When you walk through a metropolitan city in Indonesia, you will pass many hawker shops, street performers, and all kinds of people running their busy errands through the broken yet newly renovated pavements. I love to imagine their lives each time passing them. Everyone has a story to tell. Something unusual, strange, beautiful, or sometimes troubling narrative that characterizes us as humans.
As an incredibly communicative medium, film can immerse the rest of us in these stories, projecting tales that once seemed so disconnected from our daily lives to be right in front of us, unfolding as we watch them. This idea can bring a truly humbling experience to watching films, giving us a sense of perspective and widening our horizons on how people live our urban lives.
The traditional approach most often used to depict the complexities of urban life through film is realism. Understandably, some see that depicting life as realistically as possible can bring the audience a sense of familiarity. Where over-stylization is seen as something that brings a disconnect between the audience and the story they’re telling. However, I’m starting to doubt that idea is indeed accurate. Three out of six films selected at Indonesia Raja 2022 Jakarta Metropolitan, a short film program focusing on urban life, use a highly stylistic approach in telling their stories; animation.
I am a full supporter of the efforts of animators all over the world to change the way we look at animation. Animation had been seen as a medium only suitable for entertaining children and families. Just look at the most recent Academy Awards, for instance. When presenting the Oscar for Animated Feature, the three presenters brought up how animated films make up some of their most formative movie experiences as “kids” and how “so many kids watch these movies over and over”. What is particularly ironic is that one of the animated films nominated that year was Flee (2021), a memoir/documentary about Amin Nawabi, a closeted gay refugee from war-torn Afghanistan, a film we can all agree was not targeted at kids.
I find it obvious that animation is, in fact, a medium, not a genre. I feel that the three animated short films exhibited in this program effectively prove this statement. The programmer of Indonesia Raja 2022 Jakarta Metropolitan program, Nosa Normanda, uses the idea of urban life to thread a diverse selection of short films. By featuring animated short films in the program, he effectively proves how, as a medium, animation certainly has the same, if not more, potential as any other type of filmmaking, even when depicting the intricacies urban lives.
The three animated films selected in the program are Serpih (2021), Burn Out (2021), and Jambrong & Gondrong (2021). They were all made by animation students in Jakarta. Animation enriches these films in different ways. But the primary impression is that animation gives them more freedom in expressing urban life. This medium allows filmmakers to be imaginative without any cinematographic restraints of traditional live-action filmmaking. For example, some shots in Jambrong & Gondrong utilize the perspective of a mouse, dynamically following it run underneath parked scooters in a parking garage. These types of shots can be impossible to replicate in live-action. Even If there’s a way to train a mouse to show facial expressions and run in track with the camera, that would be a really silly thing to do.
Jambrong & Gondrong tells a relatively simple story incredibly well (I love it). Due to its comical characters, watching them banter, fight, and scold each other was remarkably entertaining. The director, Monica Wijaya, follows someone we often interact with when navigating life in the city; parking attendants. Animation in this film provides a unique and more engaging depiction of urban life. It allows the audience some familiarity with what they’ve seen in the city yet still having the opportunity to explore creatively through its style.
Serpih by director Rizky Adhitama Rosandi, which continues the topic of urban life, could not also be more uniquely Indonesian. Like Jambrong& Gondrong, Serpih illustrates the daily lives of people we so often encounter. But, this time, focusing on those who earn their living on the streets of a big city. The film examines the simple idea of what it means to live on the streets from the perspectives of its three principal characters: the little girl, the old woman, and the thug. These three perspectives highlight how poverty is a generational cycle. The social critique wonderfully wrapped in its 3D animation, creating a balance between sad and sweet. The use of narration throughout the film also adds a sense of simplicity and straightforwardness, showing a clear look for audiences who might not be familiar with the issue.
An interesting stylistic choice I found in Serpih, and another short film in the program called Burn Out is integrating different kinds of animation styles, namely 3D and 2D. For example, Serpih utilizes 2D versions of the characters in the flashback sequence, creating a visual distinction between the main storyline and the character’s thoughts. This concept fascinates me because flashbacks and dream sequences in live-action films are sometimes animated. I speculated that “thoughts and feelings” are frequently perceived as a reduction of reality and thus are depicted as animated (mostly 2D) rather than live-action. It’s interesting to see how this trend in live-action films has affected animated films, where 3D animation is perceived as a representation of reality and 2D animation as a reduced version of it.
Burn Out follows this trend with spectacular effects. The film switches gear from depicting a light-hearted young graphic designer with great ambition, into a surrealistic visualization of anxiety and feeling drained out through its beautiful yet haunting monochrome 2D animation. I remember watching this transition of styles and feeling quite surprised. It wasn’t what I expected. But I feel like this unexpectedness is why this film left a big impression on me. The filmmaker, Thelma I. Santoso, was not afraid to startle us. Because by giving us something sudden and unexpected, the gloomy hand-drawn animation felt even more horrifying, even more, when paired with the whimsical 3D animation that came before it. This film demonstrated the immense power and potential of great animation. How, as a medium, it could effectively communicate abstract emotions and thoughts.
With its unique approach and creativity, Burn Out is my personal highlight of the program. Rather than focusing on just the physical realities of city life, it also sheds focus on how living in a big city may affect you emotionally. This film could resonate to many people who work in the city, particularly those working in the creative industry. Focusing on the mental health of a visual artist, the film powerfully captures the fleeting pain of burning out, as if your body and mind become detached from one another. It delves deep into the idea of overworking and particularly how sometimes knowing when to stop is the best thing you can do. Creating an authentic portrayal of one’s abstract emotions and feelings must be incredibly tough. Let alone turning it into something so visually stunning and communicative. Burn Out, I believe, accomplishes this primarily due to its use of animation as its medium.
A more popular example of using animation in depicting the intricacies of urban life is the Pixar animated film Soul (2020). Just like what Burn Out did, Soul dwells on the emotional realities of living in a big city, with its protagonist struggling to find a balance between his big ambitions and appreciating life as it is. Another more experimental approach is Don Hertzfeldt’s It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), which tackles the uncomfortable and alienating mundanity of city routines through mental visualization of a man’s mental condition steadily deteriorating due to cancer.
Animation allows freshness and vast possibilities. Without the technical constraints of filming with a camera or shooting on location, it is like painting on a blank canvas; the possibilities are limitless. With this, animation allows us to portray abstract themes, allowing us to look inside ourselves as often as we look outside at the things that surround us. This, I believe, is where the power of animation lies. These three films, especially, show that animation could bring the audience closer to its story, showing point-of-views and visualizations you wouldn’t usually see in live-action.
Along with its more popular counterparts, I think that it’s safe to say that animation is a powerful medium. Furthermore, the fact that young filmmakers created these three short films during their study demonstrates a hopeful bright Indonesian animation. I can’t wait to see what the future holds, holding my breath for more inventive animated depictions of urban life.