Why did the independent Islamic film community fail in Indonesia?

Last year when I lived in Jakarta, I chased down people of the Indonesian film community – producers, directors, critics, scholars, festival organisers – to talk about the boom years of ‘Islamic cinema’ following the success of Ayat-ayat Cinta (2008, dir. Hanung Bramantyo). In the following interview, I spoke with the film scholar Katinka van Heeren on why the independent Islamic film community consisting of film producers devoted to Islamic visual ethics and oppositional cinema failed to make a mark commercially since their inception in the mid 1990s.

Some context behind the interview, particularly when Katinka mentions the Muhammadiyah organisation who were behind the fledgling community:

Concerted attempts to create Islamic film-making communities were first established in 1996 by the mass Islamic organisation, the Muhammadiyah. Compelled by the newly gifted freedom to found media broadcasting companies on the basis of faith, the organisation along with others facilitated the training, screening of, and discussion on films for budding Muslim filmmakers. Previously, there had been no official guideline for making films that would later be marketed as ‘Islamic’.

In 2003, film companies and Islamic boarding schools worked in collaboration to produce the (now defunct) Morality Audio Visual Network (MAV-Net), whose main objective is to challenge the dominance of foreign films and strengthen the role of Islamic ‘visual ethics’ in film-making. MAV-Net’s view of ‘Islamic’ films departs from the Ramadan offerings on television. Their initial view of ‘Islamic visual ethics’ were found in the fringes of the mainstream media industry in the form of pirated VCDs of dubious documentaries about warfare and the military training from abroad. However, amid fears of associations with terrorism, this initial view has been retracted.

Islamic film organisations or ‘communities’ flourished during the climate of Reformasi because of the increasing numbers of Islamic institutions that began to approve of the training of young Muslims in film and media production and saw the benefit of media as a medium for preaching (van Heeren, 2012: 84). However, despite the rise of Islamic film communities during this period, only one film was made by these Islamic film communities and with little financial success.

According to van Heeren (2012 :121), MAV-Net’s manifesto of an Islamic cinema mirrors the tenets of oppositional Third Cinema in its aims of countering and rejecting the hegemony of Hollywood cinema and its undesirable copy-cat elements in Indonesian films. By the late 1990s, conspiracy theories of the influence of Zionist domination of imported media representations became another incentive to produce images that inspired Islamic and anti-Zionist fervour in Indonesia.

MAV-Net’s manifesto stressed their responsibility towards the global Muslim community in battling Zionist-dominated media emanating in the west believed to produce misrepresentations of Muslims and weaken the Islamic faith of Muslims who consume western media. MAV-Net eventually disbanded when regulations for what was allowable on screen became too complicated, in particular regulating what female and male actors can and cannot do in a film such as holding hands and the portrayal of romance or married couples by actors who were not married to each other.

Furthermore, MAV-Net was more interested in producing independent films but when with the success of commercial big-budgeted films such as Ayat-ayat Cinta dominated the public sphere, film-makers under the auspices of MAV-Net felt they could no longer compete with the impending juggernaut of the commercial ‘Islamic’ cinema.

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Reference
van Heeren, Katinka (2012) Contemporary Indonesian Film: Spirits of Reform and Ghosts from the Past, KITVL, Leiden.

My interview with film director Nia Dinata

Nia Dinata is one of Indonesia’s most important film-makers. Known for tackling subject matters such as abortion, polygamy, and sexualities in a profoundly refreshing way, the films of teh Nia have received worldwide acclaim outside the geographically parochial national film industry of Indonesia. I had the valuable opportunity to ask teh Nia about her views on gender in Indonesian cinema and the current trend of religiously themed films. This interview is one of my many interviews with members of Indonesia’s film community, its producers, directors, critics, and scholars.

The formidable film director and producer Nia Dinata. Source: The New York Times.

Length of interview: 24 minutes
Location: Kalyana Shira Films, South Jakarta, February 2012.

Alicia Izharuddin: Do you think there’s been a change in representations of women in Indonesian film?

Nia Dinata: Little change. Not as significant as people expected just because there are more women behind the scene does not mean it translates immediately to just portrayals of women on the screen. I don’t think it happens directly. But I see little changes here and there. It’s not as significant as the number of women who are now behind the cameras and behind film-making. I think we still need to work on that.

AI: What are we looking for? What kind of images of women that are not being shown enough in film right now?

ND: I feel that it’s still very rare for women to be heroes, as the major protagonist in a film. Not Or other minority characters, not just women – gay men, lesbian women. Mostly the heroes are still men. The kind of portrayal of women if they are female heroes like the films I watched last year, they are mostly women who are religious. If they are heroes, they should be religious. Have you done that research?

AI: Yes, I am doing that research.

ND: Most of the heroines have to be healthy, very religious, very conservative in their choice of lifestyles. So there’s still not enough room for women who are not religious. Or religious but they do not want to show it, they think religion is a private matter.

AI: So they don’t wear the jilbab.

ND: Yes. Women who are less ‘white’. Maybe a bit ‘grey’. Because we have a lot of films where we have the hero or heroine who have ‘grey’ characters – not black or white.

AI: Grey, as in ambiguous?

ND: Yes, ambiguous. I think it’s very rare to have that kind of characters. Ambiguous characters. I think Indonesian people are afraid of ambiguity. They are still afraid to admit that actually human beings can be a saint and evil. We are complex.

AI: But is that one of the problems with film-maker is that they’re too scared that audiences cannot accept complex characters.

ND: I don’t think it’s a matter of fear. It’s more a matter of ignorance. They didn’t even realise that ambiguity exists, that there are different gender portrayals or characteristics. Because there are not many women film makers who are also aware of gender issues.

AI: You’ve been known to make films about women that have been discussed before, like abortion, polygamy. What do you think is your approach to portraying men and masculinities?

ND: Oh I don’t know what my approach is. I’m not an expert in masculinity! If you like this world is already very masculine. The earth, I believe, is very feminine in the beginning. But in time, it became more masculine. Maybe there’s no relation to film at all. But in general, femininity is still considered a threat, a weakness. I have no approach to portraying masculinity.

AI: Because one of the films you produced, Quickie Express, was used in my class to study masculinities. The reason why I found it interesting is because …

ND: They’re not masculine at all.

AI: Even though they’re not masculine, they try to be. But in their efforts to be masculine, it becomes comedic. What is also interesting in the film is that you find many examples where you find the male sexuality is humiliated, being undone. Did you have to anything to say there about men in that film?

ND: Actually, the film was a parody. I love doing satire. And the film was a satire of society. And the reason why it’s so successful in terms of box office [sales] is because the public was mistaken. The film was mistaken for a very masculine film. People who have power and decide what films to watch are generally men – the masculine force. Of course it’s fun for me to see that actually they’re being put into this strategy and they eat it all up. And most of them still find it fun to watch. A small group [of male audiences] find it the opposite. Even the Om Rudi character who is very masculine and turn out to be gay. It’s an expression of while we can make films, we might as well use it to express our beliefs.

AI: Unfortunately the film was never really rigorously analysed. But when I watched it, I thought, so many things that could be unpacked. In your opinion, do you think it is possible for male film-makers to make representations of women that are very meaningful?

ND: I do. But we’re lacking is consciousness, mindfullness. Especially when we’re making films. Most of the male film-makers I believe they’re capable of making films about women in a very inspiring light, not necessarily positive. However, when they do it, they do it unconsciously. And when they don’t do it, they [also] do it unconsciously. We’re not brought up to do critical thinking of trying to analyse, criticise the society, and the imbalanced portrayals of men and women in the media. Unless it’s people like you or me who’ve taken classes on gender, women’s psychology or stuff like that in college. Most people are not trained especially in Asia to see with critical eyes about those things. I believe that male film-makers are not also not trained in those things. And when I point out, ‘oh I like that portrayal of women in this film or several others’. But I believe a man did that portrayals unconsciously, but not without real intention but because the story flow very well, it looks very artistic, the characters, not the women look stronger but not with mindfullness that it is important [to portray women in a meaningful way].

Film poster for Berbagi Suami (Love for Share, 2006) directed by Nia Dinata

AI: When I ask that question, I keep thinking about Perempuan berkalung sorban as an example of a male film-maker who is trying to say so many things about a woman’s experiences in a difficult and conservative environment. I just wondered why more women were not involved in a project like that?

ND: I cannot stand watching Perempuan berkalung sorban because there’s a lot of pretentiousness in it so I don’t know.

AI: Did you think it was too preachy?

ND: Yes, too preachy and that’s why I thought it was pretentious.

AI: Another thing I was wondering, back to women behind the camera. Why do you think there are not as many women behind the scenes? There is definitely a rise in the number of women producers. But the one who is calling the shots, the director, women in that role are still so few. Is there are reason why?

ND: It’s generally like all over the world right?

AI: Yes, of course. But is there a specific reason here in Indonesia? Because I’m comparing Malaysia. In Malaysia, we don’t have many women film-makers. We don’t have a very big population, but that’s not a good enough reason. But I wondered if there’s about the culture in film industry that is probably macho, not just male-dominated. Does it make more difficult for women in any way?

ND: I don’t think so. The environment is making it difficult but it has to come from the woman herself. Because I think this kind of progress that we’ve been through, the environment is very friendly at least the one that I’ve been through to both women and men. I think it has to come from the women herself to have the need and longing to call the shots. Because if they don’t try it they don’t know how exciting and invigorating for anybody to be able to visualise their thoughts.

AI: Do you think it’s something to do with power and leadership, and maybe women are not as willing to take up that role?

ND: Yes, I think it has something to do leadership, and something to do with the belief that women are better at organising and managing so they become very good producers. Which is true. So most people, they end up falling into that belief and decide for themselves, ‘I want to be a producer, instead of I want to be a director.’

AI: My last question; pertaining to films that feature a lot of Islamic elements in them. In the last few years, there have been a number of films about Islam and Muslim people. It was like a trend, however, they were not many women were who responsible for these films. Is there a reason maybe that Islam as a topic that may be too sensitive for women film-makers to take up?

ND: But for me, it’s all about trends. It’s all about big waves in Indonesia that have been for the past 4,5 years. It’s very trendy to even wear the jilbab, to be a born-again Muslim, to belong to a certain group of pengajian, another form of arisan. All my friends, say ‘Let’s join this pengjian. The ustaz is very nice. Let’s meet once or twice a week’. For them, it makes them happy because it is very trendy. It is trendy to launch your fashion, and after fashion it is movie and music. Which is why men love to do something based on their brain, not their heart. Their brain says Islam will make a lot of profit. But if you look deeper, the men are not even Muslims. So it’s just making a commodity out of Islam.

AI: But there are also a number of film-makers who get questioned about their qualifications to make films like that. Hanung Bramantyo gets questioned a lot about the kind representations of Islam and Muslims in his films, because they are more you could say ‘progressive’ and ‘liberal’. He is questioned about how good a Muslim he is, his actors are for example. To me, I find it interesting because the personal side of the film-maker is also being put in the spot.

ND: Well, it depends. When Hanung made Tanda Tanya, he has every right to make it because he has questions about Islam [in Indonesia] himself. Somebody whose name I don’t want to mention, who are Catholics who make religious films I don’t think it is fair. Because for me, it is fair for business. But content-wise, it is not. Everybody can make any film for the sake of business but I won’t watch that film because I get to choose what I want to watch. But it depends, if somebody makes a film that has questions about religion criticising religion, that’s fine, anybody can make. Anybody in their stage in life will have questions like that. It would be nice to have those questions up on the big screen. But if you’re making films that are very, very conservative, very black and white, without any critical thinking at all in your film where you are not even a Muslim. It’s kind of strange to me. It’s like putting business as your religion. I think people who are criticising film-makers who make films about religion are very shallow people because anybody can question about their religion, or question the existence of God.

AI: In Malaysia, we’re very conservative and we can’t just make films that question Islam. But in Indonesia, I also notice that those who are conservative share that same view.

ND: But that’s the risk of being a film-maker. If you want to tackle those issues you have to be prepared. But the difference between Malaysia and Indonesia is that you can actually do anything in Indonesia, it’s just a matter of whether you’re ready to be criticiesd or not. But in Malaysia, even when you have the intention it doesn’t mean you can materialise that intention.

AI: [Laughs] Yes, it’s tragic like that.

ND: Move to Indonesia to make films. [Laughs]

AI: [Laughs] OK, I think that’s all we have for today. Thank you, Teh Nia.

The cinema as house of worship

The cinema and house of worship might come across as incongruent bedfellows. From its earliest days to the present day, cinemas have either been burned to the ground or, more mercifully, closed down for being places of moral decay. Where there is compromise (thanks to heterosexist logic), female audiences are made to sit apart in the darkened theatre from their male counterpart to circumvent illicit behaviour between sexes.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The flickering image of a saint is more akin to religious iconography than actors in a theatrical passion play.

The story of early silent cinema has been a lot about the story of gods and prophets. More as a footnote than a celebrated touchstone in the history of cinema is the fact that seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War. One of the first American films was about the last of days of Christ called The Passion Play of Oberammegau (1898). The ‘father of Indian cinema’, D.G. Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the screen:

‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?’ [1]

The showing of the film The Life and Passion of the Christ (1908, dir. Ferdinand Zecca) in a New York theatre was criticised by a priest in Newark for not being shown in church instead. Commentators of the film suggested soothing organ music and incense to add to the religious atmosphere of the film showing in a theatre [2]. A maker of biblical epics of the silent era, D.W. Griffith was convinced that film could be used as medium of moral instruction.

In my own area of research, texts from the Quran have been represented in cinematic form in Indonesia. The 1980s became a period when certain Indonesian films began to be particularly preachy. One of the first (and only) Indonesian films to adapt Quranic texts was Kisah Anak-anak Adam (The Story of Adam’s children, 1988, dir. Ali Shahab). Kisah Anak-anak Adam is the Islamic version of the story of Adam’s rival sons, Qabil and Habil, who fight over the hand of their sister, Iqlima, with tragic results.

Clipping from Suara Karya Minggu (26 June 1988): Cara Lain Untuk Berdakwah (Another Way To Preach). Here, Qabil kills Habil to attain Iqlima for himself.

The director would lead a prayer before the shooting of the film to bless the crew and film-making process. You could also say that the prayers were also supposed to have added an aura of religiosity to the film-making experience. The film is argued to be an alternative, more popular way of proselytising (or dakwah) to audiences who were more keen to go to the cinema than to the mosque.

Beginning a film shoot with prayer is hardly a rare practice unique to Muslim film-makers. The shooting of Cecil B. De Mille King of Kings (1927) first began with a mass celebrated by the Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord who went on to write Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code. Even the actor who played Jesus is kept away from the rest of the cast during filming to imbue mystique to his role.

The cinematic visualisation of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that film can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Film with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, a sermon, or a statement which alludes that something highly moral and religious is to be learned from watching the film.

Defying all classical theories of secularisation and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, repackaged in a more popular format (some say commodified) have always found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier ways. With more films adapted from biblical texts still in the making, it seems as if the tension between cinemas as morally suspect places and religion may never be resolved once and for all.

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Reference
[1] Rachel Dwyer (2006) Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, Routledge.
[2] Jeffrey A. Smith (2001) ‘Hollywood theology: The commodification of religion in twentieth-century films’, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol 11 No 2, pp 191-231.

Mainstreaming Islam in the Indonesian public sphere: Ummi Aminah as a case study

The film premiere of Aditya Gumay’s newest film, Ummi Aminah (Mother Aminah) in Jakarta last January 2012 was situated at the crossroads of events in Indonesian film industry. Prior to the screening of the film, the film director’s address to the audience expressed a plea to the public to consume locally-made films. As I write this, the Indonesian film industry is experiencing a decline in cinema audience numbers. From a respectful 1 million viewers in 2010, now film-makers and producers can expect a modest half a million. Production values of current and future films, and the distribution and packaging of original DVDs will reflect the slump as well. Gumay’s latest offering, Ummi Aminah, to woo audiences is at once shrewd and chimes with the Indonesian socio-political zeitgeist.

The film is promoted as a ‘family film’ about a popular female preacher and the dramatic entanglements that befall her large family and her reputation as a religious leader. Ummi Aminah is mother to five children and grandmother of one. In her role as preacher, she is also ‘mother’ to her all-female congregation who pray with her and listen to her sermons. However, indiscretions within her family; rumours surrounding her oldest daughter Zarika’s involvement with a married man and her son Zainal’s arrest for drug trafficking move in tandem to threaten to not only tear her family apart but also tarnish her reputation as a credible leader both on the public and domestic front.

Via Wikipedia

Continue reading “Mainstreaming Islam in the Indonesian public sphere: Ummi Aminah as a case study”

Notes on power and the difficulties of theorising gender in Indonesian film-making

Talking about gender in Indonesian cinema is actually quite hard when you get down to establishing a sort of link between gender as an analytical construct and gender as understood in public discourse.

What was always frustrating, was that when one began to talk about gender in film, the conversation turns into a discussion about women in film; whether they are representations of or in terms of women’s roles in film production. Even though I make it a point to bring up masculinity in film-making, the discussion continued to be steered towards what my informants thought about the role of women in film. It seems as if gender was about women, and not about men. Thus it then became inevitable that my discussion about gender in Indonesian cinema, which takes into account both femininity and masculinity, is going against the natural current of discourse requiring, by implication, greater soul-searching and reading against the grain.

This is much like in the spirit of Richard Dyer’s description of male sexuality, that it is difficult to see it and talk about it, as it is like “air – you breathe it in all the time, but you aren’t not aware of it much” [1]. But this may have to do with the fact that historically, most Indonesian films throughout the New Order have been about men and when they do feature films with prominent female roles, they speak about men’s concerns or “spheres of action” while women fulfill merely a subsidiary role [2].

While I would agree that women in New Order cinema do play a secondary tole, I am inclined however to question the essentialising of what those spheres of action are. But this is how discourse and power relations and their intimate proximity to knowledge work; by highlighting, examining, scrutinising in microscopic detail the object we wish gain control of, through knowledge – by knowing more about them so we can control (if we wanted to) various aspect of our object of study/interest. And so how gender is taken to be seen as simply about women is a manifestation of a Foucaldian way of knowing; to know more about women and to gaze an object of study/scrutiny is to have further power over women (and indeed provide the resources for resistance).

The fixation of gender as women simultaneously elides the focus on the powerful and privileged of course. In the case of looking at gender in film, much has been discussed about women, queers, non-white (Asian, Black) characterisation in cinema. Only recently do we find the tables turned on the other, more powerful half of the power equation – masculinity and whiteness in film – discussed and therefore ‘exposed’ and losing its power as the epistemological voyeur in cinema.

To not ‘notice’ masculinity demonstrates how deeply impacted we are as film viewers by the dominant discourses of gender. We can argue that examining masculinity is more than just studying the men in films, but recognise the tropes or conventions male characters habitually exhibit and how the particular concerns expressed by the male characters drive the narrative of the film.

The next step in analysing gender in Indonesian film or any film for that matter is not to look specifically at femininity or masculinity at work on screen, but the gender dynamic, how the genders play against each other on screen. What I hope this can demonstrate is some semblance of gendered power differential played out between characters. Perhaps this analytical angle may provide an avenue for better understanding the ways in which representations of misogyny & propagation of certain gendered tropes are privileged and marginalised in film.

Besides masculinity, there is another taken-for-granted power relations at work in Indonesian film: Javanese cultural dominance.

In Indonesian cinema, we find other instances of power relations still under-examined, alongside masculinity vis a vis femininity in film, such as the Javanese cultural/linguistic dominance and the regionalisation of other Indonesian film set and made outside of Java. Karl Heider in Indonesian Cinema, National Culture on Screen, argues that Indonesian cinema has never really been regionalised, but rather nationalised due to lingua franca of Bahasa Indonesia in (all?) films during the New Order. The nationalisation of film was also an expression of Javanese cultural dominance imposed by Suharto’s regime on all modes of public communication, particularly cinema. But then, Heider’s book was written in 1991.

State control over the linguistic standardisation in Indonesian films explains why films made during the New Order, which are not only made in the standardised Bahasa Indonesia, but also more easily understood by Malay-speaking Malaysians. Whereas years following Suharto’s political demise, the cinematic articulation of Indonesian cinema was reclaimed by regionalisation. Indonesian films became more difficult for Malaysians to understand.

A case in point that signalled a cultural-linguistic dissonance between the two nations was when the film Ada Apa Dengan Cinta was broadcast on Malaysian television in 2003, with Malay subtitles. The much-talked about event perplexed local audiences who had assumed they would be able to largely understand the dialogue. Before then, working class Malaysians consumed plenty of Indonesian horror films VCDs and video tapes without Malay subtitles with enough comprehension of the dialogue and narrative.

Regionalisation meant that dialogue for films set in Jakarta for example would be heavily peppered with Jakarta slang and occasional Javanese (which would then come with subtitles in Bahasa Indonesia). Regionalisation of Indonesian cinema further underscores the vivid diversity of Indonesian peoples who do not necessarily understand each other linguistically but somehow remains largely silent, as a “national cinema”, who it largely represents.

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[1] Pg. 28 from Richard Dyer’s essay Male sexuality in the media, in The Sexuality of Men edited by Andy Metcalf, 1985, Pluto Press.

[2] Pg. 116 from Krishna Sen’s essay Repression and resistance: Interpretations of the feminine in Indonesian cinema, in Culture and society in New Order Indonesia: 1965-1990 edited by V. Hooker, 1995, Oxford University Press.

Sang Penari: the female body as a sexualised site of masculine struggle

At the time of writing, I was experiencing the warmth of critical acclaim bestowed on an Indonesian film that had just finished its all-too-brief exhibition at cinemas in Jakarta. The film, Sang Penari (The Dancer), is described by film critics as the apogee of Indonesian cinema 20111. Arguably the “best film” of last year, and further evidenced by its winning the award for Best Film at the Jakarta Film Festival. Based on the novel ‘Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk’ by Ahmad Tohari once banned under Suharto’s authoritarian regime2, it tells the story of the struggle between tradition, modernity, political struggle, and how it takes place on the female body, both literally and metaphorically.

Set in an isolated agrarian village in 1963, only a few years before the militarist coup led by Suharto against communism in Indonesia in 1965, the film begins with a scene of lustful village men enthralled by the ronggeng dancer and a young girl, Srintil, who is destined to take the dancer’s place. When Srintil’s father is accused of poisoning members of the villege, including the ronggeng dancer – all of whom have eaten his tempe bongrek – both Srintil’s mother and himself take their own lives by eating their poisoned product to prove their innocence.

To recover the honour of her family’s name, Srintil decides to take on the role of the ronggeng dancer herself much to the dismay of her childhood sweetheart, Rasus. Unbeknowst to Srintil however is the ronggeng’s other social role of providing sexual services to the men of the village. Realising that Srintil’s sexuality now belongs to every men and not his alone, Rasus leaves the village to become a member of the army where he is trained to participate in the crackdown of communist activity in villages, of which Dukuh Paruk will eventually play host to with fatal consequences. Although the villagers of Dukuh Paruk are mobilised to take their own collective destiny into their hands by defying a feudalistic system that contributed to their impoverished state, expressed through the melding of agrarian-centric communist ideals and the ronggeng dancer’s mystical power to bless their revolutionary efforts, their agency is proven futile and eventually diminished in a massacre.

The superstitious beliefs that the villagers invest in the power of the ronggeng, though much to the physical expense of Srintil, underscore their ‘backward’ worldview and imminent failure in the face of encroaching modernity, as symbolised by organised military and media technology such as the radio, a tool to usher in the red revolution. More heartfelt and frustrating, however, is the use of the central figure – the dancer, her body and sexuality – as the battleground of ideals and struggle pursued and fought out to various degrees of force by the men in the film. Rasus is the figure torn between nation-building and the grip of tradition symbolised by his love for Srintil. The communist activist and mobiliser Bakar is the agent of change and conflict. The dalang of the roenggeng, who legitimises Srintil’s sacred/profane role is also complicit, alongside Bakar, in the downfall of Dukuh Paruk. Throughout the masculinised machinations that determine the village’s fate, Srintil is given little agency and is thrust into one violent tribulation to another while clinging to the desire to dance the ronggeng.

Similar to other films depicting prominent female characters situated in the throes of nation-scale upheavals such as Nia Dinata’s Cau Bau Kan (The Courtesan, 2002), the fictional women are often at the mercy of the men who oppress them through the use of sexual violence. Indirectly, they are at the mercy of the state. But somehow at the same time, they are held up as (suffering) symbols of the nation. In nationalistic discourse, the nation is usually portrayed as femininie, the state masculine. The iconography of the motherland has often been constructed as either a nurturing mother or sensuous female servant3 In Indonesian nationalist discourse meanwhile, the nation, at times regarded as ibu pertiwi (the motherland) is framed as an anguished and suffering female beauty4. But I would further argue that the feminised iconograpby of the motherland requires the guardianship from invading (male) forces. The nation as feminine is passive and helpless. ‘She’ is subject to the threat of masculinised violation. The idea of the nation violated by colonial/imperialist presence is translated in literature and indeed on screen into a central female figure, whose subjugation to unwelcome (male) violation is always a sexual one.

With Sang Penari, we witness a return of the suffering feminine body as site of cultural/national struggle. And now garlanded with accolades and acclaim, we witness something of a nostalgia for cultural/national struggle that takes place on a woman’s body. The film suffers from little protest and criticism of the misogyny central to the narrative because it privileges other aspects; the film’s artistry and the recovery of a repressed literary voice, while marginalising the major strides female film-makers and feminist critics are making in redressing the male-dominance of Indonesian film-making and discourse. The unproblematic sensibility that Sang Penari receives from audiences and critics alike is perhaps reflective of its time; a time when some semblance of feminism has made a mark in Indonesian public discourse, and with it a sensibility that gender equality has at least been established since.

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Notes:

1I n personal conversation with film critic and scholar Tito Imanda.

2 The novel ‘tie-in’, Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk, enjoyed a prominent place in the best-seller’s corner in bookshops in Jakarta towards the end of 2011, re-emerging in print after decades of censorship.

3 ‘Virgin territories and motherlands: colonial and nationalist representations of Africa and Ireland’ by C.L. Innes (1994), Feminist Review No. 47, pp. 3-4.

4′ When the earth is female, and the nation is mother; Gender, the armed forces, and nationalism in Indonesia’, by Saraswati Sunindyo (1998), Feminist Review No. 58, pp.1-21.

Lecture notes: Trans identities and queer acceptance in Indonesian cinema?

The following are notes from my final lecture for Sex and the City: Gender and Sexuality in Southeast Asia on trans identities in Indonesian cinema.

Disclaimer on the use of ‘definitions’

Since I am teaching this class in English, to students in a British institution with a largely unproblematised epistemological culture that privileges western ways of knowing about the world with a penchant for derivatising non-western epistemologies as ‘critiques’ at best, adjuncts at worst, I will need to introduce my lecture on trans identities with terms we already know or at least recognise in our nomenclature for variant gendered subjectivities.

That said, does anyone in class know the differences between transgender, transsexual, queer, transvestite, cross-dressers, drag kings and drag queens?

Transgender is a broad term to describe people whose gender identities do not match their biological sex. Gender and sex are different. Gender denotes social characteristics that are usually used to differentiate between women from men. But this is a limiting, binaristic term that has a risk of becoming quite essentialist.

Cross-dressers and tranvestites tend to be used inter-changibly to describe people who simply have just have a preference, sometimes involving sexual arousal when they wear clothes worn usually by the opposite sex.

Queer is an umbrella term to denote sexual minorities and gender variant people. The term was reclaimed from the derogative term to mean homosexual individuals, and now it is used as a political position against heterosexist and transphobic ideologies and discourse.

Drag king is a female performance artists who dress and act like a caricuture man often performing stereotypes of men, incorporating singing and dancing at times. Drag Kings also do impersonations of famous male personalities like Elvis Presley, which is a drag king favourite – I believe both Annie Lennox and Sharleen Spiteri of the band texas have done Elvis impersonations, and very well, too. I’m sure you’re more familiar with drag queens, particularly now that we have Priscilla Queen of the Desert the musical on Shaftesbusy Avenue. Yes, what’s wrong with a bit singing and dancing men in drag and conflate trangender and transsexual people into the mix? Hm.

So, transsexuality is a person’s identification with a gender identity that is not consistent with biological sex. Transsexuality comes with a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex, usually accompanied by a sense of discomfort with, or inappropriateness of, one’s anatomic sex, and a wish to have surgery and hormonal treatment to make one’s body as congruent as possible with one’s preferred sex.

Transsexuality

Because I am using the terms transsexual women and men quite a lot in this lecture, I will use the terms cis-gender or cis-sexual women and men to describe people who are not transsexual. Mainly because if I said just ‘woman’ to describe cis-sexual woman, it seems as if the default woman is only those who are born with the biological sex and gender match. To use to term cis-sexual/cis-gender also destabilises the dominance and normality of cis-gender identities. It draws attention to the fact that we cannot take for granted that only cis-gender women are in fact ‘women’. Transsexual women are women, too. They identify as women, feel that they’re women inside, and most definitely prefer the pronoun ‘she’. It is very offensive for many transsexual women to be described as a ‘he’.

Representations of transsexuality – cliches and bad stereotypes

For the sake of the film, we will focus on transsexuality as characters in cinema more generally as opposed to simply transgender identities. And then I will focus on representations of characters assumed to be transsexual, transvestite, and just transgender in Indonesian film. Representations of transsexual identities in film tend to fall into a very limited, often very negative spectrum of freak-show exploitation that occur in documentaries, fictional film, and pornography.

In film-making of the Anglosphere, that includes Hollywood, independent American, British, and Australian cinema, transsexual characters are usually played by cis-sexual male actors and exhibit flamboyance, campness, tawdriness, and tragicomedy with great frequency. We have depictions of transsexuals as a joke: these characters tend to inhabit tragic and comedic roles often at their own expense. They’re often conflated with drag queens and cross-dressers who find themselves in outrageous situations where they are the source of the joke or object of derision. Transwoman actor and model Calpernia Addams who has written about representations of transsexual people in film, says that transsexuals in film can be summed in 4 P’s: Prostitutes, Psychos, Punchlines, and Poor Thing! Who are the “noble victim” of society’s intolerance.

In Hollywood film-making from the 1970s onwards, transsexual characters became psychopathic serial killers in the B-film Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde in 1971, Brian de Palma’s 1980’s Dressed to Kill, and the characterisation of Buffalo Bill in the Silence of the lambs, made in 1991. In both Dressed to Kill and Silence of the lambs, the serial killers were denied sex-reassignment surgery and because of this denial, murder people out of revenge for society’s lack of acceptance towards trans people, otherwise known as transphobia. The two films suggest that their murderous tendencies are all down to their lack of access to a sex reassignment surgery.

Then there are the films based true or actual documentaries depicting real-life transsexuals. Among them include the highly acclaimed Paris is Burning, an excellent film about the Black gay and transsexual ball in New York City. There is Southern Comfort about the female to male transsexual, and there is Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hilary Swank a cis-sexual woman who won an Oscar for her role in the film.

There will always been close-ups on transsexual women and men dressing up, putting on make-up, painting their nails, their wigs, bounding their breasts to make their chests flat. Such close-ups fetishise the bodies of transsexual people, and sexualise their body parts, objectifying them, turning them into objects of our prurient and voyeuristic interests. This is also typical in images that eroticise cis-women’s body parts, close-ups that focus on exposed or exposing body parts for the viewer’s pleasure. The use of close-ups here are certainly different; close-ups of transsexual bodies are meant to shock yet titillate, while close-ups of cis-women’s bodies are just titillating. These shots are problematic because they reduce ideas about femininity in very crude ways, through make-up, high heels, stockings, and clothes.

Clichés and stereotypes serve as a kind of shorthand that people use to categorise others into comfortable “types” without having to do much work, and even when someone seems to fit a cliché, there are always deeper levels. Outside of the easy clichés, there are so many other interesting realities that transsexual people experience.

The trends and stereotypes we’ve seen is largely part and parcel of how transphobic film industries tend to be, with little awareness of trans issues and rights, and most importantly the fact that there are always so few to no trans people working in the film industry. As one transsexual activist Calpernia Addams has observed, transsexual people very rarely are featured in film as themselves or as transsexual people. What is much rare still are transsexual people playing non-transsexual people. There are some similarities in the representations of transsexual people in Indonesian cinema.

Representations of transsexuality in Indonesian cinema

There are not many depictions of trans characters in Indonesian films. But when they are, transsexuality in New Order Indonesian cinema is mixed with cross-dressing and real transsexual characters. Depictions of trans people tend to be similar to some of the stereotypes in Anglo-American and Australian films of impoverished street sex workers and in newer post New Order Indonesian films, drag queens. In Indonesian films of the late 1970s, such as Betty Bencong Slebor, transgender women are featured as comedic relief. Oftentimes, they are ridiculed and denigrated in public. As shown in this clip from Betty Bencong Slebor, who is a domestic servant in an Indonesian household. Here, she is invited to sing in a village fair. But it becomes clear that people do not like her for some reason. Interestingly, we have a white woman from out of nowhere who is most vociferous in attacking Betty:

One film that stands out as a true-to-life depiction of life as a transsexual in Indonesia is Akulah Vivian (I am Vivian), also made in the late 1970s, about a woman who undergoes a sex reassignment surgery to transition from male to female. Vivian faces prejudice and transphobia, and eventually finds a cis-sexual man who loves her.

In the film we have watched today (Realita Cinta dan Rock n Roll, 2006) we have Mariana who challenges all previous stereotypes of the poor, desperate, and marginalised transsexual woman. We have a transsexual character who is a parent, wealthy, and a quirky combination of masculinity and femininity. In constrast to the maternal waria is the reflexive caricuture of Madame X, trans super hero and avenger of fellow waria who are victimised by a religious cult group. But how does this portrayal fare against the realities of being a trans person in Indonesia?

The reality of life as a waria in Indonesia

In Indonesia, there isn’t one term that best translates as “transsexual”. There is the waria, which is the combination of the Indonesian words for wanita to mean women and pria to mean men. In different parts of Indonesia, the cultural terms are different; in Bali and Sulawesi, they’re sometimes called Kedi. In Makkasar, they’re kawe-kawe. Among the Bugis and in Kalimantan, Borneo, they’re called the cultural term, calabai and calalai.

But the generic term waria has come to mean mainly transgender women who are born biologically male but feel that they have the ‘soul’ of a woman. Because sex reassignment surgery is very expensive and not available in hospitals, the sex reassignment surgeries are very rare, and so post-operation transsexuals in Indonesia are rare.

Waria tend to be confused with gay men a lot in Indonesia. The term that blurs trans people and gay men is banci, a broad pejorative term to describe any effeminate man, a man who does feminine work, a playground insult, a transgender or transsexual woman. The widespread use of a derogatory term that collapses multiple gender and sexual identities make it quite hard to get more neutral terms like waria and gay (the Indonesian version of gay) to come into wider use.

There is also a tendency to class warias as a “third gender”, which is now being challenged by scholars in Indonesian studies. I know that a number of authors on Indonesian studies such as Leonard and Barbara Andaya like this term, while Tom Boellstorff is more reluctant to use this term. Instead, he classes them as “male tranvestites” and “male transgenders.”

In some ways, I can understand why a lack of agreement on terms occurs; it’s mainly because people like to put categories on people’s gender usually without referring to gender variant individuals themselves what terms or pronouns would suit them best. Most of the people who make such categories are rarely ever trans people themselves and place labels as they please without causing much harm or identity crisis on people like themselves. It’s called cis-gender privilege.

Also ,we live in a gender-obsessed society. So we MUST know how to address a person: are they male or female. There’s a fascination, obsession, and insistence that we know one’s gender. Which is why many trans people are faced with the completely unsolicited question by total strangers, “Are you a bird or a bloke”?

When babies are born, is it a girl or a boy? When people do not fit our rather rigid gender binary, then we think we’re coming across a problem, an abnormality, and very often what we think as problems cause more complications on the lives of transgenderism and transsexual people.

For the sake of this class and some 101 guide to trans identities in Indonesia, it’s safe enough to categorise the waria under transgender or transsexual. Most seem to prefer to identify as women, so they are trans women. Unless many are versed in gender theory and fully embrace the notion that there’s a seperation between biological sex and gender which is socially constructed, many of which may belong to educated, middle-class economic bracket, we need to keep the gender categories loose due to difference in culture and class within cultures.

This includes the terms like gay, which is not really used as an identity marker in Indonesia very much unless you happen to identify with global, more western gay culture. Which is why David Cameron’s proposal to cut aid in non-western countries that do not have provisions that protect gay people is ignorant, classist, and Eurocentric. A country or cultures are not necessarily homophobic because many do not identify as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’, sometimes the terms, practices, and sexual norms which we may consider as homosexual or non-normative just happen to have different systems of classifications, names, or none at all.

To a certain extent, warias are generally considered acceptable for a variety of reasons, warias, just like the trans women in Malaysia and Singapore who called the Mak Nyah, are stereotypically known to be good as hair-dressers and make-up artists. Considered as experts of feminine beauty, they are usually hired as bridal make-up artists during weddings, and they’re called Mak Andam.

There’s also the local court tradition in southern Sulawesi of the bissu, who are holy individuals who are blessed with special powers. The bissu, although displaying both feminine and masculiine characteristics, mainly through attire, are not according to authors on Indonesian studies, waria. They are, as Tom Boellstorff rather clunkily coines them, the “ethnolocalised homosexualities and transvestite subject positions” or rather charmingly, ETPs.

But this does not mean that the waria do not experience discrimination, oppression, and violence on a regular basis in Indonesia. They do. As we recall in various scenes in Realita Cinta, the trans women in the beginning of the film are depicted as far from desirable and almost always as sex workers. Mariana, not matter hard she tries to be a good parent, Nugi’s idea of a ‘real’ family is a male father and female mother. Very heteronormative.

For the best accounts on the life of waria and gay men in Indonesia, I suggest you read the works of the Indonesian LGBT activist Dede Oetomo. According to Oetomo, although many warias wish to identify as women, and become real women through superficial appearances, many display characteristics that make them quite unique from other cis-gender women, such as greater physical strength to fight off other men, the boldness in attracting a cis-man’s attention, through groping and grabbing a man’s crotch that one perhaps never will see in Indonesian cis-gender women.

In sum, I would stress that it is important to consider gender categories as fluid. Although we may assume that biological sex is binaristic between male and female genitalia, new evidence is showing that even biological sex, based on our primary and secondary sexual characteristics – which are our primary being are sexual reproductive organs – our gonads, and sex organs. And secondary sexual characterisatics – hormones, things like facial hair, shape of face, growth or lack of growth in breasts – these things are shown to exist on spectrum. The fluidity of our biological sex and gender challenges some rigid ideas about makes a ‘real’ woman or ‘real’ man. These ideas are social and cultural. In the case of transsexual people in Indonesia, or the waria, some may identify with the globalised western framework of gender that seperates gender from biological sex. Other may not. Film currently may not or may not be the best forum to discuss the variances of gender. But we will find out in our tutorial. But now, we’ll take a 10 minute break.