Bringing Indonesian Studies expertise to the big screen

Posted by | May 12, 2022 | Arts, Humanities | No Comments

University academics aren’t just educators – they are experts in their chosen fields. Their professional knowledge is often sought after, especially by those in non-academic industries. Even industry giants, such as Hollywood, need the help of academics from time to time.

Dr Jane Ahlstrand, Lecturer in Indonesian at UNE, was contacted last year with a rather interesting opportunity – to consult on a film. Due to her expertise in Indonesian Studies, Dr Ahlstrand was asked to be a cultural consultant on the upcoming Universal Pictures Film, Ticket to Paradise.

For those who may not be familiar with the role of a cultural consultant – it is a ubiquitous position in the screen industry that enables filmmakers to better represent a culture and meet cultural protocols on-screen. In Dr Ahlstrand’s words, a cultural consultant “helps the production team including the scriptwriter, arts and props department, and casting team represent a culture they may not be familiar with – ensuring that on-screen elements are portrayed in an authentic and respectful way.”

Jane was not alone in this position as one of her contemporaries, a Professor of Cultural Studies in Bali was also a consultant on the film. Jane explained that she was very relieved when she found out that a Balinese academic was also part of the project. “He provided important input from a Balinese perspective,” said Dr Ahlstrand. “It wouldn’t have been fair to just have an Australian dishing out all the cultural advice on Balinese culture, no matter how much respect and knowledge they have.”

The unique opportunity to consult on a film gave Jane the fantastic experience of seeing how a script can better adhere to cultural protocols and become more culturally appropriate over its development. Although when she first came on-board Jane didn’t know the size of the film’s production or much about its background.

“When I was sent the script, I immediately Googled the name of the writer only to discover it was written by a Hollywood director and screenwriter, Ol Parker. I then very eagerly set to work reading and revising it to ensure that the story made sense to me as an expert in Indonesian studies with a particular penchant for Bali. Long after I had completed my job, it was revealed that it would star none other than Juila Roberts and George Clooney!”

The role of the cultural consultant does not stop at the script however, as the presentation and visuals of the film also needs an expert’s eye. “I was later asked to prepare a detailed report on Balinese cultural traditions, particularly around marriage, given that a wedding is one of the main events and plot complications in the film,” Jane described.

“I embarked on extensive research and compiled an interactive report made up of text, images and footage. Due to the pandemic, it was shot in various locations around Queensland rather than in Bali, which meant they had to work extra hard to create an authentic Indonesian atmosphere.”

In the process of reading the script Jane needed to evaluate the text from many different angles, evaluating everything from Balinese character names to far more complicated issues, like the design and placement of a home. “This movie revolves around a wedding, so I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of Balinese marriage rites,” described Jane as she explained the research process. “The order of events, the offerings, the role of the priest, and costumes all differ according to budget, caste, and village. I had to conduct extensive research relying on books, academic papers, video footage and interviews with Balinese people from different parts of the island.”

With her expertise and passion for Balinese culture, Dr Ahlstrand explained how heartening it was to see the film centre on a cross-cultural romance. “I am hoping that the relationship comes across well on screen and breaks down invisible cultural barriers. I also loved talking to the art department about costumes. As a trained Balinese dancer, I am acutely aware of the importance of textiles to the pageantry of Balinese. I prepared an illustrated report detailing the clothes worn on different occasions for different genders and age groups.”

Jane also described how important cultural consultation has become in making films more culturally sensitivity – “driving for authentic representation is an absolute must, helped along by cultural consultants”. Jane expressed that this aspect of the role was the most significant for her because of the inevitable tensions that arose between her quest for authenticity and the agenda of Hollywood filmmakers. “For me, that was probably the most challenging aspect of the role as I tried to maintain cultural integrity while trying my best to uphold their demands and expectations.”

Ticket to Paradise is slated to release in October 2022. Dr Jane Ahlstrand says that she hopes the film is a success and that it helps raise the profile of Indonesian studies around the world, and particularly for Australian audiences. You can find out more about the film here.

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