Kamila Andini on Making Moments That Can Last Forever in “Before, Now and Then”

True to its title, scenes can depict an eternity in “Before, Now and Then,” Kamila Andini’s bewitching drama, set in Indonesia during the late 1960s yet for its central character Nana (Happy Salma), the past, present and future can all sit side by side. Occasionally haunted by the memory of her first husband, who disappeared during the country’s civil war 20 years earlier and presumably left for dead, Nana lives a life of luxury, if not comfort, in becoming a homemaker for the owner (Arswendy Bening Swara) of a sprawling plantation on which their kids can play freely, though the ravages of conflict still roil just outside their gates. Nana may not worry about sleeping with her eyes open, but nor can she get away from the feeling that she’s walking through some kind of dream when her first marriage ended so unresolved and her mind very much mired in the past as she’s forced to carry on for all those around her, a feeling that at once is specific to Andini’s scenario and still, as the director recently told me, surely universal.

“Even if it’s set in the past, I talked to my team [about] how this [film] has to talk about women in general, so time should reflect so many things in here,” said Andini. “It’s actually made [about] a woman that lives today, and it was about creating that bridge between the past and today and even to the future based on this hard memory that allows us to reflect what has already changed, but what things actually stay the same and what’s still needed [to change] for the future.”

Incidentally, Andini personifies what she describes to some degree as the daughter of Garin Nugroho, a Southeast Asian cinema pioneer who showed films could be made in Indonesia in the wake of the suppressive Suharto regime, while appearing to be the future for all world cinema in her poetic, absorbing dramas. There’s a patience in her movies that surely stems from confidence, yet a creativity of expression that’s entirely fresh as “Before, Now and Then” sees Nana pulled in all directions by time, unable to commit to any in particular when a memory will prevent her from moving forward, but a present-day responsibility won’t allow her to reconcile the wounds that remain from the past. She finds an unlikely ally in getting through the days when her husband takes a mistress Ino (Laura Basuki), who isn’t viewed as competition when Nana stumbles onto their affair, but rather as someone who might lend her a kind ear, and the film unfolds with such intimacy it feels as if one was eavesdropping onto a private conversation that continually beckons for you to lean in while common courtesy asks you to resist.

“Before, Now and Then” remarkably arrived on the festival circuit a mere six months after Andini found her biggest international acclaim to date with “Yuni,” which premiered at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival and took home the Platform Prize that year, and her latest is no less an achievement, timeless in more ways than how Nana is detached from any particular epoch and on the eve of its stateside release, the director spoke about how she’s pursued a path of true regional filmmaking to get such richness in the work, learning the local languages endemic to each region of Indonesia and how she immerses herself and the actors in its specific culture, as well as how she found her distinctive voice as a filmmaker.

How did this come about?

I read the novel back in end of 2017, an autobiography for an art dealer in Indonesia who is actually a kind of a relative to me. We are quite close. She’s Sundanese, one of the tribes that live in the West Java area in Indonesia, and [the film] is based on a chapter where she tells a story about her mother Nana, [who lived] in between 1950 and 1960s, and this story resembled my grandmother who also was coming from the same area from West Java and [something similar] happened to them because of the political situation. I don’t know why, but somehow it stayed with me and every time I make a film, I always try to capture a certain area and society in Indonesia through its anthropological and sociopolitical view, and this time I wanted to start with something that is actually basically from my roots as a filmmaker. It’s going to be my first time actually talking about my own culture, my memories, and my grandmothers and trying to capture that era based on the stories that they told me and then the memories of them. It was going to be my first period film as well, so there were going to be a lot of challenges, but it was an exciting challenge.

Is it true you actually had to learn Sudanese, as well as the cast, before filming?

Actually all my films have always been in local languages, so I didn’t speak any of the languages that are in our films [before filming them]. With this one, it’s easier for me because it’s my mother tongue, so I can understand it, but I cannot speak it. The main [actress Happy Salma] actually comes from the area, so she speaks Sundanese, but the period Sundanese is quite different – it’s a more formal, softer language back then — and the rest of [the cast], of course, had to learn it, but because I already have a way of doing a [language] workshop in prep, I’ve gotten used to it, but for the actors, it’s not very easy for them.

When it isn’t your first language, does it make you more observant of physical expression?

Exactly. One of the thing that I love about using local languages is that we have a national language in Indonesia, but every time I use a local language, I found that there are certain textures and rhythms and gestures that cannot be replaced by this formal national language. Suddenly every time the actor delivers [dialogue] in the local language, there are certain differences and [it allows] the movie to have its own character in a way. That’s what always amazes me. Every languages is very different — the rhythm is different, the textures and the gestures and this is what makes cinema become richer and richer every time for me. That’s why that I have to be very observant every time I have to work in a new language. I’m trying to capture the essence, not to understand the word, but to understand the essence of the rhythm of the language and the intonation. Then it becomes quite interesting with the actors too, because then what we talk about is not only the meaning of the word, but also the deliberation of the word.

Music is a major part of this film as well. Are you thinking about it early?

Yeah, Ricky Lionardi did a very amazing work [with the score], and then what’s quite important but actually also quite subtle in the film is also how we capture time and inner conflict in the film [with the music]. During the development, I was trying to get the team to know what kind of sense of time that I wanted in particular in this film, because it’s about memory but also about a time that we never lived in, so we don’t actually know. Most of the time we talk within rhythm and usually, I play music that resembles a certain moment and we always use songs during our discussions. That’s why when you see slow motion in the film, it becomes a very important part of it because we slow down time we want to feel that exact moment. It’s a story very much about inner conflict, so the music has to bring it to the surface so people understand what she felt actually inside.

You’ve got quite an actress in the lead to convey that as well in Happy Salma. What sold you on her?

Happy Salma is not just an actor. She’s also a theater producer and she’s coming from West Java, so she knows about this conflict very much. Her grandmother also experienced the same thing, so she’s a woman with a lot of connection to our culture, like very [true] to our own [heritage] but also very modern, so she’s very open to everything and this is why she has to carry this. We talked in the beginning that it’s not going to be easy because everything is very very subtle, but as a mother, she understood that feeling of loneliness even when you’re inside a beautiful house with a beautiful family because you need to redefine yourself again and again and every time the situation changes, you will feel lonely again and you want to find your voice every time.

From what I understand, Nana and Ina’s relationship was actually inspired by the history of one of your producers. Do people on the production generally bring themselves to this?

Yeah, that’s true. The other producer is a very different kind of Indonesian woman than I’ve met. She’s a person who can speak her mind and doesn’t care, but also has a lot of femininity in her, so there are times when I’d ask her, “What is your mother like?” Because sometimes we’re a resemblance our mother, and she [told me], “I have two mothers, actually, and I think I’m [shaped] by both of them,” and then she told me about this story of how her father [thought he] actually had a miscarriage with her, but more than that, [how the parents that took her in] are more the parents for her than the [biological] father, and how much they support and strengthen each other. I thought this was amazing, and one of the things that I wanted to say in this film is that in political situations [like this], women become the victims of many things, but then these two women are trying to not becoming a victim of themselves, so they try to support each other so they can live with the meaning of themselves.

What was it like to find the right location for this?

The most challenging thing about shooting this film was to shoot it in pandemic era, so everything had to be carefully written because of the limitations. I already designed [the story to take place] mostly inside the house, and even if it’s not in the house, it’s a location with very open spaces [outside of it] and not many scenes with a lot of people in it and we couldn’t have a lot of crew. So the producer and I tried to create this very intimate production and Vida Sylvia, the production designer, and Batara Goempar, the cinematographer, and I talked about a lot how we portray Nana because she’s the center of everything, especially inside the house. This is the main element of the story, and because it’s a very internal conflict, a certain feeling that not all people could understand, [Batara] wanted the house to have compositions when every time she’s framed by something, so it’s like she’s trapped in this beautiful place.

It was a bit hard to find the house. We had to scout for so many times because the house couldn’t be in the middle of a crowded village, so it’d be dangerous for everyone. But then we found this house, which is very big — actually bigger than the normal house in that era, but [it gave us] the space for production and also for safety for everyone and the production designer, reset the whole thing to be able for us to capture many kinds of perspective. There are times when the cinematographer tried to find ways to better capture Nana, and we decided to use all long lenses for the films, because we wanted to be very close to Nana, but we also want to have a distance with her and this could [create a] frame for her as well, so we carefully picked the compositions and things like that to enhance the rhythm of the film.

It was amazing to me to see this film come out so closely with “Yuni,” which was a triumph at Toronto, taking home the Platform prize, and then this premiered the next spring at Berlinale. Has it been a wild time?

Yeah, because it wasn’t expected at all — these daughters of mine weren’t supposed to born one year after another, but then [the release of] “Yuni” got postponed because of the pandemic and then [“Before Now and Then”] suddenly [was finished] earlier than it was supposed to be when it got into Berlinale, so there was only couple months difference, which I never did before and it’s quite amazing, but also hectic to release two films in almost the same time. Thankfully, both films are very different, so in a way I can also talk about my creative thoughts in very different kind of way and people can see how I treat each subject very differently every time , but it’s been really great and very unexpected.

And I learned you’re the daughter of a filmmaker. Was this career always destined?

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure at all and I grew up not wanting to have anything to do with a film industry actually because I know how hard it is. My father was born in the New Order era in Indonesia, so there was no Indonesian cinema at that time except his movies. And when I was in high school, I started to learn filmmaking and I fell in love with it, but I was in denial, [thinking] is this really what I want to do? Because I know that if this is something that I want to do, I cannot treat it as another phase [like] when you’re young, you try many things. But if I wanted to do this, I had to make sure that it was something that I wanted to do my whole life because my father’s name is already in there and I didn’t know if I could make it in this industry when I saw how hard it was for him, so I had to make sure that I had the passion.

In the beginning, it was quite hard because I didn’t know yet what my strength is as a creator. As an artist in the beginning [of your career], you see one thing [and think] “Oh, I wanna make something like that” and then you see another thing [and you say], “Oh, I want to make something like that.” Everything is great, but you don’t know who you are, and because of my father, people already had expectations of what I wanted to make. So I had to be very different – I thought I’d have to make commercial films, like action maybe, but I didn’t know who I was, so I took time [to develop] and if you see my first and second film, that’s actually a time when I tried to be honest with myself as a creator and [find out] if I have the calling in this or not. I just made something very organic with a lot of intuition to find out, and then after that, I got to know my strengths when I make a film, and what kind of things that interest me to speak about. Since then, I liked to have female lead characters in my film and I love [making] anthropological films with local languages as well, so it grew into something that became my own and I think it grows like that very organically.

“Before, Now & Then” opens on August 25th in New York at the BAM Rose Cinemas, September 1st in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal, and September 5th at the Northwest Film Forum. A full list of theaters and dates is here.

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