I first met Lucky Kuswandi through a mutual friend when he was studying film at the Art Center in Pasadena. I went to visit him on the set of his very first short about a woman and her relation with a black cat. Lucky later moved back to Indonesia to pursue his film career and made his first feature Madame X last year which is currently on the film festival circuit. Madame X has just played at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and will be premiering in the U.S. at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Q: Can you talk about how you arrived at filmmaking? You studied in the U.S. and then you went back to Indonesia…
I always wanted to be a filmmaker. But living in Indonesia that dream wasn’t quite realistic. My family expected me to study engineering then went back home to continue the family business (I did apply for industrial engineering AND got accepted hahaha).
However, after much persuasion they let me studied film thinking that it was just a “phase” / hobby. Their friends were quite harsh, wondering why they would let their son studied art. It wasn’t considered “manly”. But I’m very grateful they had faith on me. I came back to Indonesia in 2005 after my father’s death. I thought I should be here for my Mom, and started my career here.
Q: How did Madame X come about? What was the inspiration for your first feature?
The idea for Madame X originated from the lead actor Aming. Aming is a very famous celebrity in Indonesia thanks to his daring, cross-dressing role in a top rating TV show. He talked the idea to my producer Nia Dinata, who is known for directing Arisan! (The Gathering), which featured the first gay kiss in Indonesian cinema. I’ve worked with Nia in 2008 for a documentary film At Stake, and we hit it off immediately. She then offered me to direct Madame X in 2009.
Q: I was told Indonesia is a very conservative country. Can you talk about the cultural and political atmosphere there? Was it difficult to make a queer movie there?
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world but the people are quite moderate and open-minded. Tolerance and acceptance have been ingrained in our culture. Attacks / raids on LGBT were very rare back then.
However, recently the government becomes more conservative and rigid especially with the flourishing of the hardline fundamentalist groups.
In 2009 the government passes the anti-pornography bill drafted by Islamic parties, which considers homosexuality to be illegal. This bill goes against Indonesia’s tradition of diversity and pluralism. It’s definitely a step towards strict Islamic law.
After we finished shooting in early 2010, the Islamic Defenders Front attacked ILGA regional meeting which was held in Indonesia, causing the meeting to go awry. Just before the release of Madame X in September 2010, the Q! Gay and Lesbian Film Festival was violently attacked by the Front. Recently, there’s been a drive by shooting at Taman Lawang, an area where transsexuals hang out. A transsexual died because of the shooting. The most disturbing feature was the unwillingness of the police to protect these minority groups to prevent these attacks to happen.
For me, the hardest part in making the film was to get sponsorship. Nobody wants to support the film even though we had big major stars attached to it. No television station wants to buy and broadcast the film until now.
After we released the film we received plenty of homophobic criticism from blogs, community groups online. We’ve also received e-mail threats.
Q: Can you also talk a but about being queer in Indonesia? Can you really be out?
I live in Jakarta, the capital city, where it’s easier to be queer. We have queer clubs and places to hang out. However, I find that most of the queers here are still very afraid to come out. Plenty of my friends still think that they will eventually get married with a girl to satisfy the demands of their parents.
Q: Can you talk about camp and drag in your movie? Why did decide to focus on transgendered protagonists?
There hasn’t been a “real” transgender film in Indonesia that depicts them with respect. Transgenders are presented in Indonesian media as laughing stock and purely comic relief. Also, being trans in Indonesia is difficult because there isn’t much job opportunities. Most of them either sell themselves for money, or work at hair salon (which is what Adam, our main character, did before he became Madame X).
Madame X portrays transgenders as positive and empowering as they are in real life. We even use the gay slang throughout the film as part of their daily conversation. Since we didn’t provide Indonesian subtitles, plenty of non-gay audiences got lost while watching the film.
The film opened in Indonesia October 2010. Sadly it didn’t do very well. There was plenty of online backlash that causes reluctance on the general public to see the film. However, it’s already a cult classic among the queer community. Plenty of them watched the film more than 10 times!! Haha…
Internationally it just received its premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and the response was enthusiastic! We’re still in talks with several distributors for international release, but not yet on the US release. Hopefully the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival can provide a launching pad for the film.
Q: Do you have a new project in the works? Can you talk about it?
I’m working on a documentary titled The Metamorphosis of Wannabe Pop Stars. It’s a really fun project about older Chinese Indonesians who wants to be pop stars in their late age (60s and above!). They form singing groups and would participate in regional singing competitions. I see this as a form of finally expressing themselves, since they had to live during the Suharto era when Chinese books, musics, even texts, were forbidden.
Their performances are sublime, and the costumes are ridiculously campy and fun! And also a feature film In the Absence of the Sun about insomniacs living in Jakarta.