Alternative Histories of Indonesian Cinema

Originally published on 12 September 2013 at Cinema Poetica / Translated by Margaretha Quina

One of the open-air film screenings during Festival Film Purbalingga 2013

Documentations about Indonesian cinema culture are still limited to film releases in movie theaters. For local films, publish the box-office figures for the latest Indonesian films every Monday. Various media, printed and online also diligently report the latest news from Indonesian film industry.

The matter is more complicated for imported films. We know only about the popularity of Hollywood products among Indonesian audience from the frequency of Indonesian media and blogs in reporting the gossip about its celebrities as well as the latest updates for the upcoming film releases. However, we never knew how much space these imported films occupy in the Indonesian film industry. The most comprehensive data is surely possessed by the importers, while the exhibitors is yet to fulfill their statutory duty to publish box-office figures, as mandated by Article 33 of the Law No. 33/2009 on films., previously a reliable source for box-office statistics of imported films, is no longer supplying information for Indonesia region since December 2012.

These admittedly incomplete records suggest movie theaters in Indonesia are attracting less and less audience than they used to be, at least for the case of Indonesian films. Out of 247 million people in the whole archipelago, only 15.5 million or 6.2 percent watched Indonesian films in 2014. It is slightly higher than 2013’s 12.8 million and lower than 2012’s 18.9 million. For comparison, during the ‘golden era’ from 2008 to 2009 when films like Riri Riza’s Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops) and Hanung Bramantyo’s Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) were much discussed by public, Indonesian films could reap 32 and 30 million audience. As we can see, the potential audience of Indonesian films is actually that high.

No wonder that we hear more complaints from workers, lovers and defenders of Indonesian films about the audiences’ unwillingness to watch Indonesian films in movie theaters. Some complained that the audience deliberately chooses to wait one until two months to watch Indonesian films for free in public television.

These complaints do have a point. The truth is, the film market in Indonesia (read: the quantity of screens and seats in the movie theaters) is not large enough to serve a population as big as the nation.[i] Indonesia has only 1015 screens in 242 theaters. It means that one screen have to serve 246 thousands people.[ii] Around 41 percent or 423 screens of 105 theaters are centered in Greater Jakarta area (Jabodetabek), or on a larger scale, 74 percent or 752 screens of 188 theaters are centered in Java. The rest of the archipelago, which are inhabited by approximately almost half of the population, must suit themselves with the remaining 26 percent or 263 screens in only 54 theaters.

Indeed, this is not ideal for a country with such huge population and vast area like Indonesia. Such small market is packed with imported films. According to the statistic published by the Film Industry Development Directorate of the Tourism Ministry, there were 260 imported films in comparison to 136 Indonesian films that were screened in movie theaters in 2014—the difference was almost twofold.[iii] In 2013, the difference was more drastic—a total of 287 imported films competed with 105 Indonesian films.

We can imagine how difficult for Indonesian filmmakers to even survive in such a crowded market, including those who are often criticized for making films only for profit. It can also be understood why there are more and more Indonesian filmmakers who quickly sold their broadcasting right to television channels in order to cover the production costs. This creates a vicious circle of its own: the more Indonesian films broadcasted in television, the more reluctant the audience to watch movies in theaters, and the tougher the filmmakers’ pursuit for livelihood.

Indonesian media typically responded this phenomenon with various narratives about crises. Headlines such as “degradation of national film industry,” “Indonesian cinema needs help,” or “the collapse of Indonesian cinema,” would dominate the media. For every innovation in the market, for example, one movie which was a big hit in the theaters or Indonesian film screened in the prestigious festivals abroad such as Cannes, the narrative presented by the media tends to frame it in a way that a crisis is being confronted by Indonesian film industry: “Indonesian cinema is crawling up,” “new hope for Indonesian film industry,” “the revival of national film industry,” and the like. However, is it actually true that Indonesian cinema is that desperate?

The reality of Indonesian cinema is indeed complicated, but we need to rethink our perspective. Is it true that our cinema culture is limited only to movie theaters and television? Is it true that the movement of Indonesian cinema culture only goes up and down in the box-office rankings, but does not expand to the whole archipelago? The current fixation on films released in movie theaters actually shut our eyes to the developments and breakthroughs in other arenas, in environments far from the presence of movie theaters and intervention of the national film industry. These contribute greatly to the making and development of Indonesia’s cinema culture. Indeed, a separate research is necessary to completely answer the questions above, but there are recent trends that we could use as our starting points.

Independent film screening in Palu

New Perspective

Indonesian cinema culture has actually been much developed by communities and innovations in the grassroots. Purbalingga, a small city in Central Java, was the most outstanding one during these past years, thanks to the presence of its local films in the national film festivals. One of the most talked-about was SMK Rembang (vocational school) student Misyatun’s Lawuh Boled (The Breakfast) by Misyatun, the champion of Gayaman (student category) in the Solo Film Festival 2013. Meanwhile, SMA Kutasari (high school) student Achmad Ulfi’s Penderes dan Pengidep (Sugar and Eyelashes) won the student film competition at 2014 Festival Film Dokumenter (Documentary Film Festival) in Yogyakarta. Purbalingga-based film group Cinema Lovers Community and Jaringan Kerja Film Banyumas (Banyumas Film Network) which actively conduct screenings and workshops in various schools for couple of years, present audiovisual awareness and competition among the students are behind these accomplishments.[iv]

Furthermore, at the beginning of 2000s, a collective, named Youth Power, produced two short films: Kepada Yang Terhormat Titik Dua (To the Esteemed) in 2001 and Surat Pukul 00:00 (The Letters from Midnight) in 2002. From 2002 until 2005, Youth Power conducted a series of film screenings and discussions, entitled Pesta Sinema Indonesia (Indonesian Cinema Party). This activity encouraged film productions in Purbalingga and connected local films of Banyumas, a regency near Purbalingga, with people outside Banyumas.[v] Then, there was Purbalingga Film Festival, in its seventh year now, which screened local short films and national feature films through “layar tancap”—a term for humble open-air screenings in the villages. This festival was considerably successful in fostering a unique cinema culture. It creates the works of local people that managed to articulate their surrounding environment, a consistent channel for those local films, and a new watching habit among the local people. The audience came in great number to the festival in order to see their friends, neighbors, relatives, and parents in the big screen.

In Karangmoncol, a mountainous area located north to the urbanized Purbalingga, a different form of film activities were practiced by SMPN 4 Satu Atap public junior high school. This school found a little exposure in the national media when Pigura (Frames) by Darti and Yasin and Langka Receh (Candies for Coins) by Eka Susilawati and Miftakhatun were nominated as the best shorts in Festival Film Indonesia, a prestigious state-funded film award, in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Both films were produced by students that participated in SMPN 4 Satu Atap’s film program, an extracurricular course established by the school’s teachers in 2008. The school itself was established in 2007, to accommodate graduates from the elementary schools in the area—so they do not have to travel far to the junior high schools outside Karangmoncol to continue their education.

An interesting fact often missed by the mainstream media is SMPN 4 Satu Atap has been conducting their film program despite the lack of reliable electricity network in Karangmoncol. Blackouts and brownouts happen almost daily, especially during the day, in Karangmoncol. According to Aris Prasetyo, the teacher in charge for the film program in the school, the extracurricular course was actually a way to attract the children in the area to go to school.[vi] In the beginning, the school had only 39 students. After numerous screenings of the school’s films in the area, also numerous success stories of Karangmoncol films spread through word-of-mouth, SMPN 4 Satu Atap now hosts more than two hundred students.

Another interesting development took place far away from Jakarta, which is in Palu, Central Sulawesi. The media spotlighted this area due to the victory of Halaman Belakang (The Backyard) by Yusuf Radjamuda in the 2013 Solo Film Festival. Adding to the media exposure is the presence of Anganku Tinggi ke Bawah (Wishful Dreams) by Charles Edward and Matahari (the Sun) by Yusuf Radjamuda in XXI Short Film Festival in 2013. Despite the spotlight, many people failed to notice or did not know that such breakthrough occurred when Palu had no single movie theater. The last theater in the city was the Palu Studio that was shut down in 2000—until the 21 Cineplex Group opened a movie theater in the Grand Mall Palu shopping center in 2015.[vii] Since 2005, Palu found its articulation in videos and short films produced by film makers like Dedi Bujang, Yusuf Radjamuda, Eldiansyah Ancha Latief, and many more.[viii]

The cinema spectatorship in Palu grew as a result of a number of exhibition initiatives. In 2009, Eksebisi Felem Kita (Our Film Exhibition) routinely screened short films for Palu youths. Perpustakaan Mini Nemubuku (Nemubuku Mini Library), pioneered by Neni Muhidin in 2011, served as a discussion center for the literature and film enthusiasts. A cine club, named Bioskop Jumat Palu (Palu Friday Cinema), also actively conducted public screening. The club became the local partner for the German Cinema Film Festival held by Goethe Institute in June 2013. Not to be forgotten the informal screenings that collected payment for screening pirated or downloaded Indonesian mainstream films.[ix] A considerably famous case was the screening of Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in the auditorium of RRI Building—a state-owned radio station—by a group of high-school students. The movie screened was the version containing time code and each of the audience was charged with entry Rp 10,000 (73 US Cent). After weekly screening for a whole month, the organizer profited hundreds of million rupiah—which they used to organize a music event in their school.

It is the time for these local struggles to be recorded and written into history, because they contribute greatly to the development of Indonesian cinema culture. We need to look back how Yogyakarta from the beginning through the end of 2000s had been crowded with public screenings and discussions organized by Komunitas Dokumenter (Documentary Community) via the annual Documentary Film Festival; film community Kinoki via the monthly screening programs in their coffee shop; youth community media Kampung Halaman via film screenings and audiovisual training programs for children, teenagers, and villagers; the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival via the community forum and the screenings of selected Indonesian and Asian films; and numerous ciné-clubs in the city’s campuses. Also, in Yogyakarta, there is a rather peculiar competition between internet cafes in building film collection within their servers, ranging from Hollywood blockbusters, international arthouse films, to local films. This is obviously a cultural privilege for film lovers in Yogyakarta. The city’s rich and dynamic environment has been credited in developing the peculiar aesthetics of directors who are all now considered emerging talents in Indonesian and international cinema. They include Ifa Isfansyah, Eddie Cahyono, Yosep Anggi Noen, BW Purbanegara, Ismail Basbeth, Senoaji Julius, and Kuntz Agus.

We also need to track down various programs organized by Forum Lenteng, a Jakarta-based visual art community and research group, from the audiovisual training programs to the screening of important films of world cinema history with Indonesian subtitles. Their partners included the communities in Padang Panjang in West Sumatra, Blora in Central Java, Cirebon in West Java to Lebak’s Rangkasbitung and South Tangerang in Banten. The collaboration of Forum Lenteng with Saidjah Forum of Rangkasbitung in 2011 led to the production of Dongeng Rangkas (Rangkasbitung: A Piece of Tale) while their work with Komunitas Djuanda of South Tangerang in 2012 resulted Naga yang Berjalan di Atas Air (The Dragon Who Walks on Water). Last August, during the 2013 ARKIPEL International Documentary & Experimental Film Festival, Komunitas Pasir Putih, a non-profit organization focusing on art development from Lombok, launched Elesan Deq a Tutuq (The Unfinished Stream), a documentary co-produced with Forum Lenteng. The film records the daily life of youngsters in Lombok who face new cultures brought by tourists in the last couple of years.

Those were just the beginning. We also must track down the film initiatives that have been or currently being conducted in Malang, Bandung, Surabaya, Bandar Lampung, Denpasar, Jember, Medan, Madura, Palembang, East Java’s Kediri and Lumajang, Papua, Banda Aceh, and Makassar. Those were only the ones that the writer has managed to note—it is beyond imagination how many more cities and provinces that are surprisingly busy with film activities. When we really take into account this struggle in a larger scale of national film, then we will realize that the film culture in Indonesia is not limited to theater screen and television.

The production of Elesan Deq a Tutuq in Lombok

The Historical Unknowns

The narrow perspective in perceiving Indonesian cinema leads to narrow interpretations of the Indonesian cinema history. There had been very few mentions of Bachtiar Siagian and other socialist-communist filmmakers in Indonesian film history, for example, due to the political turmoil and communist purge in 1965. There are also very few historical records about the blooming experimental film scene in Jakarta from the early 70s to 80s—initiated by luminaries such as Gotot Prakosa, Henri Darmawan, and Hadi Purnomo. Their works were done in 8mm and digital video, some of which were exhibited in Festival Film Mini in 1973 and Pekan Sinema Alternatif (Alternative Cinema Week) in 1985.

Even then, narratives regarding recent developments in Indonesian cinema are also fraught with historical unknowns. The focus is, again, on theatrical releases. Let’s take a second look at the revival of Indonesian cinema post-1998. The popular narrative in the society was the big success of Riri Riza’s Petualangan Sherina (Sherina’s Adventure) in 2000 and Rudi Sudjarwo’s Ada Apa dengan Cinta? (What’s Up with Love?) in 2002, bringing millions of audience to the theaters. Some narratives included also Kuldesak, an omnibus of four young directors (Nan T. Achnas, Riri Riza, Mira Lesmana and Rizal Mantovani) in 1997 and Jelangkung (The Uninvited), the work of Rizal and Jose Poernomo in 2001. Many considered those films reignited the public’s interest in Indonesian films, which in turn sown a great passion among the filmmakers. It eventually stimulated the growth of a new film industry in Indonesia.

In fact, a whole other network of production, distribution, and exhibition activities has been overlooked by those popular narratives. In the end of 90s, video technology allowed Indonesian youths outside of the film school and industry to produce audiovisual content as they like. The most produced works are videos and short films. These works were then distributed through local festivals which were also mushrooming in the end of 90s and the beginning of 2000s: the Indonesian Independent Video & Film Festival (in Jakarta), the Jakarta International Film Festival, and the Documentary Film Festival (in Yogyakarta).

These festivals are attractive. They were organized by youth groups who were uneasy for not being able to watch Indonesian films in the movie theaters due to the collapse of national film industry during the 90s. In its development, the impromptu production, distribution, and exhibition network contributed to the progression of Indonesian films post-1998. These festivals opened a new space for public to watch and discuss, and the filmmakers found a showroom for their works and the public kept growing as their audience. Some of them eventually become well known filmmakers in international stage, such as Edwin and Riri Riza. Some of the tried their luck in the industry and succeed, such as Hanung Bramantyo and Ifa Isfansyah.

We often praised these names for their achievements, yet we make very little efforts to understand their creative processes from their very roots. Among hundreds of writings about Riri Riza after the success of Laskar Pelangi (The Rainbow Troops) in 2008 to Atambua 390C in 2012, how many attempts to link his present success with his experiment in the short film Sonata Kampung Bata (Sonata of the Brick Village) in 1993? From hundreds of articles stripping the politics inside Hanung Bramantyo’s films after the controversy surrounding Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (Woman with a Turban) in 2009 and Tanda Tanya (Question Mark) in 2011, how many attempts to assess the political tendency of the director back to his short films like Tlutur in 1998 or Topeng Kekasih (The Dearest Mask) in 2000? None. Those short films were screened in the local festivals in the end of 90s, and they play a significant role in developing the artistic achievements these directors are now renowned for. Unfortunately, there has been almost no recognition of those films in Indonesian film history.

The current perspective is not reliable enough to record the various depths of the cinema culture in Indonesia. We tend to divide the film scene into arbitrary labels, such as mainstream, non-mainstream, pop films, festival films and other labels. As a result, the film culture in Indonesia is perceived in a hierarchical way, as levels of achievements that lead up to box-office success or international film festivals—the oft-used benchmark of success in Indonesian film scene. Unfortunately, we are too fixated at the peaks, yet we neglect the supporting platform and the creative processes that made such achievements possible. Consequently, every time we fail to reach the peak, we could only respond with anxiety and hysteria. Such short-sightedness makes us blind to the bigger picture.

What Indonesian cinema urgently needs right now is no longer narratives about crisis, but critical narratives—a new perspective in seeing cinema culture holistically, that takes into account each of the elements in our cinema culture and all the links in between. This paradigm shift surely needs collective efforts in addition to individual changes.

For industry players and the policy makers in the government, there are actually existing pockets of cinema culture all across the archipelago, which had been growing organically yet overlooked in mainstream media and governmental records. One of the reasons being the one-mall-one-theater policy that 21 Cineplex Group and Blitzmegaplex (now CGVblitz) practiced in expanding their business, such development pattern popularize the discourse that cinema is exclusive for the bourgeois in the big cities. The reality is not that simple, the possibility is not that narrow.

For critics, journalists, bloggers, and other servants of reality, we have not opened many information gates. All this time, some public initiatives actually attempted to collect the history within their archives. We have Yayasan Konfiden (Konfiden Foundation) and Boemboe Forum for short films. The archives of Komunitas Dokumenter in Yogyakarta and In-Docs in Jakarta are dedicated for documentary films, while ruangrupa and Forum Lenteng are diligently nourishing their collection of video art and experimental films. Not taken into account yet, the information sources scattered among hundreds of film communities in Indonesia, which have not been mapped again since the 2010 National Congress of Community-Based Film Activities in Solo—organized by a group of film activists and communities.[x]

For communities and film activists, without undermining their achievements this far, it would be considerably nice to commit more efforts to writing and archiving. In the last few years, the most intensive activities of the film communities in Indonesia were film production and exhibition with the former greatly outnumbers the latter. In such condition, the communities need to step back for a moment and reflect on the efforts that have been organized this far. Auto-critique, through track records produced from writings and archives, is urgently needed considering many film communities in Indonesia grow from the campus environment. Campus life regenerates annually, leading to changes within the members of film communities every year. Such frequent changes are not always ideal for the sustainability of communities. Many times the new batch had to start from scratch and end up facing the same problems their predecessors did the year before. In the long run, these track records are not only useful for researches and historical records, but also as indicator for the members of the communities regarding what had been tried and what should be targeted in the future, especially when they have graduated from their campuses, and decided to form new communities of their own.

The years we have passed with Indonesian cinema had not been defined properly. Through its history, Indonesian cinema has had many new voices and cultural breakthroughs that went unrecorded. Now, Indonesian cinema needs a new reading through a more comprehensive perspective—an alternative history for Indonesian cinema in the past, present, and future.

This article is an updated version of the essay Sejarah Alternatif Film Indonesia, published in on 12 September 2013.


[i] This claim is based on the analysis by JB Kristanto, a senior film critic, in a discussion titled Menata Ulang Infrastruktur Industri Agar Lebih Berpihak Pada Perfilman Nasional (Reorganizing the Film Industry for the Benefit of Indonesian Cinema), organized by Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy in Epicentrum Kuningan, Jakarta, April 16, 2013. His calculation was: 783 screens x 150 seats x 5 screenings = 587.250 people which can be absorbed by all of our movie theaters per day. For a month: 17,617,500 people. For a year: 211,410,000 people. Until this article was published, there were new theaters, even new movie theaters network, yet the absorption rate of our theaters did not progress significantly.

[ii] This calculation was conducted based on the last archive of in the page Bioskop (accessed on September 5, 2015).

[iii] EKSB PIFILM (@eksb_pifilm). “Data Industri Perfilman Update 31 Desember 2014 – 3” January 2, 2015, 10:39. Tweet.

[iv] Blog Jaringan Kerja Film Banyumas has been actively writing the history and development of films in their area.

[v] Nanang Anna Noor. Melihat dengan Bijak Festival Film Banyumas. Wednesday, May 30, 2007. Berita Seni (accessed on September 2, 2013)

[vi] Writer’s conversation with Aris Prasetyo took place during the discussion after the retrospective screening of SMPN 4 Satu Atap Karangmoncol short films in Festival Film Solo 2013.

[vii] Jamrin Abubakar. Palu Studio, Sebuah Riwayat Bioskop di Sulawesi Tengah. Thursday, August 22, 2013. Personal blog (accessed on August 30, 2013)

[viii] Bayu Bergas. Yusuf Radjamuda: Kematian Bioskop Untungkan Film Pendek Palu!. Sunday, May 26, 2013. (accessed on August 25, 2013)

[ix] Muammar Fikrie. Tak Ada Bioskop, Warkop Pun Jadi. Wednesday, January 30, 2013. (accessed on September 5, 2013)

[x] Details of Kongres Nasional Kegiatan Perfilman Berbasis Komunitas (National Congress of Community-Based Film Activities) di Solo in 2010 can be seen in the official blog of the event.