In keeping with the trend of unexpected and random experiences in Indonesia, I have climbed to a new perch in what I now feel is a summit-less mountain of absurdity representing the experience of expatriates in this country: come December, I will be in a high budget Indonesian movie*.
* I’m just an extra in one scene, but they made sure to put all five white people very close to the camera to make it seem like we were everywhere
Regardless of my role, I couldn’t help but laugh, considering in the first twenty three years of my life, I had been in the newspaper maybe once, never (to my knowledge) on TV, and certainly hadn’t met any celebrities. In fact, apart from concerts, I haven’t even seen any in person. Not even Barack Obama, and I used to work about 200 meters from his house. All of that is entirely normal, too.
Now, in just two months in Indonesia, I have been in several Surabaya newspapers, appeared on TV a few times, and also exist in at least a hundred people’s cameras, because it turns out I’m about as exotic as a celebrity. It only seems natural at this point to add to this list a day of brushing elbows (literally, actually) with celebrities and appearing, however briefly, on the Indonesian big screen.
I’m aware that extras aren’t important people in the grand scheme of things, and I won’t be famous from it, but it’s still something that very few people can experience, especially in another country, and ultimately in front of millions of people.
Everything started Wednesday morning (31 July) when Ucan, the up-and-coming director who essentially volunteers his time to coordinate our program, approached me asking if I wanted to help with a film shoot after our morning dance class. We would leave at noon and return sometime at night. The scene would be a 1920s Great Gatsby style party, and they needed about forty bule, because upper-class Indonesian parties during Dutch colonialism always had a lot of white people.
Everything about that was intriguing, so after dancing, Ucan, Leni (one of our photographers) and I ran to the car and started the ride to the film set. At this point, I still had no idea where we were going, having simply trusted Ucan that this wasn’t a kidnapping.
|And who couldn’t trust that face?|
We rode for about three hours, towards Malang in the south, winding through narrow jungle roads and up steep, pot-holed hills, finally pulling up to a beautiful Dutch mansion from the early 20th century. Far up on a mountain, the air was crisp and clean. I inhaled deeply, relishing the first fresh air I’d encountered for some time. There were even birds singing in the trees! These simple things really don’t exist in Surabaya, and I’d been missing them painfully. All signs pointed towards another great adventure.
I managed to sneak a few pictures of the mansion’s exterior before some crew members forbade me from continuing:
Because I joined this with such short notice, I had sense of the movie (like its name) and therefore didn’t quite realize the magnitude of what I’d gotten into. While I stood about waiting for instructions, a guy in a well-tailored white suit sauntered past us without noticing our presence, and I thought nothing of it, but Ucan and Leni began to bubble with excitement, chattering in rapid Indonesian. It turned out that this was Reza Rahadian, who I roughly equate to being the Indonesian Brad Pitt. This is how I realized that this was a serious film, and not just a fun little project.
Eventually the casting director sent me to wardrobe, where they had to put me into a frumpy, mismatched suit, because I’m too tall for Indonesia and couldn’t put on any of the good clothes. They also told me they would slick back my hair for the 1920s effect, but never got around to that. I then waited some more, finding a group of bulewho looked just as lost as myself. We soon discovered that, out of the forty necessary white people, we were the only five for the whole scene. This ultimately led to the producers placing us close to the cameras to make sure the party seemed full of “Dutch” revelers.
My fellow extras, from Serbia, Russia, Hungary and Argentina, had found themselves at the shooting in the same manner as myself: a last minute, circumstantial connection from a friend of a friend who knew somebody involved in the film. As we talked about our experiences in Indonesia, it became apparent that the expatriate experience here really is a series of crazy adventures that would never happen at home. It was oddly comforting to know that other people without any connection to IACS would have the same experiences and valuations as us. In a way, it confirmed that I am actually learning about Indonesian culture, in some form at least.
Despite arriving at 3:00pm, shooting didn’t start until after 7:00, because the scene takes place at night in an outdoor patio behind the mansion, so the crew had to wait until sunset, and then for 200 people to break their fast due to Ramadan. A major conclusion that I reached very early into the shooting is that I definitely would not want to be an actor, because it is a crushingly tedious experience, waiting for hours and repeating the same exact thing ten or fifteen times. Having so many extras made this especially difficult, because if one person messes up, everything starts over. With two hundred people, somebody is bound to do it wrong.
Thankfully, we never did. In fact, the producer even enjoyed us to the point where he occasionally hung out with us between takes.
Our job was fairly simple at first: slow dance like the other couples and have a generally good time while the main characters have a serious conversation in the middle. My “girlfriend” for the night was the Russian. Our “acting” was very easy since we were able to chat and joke around just as we would at a normal party. We just had to ignore the fact that there was a camera and Indonesian Brad Pitt five feet away.
This two minute shot took about two hours to film for many reasons. It was very exciting, however, when Reza, when he had to storm out, bumped into me, giving a truer sense to the phrase “rubbing elbows”.
Through other shots my Russian lady and I had to flirtatiously chat without actually using our voices, while roaming about the set around the camera. It’s surprisingly difficult to pretend to talk to someone without actually saying anything.
My favorite shot, which is also the one I most hope stays in the movie, is during a dance segment. The director told us simply to “be lively” without further instruction. Instead of chatting and fake flirting, my Russian partner and I decided to do our own dance. This is why I really want to be in this shot, because my infamously terrible dance skills can now be on display for millions of people. Whatever the filmmakers feel, I think it would be hilarious for the opening of the scene to include our awkward mixture of dancing styles to the side of professionally choreographed actors.
The shooting ended up lasting until sunrise, with the producers squeezing out every minute of darkness they could for the night scenes. We “acted” almost nonstop for about ten hours, with occasional fifteen minute breaks and one extended nap around 3am. It was also incredibly cold at only 15 degrees. Between takes I had to donate my silly looking suit jacket to my Russian partner, who was stuck in a strapless dress. Everybody was fairly numb by dawn, but we finished with dancing and the rising sun over the valley quickly thawed our spirits. My prediction had been accurate: it was an entertainingly ridiculous day. And night.
What I enjoyed most about the shooting wasn’t the celebrities or the fact that I’ll be on the big screen (pending editing) but that I got to share this experience with the other foreigners. We’ll never directly experience Indonesian culture just because we’re so different (white), but we still have valuable cultural experiences related to our strange, unique placement in Indonesian society. In my mind, it normalized the abnormality of our place and experiences in Indonesian society. The oddity of this is comforting and exciting in its own curious way.
Hopefully in the future I can obtain some pictures from the shooting to add in here