This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.
When a country with little representation in Hollywood finally makes it to the international stage, it’s usually a cause for celebration. Young Indonesian director Livi Zheng used this sentiment to her advantage by continually boasting about her success since the release of her first film in 2015, but it turns out that her claims may not actually be true.
The spotlight fell on Zheng in late August, after the release of her latest film Bali: Beats of Paradise, when notable Indonesian directors began noticing that her claims don’t add up and could easily be refuted. Zheng has been trending in Indonesia for the past couple of weeks, with the controversy affecting her reputation. The issue has also evolved into a commentary on Indonesian press practices.
Zheng made her directorial debut in 2015 with the film Brush with Danger and was hailed as a promising young director by local media. The praises, however, were mostly based on the director’s claims in press conferences, interviews, and press releases that she “entered the Hollywood market” and “was selected” for an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (spoiler: she wasn’t).
Even Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, Head of Police Tito Karnavian, and Minister of Tourism Arief Yahya, were all praises when Bali: Beats of Paradise came out. They gave it a special endorsement for shining light on the traditional Indonesian instrument gamelan.
Her films’ actual performance tell a different story. Brush With Danger, which premiered with a limited theatrical release in the United States, and later distributed internationally, actually received poor reviews from critics, with a mere 3.7 score on IMDB. Bali: Beats of Paradise, which was screened in a New York cinema, scored even worse at 1.6.
Ever since more seasoned Indonesian directors took to Twitter to call Zheng out following the release of her latest movie, netizens have been picking apart her credibility as a director and criticising the mass media for buying into the 30-year-old’s claims about her achievements.
One critic was an anonymous writer on GeoTimes, who questioned reports from local media that Zheng had successfully “gone Hollywood.” They said that Zheng’s claims that negative opinions about her films were a hoax are untrue and reported that the Hollywood production house that supposedly supported her film production is allegedly owned by her mother.
It also seems Zheng’s knowledge of film is considerably limited for someone who claims to have a foothold in Hollywood. When asked about her experience and ambitions during an interview in 2016, she gave only vague, brief responses while constantly reminding the interviewer that she had other press events to attend. It was later revealed by Zheng’s former assistant that her father curates her statements to the press.
On Sept. 1, local TV station Metro TV invited Zheng on a talk show to address her claims. In the forum, experienced Indonesian directors Joko Anwar and John De Rantau said Zheng’s claims were premature and totally baseless. Anwar has also said that the media frenzy around the director’s supposed successes was a result of journalistic malpractice.
Zheng has since stopped defending herself, allowing the public to make their own judgements.
Ignatius Haryanto, founder of the Institute of Press Studies, echoed Anwar’s sentiments in an interview with VICE. He said that Indonesian media has a habit of featuring stories on “successful” figures without any verification. In Zheng’s case, “credible” media glorified her claims of “Hollywood success” which were perpetuated by Zheng’s PR team. Haryanto dubbed this controversy as a journalistic nightmare, saying reporters should be the first to blame when they provide inaccurate information.
“Between 2015 and 2019, Kompas, Indonesia’s leading media publication, published a total of 44 articles on Miss Zheng. That means about an article per month. For me personally, this is a bit overkill. Meanwhile, other local media looked at the facts regarding Miss Zheng. I noticed mistakes by journalists, who were uncritical of the information given to them by Miss Zheng,” said Haryanto, who has been a watchdog for Kompas since 2008. Kompas, CNN Indonesia, and countless other credible media outlets reported on Zheng’s alleged success over the past few years.
“Reporters should always check the information they receive, then cross-check it again. Unfortunately, they failed to do that,” he said.
Although Zheng and her PR team did not blatantly lie, they were found to have manipulated and handpicked facts, only focusing on the good parts of the director's career. For instance, Zheng claimed that her film “qualified for an Oscar nomination,” which the media interpreted as being shortlisted for a nomination. Anwar, however, said that even a B-movie would meet the Oscar selection committee’s administrative prerequisites, without taking the quality of the film into account.
In press releases, Zheng also cited positive reviews from Zimbabwe News, a media outlet that does not exist, and took an LA Times’ reviewer’s words out of context to use in her favour.
Haryanto said that Zheng’s goal of positive publicity is fair and expected, but that it’s up to reporters to fact check and provide accurate information. It’s controversies like this that threaten the public’s trust in the media, he said.
“We find a Livi Zheng in nearly every type of reporting, especially politics. Politicians always make exaggerated claims. She had no qualms doing just that,” Haryanto said. “The issue is, will the press eat up that information without checking it? Will they check and recheck all the information they receive?”