How Indonesian Filmmaker Makbul Mubarak Made An Emphatic Debut Film With ‘Autobiography’

Director Makbul Mubarak has got off to a brilliant start with his feature film debut. autobiography, after moving from a career in film criticism and journalism. The film is on a solid festival run, having enjoyed its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival (where it won the FIPRESCI Critics’ Award for the Orizzonti section) and a North American premiere in Toronto. In October, the film travels to the BFI London Film Festival and the Busan International Film Festival.

“We went straight to the premiere and weren’t ready for such a warm response,” says Mubarak about the premiere in Venice. “People looked like they really enjoyed the film. They stayed for the question and answer session, seemed very curious about the film and it’s a good opportunity for us to invite them to learn more.” The world premiere was a tremendously emotional moment for them autobiography Team. “One of our actors has been acting for 40 years and came to me [after the premiere] and said, ‘Maybe those 40 years was about that.’”

Mubarak began writing the screenplay for autobiography in 2016 and producer Yulia Evina Bhara came on board a year later. The project made its rounds in international film incubators and workshops such as the Torino Film Lab, SEAFIC in Thailand and the Southeast Asian Film Lab in Singapore. With Kevin Ardilova and Arswendy Bening Swara, autobiographyCo-producing countries of include Indonesia, France, Germany, Poland, Singapore, the Philippines and Qatar.

Due to the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, the shooting planned for 2020 was postponed by one year. “We had more time to prepare. We used the time for rehearsals and looked for better locations,” Mubarak said. “I think it’s a blessing in disguise.”

Located in a rural Indonesian town, autobiography tells the story of Rakib, a housekeeper in a Purna mansion, a retired general whose family has served Rakib’s clan for centuries. Rakib’s father is in prison while his brother is abroad on business, leaving only Rakib and Purna in each other’s company.

“It’s very common in Indonesia among powerful people [to have housekeepers] because they have many houses and need someone to take care of them. There is a concept of loyalty because that powerful family will have a subordinate family working for them for generations,” Mubarak explains. “There is no contract because it is a blood contract. The family will send the children [of the employed family] go to school and take care of them in exchange for work. It’s actually a very feudal structure. It still exists and I find that connection very fascinating when I talk about power imbalances and hierarchies in our society.”

for Mubarak, autobiography is also a radically historical project that explores the cultural and emotional trauma caused by Suharto’s dictatorship. “I was eight years old when the dictatorship collapsed, but somehow I have the feeling that the structures, the atmosphere, the power and the hierarchy are still the same,” says Mubarak. “It’s an unresolved trauma. We can still see the wound. There was no resolution. So I think artists keep coming back to that time because there are so many stories to tell.”

In writing and directing the film, Mubarak drew on his moral struggles with his father’s previous job as a civil servant under Suharto’s regime. These ethical questions of complicity, loyalty, and justice arise through Rakib’s position as a clerk at Purna’s mansion.

“Rakib not only bears the burden of personal guilt, but also the burden of history. He becomes the monster he is [had previously] resisted,” says Mubarak. “If you go to museums in Indonesia, they don’t exhibit that time. There is this gap in history. Therefore, for us, art is the museum. It fills the empty space so we have some tools to remember. It’s a good way to deal with the trauma, especially when you feel like the government is trying to control how you’re remembered.”

Mubarak received his education from the Korea National University of Arts’ School of Film, TV and Multimedia in 2014. “Korea was nice because they are very disciplined and it helped me to be more systematic,” says Mubarak. “In screenwriting, I learned to be systematic about what you want to say. You may want to say many things, but people don’t need to hear everything.”

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