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It is noon when Christine Hakim makes an entrance on the staircase of a hotel on Bali Island. The weather is balmy and the air has a faint smell of salt. Hakim wears a batik shirt with a cloud pattern and a jade-green lizard-skin tote bag slung over her shoulder. Her signature streak of green hair is barely noticeable when pulled tightly back. Hakim runs into Trade Minister Mari Elka Pangestu, who has just addressed a conference, at the reception desk.
The press immediately swarm around them. “Mbak Christine!” the photographers and journalists call out. Hakim answers questions with good humor and the poise that comes from being in the public eye for more than three decades. “There is still no one in the film industry who can rival her,” whispers a journalist.
Since Hakim launched her acting career in Teguh Karya’s “Cinta Pertama” (First Love) in 1973, barely an unkind word has been written about her in the media. It is not hard to see why. “As I age, my maternal side develops. I treat them like they are my children, even the older journalists,” Hakim says. “I jest with them, pretending to be difficult. They in turn try to coax me, as a child would coax their mother for a treat, to give them an interview,” she adds with a wink.
After the press conference, Hakim heads for the airport. The appearance of her very famous face — the vermilion lips, the warm eyes under darkened lashes, the beauty spot — causes many people to do a double take. Besides being a screen icon, Hakim was the first Indonesian to be invited to sit on the jury of the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival and she also graced the cover of TIME magazine as one of their Asian heroes of 2004 for her contributions to film and society. Yet it is with a deep sigh that she sums up her life in the limelight in one word: “heavy.”
“It was my never my intention to end up this way. I just wanted to be a good person,” she says, referring to her humanitarian work. “These are the consequences of the decisions I have made throughout my life. So I have to be consistent with my choices,” Hakim says. “In a way it is a moral burden — if I choose to let go of my commitments — because at times they involve the livelihoods of others.”
Hakim’s compassion for others and her nationalism are evident in the roles she has chosen to play in films such as “Daun Di Atas Bantal” (Leaf on a Pillow), about the lives of street children; “Serambi” (Verandah), about the aftermath of the tsunami in Aceh; and “Cut Nyak Dhien,” about an Acehnese freedom fighter. Hakim is also an advocate for public education and children’s welfare. “If I can help someone who is in need — and release them from their troubles — that is what makes me smile,” she says. “When I am in trouble and help comes my way, it is an incredible feeling. Because I have felt that, I want others to feel the same.”
In 2008, Hakim was appointed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco, to be a Goodwill Ambassador for Teacher Education in Southeast Asia. Her own foundation, The Christine Hakim Foundation, provides nutrition for malnourished children in West Java Province. “We [as public figures] do not always have to contribute to the community, but perhaps I want to give meaning to my own life. I feel if I do things only for myself then my life is less meaningful. But if my life can give meaning to others, then it has more purpose.”
A friend decides to fly back to Jakarta with Hakim and takes the last available seat — in economy. Without a second thought, Hakim gives up her business-class seat to her friend. “I much prefer sitting in the back of the plane,” she says, waiting patiently for the crowded line to move forward. “Besides, it is the safest place in case of a crash.” At lunchtime, Hakim takes out a brown paper package of rice from her favorite street stall in Bali. She politely refuses a stewardess’s offer of utensils. Her down-to-earth attitude — sitting in economy, eating rice with her hands — appears to puzzle the other passengers, who watch her constantly.
“Acting is a profession, just like any other. Life does not only encompass acting,” Hakim says. “The gist of life is not there [in film] but comes back to my existence as a human being. There is no difference between one person and another. We all have pluses and minuses. I do not feel I am better than anyone else.” Arriving at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta airport, Hakim sails through immigration, past a sea of officials’ smiles. “The kindness of others makes my life easier, but it has also become a burden for me. People are nice to me because they appreciate, respect and believe in me. In that sense, I have to tread carefully so as to not disappoint anyone.”
The arrival hall is almost empty — aside from a film crew on break. Their camera and sound rigs are strewn around the area. Hakim recognizes a few of the crew members and stops to chat. They discuss a movie that is currently in production in Jakarta. The verdict is not good. Hakim shakes her head sadly. “That film has been rife with problems from the start,” she says.
Once in her car, Hakim sinks back into her seat, clearly travel-weary. ”On three occasions I wanted to stop making films” she discloses, pausing for thought. “But my soul is in film. As humans, we all have a calling. We all have our own duties to fulfill — of that I am convinced. Whenever I face a major predicament, in other aspects of my life positive things, such as recognition for my work, appear. So how can I stop?” These awards symbolize people’s hopes and appreciation — their support. And so I continue,” Hakim says.
Back at her office in South Jakarta, Hakim rolls out a mat and begins to pray. The soft recitation of bismillah — in the name of Allah — resonates throughout the room. After praying , she changes into a boldly patterned top and a ruby-red Spanish-style tiered skirt. Hakim says she does not find it hard to be a woman working in a patriarchal culture. “I do not want to be a man. My femininity has become my strength. It sets me apart from men. It is an asset,” she says. “In life, you have to be able to be tender and hard. I can be hard, believe it or not,” she says.
Darkness hangs over the capital as Hakim makes her way to a gallery opening, where she is guest of honor. “In the end, it is my life,” she says. “But when people already respect and believe in me, they only want to see me as that person [they see onscreen]. They need to understand that I am also human and can also make mistakes. ” She reaches her destination and glides out of the car with a grand smile for the wall of photographers who greet her. Then Christine Hakim disappears into the throng.
(photo: AFP/Mychele Danau)