Makbul Mubarak: From critiquing acclaimed films to creating one

Makbul Mubarak at Autobiography's premiere in Indonesia on January 17, 2023. KawanKawan Media.
Makbul Mubarak at Autobiography's premiere in Indonesia on January 17, 2023. KawanKawan Media.

For 1,400 film industry professionals and cinephiles in attendance, it might be just another screening at Venice Film Festival on September 3, 2022. But for Indonesian director Makbul Mubarak, it was the nail-biting finale to a five-year journey.

There, at Venice’s Sala Darsena Cinema, Mubarak’s first feature film Autobiography had its premiere. The suspense thriller, which began production in 2017, follows the relationship between Rakib (Kevin Ardilova), a young housekeeper in a mansion in a rural Indonesian town, and retired military general Purna (Arswendy Nasution), the mansion’s owner who returns home to start his mayoral election campaign. As their bond deepens, the film explores how violence is passed down and transacted, and how violence always begets more violence.

Mubarak, understandably, was feeling a bit on edge. He was unsure of how the audience would react to his film. He said, “It all felt like a thesis defence.”

Hence, as the credits rolled, he was caught unawares when the Sala Darsena audience stood up and applauded. It felt surreal for him, as the applause seemed to go on, and on, and on.

He tried his best to remain collected. But suddenly, the film’s supporting actor Nasution approached him and whispered: “You know what? I’ve been acting for 40 years. If the reward for those 40 years is today, I think it’s not bad.”

Mubarak couldn’t hold it in anymore. He wept, cathartically.

By the end of 2022, Autobiography had won 18 awards, including the Fipresci prize by the International Federation of Film Critics at the Venice Film Festival, the Best Screenplay at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, and the Feature Fiction Award at the Adelaide Film Festival.

Filmmaking was never part of Mubarak’s life plan or dream, let alone being successful in it. His first encounter with popular flicks was as a teenager, after he had left his hometown in Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island for the more populous and prosperous Java Island.

He was born in 1990 in Tolitoli, a remote regency in Sulawesi that is now still listed as one of Indonesia’s “outermost, frontier, and least developed regions”. His childhood was spent in Soni, then a small village with electricity only available from 6 pm to 2 am. His main entertainment was whatever available in his elementary school’s library, which included some of Indonesia’s literary greats such as Abdoel Moeis’ 1928 novel Salah Asuhan (Wrong Upbringing) and A.A. Navis’ 1955 short story Robohnya Surau Kami (The Collapse of Our Mosque).

“I read those books not because I was smart, but because I had no other entertainment option,” Mubarak said while laughing. “I only realised about 20 years later that those were actually heavy reads.”

Mubarak began catching up with his generation’s pop culture after he enrolled in an Islamic boarding school in Indramayu, West Java, in 2001. He wasn’t allowed to go out of the school, but he befriended some teachers who were willing to bring him and his friends various music cassettes and film DVDs from the outside world in return for some cash. That allowed him to listen to the American rock band Evanescence’s Fallen and Indonesia’s legendary singer Ari Lasso’s Keseimbangan (Balance) albums, or watch random movies from Sin City to Dumb and Dumber to American Pie, during his spare time as a santri or Islamic boarding school student.

“Movie time” usually began at 10 pm, right after the end of compulsory study hours. When the lights had been turned off, it’s time for Mubarak and friends to secretly take turns watching a movie in the bathroom using a portable DVD player smuggled into the school by one of them.

“One of the most memorable films that I watched in that bathroom was Janji Joni (Joni’s Promise),” said Mubarak, referring to an Indonesian romantic comedy movie written and directed by Joko Anwar.

“The movies were not curated,” Mubarak added. “It’s just like, every time we found something provocative in [Indonesian film magazine] Cinemags from the school’s library, we’d immediately order it.”

At that point, Mubarak’s love of films was ignited. But it’s not until he moved to Yogyakarta in 2007 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in international relations that he started digging deeper into it, thanks to the now-defunct independent film community Kinoki.

Through Kinoki, Mubarak met people who eventually shaped his taste in movies, those who were happy to engage in untiring critical discussions on films and their cultural contexts, including Kinoki founder Elida Tamalagi and film nerds Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, Windu Jusuf, and Corry Elyda, to name a few.

At first, Mubarak often felt left behind. When the others were passionately talking about the rain of frogs in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 classic Magnolia, he didn’t get it. When he had only watched several films from the French New Wave era from the late 1950s to 1960s, the others seemed to have known Agnès Varda, arguably the mother of that movement, inside out.

While working at an internet cafe, he tried to catch up with his Kinoki friends by downloading and watching various films. He also started writing movie reviews on his personal blog. “I was pushed to do more,” Mubarak said. “It’s really a healthy friendship.”

In 2010, Mubarak, Pasaribu, Jusuf, and Elyda together cofounded film criticism website Cinema Poetica. This paved the way for the former to watch and review more movies, network with various independent film communities and activists, and meet with important figures in the industry.

But Mubarak knew that discussing and analysing movies didn’t pay the bills, particularly in Indonesia. That’s why he decided to become a film lecturer in 2014, right after he completed his master’s degree in film studies at the Korea National University of Arts.

“As a lecturer, I spent time with film students, from whom I could learn about movie production,” Mubarak said. “And that’s what happened. I learned about production from them, while they learned about theories from me.”

Mubarak then started becoming a lecturer by day and screenwriter by night. And, when he made his first short movie in 2015, he decided to stop writing film reviews due to “moral conflict”. He realised that he had crossed the bridge, going from critiquing films to creating one, and he’s ready to face the consequences.

“I know that someday there will be people saying that my film is overrated or underrated,” said Mubarak. “If there are people berating my film, I’d just see it as karma.”

In 2016, he began developing Autobiography script, but production only kicked off a year later after he sent his draft to noted Indonesian producer Yulia Evina Bhara. Ever since, he has gone through a lot, including overhauling the script 12 times, finding the right financing scheme, working with collaborators from seven countries, and keeping the production alive amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

And now, after all the recognition the film has received and what happened in Venice, Mubarak still refuses to use his bragging rights.

He said: “In Venice, I defended my thesis, and I think I passed with a B.”


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