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Widely regarded as the native Indonesian pioneer of the Cinema of Indonesia although films made by the Dutch date back to around 1926.

He was perhaps best known internationally for his 1961 film Fighters for Freedom which documented Indonesian independence from the Dutch and French. The film was entered into the 2nd Moscow International Film Festival. Ismail initially served in the army during the Dutch occupation. Later, following his dream of becoming a film director, he established "Perfini Studios", Indonesia's first film studios, in the early fifties.

A concert hall known as the Usmar Ismail Hall, which gives musical, opera and theatrical performances, was established in his name in Jakarta.

He died in Jakarta, on January 2, 1971, at the age of 50.

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