Written by Arya Harsono
“[I]t is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power…The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Danger of a Single Story
Diversity and representation in film has been a contentious topic in the last few years. From #OscarsSoWhite to stereotypical portrayals of marginalized populations, the lack of inclusion in cinema is egregiously noticeable.
I, like many others, have longed for more Asian representation in Hollywood, but especially for my own Indonesian people and culture. As an Indonesian abroad, I have often been exasperated by the ignorance of many Americans about my country. Films like Eat, Pray, Love and The Raid: Redemption have given American audiences a glimpse into the beauty of the country and the abilities of its people, yet I’m still asked by Americans where Indonesia is in Bali (hint: Bali is inside Indonesia).
A 2018 study from USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that many groups were underrepresented in the top 1,100 films within the last decade. Though the study focuses on the faces on the screen, the report’s author, Stacy L. Smith, notes, “The lack of inclusion on screen is matched and exceeded by the exclusion behind the camera.”
Blockbusters are especially susceptible of perverting a race or culture when they are based on the views of those who have the power to misrepresent and exploit those races and cultures. Under these circumstances, American audiences may continue to have the same notions of cultures they are otherwise unfamiliar with, which, at its most extreme, can exacerbate xenophobia, but at its mildest, prolong the idea that Bali is its own country.
On the other hand, being fortunate enough to be exposed to and educated about different cultures may provide such people with the qualifications to represent them. That, however, does not remedy the frustrations of the underrepresented, who feel that inclusion must not only be driven by the market but also directed from the top-down.
One such Indonesian director has made it her mission to rectify this, at least for Indonesian culture. Livi Zheng, a fellow USC alum, has garnered much attention in the last few years: her documentary Bali: Beats of Paradise was in contention, among 347 others, for Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards (which the Indonesia media erroneously reported that it was nominated) and scored a screening at the Disney Animation studio with Raya director Paul Briggs, among other Disney executives and producers, in attendance.
As a result, Livi was reportedly contracted as a consultant on Southeast Asia for the studio earlier this year. Whether she is involved in Raya in any capacity is unconfirmed, but she certainly could be in an influential position.
Across the pond, however, a different story emerged: several exposés surfaced in August suggested that Livi and her production company, Sun and Moon Films, were embellishing her accolades and deliberately misleading the media to paint her as the champion of Indonesian culture in the US.
The articles also argued that claim of her contention for an Oscar was based on a half-truth, spun from the Academy’s rules. According to the guidelines, to be eligible to be in contention of an Academy Award simply required, among technical specifics, being exhibited in cinemas in LA for at least a week – time that can be bought, if you can afford it.
And afford it, Livi could. According to the muckrakers, her parents are wealthy real estate moguls in Indonesia, owning a significant portion of land and developments in Jakarta. Her family’s wealth has bought her not only a production company, but also a career and a $2.5 million mansion on Los Feliz Boulevard.
What kind of message does this send to budding artists from Indonesia who regale in the Hollywood lifestyle they see in Western media? Especially for those embedded in the poverty trap, where resources to learn and make movies are constantly out of reach – does Livi’s story demonstrate that success is only deserving of the wealthy?
“Is Livi representing a persona or representing the country?" wonders director John de Rantau on a MetroTV segment that aired over Labor Day weekend. Both Livi and industry professionals, including Joko Anwar, were given an opportunity to address the controversy, though it seemed more like a chance for the filmmakers to roast her. The concluding remarks opted to remind journalists and readers of the necessity of fact checking, especially in the age of “fake news."
Of course, it is the business of Hollywood to market yourself and your work. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is not a novel or necessarily malevolent concept. But if the kind of privilege that Livi harbors from the public is any indicator of the status of creative decision-makers, Raya risks facing the same criticism as Crazy Rich Asians for being ‘affluence-porn’ that reflect its characters “according to white norms”.
In seeking transparency and accurate representation, acknowledging one’s privilege is the first step. Remind audiences that what films illustrate are the views of a minority and not the whole picture. Movies and media alike should implore audiences to dig deeper, to not accept information at face value. Only then can the film community, and hopefully global societies, exist in a healthy ecosystem grounded in trust.
I have always believed film has the power to influence positive change in the world, but it needs to be a joint effort from both the consumers and the producers. It starts by focusing on the people and their stories.
EDITED TO ADD ON 9/16/19 AT 4 PST:
UPDATE: An unofficial source claims that Disney has confirmed Livi's involvement as a consultant for Raya and the Last Dragon. Link here.