March 7, 2023
JAKARTA – Having directed multiple successful films alongside a rich acting, singing and traditional dance career in the 1940s through the 60s, Ratna Asmara, Indonesia’s first woman director, should be a celebrated figure. Why has her name been forgotten?
Few know about Indonesia’s first woman film director, Ratna Asmara. In the 1950s, Ratna directed films at a time when many famous women were in front of the camera worldwide, but very few had been celebrated for their work behind it.
In her films, Ratna brought to the big screen a nuanced and sensitive view of topics considered taboo in Indonesia at the time, including the trauma of Indonesian comfort women during the Japanese occupation, polygamy and structural poverty with some of the biggest names in the industry.
And yet, her story has been left in the shadows, diminishing in the same way analogue film diminishes as it ages.
It was the physical degradation and potential loss of Ratna’s films that drove a group of archivists, historians, and researchers Umi Lestari, Julita Pratiwi, Efi Sri Handayani, Imelda Taurina Mandala, Lisabona Rahman and the late Siti Anisah to come together in 2021 and, under their collective Kelas Liarsip, a virtual film study group, begin to preserve the history and works of Ratna, with the understanding that if action was not taken now, her name would be lost in the annals of history.
With its first film digitized, and a book on Ratna and the project now published, Kelas Liarsip hopes to widen the national canon to include more women and minority groups while spreading Ratna’s story.
Umi a researcher on the history of Indonesian cinema, first came across Ratna in 2020. Her name often appears in reference to film greats of the time such as Nawi Ismail, Djamaluddin Malik and Andjar Asmara. Yet there were very few articles on her directorial work.
As Julita, a researcher on Indonesian cinema, explained in an interview with The Jakarta Post in early February, “there is little narrative on the women creators in the history of cinema in tanah air [the motherland]. The discourse circulating still surrounds women in front of the camera, rather behind[it].”
Umi’s search for more information took her to Sinematek Indonesia, hoping the country’s national film archive had started digitizing Ratna’s films. It had not. Rolling the reels of Dr. Samsi (1952), Umi realized the film was too damaged to be projected.
“It turned out the film could only be played for three minutes […] From the editing table came the smell of burning and I decided to stop rolling the film because I was scared about further damaging the elements. It was really traumatic for me. As a researcher who normally works with film texts that already exist and can be easily accessed, the difficulty in accessing Dr. Samsi made me stop my research,” Umi explained.
So Umi focused instead on piecing together Ratna’s biography, and it was during this process she joined with Kelas Liarsip, which was also seeking out women in Indonesian film and redressing the imbalance where, “ideas of nationalism, militarism and patriarchalism” saturated the collection of Indonesian cinema of the 1950s, as Julita shared.
The project took Kelas Liarsip to libraries, universities, archives and cemeteries, between Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Berlin and Amsterdam. The group pieced together her story through film reviews, gossip columns and YouTube videos.
Efi and a small team worked away in the lab at the crystals that had formed on the film, carefully repairing the sprockets and piecing together the cracks and damaged patches.
The project took Imelda, Umi and Lisabona to Amsterdam to the Eye Filmmuseum, where Ratna’s Dr. Samsi was shown to the public for the first time.
The film follows heroine Sukaesih who falls in love with a doctor named Samsi. The two have an illegitimate child, and Sukaesih decides to give the child up to Samsi’s assistant Leo so it can grow up to have a better life.
Following the death of Samsi and his wife Sundari’s child Sugiat, Leo replaces him with Sukaesih’s child. Years later after Indonesia’s independence, Sugiat, now a lawyer, handles a case involving Sukaesih and Leo, and slowly the truth unravels.
Closing 2022, Dr. Samsi had its Indonesian debut at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival (JAFF) in Yogyakarta, with the release of the accompanying book, Ratna Asmara: Perempuan di Dua Sisi Kamera (Ratna Asmara: the Woman on Both Sides of the Camera).
With such little documentation on women’s history in Indonesian cinema, let alone wider interest in classic Indonesian cinema, Kelas Liarsip was surprised to find a large turnout for the first Indonesian screening.
“We didn’t have big expectations about the number of people who would join but it didn’t matter to us.” Efi, one of the few film archivists in Indonesia, said by email.
“In the end the tickets sold out,” she told the Post, “Most of the audience knew nothing of Ratna Asmara beforehand and they shared how thankful they were that we had introduced her.” She said.
The book, which documents the life and films of Ratna and the formation of Kelas Liarsip, reads part-biography-part-handbook for future film archivists and enthusiasts.
It maps the challenges Kelas Liarsip faced in sourcing archival information about Ratna and the incomplete footage that remains of Ratna’s films, as well as reflections on Indonesia’s archive and the exhilaration of watching the completed digitized film for the first time.
Ratna in the spotlight
Ratna Asmara, born in 1913 in Sawah Lunto, West Sumatra, was to live and make art through Dutch colonial rule, then the Japanese occupation into Indonesia’s early years of independence.
She first entered the creative industry in 1930 at just 16 years old, forming a performance troupe Suhara Opera with her siblings that toured cities across Java. Attending one of Suhara Opera’s shows was Ratna’s future husband, writer for Dardanella theater troupe Andjar Asmara, and the two began what would be a long creative partnership, although one where Ratna’s accomplishments would be placed in the shadows of her husband.
After the two married, Ratna merged Suhara Opera with Dardanella in the 1930s. She toured Asia as a traditional dancer with the troupe, performing with them for the best part of two decades while at the same time developing her name as an actress on stage and in film.
Ratna starred in several box office films including Kartinah (1940) and Djauh di Mata (Far From Sight, 1948). She also worked as part of the film crew, helping with the camera, as a dance trainer and make-up artist, before her directorial debut in 1951.
She directed five films, with her first Sedap Malam (Tuberose), followed by Musim Bunga di Selabintana (Flower Season in Selabintana) in 1952, Dr. Samsi also in 1952, Nelajan (Fishermen) produced from 1953 to 1954 and her final film Dewi dan Pemilihan Umum (Dewi and the General Election) in 1954.
In her biography of Ratna, Umi notes that Nelajan, released under Ratna’s own production house Ratna Films, was one of the first films in Indonesia to use method acting, as Ratna instructed the actors to live with fishermen in Labuan, Banten, for 10 days to understand their social situation in order to play their characters realistically.
In 1954, having achieved recognition both nationally and internationally, Ratna traveled to Italy as a guest student at the prestigious film school the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome.
Yet from the late 1950s, Ratna’s relationship with film becomes blurry. In 1961, Ratna accompanied her second husband, diplomat Sutan Usman Karim, to Myanmar and then India where it is assumed she acted as cultural ambassador, singing and dancing at events. Yet there is no record of further films and little documentation about her life leading up to her death in Indonesia on Aug. 10, 1968.
Kelas Liarsip has been attempting to track down any of Ratna’s family members but has so far been unsuccessful.
“We hope the launch of this book as well as public screenings of Dr. Samsi and articles published in the media, can spread this information. We really hope that we can contact her family, and it would make us so happy if they could help us continue with this research.” Julita said.
Kelas Liarsip has begun touring the film in different locations, with the latest screenings in Palu and Poso, Central Sulawesi, in December, 2022.
On March 7 Dr. Samsi will be screened at the Arthouse Cinema MASH in Denpasar, Bali, and the following day it will be Jakarta’s turn, with a screening and public lecture on Dr. Samsi at Goethe-Institut Jakarta, coinciding with International Women’s Day.