Sinematek and Film Preservation in Indonesia

Originally published on 21 May 2012 and 1 March 2014 at The Jakarta Post


Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew), a film directed by Usmar Ismail in 1955, was screened at Cannes Film Festival, in the Cannes Classics program, in May 2012. The film, deemed as rare and little-known as it is beautiful and necessary, was screened after having been restored in Bologna, Italy, over more than seven months—thanks to the joint effort of National Museum of Singapore, Sinematek Indonesia, Konfiden Foundation, Kineforum Jakarta Arts Council, and World Cinema Foundation.

Lewat Djam Malam, like many other films, was in critical condition and needed to be rescued,” said Alex Sihar, the director of Konfiden Foundation. The restoration of Lewat Djam Malam proves that the public can participate in preserving the nation’s film heritage. However, the successful restoration of Lewat Djam Malam only highlights the problems of film preservation in Indonesia. Film restoration after all is a contingency plan, a last resort if all means of film preservation fails. Lewat Djam Malam is only one of nearly 2,000 films that are in a poor condition due to a lack of adequate storage facilities in Sinematek, the Indonesian cinematheque, at Pusat Perfilman Haji Usmar Ismail (PPHUI/Usmar Ismail Film Center) on Jalan Rasuna Said, Kuningan, South Jakarta.

As the sole film archive in Indonesia, Sinematek’s condition and management are far from ideal. The basement film vault does not even have proper lighting. The ceiling is moldy and many of the films cans are rusty. Celluloid, on which the movies are printed, is made of sensitive chemical compounds—easily damaged by water, humidity, heat, and mold. “Ideally, we have to clean the celluloid films every three months, but we lack employees and money so we clean them only once a year,” said Firdaus, 41, an officer at the film vault.

At Sinematek, visitors can still find Indonesian films made in different periods—ranging from the 1940s to 2010 by various acclaimed directors like Usmar Ismail, Sumandjaya, Teguh Karya, and Garin Nugroho. Sinematek holds 2,714 film titles consisting of 632 master copies and 318 screening copies, also 1,615 documentary films in 35 mm and 16 mm formats. Most of the films are in bad condition or poorly maintained—according to Firdaus, it took one year to clean the whole collection.


One of the biggest problems that Sinematek faces today is financing. The Jakarta governor Ali Sadikin established Sinematek in 1975 and allocated regular funds from the administration’s budget. However, a 2001 law banned the government from giving funds to nonprofit organizations, including Sinematek. Yayasan Pusat Perfilman Haji Usmar Ismail (YPPHUI/Foundation of Usmar Ismail Film Center), a noncommercial foundation, should have provided funds for Sinematek from renting the building. However, poor rent returns have led to financial shortfalls. For Alex, Sinematek’s position is unclear. “The collection belongs to the public but the library belongs to a private party,” he said, adding that was why the government and the foundation needed to sit together to solve the problem.

Resolving this institutional dichotomy is the top long-term issue for Sinematek. But their most urgent need is securing the collection, through proper care and maintenance. Lisabona Rahman, a film programmer who is studying film preservation and presentation for her masters degree in the Netherlands, said that Sinematek should be managed by professionals in audiovisual archiving. “Without professionalism in handling the collection, people will be reluctant to help, because they are afraid that the funds won’t be well managed,” she said. “Sinematek’s collection is very important in building our knowledge about Indonesian history through the cinema.”

In 2014, the Jakarta administration planned to take over Sinematek Indonesia from YPPHUI, in order to save hundreds of ill-maintained old national films. Arie Budiman, Jakarta Tourism Agency head, has said that his department decided to take over the operation of Sinematek, after film communities conveyed their concerns about the condition of the collection of old films in Sinematek—many of which were damaged. “We are now asking the Jakarta Arts Council’s film committee to formulate a plan to manage Sinematek,” he said. Arie added that the city had given the cinematheque to the foundation in 2001 with the understanding that it would ensure the preservation of the film archive. “However, the performance of the foundation has been disappointing,” he said.

Arie expected that the Jakarta Arts Council would submit a proposal soon so the agency could gather all stakeholders to gather and pin down a solution. “If we can move through the process quickly, we can submit the financial plan in the 2014 city budget revision,” said Arie. He added that the city administration wanted to make sure that Sinematek was handled by professionals skilled in archiving, film center management and the relevant technology.


Jakarta Arts Council film committee member Alex Sihar said that after the budget allocation was disbursed, the committee could begin properly managing Sinematek. Alex called on YPPHUI to go along with the city and hand over the operation of Sinematek. “If the foundation is not able to manage Sinematek, it should be declared bankrupt, so the government or the city administration can take back the assets,” he said.

Adisurya Abdi, Sinematek chairman, said he had been trying to keep up maintenance from the existing funding source for the last seven months. “We still have financial difficulties, but we do our best,” he said. “The government, especially the central government, has been talking a lot about the idea of helping us. However, it has just been talk so far.” However, Adisurya added that he did not agree with the planned takeover of Sinematek by the government. He said the government’s track record of maintaining archives was poor. Adisurya wanted Sinematek to remain independent as an institution, with funding coming from the government or the city.

YPPHUI chairman Djonny Syafruddin said he did not mind if the operation of Sinematek was taken over by the government or the city. “However, if it is taken over, the conditions should be way better than the current ones,” he said. Djonny said the government should have a clear plan like building studios or planning to digitally transfer the celluloid films, making them easier to preserve. According to Djonny, Sinematek spends around Rp 200 million (US$17,200) a year on film preservation. The foundation is only able to cover around Rp 100 million.

This writing is an amalgam of two news articles:  Jakarta’s film archive in dire condition and City to take over decaying national film archives. Both were written by Corry Elyda, and published at The Jakarta Post on 21 May 2012 and 1 March 2014 respectively.