Acclaimed film-making duo Kamila Andini and Ifa Isfansyah take a calculatedly side-on approach to Indonesian societal history in “Cigarette Girl,” a new Netflix series that releases on Nov.1 and which premiered its first episodes at the Busan International Film Festival earlier this month.
Starting with a wealthy family about to lose its aging patriarch in 2001, the series uses flashbacks to the 1960s to uncover not only the origins of the family’s herbal cigarette or ‘Kretek’ fortune, but also the hidden romance underlying it. And it highlights the overbearing and only slowly changing societal pressures placed on women, from high and low ranks, even as Indonesian politics and government underwent tectonic shifts.
Ahead of the Busan premiere Andini and Isfansyah told Variety how their lush and romantic treatment is both a product of changing society and a way of facing up to recent Indonesian history.
How do you pitch the show, as a romance, a thriller or as a history lesson?
Andini: This ambiguity is one of the things we loved about the story. It’s based on a novel. It’s actually a romance story, but it’s so much more than that. From this romantic story, we get to see Indonesia’s layers, through the Kretek cigarette industry, which is one of the biggest industries in Indonesia.
The history is quite complex, there are a lot of characters moving from one place to another. And the range of years goes from 1960s to 2001, spanning two generations. And there’s also multiple layers of our socio-political history, as well. There’s a lot of things flowing through this epic romance story. We wanted the audience to be engaged throughout [enabling them to be] reflective of these events and situations.
Where did your involvement begin?
Isfansyah: In about 2011 or 2012, I met Ratih Kumala, the author of the underlying novel. She’d just finished it, but not yet published the book. She asked me to read the draft. I read it during the Hong Kong film festival where Kamila was working and I had time on my hands. I was so impressed with the story that I called Ratih and said, ‘I want this. Don’t give this to anyone else.’
Initially, I saw this as something for myself to direct. And as a feature film. I’d just finished “The Dancer.” And I started to develop the script. It was not easy, because in the original novel the story stretches over three eras: colonialism, Communism in the 1960s and on to 2001.
I realized that it might not be easy as a feature film. And also that it might not easy to finance. The industry was not developed like it is now. So, it was my dream project, but it became frozen.
Then the platforms come in. [Executive producer] Shanty Harmayn called me and asked me about doing “Cigarette Girl” as a series. And from 2018 onwards it was in motion again. I wondered whether I should be directing or whether Kamilia and I should work together. I know her strengths and value her woman’s perspective.
This show continues a recurring theme of your filmography with women in the forefront.
Andini: It’s a luxury for me, while creating my first series, that I’m still able to actually present my own representing women on screen. I have quite a lot of room for creativity and vision. I’ve known of the novel all this time.
One of the strengths of the novel is this talented woman in the 1960s [who secretly uses her skills to devise new flavors for the Kretek cigarettes]. I didn’t even know about that profession before. I want to portray this character not only as woman from the past, but as a woman who is relevant today.
Is the kretek cigarette industry fundamentally interesting in itself?
Andini: We [as a couple] don’t smoke. So, it was also one of the questions that we thought about when deciding to take on this project. Being Indonesian, we’re very aware of this industry. But few people know much actually about its history. A lot of things changed due to the political situation. It has become a giant industry, but it used to be very home grown.
We realized that our country is very agricultural country. Tobacco is from our land. And this is a living for many people. Some of us have outgrown that. But like rice and coffee, tobacco is one of the textures of Indonesia.
This can also be a story of female empowerment. Women were only allowed to work in cigarette factories doing hand rolling – no other role. So [the central character] Dasiyah wants to leave.
Are film and TV in Indonesia getting better at examining the country’s very complicated politics and sometimes very violent past?
Andini: Ifa and I see ourselves as part of the younger generation who want answers about the things that happened, I think it is important to be able to talk about it as a nation and that the younger generation do not forget.
In peace time, we are always hearing about Indonesia’s heroes or biographies about people going from nothing to success. But we never get to see what actually happened in the past. So, this kind of story and project is quite rare. Especially for its focus on everyday life and conflicts from different times.
Is it necessary that history be shown through the lens of fiction? Can’t it be presented as documentary or a reconstruction of actual events?
Isfansyah: I think that with younger audiences there are more possibilities. But many stories must focus on the contemporary. And these things depend on who is running the country and, you know, we have election early next year.
Andini: It is also related to our culture of watching. In Indonesia, we don’t have a big culture of making and watching documentaries about ourselves. We are the product of long years of New Order, during which we were not always very good at facing reality.
In Indonesia, we’re not very good at taking criticism. And, so, no one is allowed to criticise another [and cause them to lose face]. That has a big impact on shows and storytelling. It’s very hard for Indonesians to look at something very face on.
How do you see the Indonesian industry changing under the influence of streaming companies?
Andini: Shows other than feature film [have emerged]. Different [story] languages are emerging. Audiences are increasingly being put first. [There is an increasing emphasis] on quality, from story to cinematography. Audiences want to see value. I feel the room not only to actually create, but also to challenge myself, to engage the audience. It’s new again. And it’s very exciting.
Isfansyah: Streaming has opened more possibilities for production, changed the number of projects and changed storytelling [grammar]. I also run a film school and a film festival, and I really see growing competences and experimentation [..] We need the space for young filmmakers to explore.