Posted by: mel | December 21, 2009

Indonesian films: Reviving or reining in?

Jakarta Post | Julia Suryakusuma,  Jakarta  | Review & Outlook | 21 December 2009

Cineasts’ protest: Prominent cineasts like producer Mira Lesmana (third right) and director Riri Reza (right) attend the House of Representatives’ plenary session. In September the House passed the much criticized Film law. JP/P.J. Leo

Tis the season to be merry, and the good news is that there’s more to celebrate than just Christmas and New Year. Yes, it’s almost 12 years since Reformasi began in 1998, but the current political mess doesn’t give us much to cheer about. So instead let’s celebrate 10 years since the spectacular revival of the Indonesian film industry began in the following year, 1999.

And what a revival! As one observer wrote, in just a decade Indonesian films have risen from obscurity to global recognition, screened in film festivals abroad and winning awards to boot. And they are appreciated and recognized at home as well, with production and attendance increasing dramatically.

That’s why an Indonesian film opened the Jakarta International Film Festival (JiFFest, Dec. 4 to 12) for first time ever this year. Adapted from the tetralogy by Andrea Hirata (…) Sang Pemimpi is the sequel to  Laskar Pelangi, Indonesia’s biggest box office hit of all time (drawing 4.7 million viewers), and that makes it very hot property indeed!

In fact, Indonesian audiences this year were spoiled for choice (if not always for quality), with a greater variety of genres and themes than ever before. Yes, there was the usual crop of clichéd horror shockers, comedies and silly teenage love stories produced for their income-generating properties, but there were also a few genres new to Indonesia’s silver screen, such as sports and animation, and some serious “message” films as well.

Of course using films to convey important social messages was what the New Order government prescribed in the past, but back then the message was tightly controlled. By contrast, “message” films today are products of the development of a genuinely independent social conscience, nurtured by 10 years of democratization, globalization and, needless to say, the Internet. They aren’t afraid to deal with once-taboo topics such as politics, ethnic and sexual identity or HIV/AIDS.

The rise of the Islamic conservatism that was an ironic result of post-1998 democratization and regional autonomy has also been tackled, with many new films taking Islamic themes. Some, like Ketika Cinta Bertasbih (When Love Prays), are little more than drama-romance in an “Islamic” wrapping. However, Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (Woman with a Headscarf) daringly criticizes Islamic patriarchy and the conservatism of pesantren (Islamic boarding school) life and values. It questions the position of women in Islam, and depicts the evils of polygamy (complete with scenes of domestic violence!).

The very down-to-earth Emak Ingin Naik Haji (Mum Wants to Go on the Haj) is another thoughtful film about Islam. It portrays a poor, 61-year-old widowed cake vendor whose deep desire to go on the haj is frustrated because she has no money. Her sad lot is contrasted with that of her wealthy neighbor, who goes just out of habit, and a businessman who aspires to become mayor and goes only to get the title of “haji” for political expediency. The road to God is fraught with class differences, it seems.

In fact, social critique is commonplace in Indonesian films these days. Even films that center on children expose the harsh realities of their life, as in Jermal ( a moving portrayal of the inhumanity of child labor, and Sepuluh (Ten, about street children. Yet another was Jamila and the President, which dealt with child prostitution and trafficking (

Two recent children’s films happened to revolve around sports: badminton in King, and football in Garuda di Dadaku (Garuda on my Chest — see They shared the aim of inspiring nationalism and encouraging kids to reach for their dreams. This was also the message in Meraih Mimpi (Capture Your Dream,, Indonesia’s first-ever 3-D animated musical, reminiscent of the 2005 animated movie Madagascar, but with a feminist twist. This was not surprising, given that the co-producers included Nia Dinata, one of Indonesia’s most prominent filmmakers. Gender is a major theme for her as it is for many of the new generation of directors and producers.

National and ethnic identity were also explored in Merah Putih (Red and White, Indo-nesia’s national flag), a film about Indonesia’s struggle for independence, and it came up again in Merantau, an action movie featuring silat, the Indonesian martial art from West Sumatra. Ironically, both relied on foreign funding, and more than just a little foreign technical assistance (see

2009 also saw two films about the Chinese. Cin(T)a is a gentle film about a Chinese-Batak Christian man and a Javanese Muslim woman “who can’t love each other because they call God by different names”. The second, Babi Buta Ingin Terbang (The Blind Pig that Want to Fly), is a daring (if bleak) film about the oppressive nature of being Chinese in Indonesia.

Wakil Rakyat (People’s Representative) and Capres (Presidential Candidate) were both political parodies, which struggled a bit to get off the ground but which weren’t bad for starters.
One film that didn’t quite make it was Ruma Maida (Maida’s House,…). Seeking to instill an understanding of Indonesian history, its heart was in the right place but it was held back by a clunky script that replaced dialogue with ideological speeches. Bad directing and acting, as well as “pasted-on” scenes, didn’t help either.

I suspect this trend of rich and varied social themes and film genres will continue in 2010 with, hopefully, a more sophisticated treatment of political events and history. Given the focus on anticorruption efforts this year, I’ll even predict there’ll be a film on KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) too! Maybe animated, with a cheeky gecko in the leading role?

Yes, Indonesia’s 10-year film revival has been a great success, so let’s hope it won’t be reined in by new film and censorship laws passed recently that filmmakers fear will hamper creativity and freedom of expression, and send us back to the dark days of New Order repression.

Who knows, maybe in 2010 someone will make a film about that too?

The writer ( is the author of Julia’s Jihad.


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