Filmmaker Damien Dematra on Obama's Young Life in Indonesia

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ROMEO GACAD / AFP / Getty Images

Damien Dematra stands beside a portrait of 12-year-old American actor Hasan Faruq Ali, who plays a young Barack Obama in the Indonesian film Obama the Menteng Kid, which Dematra co-directed, on June 30, 2010

While Damien Dematra, an Indonesian artist, has penned at least 60 books, has produced 27 films and once painted 365 paintings over the span of a year, it's his most recent work that's made the most headlines. Two books, plus a movie that he wrote and co-directed (which debuted June 30), are about Barack Obama's childhood in Indonesia. Obama Anak Menteng, or Obama the Menteng Kid, may be a fictionalized account, but it's grounded in Dematra's real reporting. The film explores just one year, 1970, of Obama's past that the filmmaker says played an important role in forming the 44th President's character. Originally, the movie was to open in Indonesia in conjunction with Obama's visit there. And though he's had to postpone that visit several times, Indonesians this week will be able to get a peek of their "Little Barry." A few hours before the big premiere, Dematra spoke to TIME about the film.

Having researched Obama's young years, what do you think he learned from his time in Indonesia?
He learned a lot. I also wrote a book published this month called Obama Dari Asisi about his time [at the St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Elementary School]. That period is really different. In Assisi, he was educated for almost three years. In the Menteng school, which is a state school, he was educated with a Muslim influence. He learned that religion is all right and that it's fine to be different. A lot of people now consider him an icon of pluralism. Thank Indonesia for that.

How close are the movie and the book to Obama's real childhood in Indonesia?
I interviewed around 30 people to make the novel, and so there are plenty of dots. I used my expertise as a writer to connect all the dots. It's around 60% facts and 40% fiction.

Having done the 30 interviews and knowing what you know about President Obama today, how did you go about creating a new personality for Obama, the kid?
According to his friends, the way he walked, the way he talked and his body language during the '70s is so similar to today. Some of them didn't know the name Barack Obama. They called him Barry Soetoro at the time. But when they saw him on the television, they just knew it was him. The same charisma and aura around him now was around him as a kid.

Does the movie make a political statement?
I once told everyone, "This is not a political movie. This is a movie about a young kid who later on becomes the President." Some people made the strong statement, "Oh, come on, everything with Barack Obama is political." So I don't know.

You decided not to film a scene of the young Obama praying toward Mecca. Why did you make that choice?
It's in the book. They were trying to use it as a political weapon against the President. It's not that the President needs to be defended, but they were taking this scene out of context. In the book, while at Assisi, he was always trying to blend in. He went to the priest and tried to grab the bread for Catholic Mass. He asks for the bread, but he's not eligible. And in the Menteng school, when he saw his friends praying in a small mosque inside the school, he borrowed a sarong from his friends. He was trying to imitate his friends, but his sarong kept falling down. His friends couldn't pray at the time because they were laughing. Every time he stood up his sarong fell off. He was not used to it, not used to the praying. He was just a kid who wanted to blend in. He tried to imitate whatever his friends tried to do. When he saw people praying in a church, he tried the same thing. People want to take the scene out of context and want to use it as evidence that he's a Muslim. That's just not fair.

If Obama saw this movie, how do you imagine he would react to it?
If I were him, after I watched the movie in the White House, I would go to the Oval Office, and I would sit there and reflect for a couple of minutes. It would just be a good memory.

How would you describe the Obama character in the movie?
He's a good kid who likes sports. He's trying to find what he must do with his life. He's a fast learner and hardworking because he has to study two curricula. He has to wake up early in the morning. It was a tough life for him. After he studies the American curriculum, he goes to the local school, where he can't speak Bahasa in the beginning. To me, he's a conqueror.

How did you choose the actor Hasan Faruq Ali for the part of Obama?
I was working on a documentary movie about them. I discovered this guy. I said to his mum, He would be my No. 1 candidate for my next movie. After that, we tried to do a lot of casting, but we couldn't get anyone better than him. His father is African American, and his mother is Caucasian. He speaks English very well. He was born in the U.S., and he speaks Bahasa a little. He was a young boy when he got to Indonesia, and they treated him differently as well. He has some similar experiences to Obama.

What was the hardest part for Hasan in learning how to be Barack Obama?

The right and left hand! He's a right-handed kid, and we had a lot of Ping-Pong duels in the movie. Hasan had to play as a left-handed Ping-Pong player, and it was not easy.