’ – Restoring the Past, Saving the Future

by Reno NismaraDec 18, 2020

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Actor A. N. Alcaff (right) acts as Iskandar, a young man who has just left the army, in After the Curfew.

Welcome to Clippings, a column dedicated to republishing old articles that hold relevance with current events. For the first edition, we have an article by Reno Nismara about the restoration of a classic Indonesian film titled Lewat Djam Malam (or: After the Curfew) — recently announced as the first Indonesian film chosen for release by Criterion Collection, under Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project initiative. This article was first published in Rolling Stone Indonesia in 2012.

The Usmar Ismail Film Centre in Jakarta looked very alive on the night of June 18, 2012. The clock was ticking towards the final hours of the day, on a dreaded Monday night no less, but that didn’t dim the excitement of the people that showed up at the centre, all hoping to witness a historic event.

Smiles were worn all around, a sense of pride washing through everyone in attendance, many of them significant figures from the Indonesian film industry.

The source of their excitement is due to the iconic 1954 picture After the Curfew, directed by Indonesia’s father of cinema Usmar Ismail, premiering in Indonesia with its newly restored form, at the centre that bore Ismail’s name since 1975, for the very first time.

The restoration of old Indonesian films is something that is highly anticipated by Indonesian cinephiles. Many want to map out the history of Indonesian cinema, others want to have a glance at the depiction of old timey Indonesian culture, some are simply curious about it. If other countries have their own “Citizen Kanes“, Indonesia is another case.

Sinematek Indonesia, the institution responsible for preserving Indonesian films, is known to be in a state of disrepair, making the restoration of old films very difficult. It is recognized as Southeast Asia’s first film archive, but years of neglect and non-existent funding have left the institution powerless in carrying out their job of restoring old Indonesian films back
from the dead.

Lisabona Rahman, one of the members of After the Curfew’s restoration team and also a noted film journalist and manager of the Kineforum Arts Council of Jakarta, mentioned in one of her recent essays that watching an old Indonesian film is both a wonderful and painful experience. “Whenever we watch one of those old reels, we are watching these masterpieces of Indonesian cinema in its damaged form: incomplete scenes, very visible scratches and unclear sound, if any. How envious am I of those who watched these films in the era that they were released, when the quality was still pristine and the sound beautiful and intact,” she wrote.

Sinematek stores its collection of old Indonesian celluloid reels in the basement of the Usmar Ismail Film Centre, where it operates. Up to four employees are tasked with the preservation of these reels, spending most of their time in a large, climate-controlled room filled with shelves of
classic Indonesian masterpieces. Upon a visit to the centre, Arie Kartikasari, a writer for FilmIndonesia.or.id, found out that its employees can work on two to three films a day, depending on how long the reels are. With limited staff and old, ineffective tools, coupled with the decaying state of the storage facility itself, the process of restoring Sinematek’s whole collection can take up to two years.

Sinematek currently stores 414 titles made up of 84 negatives, 17 black and white titles in the 16mm format, 58 colour titles in 16mm, 53 black and white titles in 35mm and 235 colour titles in 35 mm. There are also 313 additional, documentation titles in celluloid format. The collection may be meagre — only 14% of the nation’s overall film output — but that doesn’t make the numbers definite.

Many units in the collection are in terrible condition: 37 of 84 negative copies are incomplete, the entire 16mm black and white collection are unable to be shown due to decay, 8 coloured 16mm titles have sustained light damage, 23 black and white 35mm titles are unplayable due to extensive damage (10 of those titles have parts missing), 9 of the 235 35mm coloured titles are also unplayable due to damage and 36 coloured titles in 35mm that are playable show light damage.

But enough about these dismal numbers. Let us return to the successful restoration of After the Curfew that has returned the film’s glorious qualities back to where it should be.

“It all started from friendship,” said senior film critic JB Kristanto, or Kris, who acted as an advisor to the film’s restoration project. In 2010, notable Singaporean film critic Philip Cheah, along with Kris, collaborated on a project with Konfiden (Independent Film Community) Foundation and the National Museum of Singapore to translate Katalog Film Indonesia (or: Indonesian Film Catalogue), a 400-page book that lists and details many Indonesian films, to English in order to attract wider audience. Along the way, Cheah suggested to Kris that they should hold a screening of a restored Indonesian film at one of the events relating to the translated book’s launch. Cheah asked for a suggestion on which film should be screened in its restored form and Kris immediately knew the perfect choice: After the Curfew.

The reason Kris chose the film is a simple one. He explained, “I have no personal or special connection with the film itself. It is solely because I believe After the Curfew is the best Indonesian film that I have ever seen. Nothing else comes close.”

Despite his reason, Kris does not consider After the Curfew to be a “perfect” film. For him, the ending could be better. “But a film is not judged solely by how it ends. Considering all of the aspects, this is the best Indonesian film of all time,” says the Yasujiro Ozu fan.

When hearing about this decision, Lisabona Rahman admitted it wasn’t a surprise that Kris, her senior, ended up choosing the film. “For a long time I was already aware that After the Curfew will be Kris’ choice. The decision to go with this film was right,” she said in a separate interview.

Kris does not remember exactly when he saw After the Curfew for the first time. “Maybe in the ’90s when I was assembling the [Indonesian Film Catalogue] book,” he says. “But I remember
asking myself, ‘Why hasn’t there been an Indonesian film as good as this?'”

Lisa’s first viewing of the film was in 2007 during an event which celebrated screenwriter Asrul Sani, who wrote the screenplay for After the Curfew. “I was drawn to Asrul Sani first before Usmar Ismail,” she explained, before revealing that the first time she watched the film was
through a VHS tape that had bad quality.

After deciding on a film, Cheah forged a partnership with Konfiden and the Kineforum Arts Council Jakarta to evaluate the condition of the film’s
negatives at Sinematek. At the same time, the National Museum of Singapore contacted L’Immagine Ritrovata, a film restoration lab in Bologna, Italy to help with the examination of After the Curfew. The lab is responsible for the restoration of films such as Federico Fellini’s classic La Dolce Vita.

With the blessing from Usmar Ismail’s family, the film’s restoration process finally began. The process took around seven months and more than 2,500 hours of digital reparation. The original negatives and soundtrack for After the Curfew were intact but many parts of the reel were in worrying shape due to years of improper handling.

In March 2012, the World Cinema Foundation, formed by Martin Scorsese, joined the project to help fund the restoration. “A film in the calibre of After the Curfew should be seen and appreciated by as many people as possible around the world. I believe that our organization holds the same vision regarding the importance of restoring films and we hope that we can reach equal agreement regarding work on this film,” Douglas Liable, the Operational Director of World Cinema Foundation, said in a press release regarding After the Curfew’s restoration.

A restored copy of After the Curfew, albeit only 90% at that time, was finally screened at the National Museum of Singapore on March 28, 2012. The film served as the opener for the Merdeka! (or: Independence!) program at the museum, which also screened two other films by Usmar Ismail and another three by Garin Nugroho.

The rest of the world became aware of After the Curfew when it was screened at the Cannes Film Festival during its Cannes Classics program, which features restored classic films. Films that have been screened at this program include Sergio Leone’s thrilling western Once Upon a Time in America (with 25 minutes of additional footage), Roman Polanski’s Tess, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia.

Lisa, one of the delegation representing After the Curfew at the festival, said that 300 people showed up to watch the film. “The audience at Cannes are not your typical audience. They know what they like, and if they don’t like what they see, they easily move on. More than 80% of the audience for After the Curfew stayed and they applauded at the end. Prominent cinema figures such as Alexander Payne and senior French critic Pierre Rissient spoke highly of the film,” she recalled.

News of the positive response to the film at Cannes reached Indonesia quickly. It is no wonder that its debut screening in Indonesia attracted unanimous praise from over 200 guests. As of writing, After the Curfew has been watched by 2,800 viewers during a touring campaign that saw the film get shown at Indonesia’s major cinema chains 21Cineplex and Blitz Megaplex. Lisa responds to this result with pride: “Those of us who worked on the restoration of the film did not anticipate it would be shown at major theatres and receive such a positive response. Those who worked on the restoration outside of Indonesia were impressed at our efforts to tour the film around major cinema.”

Of course, the initial screening in Indonesia was not without its share of unpleasant moments. Many of the guests that turned up voiced their opinions regarding the fact that restoration had to be done outside of Indonesia, with much of the vitriol aimed at the government’s neglect in preserving the country’s collection of films. The attending Director General for Cultural Arts and Film Affairs, Ukus Kuswara, and Deputy Minister of Education and Culture for Cultural Affairs, Wiendu Nuryanti, received most of the hostility. “Long live Singapore!,” one shouted. “Now do you promise to support [the film industry]?,” another yelled, both during Wiendu’s speech that night.

However, Kris welcomed that kind of response towards the government. “Our friends in Singapore were astonished at the fact that our government figures received that kind of hostility. But I believe that they deserve it. We didn’t ask for any help from the government. In fact, the whole screening event at Usmar Ismail, we paid for that ourselves,” Kris said, before pointing out that Philip Cheah was the most instrumental figure in getting the film restored.

While Kris stops short of admitting that After the Curfew is a perfect film, that didn’t stop Lisa in saying that the film was the perfect choice for restoration. “This film was produced using minimal production facilities at that time, tied with big dreams of speaking to the world through the universal language of film about the trauma of war and the struggles of beginning life as a new country. The script was well-written, the direction precise, the actors wonderful, the art direction superb, and the music captivating and original. After the Curfew is said to be the beginning of a new wave in Indonesian cinema where filmmakers became more daring to explore what it means to really be Indonesian,” she explained.

Lisa’s words confirmed what Kris had previously said about Usmar Ismail; that the man was the first Indonesian director that used film as a medium of expression without the interference of producers or, more remarkably, the person who set the aesthetic milestone for Indonesian films.

Adding his praise for the director, Kris said that Usmar Ismail — born 91 years ago in Bukittinggi — has proven to be an artist who was very capable of understanding the two core values of Western thinking, logic and reason, and processed that into his work. He stated, “Many Indonesians may have Ph.Ds from the United States or Europe, but most of them are incapable of understanding [Western thought] the way Usmar did.”

“Usmar was a director who tended to move away from ‘Indonesian’ thinking. The themes shown on After the Curfew are commonly found in Indonesian literature but are absent in films. Indonesian war films, such as Tjoet Nja’ Dhien, tend to romanticize heroism but in After the Curfew, he showed the uglier side of war,” he added.

The idea behind After the Curfew itself first came when Djamaluddin Malik of the Indonesian Artists Collective (Persari) and Usmar Ismail, himself of the National Film Association of Indonesia (Perfini), attended a film producers conference in Japan in 1953. At the event, both men found out that the Asian Film Festival will be held the very next year in Tokyo. Djamal, as Djamaluddin Malik was affectionately called, wanted Indonesia to participate but the problem was the country did not have any films to submit. Usmar, who by the time had gained two years of film education from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), was asked to make a film for the festival. He was assigned to work with screenwriter Asrul Sani; a partnership would later become acrimonious due to varying opinions on censorship. Asrul wanted to fall in line, while Usmar did not.

However, After the Curfew, which was made on a budget of only Rp300,000 (over Rp2,500,000 as of 2012), failed to participate in the festival due to restrictions from the government, who obviously had political agendas behind the decision. Due to this, Djamal would later establish the first Indonesian Film Festival in 1955, where After the Curfew would win four awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (A.N. Alcaff), Best Actress (Dhalia), and Best Supporting Actor (Bambang Hermanto).

Today, we can say that one of Indonesia’s many cultural treasures has been rescued from the dead. We can only hope that this is the first sign of more to come. There are still countless celluloid reels of Indonesian cinema stored at Sinematek, gathering dust and fungi as we speak. Through the restoration of After the Curfew, Kris hopes that Sinematek will be saved and finally taken care of as well. “Without proper understanding of our cultural artifacts, Indonesian art will never develop as it should,” he said. “A part of our past, and also our future, lives in that basement.”

About the Author

Reno Nismara
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The six stitches on his head made him believe that the world is full of sharp edges. Co-founder of the creative collective Studiorama, as well as vocalist and tambourine shaker for a band called Crayola Eyes.
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