Questioning the Viewership Culture with Eric Sasono

16—11—2021
Interview

Eric Sasono is one of the founders of the Indonesian Film Society, London, which organizes regular screenings of Indonesian films in London. He completed his doctoral education in film studies at King’s College, London, and was a member of the supervisory board of the Indonesia Documentary Film Center or InDocs (2009-2019) and JIFFest (2009-2011). He became the international advisory board of the Asia Film Award, Hong Kong (2010-2014). He is currently completing a book on Islamic films in Indonesia from 1960 to 2018.

He has been involved in FFD several times. This year, he became one of the judges in the International Long category competition, as well as a speaker in the DocTalk Online Platform and FFD Watch Disruption 2020.

Eric shared many of his perspectives on competition films that he values to the viewership culture in today’s era on Wednesday (December 9, 2020).

 

How can a documentary be able to influence the audience’s position as part of social life?

The problem is asking about his position in social and political life. But not all documentaries are intended to create advocacy or opinions that want such an audience. Maybe in certain films, such as Aswang (2019), there is an immediate aspect so the audience can react to such extrajudicial political violence. But when it comes to films like Tender (2019), even if it’s fiction or documentary, we can’t tell the difference and it’s not important. It was intended that way by the filmmaker who did more cinematic questions in my opinion. The concept of memory, remembrance, past, present; those kinds of things that also exist in fiction.

 

In this era of disruption, the presence of new media makes watching options very diverse. People also now have their own preferences. Responding to this kind of cinema culture, how do you respond? What is the point of the disruption itself, according to Mas Eric?

However, watching movies collectively is still as important as digital distribution and exhibition in my opinion. Even though there are new media facilities. It is evident that people still want to go to the movies. Because the cinema is people-watching together, in a dark room, in a special situation. That’s something you can’t get from just watching alone on a laptop. For example, we often laugh at something that might not be so funny if we watched it alone. But in the cinema, it’s even funnier because other audience members laugh. That’s the affective aspect. Our body’s response is influenced by the atmosphere around us. That’s something that cannot be replaced by individual digital watching methods.

Thus, what actually happened was the diversification of watching models. What makes the difference, perhaps, is that there are now more and more models of watching digitally via personal devices, doing it yourself in their homes. Usually, there will be a tendency for people watching to share on social media. It actually wants to build a collective as well, looking for affirmations, looking for solidarity in watching if he feels moved by the spectacle, or simply wants to be part of a larger fandom. It is inevitable that watching movies is partly collective. So it can’t be said that people are simply moving away from digital forms of technology, such as streaming and various devices, making watching an individual matter.

 

Associated with today’s viewership culture, films are easily available at affordable prices. Do you see any other issues that have arisen regarding viewing accessibility?

Regarding access, we actually live in a different era. In the past, let’s say twenty or thirty years ago, we lived in the age of scarcity, a time when things were rare. So we try to search, find, even collect.

Now is the age of abundance, where everything is abundant. Information, watching recommendations, facilities, and so on. But if we look at it only that, there is a bias. That not everyone has equal access to it all. There is a digital divide: differences in the ability to access infrastructure, as well as watching time which is part of leisure time management. Not all use spare time to watch.

All of these are factors that affect the abundance of supplies. What is clear is that with that much access, recommendations become more important. Things that have been the benchmark can be changed. For example, so far people rely on familiarity which is basically a genre.

People are familiar with the genre of action, horror, and others. Now people are thinking differently, choosing recommendations based on algorithms or friends’ recommendations. It has happened in music with the existence of a playlist, we are not looking for a particular band but following a certain playlist which determines the pattern of the industry now. This changes people’s preferences, sales preferences, musician preferences, and even affects aesthetics.

It’s the same in movies. For example, how genres change. People no longer follow whether this is fiction, action, or what genre is this; it’s so loose now. Even though it used to be such an important thing, its definition was so strict. So when we talk about access and audience, we’re still talking about that.

 

How about access for persons with disabilities?

When talking to people who have different body functions, I think that’s another factor. The method also doesn’t exist until now, it hasn’t become something that is considered to be part of the aesthetics of production. People still make films with the assumption that humans can hear and see, only to be equipped with something different. With the assumption, humans can still walk to the movies. The assumptions are also still mainstream assumptions used in production.

We can’t talk about improving access until this minor assumption is incorporated into the production. This means that there are films made for people who can see, there are films made for people who can’t hear, there are none (until now).

 

Do you have any important notes about the fate of films, especially documentaries in the midst of situations like now and in the future?

This phenomenon is still fresh. We are still seeing the existing online platforms. How are these patterns and how they are overwhelmed by the explosion of the visitors and programming during a pandemic like this. For example, Viddsee is overwhelmed with festival apps. Festival Scope suddenly blasted to create a festival with them with the apps. This online platform is experiencing such a thing. Finally, I think it will be more stable in the future in doing the long tail, as Chris Anderson said.

He extended the distribution, the age of the film. But has the culture changed? Or how far will he go on? Still very much determined by many things related to the pandemic. Not only by the viewership culture itself, but also part of the travel culture, health-related policies, and so on.

Now that cinemas have started to open, people are starting to come, but people are very careful when watching. In my opinion, while the number of infections is still in the thousands, it still happens. Actually, there are alternative efforts such as drive-in, or for example cinema in a tent. But you could say it hasn’t worked because the sound quality is far away. So in the end, people are still online.

It’s also like I said earlier, that not everyone has free time to watch. And this makes it even more difficult because it is easier for people to switch options. Unlike people who intend to go to the cinema, buy tickets. That’s the protocol is going out protocol. There is a procedure for watching which is lived as a ritual. I don’t think the ritual has returned any time soon. The habit of watching cannot build such a powerful ritual. That’s what I think still needs to be reformulated in the future.

 

What is a strong story look like?

Aswang (2019) is a strong story in my opinion, also Nan (2019) and La Vida en Común (2019). I just imagine, for example, Yu Gong (2020), it’s very sketchy. About the entry of China in Africa, he collected footage from various countries, interviewed, and made a mythological and poetic impression by repeating the story about Yu Gong. I think he tells about something over and over again without any progression to the story. It contained the astonishment of German Europeans at the entry of China into Africa. That was 40-50 years ago when we were all amazed by the Europeans coming into Asia. Now he’s the one who’s surprised. Cliché.

His eyes still thought that it was normal for Europe to go there, whereas China should be questioned. I think that’s a view that still reeks of colonialism. That’s postcolonial criticism related to it.

His eyes still thought that it was normal for Europe to go there, whereas China should be doubted. I think that’s a view that still reeks of colonialism. That’s postcolonial criticism related to it.

Or for example, the Spanish film Malditos (2020). I imagine the film is just like Big Brother (2018). If there is no film, there will be no event. All arranged for cinematic purposes. Finally, the conflict is made in such a way that the background story is made. I don’t think he’s fair to dance. The dance which is the main part of the show was edited for narrative purposes in such a way that it was not fun to watch the dance. Or not even make any impression; all for narrative purposes. For me, it’s a thin story. Visually the story is also mediocre, thematically there is nothing new, not immediate at all.

In contrast, Aswang (2018) is very immediate, extrajudicial killing, and describes the meaning of fear for a nation. How to fight that fear together, could it be done? Those are all very important questions because they relate to real things every day. That’s something that I think is very immediate to tell. We, anywhere in the world, can relate.

Moreover, documentaries such as those mentioned as social beings when watching, indeed at times like that we think too. For example, in the context of Indonesia, what is it like, how does it relate to extrajudicial killing, or whatever. It’s similar to 1983 when it was done in Indonesia against criminals.

 

How do you see the progress of FFD? What is commendable and what needs to be re-discussed?

In the past, there was always the impression of conceding when things didn’t go smoothly in FFD. Because this was a community activity, a student activity. This is approved by the executant and founders of FFD. This is a place to learn, it’s okay to be wrong. Such an ethos exists.

Now, I see it has decreased a lot since I went there in 2016. In fact, since 2012, it has been seen that FFD has won so much trust from the film community. Since 2002 it was first formed until ten years later in 2012, the event was rather large until there were outdoor exhibitions.

Then in 2016, the involvement of fine arts to design merchandise. It’s all very different from the 2009 FFD, when I was a judge. Although the community spirit is still there. This means that this is a community-based festival which, in my opinion, has gained considerable trust from the film community, not only in Indonesia. Because there is always an international jury. Then there are Southeast Asian and Asian filmmakers who are looking at FFD.

FFD is quite a prestigious place to follow. When you arrive, you can feel the community atmosphere, the festive atmosphere is felt. Because we are quite centralized in its location. That’s one of the advantages of a film festival in Jogja, the atmosphere is a communal atmosphere that is relatively centered in Societet Militaire (Yogyakarta Cultural Park) continues to spread around. That’s very profitable.

Moreover, I heard this year until there were 200 submissions for international. That’s amazing in my opinion, very extraordinary. Because there are more productions, some of the films that have entered the big festivals have been submitted again. This is a sign of the progress of the festival. That people are starting to want an international premiere there, in my opinion, just reach there, FFD.

 

Did we have to get used to this kind of online screening?

Yes, this is a real opportunity. Although, people don’t have to watch the full movie. But at least much more than usual when offline. Now not only Jogja, but Jakarta, Manado, Pekanbaru, Medan can also watch. It was acknowledged by Akbar Rafsanjani from Aceh Menonton, that now his job is to hunt for films. Even though all this time, if he was in Aceh, he couldn’t go anywhere to watch the festival.

Written by Dina Tri Wijayanti

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