DOCS BY THE SEA. LAB: JULY 11–21, FORUM: AUGUST 18–26
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Interview with Ernest Hariyanto, Editing Lab Mentor

Interview with Ernest Hariyanto, Editing Lab Mentor

July, 20 - 2022

Ernest Hariyanto produced, wrote, and edited Jalanan (Streetside, 2013), a feature-length Indonesian documentary that won Best Documentary at the Busan International Film Festival 2013 and Best Documentary at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2014. His other credits include the internationally-acclaimed documentaries Laya Project (India, 2007), Let Elephant Be Elephant (Singapore, 2014), and Pulau Plastik (Plastic Island, Indonesia, 2021).

This interview talks about the challenges in documentary editing, shaping the Indonesian identity, and understanding different cultures and perspectives across Asia.

How’s your experience with Docs by the Sea so far? Was there anything you were most looking forward to?

I’m excited to meet the filmmakers and work on projects outside the Southeast Asian region, as this year’s Docs by the Sea is expanding and open for all Asian filmmakers. I feel honoured to represent Indonesia as a mentor, among other filmmakers from different parts of the world who I respect and admire. I think I can offer my understanding and perspective from my experiences living and working around Southeast Asia and South Asia in my mentorship session. That’s what makes me excited. I’m really enjoying the experience so far.

You’re involved in a lot of projects from outside of Indonesia. From all the projects that you’ve worked on, is there any underlying, universal theme?

I always try to work on stories or subjects that matter. Not only for me or the filmmaker personally but also for the audience of the region. I work on projects that I feel passionate about, that can create change or make an impact; from social documentaries, to elephant conservation in Africa, indigenous language preservation in Australia, and recently on the impact of plastic pollution in Indonesia.

When you work with a director is there an ideal type of relationship between editor and director? What makes it work? Are there certain conditions to make sure of a good output?

I like to work with a director who also understands the cause, and the effect that the story can have. It’s much bigger than they are. We’ll need to let go of the ego and any expectations for how the story should be, or how the story is supposed to be told. (They have to) understand the cause of the story, and try to do our best to find a way to communicate the cause, and to help people understand what the story is about.

Can you tell us more about your experience being an Editing Lab Mentor so far? Anything outstanding that you observe from the projects this year? Are there any patterns or interesting observations from the projects?

This year, the range of projects is quite vast; from projects that already have a rough cut, to projects that are actually still in production and still don’t have their ending. It’s interesting to help them figure it out what story they have from the existing footage. What else do they need to shoot to complete the story? What steps do they need to do before they apply for more funding, or to continue with their process?

I’m mentoring a project from Thailand this year, Breaking the Cycle. Since I was living in Bangkok previously and was going back and forth to Thailand for quite some time, I’m able to understand what the filmmakers are trying to achieve with their film and the circumstances of their challenges in the context of what the film is trying to communicate. At the same time, I have an external perspective of what context or background information they need to provide, so the audience from outside of Thailand can understand their story. I’m happy to support and work together with them to find the way the story needs to be told. 

I guess that’s my specialty. I was born and grew up in Asia, and have been living most of my life in different parts of the world, and working with projects and filmmakers from Australia, Europe, and the US. I have the sensibility to understand the different cultures and perspectives across Asia, whilst understanding what context and information that audiences outside of Asia need, to be able to understand a story, without losing the sensibility and cultural identity of the film.

In your experience working with many projects, what is usually the challenge for Indonesian filmmakers, specifically in terms of editing?

I think we’re still searching for that identity, what makes Indonesian documentaries Indonesian. It’s exciting that we’re still shaping our identity. What makes Indonesia “Indonesia”? 

I’m trying to inspire young filmmakers to not be afraid to break rules and boundaries and to find their own style and way to tell stories. We need to have more courage to speak up and be up close with the subject, to voice what’s needed in telling the story, but also be open-minded to receive different perspectives to make the story better understood by audiences outside of Indonesia.

In many cases, an editor might have hundreds of hours of footage to work on. In your experience, what’s the best way to tackle this? Is there a certain flow of work that an editor can follow?

It’s different with every project. Sometimes you have all the footage ready for you. Sometimes they haven’t finished shooting yet, so they can only give you half or a certain part of the project. But the process is always the same for me. I go through all the footage and try to find a few key images that I feel are meaningful and use that as a foundation. Then I build key scenes around those key images. And I assemble scenes around the key scenes to build the structure. It’s like building a house, you start with the foundation first. You build walls around it to make the structure and create the different rooms and partitions. You might decide to move and change the scenes around, but at least you know the structure and what the story is about.

Any tips on how to not get overwhelmed?

I always take time in between when I’m editing, step back from the project, have a break, or work on different projects and then go back with a different perspective. It helps you to not feel overwhelmed. You need to keep healthy boundaries in your work.

How do you tell when a film is good to finish or done?

When you make a documentary, even when you work with a small team or on your own, it can be quite a lonely process. It’s just you and your team, and the footage and the story. 

Once you reach that stage of rough cut, or when you’re ready for the film to be shown, that’s when platforms like Docs by the Sea are good for the filmmakers, to step out from that isolated place. And start receiving feedback and input. You have discussions, exchange ideas, and reshape and mould the film. Find out what works, and what doesn’t work for the film. Reshape it until you feel you have done your best with the footage that you have and it’s time for you to let it go. Don’t be afraid to show it to other filmmakers and receive feedback. 

That’s why I think it’s important to have a platform like Docs by the Sea, you build communities around. Not just people from your peers, but also from different countries, from different regions.

What would you like to see more of from young Indonesian documentary filmmakers?

I encourage filmmakers to find their own voice, their own language, and their own ways of telling the story while finding the universal way to connect to others through storytelling.

Being part of a forum like Docs by the Sea helps, not just for Indonesian documentary filmmakers, but also for other filmmakers in the region to find their own voices and identity,  while learning and receiving knowledge from European filmmakers, and those from different parts of the world. It’s an interesting process. I’m delighted to be part of Docs by the Sea, being part of this process, and finding that identity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.