Beyond the Box office: On the Cultural Relevance of Indonesian Cinema

Originally published on 30 June 2017 at Jurnal Ruang / Translated by Henricus Pria and Adrian Jonathan

Photo: Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu / Cinema Poetica

One might argue that we are entering the new golden era of Indonesian cinema. For the first time in the history of post-Reformation cinema, in two consecutive calendar years, the box-office top ten are fully dominated by films with more than one million viewers.

In 2016 Anggy Umbara’s Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss! Part 1 took the pole position with 6.85 million viewers, while London Love Story closed the list with 1.12 million. In between, there are Ada Apa dengan Cinta? 2 [What’s Up with Love? 2], My Stupid Boss, Cek Toko Sebelah [Check the Store Next Door], Hangout, Rudy Habibie, Koala Kumal [The Shabby Koala], Comic 8: Casino Kings Part 2, and ILY from 38.000 Ft. In 2017 Joko Anwar’s Pengabdi Setan [Satan’s Slave] topped the table with 4.2 million viewers, followed by Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss! Part 2, Ayat-ayat Cinta 2 [Verses of Love 2], Danur: I Can See Ghosts, Jailangkung, Susah Sinyal [Bad Connection], Surga yang Tak Dirindukan 2 [A Heaven That Won’t Be Missed 2], Mata Batin [Inner Eyes], The Doll 2, and Surat Cinta untuk Starla The Movie [Love Letters for Starla].

Traditionally, the one-million-viewers milestone has always been regarded as the golden ticket of Indonesian cinema. Once a film exceeded it, it is officially a part of an elite club that houses only 55 members since 2000—25 of them are releases from the last three years. During the same period, the total number of attendance for Indonesian cinema also increased. In 2016 there were 34.5 million viewers for 127 domestic films screened in cinemas, which rose to 38.6 million viewers for 117 films in 2017. Those figures exceeded the highest count in the 2008-2009 period, the previous golden era, which peaked at 32.4 million viewers.

The recent rise of Indonesian cinema is certainly good news. However, one should also note that it happened during a series of coexistential crises in the archipelago. Ever since the fiery presidential election that divided friends and families in 2014, persecution cases became the grim constants of the nation’s social life. You name it; from the intimidation of LGBTIQ groups, the leftists, and adherents of certain beliefs to the discrimination against women, Papuan, and Chinese-Indonesian descents. Diversity, as the main identity of Indonesia as a cultural entity, is under threat.

There is a certain pattern in these persecution cases. Some groups of people feel entitled to dictate how everybody should live in this nation. They divide the people into certain classes and try to enforce their ideas through force by intimidation and vandalism, or through propaganda in the media and public spaces. Ideally, identities shouldn’t determine the social interactions—everyone has the rights to express and interact with other people, in respect to all differences. Nowadays, some groups or identities in Indonesia have become the victim of structural injustice in society.

Amidst this turmoil, on 27 April 2017, the government legalized a new act officially named the Cultural Advancement Law [Undang-undang Nomor 5 Tahun 2017 tentang Pemajuan Kebudayaan]. The law interprets Indonesian culture as “all processes and results of various cultural interactions that exist and grow in Indonesia”. The usage of term process and grow emphasize on the culture’s dynamics formed by “many cross-cultural interactions within the nation or with foreign nations, amidst the dynamic changes of the world. This act widens the understanding of culture mentioned in the 1945 Constitution, which is limited to “the fruits of all Indonesians’ virtues” and “the cultural milestones in many regions in Indonesia”.

This new law positions film as one of the objects of Cultural Advancement. Subsection 32 of the law mentions that the object can be utilized by “the internalization on cultural values; innovation; enhancing the adaptability to embrace changes; cross-culture communication; and cross-culture collaborations”, which aims to achieve “the nation’s character building; enhance culture’s sustainability; enhance public welfare; and to improve Indonesia’s influences and active roles in international affairs”.

Amidst the aforementioned coexistential crises in Indonesia, the Cultural Advancement Law does raise a few important questions about the role of cinema in today’s society.

Photo: Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu / Cinema Poetica

Cinema as cultural expressions

We need to assess Indonesian cinema further beyond its economic achievements. The measurement needs to be expanded, as films not only serve as commercial commodities, but also as strategic components in cultural interactions. These two functions are inseparable and closely related to each other. To achieve commercial success, filmmakers must work with the cultural aspects of filmmaking—the understanding of its subjects, social values, public behavior, etc. Vice versa, to achieve cultural success, filmmakers must work with the commercial aspects—budget plans, distributions, promotions, funding, etc.

Consequently, a film’s impact is not only reflected in the boxoffice sales, but also through its effects to the public who watch the films and who’s being watched in the films. However, out of the many films and creative processes that define the nation’s cinema, only theatrical releases that are being considered as the face of Indonesian cinema—or, to be precise, films that pass the censorship board. Indeed, legally speaking, only films with the board’s letter of approval that have the rights to be distributed to the public, and for so long the most reliable (and visible) distribution channel in Indonesia is the commercial theater chains. This combination of factors fostered an imaginary hierarchy that positions theatrical releases as ‘proper films’, and films distributed through other means as ‘cinematic exercise’ or ‘stepping stone to the film industry’.

Over time this leads to the widely-accepted belief that regards boxoffice sales as a film’s sole measure of success, which in practice alienates Indonesian films from its own public. As commodities, Indonesian films are only accessible to some socio-economic groups. Cinemas are available only in big cities—mostly are located in elite shopping malls. As cultural phenomena, theatrically-distributed Indonesian films are only relevant to a limited group of people. The censorship policy sanitizes the cinematic storytelling in terms of social representations and political expressions, as if it seeks to reimagine Indonesia as an apolitical and intrinsically good society. Discourses on race, class, religion, political preferences, and sexual orientations are only allowed if it is in tune with the political needs of the ruling regime.

Films with LGBTIQ issues, for example, would have very little presence in commercial theaters. If any, Indonesian theatrical releases tend to stigmatize or ridicule LGBTIQ characters in their narratives. Indeed, out of hundreds of films released since the 1998 Reformation, perhaps only Nia Dinata’s Arisan! [The Gathering] (2003), Lucky Kuswandi’s Madame X (2010), Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s Lovely Man (2011), and omnibus Sanubari Jakarta (2012) that managed to present empowering narratives about LGBTIQ on the nation’s theatrical screens. Although it must be noted that these films are stylized to such an extent in order to pass the censorship board. More direct films such as Paul Agusta’s Parts of the Heart (2012) and Andri Cung’s The Sun, the Moon, and the Hurricane (2014) found their way to the public through an informal network of local film festivals and independent screenings—mostly organized by the film communities.

In short, the structural injustice within Indonesian cinema prevents the nation’s diversity to be truly expressed. It restricts the more diverse parts of society to be actively involved in the national cinema, both as filmmakers and audience. This situation is worsened by the ever-complicated political situation regarding national cinema, such as the lack of national development plan for local cinema, the inefficient bureaucracy of the governmental bodies related to cinema, the dearth of reliable data as reference for the development of the national cinema, the nonexistence of fiscal or non-fiscal incentive to develop local resources related to cinema, etc.

Photo: Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu / Cinema Poetica

Cinema as ideas of others

In a society as diverse as Indonesia’s, especially amidst the recent coexistential crises, cinema should play a greater role as social and cultural intermediaries. After all no other medium could match cinema’s vivid visualization of the others—or, in other words, people that might not be apparent in your immediate social circle. On this line of thought, we could see some positive signs from the recent outputs of Indonesian cinema.

Of all the Indonesian highest-grossing films in recent years, Ernest Prakasa’s Cek Toko Sebelah [Check the Store Next Door] (2016] stood out with its intimate portrayal of a Chinese-Indonesian family. As a film, Cek Toko Sebelah is a tightly-constructed comedy that narrates the daily struggle of a family managing their stores, bargaining with the customers, and competing with other rival stores. As a part of Indonesian cinema, this film enriches our perspective about Chinese Indonesian descents. Previously, most post-Reformation Indonesian films, such as Viva Westi’s May (2008) and Proyek Payung’s 9808 (2008), depict Chinese-Indonesians as the victims of racial discrimination. Although one could appreciate the political significance of such articulations, especially at the time of the films’ release, the Chinese-Indonesians in reality lead a more dynamic and colorful lives of their own. Ernest Prakasa’s Cek Toko Sebelah contributes to the public discourse of the Chinese-Indonesian’s identity, by expressing their presence in society through a socio-psychological perspective. Identities that are previously regarded only as political facts, now narrated as multidimensional human beings.

Cek Toko Sebelah’s accomplishments underlines Krishna Sen’s perspective about the rapid growth of systematical presence of this ethnic minority after the fall of New Order regime. The film’s narrative also strengthens Ariel Heryanto’s analysis on Indonesian middle class young generation’s awareness to accept ethnics differences and how they’re more comfortable to interact with people of different language, nationality, or ethical background—both on and off screen.

Another popular theatrical release that deserves attention is Uang Panai [Dowry] (2016), a directorial debut of Asril Sani and Halim Gani Safia. This Makassar-produced film tells about a Bugis-Makassar man’s marriage proposal that is halted due to the protagonist’s inability to fulfill the local tradition of giving dowry. This dowry issue is a very relatable to Bugis-Makassar society. It’s even more fascinating because the production is done by the locals. All cast are natives and all the dialogues are in Bugis-Makassar dialects.

Uang Panai has been screened in fifteen cities: Ambon, Bandung, Banjarmasin, Bekasi, Bogor, Gorontalo, Jakarta, Makassar, Medan, Palu, Samarinda, Surabaya, Tangerang, and Yogyakarta. In each city, this film occupies at least one screen, except Jakarta (two screens) and Makassar (four screens). For two months, the film gained 521.000 audience. Most of them are from Sulawesi. According to sources in Palu and Makassar, a lot of people from the neighboring cities made a trip to Palu and Makassar just to watch Uang Panai. In response to all that attention, the local theaters added more screens for Uang Panai. As a result two foreign films, The BFG and Sully, didn’t get any attention at all. This phenomenon had proven that local content at the local market can be successful, culturally and commercially. It also proves that a diverse society also need equally diverse cultural products.

Outside theatrical releases, there is Nokas (2016), a documentary by Manuel Alberto Maia, produced by Komunitas Film Kupang. This documentary also tells about the weedding gifts tradition in Nusa Tenggara Timur—the director’s hometown. This film also covers many issues; from the role of woman in the family, the society’s cultures, to land issues. There’s also Turah (2016), a film by Wicaksono Wisnu Legowo, produced by Fourcolors Films. This film set on Kampong Tirang, a kampong located at a delta around the northern coast of Tegal, Central Java. Throughout the film, we can see how power relations and economic dependency to the local landlords resulted in an oppressed society. The villagers, who are from the lower economic status, represented a social group rarely depicted in Indonesian films.

Photo: Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu / Cinema Poetica

Cinema as social acts

More positive signs come from the informal ecosystem created by the film communities outside the established film industry. Nowadays, it is common to find film productions and other film-related practices in schools, universities, neighborhoods, even villages. Thanks to the collaborative network of film communities, people from regions with little or no film infrastructures such as Purbalingga, Banda Aceh, Palu, Lombok, Kupang, Solok, Bengkulu, Sumbawa, and Wamena could also participate in the development of the local and national cinema. Each initiative survives in their own way, either by producing films, organizing public screenings and film festivals, managing creative spaces, running independent film labs, or conducting research and film studies. Each also represents another form of diversity in Indonesian cinema, that is the diversity of practices and economic means.

The communities’ scope of work is mostly local and more often than not meet a sudden end due to lack of funds, manpower, and public space for activities. However, their contribution in expanding the public participation in the national cinema could not be ignored. The communities provide opportunities for filmmakers who choose not to distribute and exhibit their films through commercial theatre networks. They also accommodate the public who are alienated by the film industry, both as film subjects and audience.

In relation to the more established market, aka commercial theaters, film communities provide second life to out-of-circulation films. These deals often happened on personal level—the communities contact the filmmaker for the screening permit, then, if applicable, they negotiate the shares of the ticket sales. Recently, however, there have been several groups or organizations that aim to take this non-theatrical film distribution on professional level such as Kolektif, Buttonijo, Ekshibid, and Pintoo. Some of the previously theatrically-distributed films that benefited from this emerging mode of distribution are Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s Lovely Man and Djenar Maesa Ayu’s Nay (2015).

At the moment the government hasn’t finalized the long-term development plan for Indonesian cinema, which will serve as a roadmap for future developments, both for the state and the public. If we aim to respond thoroughly to the structural injustice inherent in the national cinema, the plan must consider every form of diversity in the society—from cultural expressions, social values, public practices, economy, etc. Only then Indonesian cinema will prosper in all aspects—commercially and culturally.

This article is an updated version of the essay Wajah-wajah Film Indonesia, published in Jurnal Ruang on 30 June 2017.