S3E2: Dian Sastrowardoyo: Shaping Stories and Shattering Stereotypes

May 24, 2023
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Makthar Diop and Indonesian actress Dian Sastrowardoyo discuss the intersections of philosophy, cinema, finance, and gender.

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In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Makthar Diop and Indonesian actress Dian Sastrowardoyo discuss the intersections of philosophy, cinema, finance, and gender equality. Dian shares her unique journey, passion for women's stories, and transition to behind-the-camera roles. The conversation highlights female mentors, challenges faced by women leaders, and the importance of Indonesia's cultural heritage, including the art of Batik.


Makhtar Diop: Hello and welcome to Creative Development with IFC. My name is Makhtar Diop, and I am the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today, I am coming to you from Jakarta, Indonesia. It gives me great pleasure today to welcome one of Indonesia’s favorite daughters to my podcast, Dian Sastro-wardoyo. Dian is an award-winning actress, model, film producer and entrepreneur. She is also a very passionate advocate for girls’ education and women’s empowerment. She has partnered with organizations like UNICEF and MTV to highlight issues that affect young people from health to child trafficking. And she also uses her platform to draw attention to the climate crisis. Dian, it’s a pleasure to meet you, welcome to the show.

So Dian, it's a huge pleasure to be with you here to have a conversation. But when you look at what you've done in life, it's kind of a very interesting life. You started with philosophy. After, you moved to cinema, and after you went to finance. So why all these? How do they go together?

Dian Sastrowardoyo: When I was just beginning my career, and I just started finishing shooting my very first movies, I wanted to become a director, like a movie director. And I wanted to go to a film school, but my mother, don't let me and in Indonesia, there haven't been any formal education for film that is equivalent to a bachelor's degree. There was only like vocational education for filmmakers. And she wanted me to graduate with that kind of like high-brow degree because she's an English literature herself . So I come from a family of educators, like a lot of my family is actually teaching in universities and stuff. They at least expect me to graduate from bachelor equivalent of a degree. I think, if I took philosophy, then I might be able to be a director that can make fundamentally philosophical movies, eventually one day. Or at least that's what I thought. But actually, being in philosophy gives me like a foundation of how to think and how to argue in a lot of things in life. Also in film. And right now, as I'm starting to write and direct my own films right now, I can really relate how the philosophical background has given me that kind of structure and thinking, and preparing the themes and concepts I want to send across.

Makhtar: So you brought Simone de Beauvoir in your cinema, that's quite exciting to hear that. You jumped after, and moved onto the gender issues and you feel strongly about the role that cinema and art can do to really bring much more equity in this world between the men and women? So tell me a little bit, how was your first role when you were doing a movie about women?

Dian: Before I was just acting, right? And then, after 20 years of just acting, right now I'm taking a more pro-active role in the movie making industry, which is producing and writing and also now directing. Now I have been given a chance to speak more and decide more about the messages that I want to speak through the movies. And gender equality and stories about women is actually the thing that interests me the most as a filmmaker, because I think telling stories from the women point of view, stories that gravitate around women actually have a very unique perspective in seeing life and how they solve problems and how they navigate themselves around the problems of every events in their life, is very unique compared to stories that is being told from a male's perspective or male point of view. It's very interesting. If I can get back to the questions that you just asked me earlier, and you asked me that, why do I go to Finance after I've done so many movies? Actually, I've come to a period in my career that I was not very happy about the Indonesian film industry, that was back in 2005 / 2003-ish. And I was really ready to leave the industry, I really thought maybe it's not for me, I didn't feel I was growing anymore. And I was actually thinking about converting to a different profession. So I applied to more corporate career options. And one of them I applied to was the World Bank. I was actually offered this position around the climate change analysis. I think it's around the youth, climate change and impact towards economy or something, it was actually a very interesting role. And I was offered another role in the consulting world. So I pursued that one because it has more clear career path. At least that's what I thought, then. And then I pursued that career path. So I spent three and a half years in a consulting company which focuses on human capital, human resources.

Makhtar: You should’ve come to the World Bank! But I mean, you did better with your career and now you’re doing things that you know, a lot of us at the World Bank would have loved to do. It’s clear. So how is it for you, as a woman to move from being in front of the camera to being behind the camera? How was this transition?

Dian: I think I wouldn't have the guts or any idea to actually do it if I hadn't really took a break from film for six years, and then work in a corporate company for three and a half years - to have a concept and perception about how the business is going on in this in this country, and then go back to film again and have a better and more rounded view about the whole industry. And then I have the guts to, I think I can, assume a different role behind the camera as a producer. In a consulting company, I am exposed to several problems that all of the Indonesian companies that were our clients are facing, and I get an idea of how business are being run in this country. I get an idea of what are the challenges and what the economy is like. And then with that idea, with that view and understanding, I go back to the film industry with a new understanding that actually the film industry is actually in a very exciting moment at the time. Because when I was back, the international platform, OTT platforms, like Netflix, Disney Plus, and Amazon prime are starting to invest here. And it was, it was around 2016, when they just erased them as one of the negative sectors that can receive 100% investment, foreign investments. And that was the beginning of a very exciting moment for that particular industry. And, when I'm back, I get to be a part of what you can say, the golden era of Indonesian film industry. I mean, to look at our neighbors, the region, what's happening in Korea, and what's happening in the K-Pop industry and what that does to their economy. And it's quite a soft power, right? It's a new branding. Now, the whole world have a better view about how Koreans are like, because of K-Pop, because of Korean film industry. And that's how I see the potential that Indonesian film industry can actually bring to the whole branding of the whole country.

Makhtar: It’s interesting since I came here I’ve had two conversations on the creative industry. And it was exactly what you said: more and more people are looking at Korea and say why not in Indonesia? What happened in Korea? So I think that it's a good benchmark, because Korea is one of the leaders in the world in this industry. But to come back to your journey, when talking about becoming a director, often we talk about a role model of someone who inspired you. Do you think that it matters, the gender of the person who is mentoring you, if its a woman or a man?

Dian: I really think as a woman that really wants to grow more and assume more roles in whatever industry they're in, I think it's very crucial if they have a mentor. And it's going to be very, very different if the mentor is also a female leader, because that particular mentor would know all the challenges that she has already faced coming up into that particular position that they're in. And a male mentor would never understand the particular challenges that a woman would actually face. Because the challenges are different. Female career women, we are facing the challenge of work-life balance as a mother, and as a wife, and having a family and work-life balance, whereas male leaders, they don't really see this as a challenge, because they don't really need to meet the expectation of the society of you need to balance it, you know. But women, they are expected to have a balanced life because they have a big role in the family. You know, maternity leave, children's development is actually - it's like more of her responsibility, back home. And at work, she's also met with all these expectations to perform as far as the male counterparts. So that is actually a double standard for women that doesn't apply to male counterparts. So I think having female mentors also very crucial, I think, for every woman that is already in leadership positions, they should invite more women to join them because we need more women in leadership positions.

Makhtar: When you think about Indonesia, Batik comes often in the conversation. And you've been a champion of Batik. So we see an art. And often the question that it poses is that intellectual property is not protected. So you have a very complex, beautiful design in Batik and often people can take it from another place or reproduce it. And there is a challenge in protecting really their creativity and creation of people. What is your thinking about intellectual property around Batik?

Dian: I think, you know, there's been several discussion about who owns Batik but to me personally, what what actually very important about Batik is actually to contemplate the process behind it. The intrinsic value of Batik is actually, the process that that makes, that produces the end product. Like I'm wearing Batik myself, but for me to be able to wear this Batik end product, I'm looking at months of the process of mothers, you know, devoting their time, and their love and their attention towards these patterns, that they do it by hand, with such an intricate process. And the whole philosophical ideas behind the motives of it. The act of doing the Batik itself is actually, it's like meditating, it's like praying for you. So to imagine that when you're wearing the end product, you're actually wearing all the prayers of those mothers that work from their home, wholeheartedly producing these magnificent cloths. It's the philosophy and it's the process behind it that sometimes people just miss the whole philosophical value of it that you just discussing about the end product, it's not the product, it's it's basically; do you understand, and do you appreciate this whole value of it, that makes it so much special? I think you will lose even the point of wearing one if you just miss the whole idea about it, you know?

Makhtar: So it's not only the cloth…

Dian: It's everything, everything behind it. Yes.

Makhtar: Indonesia is a very diverse country. In geography, in population in culture. How do you feel this is influencing the way you look at your cinema?

Dian: I think, well, at the moment, our cinema contribution towards the creative industry is very small. It's really just a drop of the bucket. Compared to, let's say, the creative industry, there's like gaming industry, culinary, everything. But to see how cinema can actually sell soft power, it gives the world an idea of how Indonesians are like. That speaks a lot in terms of seeing Indonesian economy as a whole. I think it opens a lot of opportunities. It gives new ideas about what Indonesians are like, what Indonesia is like, it makes Indonesia more interesting. And to think where Indonesia is right now, from what I've learned, right now we are in a very ambitious road towards green economy by JOCO, we just made a huge idea about becoming like the hub of electric vehicle production for the region for the whole world, actually, because of the natural resources that we have. For that task, there's a lot of things that we need to do to to be able to support that idea, like the readiness of the Indonesian human; there's a lot of catching up to do in terms of the education system and, and there's a lot of cooperation that needs to be done, partnership needs to be done with not just Indonesian people, but also people from outside of the country. And that can only be done with bringing the branding of Indonesians - what Indonesians are like, what Indonesia is like - through the, you know, through the film, through the film, if film can cross over towards international viewers, you can actually give more positive ideas about how Indonesians are like so people can just have more opportunities to co-operate to make new ventures and it can only be done if you're familiar. I mean, [..] is an Indonesian saying, you won't be able to want to work with Indonesians if you don't know what Indonesians are, like in the first place. And I think film is doing a great job. And that's where I'm coming from. Indonesians should know how to tell better stories about what Indonesia is like, and what Indonesians are like. So that's where we're coming from, I think.

Makhtar: People like me, the first time we heard about Indonesia, was about the Asian-African conference of Bandung in 1955. My parents were talking about it when we were kids. We read and study at school in our history books. And that's the first thing we came to me when I heard the first time the word Indonesia, it was around Bandung. So today, what will be the place where you will like to see your movie, be projected, be seen, and they are not seeing now? Do you want the United States…

Dian: United States. I'm dreaming to see more Europeans, more people, more people in Africa, more people in Central Asia be more familiar of Indonesian films. I'm seeing at least regionally, I dream Indonesian films are being perceived well around the neighboring countries.

Makhtar: Do you see yourself collaborating with filmmakers from abroad, actors from abroad?

Dian: I hope so. But I think in order to do that, you also need to establish your foundations first, for local consumption. I mean, you can only grow if the local market can accept you. Because that's actually one of the biggest assets that we have. As one of the biggest country in the world, not all of us watched cinema, unfortunately. Before the pandemic, the Indonesian cinema-goers count to around 36 million viewers. And after the pandemic, in 2022, Indonesian viewers grows into 59 million. But if you can compare with the 275 million people of Indonesia, that's like very little percentage. It's way different than how the Indians go to the cinema. It's just their culture to go to the cinema. [They] celebrate life together by watching movies together. And that's not the case with Indonesians. So if we want to grow and make films that crossover internationally, I think we also need to make the Indonesian market also more stable. I think we need to educate the viewers to watch more Indonesian films, appreciate more Indonesian films, so so it can grow.

Makhtar: So tell me about your foundation.

Dian: So my foundation, I started at around 2006, I think 2008. I think we we started making programs, even when it was not founded yet. So we were having charity books, we established like, like a library, like a library in small villages in rural areas. We started from that kind of program.. And now we also grow into having a very, very small, self-funded scholarships for young girls from very low economic background, with very big ambitions. Because as modern as it is for Indonesian woman that we have Sri Mulyani, one of the coolest minister, that she's also a woman. And at the same time, we also still looking at child forced marriages in the rural rural areas in Indonesia. Young girls are still being forced to marry. And they're not being given opportunities to go to school into higher education. And that's where I'm coming from. I hope by helping five to seven girls a year, at least I'm contributing to more girls having access to higher education. And I'm so proud to say that out of the girls that we help, I think there's like around 31 girls that we have given scholarship to, 10 or 11 of them graduate college already and six of them are already working in prominent companies. One of them is working as a lawyer and one of the one of very, very established law firm in Jakarta. One of them is already a manager in a startup company in Yogyakarta. And to see where they were from before, before having an opportunity to get the scholarship, they were looking for an economic quick fix, because their parents really depend on them to give them money, right. So the parents just want them to take a job at a local Starmart, you know, becoming a cashier, getting like around 100 US dollar equivalent of a salary each month. But now after being given the opportunity to get a higher education in college, now they're like a manager of a startup. That's like so much big of a difference. And they can, you know, open more opportunities for the people around them.

Makhtar: So you mentioned Sri Mulyani. I worked with her for many years. She's a great economist, a very warm person, really a great ambassador of Indonesia and Indonesian women, for her achievement and personality also. So she's inspired, do you? How do you think that you inspiring girls today, who are in high school.

Dian: I really hope I can inspire more young girls to want to have their own career, even though they have families. And even though they got married and have a family, they still don't neglect their career. Because I think by doing that, they're also giving an example to their kids and to the future generation. Being a family person, a mother, doesn't necessarily mean that you need to choose whether it's your career or it's your family. A woman should not have to choose between that. And the whole society should start to understand that and support women to go and have their career, go and pursue their higher education and be mother and have a family. And for that to be able to happen you need the whole family and the whole society to support that as well.

Makhtar: Are you talking to young women directors. There is one for instance in my country, Mati Diop, who was at Cannes and a couple of years got a prize. Are you building a network of young directors?

Dian: Right now I'm still looking up towards younger women directors in Indonesia. I look up to my friends, that are already more established young female directors that went to Canne or other film festivals. Like Mouly Surya, she went to Cannes and Berlin Film Festival, and then Kamila Andini that just won multiple, multiple international film festivals. And I'm so blessed that I'm in the country where we have several brilliant bright female directors and female producers, just like my Shanti Herman, that we can learn from each other and inspire each other and become a support system towards one another. Because when we go abroad, when we go outside of the country, the challenges that we see is not only to tell the stories from a female point of view, but to tell the story from a Southeast Asian female point of view, that's like a very particular point of view. And the representation in the international market is very, very scarce for our voices. Because, like Canne Film Festival, see the representation for Asian cinemas is already represented by one Hong Kong film or one Chinese film. So that's it, it's well represented, right? But no, that's not the point. Because there's like so many diverse stories from Asia, and from Southeast Asia that needs to be heard. And you should not count representation just to see one Asian Film and then it's well represented. No, you need to listen everything. So the fight and the efforts that are being made needs to be done together. I think all of the directors from Asia, the storytellers, we should support one another, we should heard each other stories and we should, you know, uplift each other so we can be heard. I think that's that's the dream.

Makhtar: Dian everybody knows you here. Everybody knows you in Indonesia, people know you in Asia. If you are today, in front of a camera talking to a young girl in Africa who maybe doesn't know you, or in another part of the world. What do you tell her to inspire her?

Dian: I think I will tell her to never stop dreaming and never be afraid of dreaming something so high and then and believe that it can come true. And never think that anything could hinders you from reaching it. Because everything starts from an idea. Everything starts from a dream. If you've never thought about it, you never even thought it could actually possibly happen. I'm here because the ‘Little Dian’ was bold enough, audacious enough to make that big, hairy, audacious dream of hers to become famous, to become a filmmaker, to become a movie star. But ‘Little Dian’ was a nobody. But because ‘Little Dian’ was audacious enough to set up that dream, that audacious goal, I can walk here. And now I'm here and I can see the world in a different view. And now I can have bigger dreams. I can grow. And everything starts from a dream. Everything starts from a thought, and I think nobody should limit your thoughts. Nobody, nothing, not even you. Not even not not any circumstances.

Makhtar: So Dian, thanks so much. And I think that we go back to your point you started, because in fact, philosophy is also dreaming about things. And I think that by chance that you started studying philosophy, and I think you are seeing the world bigger than just what you're doing. And I think that I would like to thank you for being that and for really having this conversation with me and all those will be listening to us. It's a great to see a great actress like you and director like you joining us and inspiring so many young women in the world. Thank you so much.

Dian: Thank you so much.

Makhtar: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Frances for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your network and tell a friend.