Apa Jang Kau Tjari, Palupi? (What Are You Looking For, Palupi?, 1969)

Questioning Film Nasional

Originally published in 2012 at Asian Cinema Journal

Apa Jang Kau Tjari, Palupi? (What Are You Looking For, Palupi?, 1969)
Apa Jang Kau Tjari, Palupi? (What Are You Looking For, Palupi?, 1969) by Asrul Sani

In Indonesia, as in many countries around the world, the idea of a national cinema has taken hold, becoming an important frame of reference when discussing film and cinema. Defining a national cinema can be a descriptive endevour, and is often found in the work of film scholars who write histories of a particular country’s cinematic past. Historically though, defining a cinema in national terms was not just a convenient boundary or method, but was a political statement against the influx of globally dominant Hollywood.

A national cinema therefore is a means by which a country can assert its own identity and culture through film, often by supporting local films and filmmakers through national film bodies. Yet these seemingly benign activities and ambitions are often accompanied by conditions or rhetoric that are prescriptive in nature. National cinema often requires that the cinema should be a reflection of a nation’s goals and characters, and define the nation and its people. It may articulate certain beliefs and historical events that are seen to be integral to defining the nation. Auteur directors rather than commercial filmmaking will be prioritized in the belief that art cinema is better at exploring these themes compared to commercial cinema which is made to entertain audiences and make money. This means that national cinema is less a descriptive category and much more political and ideological.

National cinema in Indonesia is called film nasional, and commonly appears in commentary, scholarship, and discussions of film and the film industry. One of its ambitions is to be tuan di rumah sendiri or “master in one’s own house”, meaning that Indonesian films should become prolific and popular enough to beat imported films at the box-office. When, for example President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono watched Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in 2008, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was quoted as saying that “film in Indonesia will become the master in its own house”.[1] But film nasional is also used prescriptively to define what films should be made, by who, and what they should contain. Yudhoyono went on to say that he hoped “the film world will continue to grow, […] to produce works of art that are valuable and sublime.”[2] To note here is his description of films as works of art (karya seni) rather than as cultural products or creative works for example. The fact that much scholarship, analysis, and opinion employs film nasional as normative without questioning its underlying assumptions and ideology, prompts us to explore and question its particular history and use in debates over film.

Usmar Ismail
Usmar Ismail

Origins of Film Nasional

Film nasional emerges around the same time as Indonesia gains its independence in 1950, is a product of the prevailing politics of the time, and tied to the broader aspirations of Indonesian nationalism. Film was seen to belong to the larger domain of art which included poetry, literature, theatre, and music. Artists and writers came to occupy a coveted position as orators and representatives of the new nation through their cultural work. Most significant was the Angkatan ’45 (Generation of 1945) of whom poet Chairil Anwar is the most venerated, but which also includes Asrul Sani, subsequently an important figure in the film industry. These artists gave expression to the new nation, its hopes and potential, the glory of independence, and to the characteristics of its people. In turn, their ideas needed to reach audiences and communications infrastructure such as Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI), the Balai Pustaka publishing house, and so on became important instruments of dissemination.

Of all the art forms though, film was perhaps the last to be appropriated by nationalist artists. Cinema is a much more capital and labour intensive medium compared to book publishing or radio, but if nationalist filmmakers could harness both production and exhibition then their ideas could be much more effectively communicated to a wider audience. Film was seen as the most effective medium for representing and propagating national culture because of the perceived power of the audiovisual medium. They believed that under colonialism, film was nothing more than escapist fantasy with little pretence to educate or enlighten the audience, let alone promote nationalism. When cinema was thus appropriated Indonesian cinema was said to begin, because films made prior to 1950 are ‘not Indonesian films’ says film historian Misbach Yusa Biran (2009: 45). Biran makes this assertion, not solely based on the official date of independence on 27 December 1949, but for more ideological reasons.

The idea that film could be used to propagate nationalism did not come about spontaneously, but was learnt by Indonesian artists who worked for the Japanese propaganda unit (Kurasawa, 1987).[3] Usmar Ismail, Bachtiar Siagian, Sansui Pane, and others were recruited by the Japanese to make and produce propaganda in Bahasa Indonesia for the purposes of furthering Japanese rule. As Misbach Yusa Biran says: “The arrival of the Japanese in this country together with their propaganda films, caused a huge shock to the thoughts of Indonesians about the function of film and introduced them to a new way of thinking” (Biran, 2009: 346). Usmar Ismail, now Indonesia’s father of cinema, says that “Only then during the Japanese period were people made aware of the function of film as a tool of social communication. […] In this way, it became obvious that film was starting to emerge and grow closer to an awareness of nationalism” (Ismail, 1983: 55-56).[4]

When local production restarted following the end of the Japanese occupation and after independence, nationalists saw themselves in competition with the commercial film industry, which they believed had returned to pre-war patterns of escapist entertainment. So stark were the perceived differences that Salim Said (1991b: 6) says there are

two main patterns evident in Indonesian movie production. The first, geared to commercial gain and pioneered by the Chinese in prewar days was continued in post-war days, and imitated by many non-Chinese movie makers. Usmar Ismail and his friends tried to develop a second tradition, one motivated not merely by profit but by a desire for self expression. If the first approach was based solely on what would sell, the pattern adopted by Usmar Ismail did not afford absolute priority to public opinion. In short, while the first approach was without idealism, Usmar Ismail’s emphasized it.

The association of the ethnic Chinese with commercial filmmaking was in line with ethno-nationalist thinking at the time that questioned the allegiance and commitment of the non-pribumi (non-natives) to the national cause. This racialised approach continued into the New Order when many ethnic Indians joined the industry and became prominent players. The dichotomies of idealist-commercial and pribumi-non-pribumi informed thinking about how the industry of the 1950s until the present is structured. Even in the late 1980s, venerated director Teguh Karya reiterated the fact that “these two patterns have become something of institutions” (1988: 6).

As Said indicates above, it is Usmar Ismail who is portrayed as the pioneer of Indonesian film and the prototype of the idealist filmmaker. Ismail (1921-1971) came from an aristocratic family in Bukittinggi (Sumatra), to attend school in Java where he became known as a talented playwright. When the Japanese occupied Indonesia, he worked in their propaganda division writing plays and other material. After shifting to Yogyakarta with the Republican Government for the four year struggle against the returning Dutch, he moved to Jakarta in 1948 where he directed two films for the Dutch film company SPCC. But it is Darah dan Doa (English title The Long March) made in 1950, which Ismail claims, as really his first film. Darah dan Doa was made by Perfini (Perusahaan Film Nasional Indonesia) a production company he set up with Rosihan Anwar.

Of all his work, Darah dan Doa is the most revered, establishing the parameters for film nasional.[5] It follows the Siliwangi Division as they march back home from East Java after their successful defeat of a Muslim rebellion in Yogyakarta. The drama is told through the perspective of the Division commander (Captain Sudarto) who is troubled by the experience of war and by his affections for two women. The film ends with him being shot by members of the 1948 PKI rebellion in Madiun. Although controversial on it release for its less-than-flattering depictions of the army, in 1962 the film was officially recognized as the first ‘national film’ with National Film Day celebrated on 30 March, the date Darah dan Doa went into production (Kristanto, 2007: 15). Subsequent films of his that are highly regarded, namely Enam Djam di Jogja (Six Hours in Jogjakarta) in 1951 and Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew) in 1954, similarly focus on the military and the armed struggle to unite the Indonesian nation.

In both the film and its maker we find the parameters of film nasional. It is, first of all, nationalist in its scope, narrating the military struggle that was central to the formation of modern Indonesia, fighting not just the Dutch but also internal threats to national unity (namely secessionist Islam and Communism). Salim Said, pronounces, somewhat axiomatically, that Ismail’s films are “Indonesian films, because the stories are about Indonesian people on Indonesian soil” (1991a: 192).[6] The figure of Usmar Ismail himself is crucial to the film’s status as he was the first pribumi to independently make a film in post-independence Indonesia. For the ethno-nationalist concept of film nasional these are essential criteria. Ismail famously says of Darah dan Doa that it “was made entirely without any commercial considerations whatsoever, and motivated entirely by idealism,”[7] adding to its reputation and differentiating it from commercially orientated productions. In short film nasional emphasizes idealism, indigeneity, and nationalism or in other words, the filmmaker should be a pribumi artist committed to expressing nationalism in his films.

Indonesia vice-president Mohammad Hatta (left) and Djamaluddin Malik

Winning History

Alongside Ismail, Persari producer Djamaluddin Malik, is also venerated as the other forefather of Indonesian film. Persari was a commercial company, modeled on the big American studios. Malik established the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) in 1954 to support local production and supported Ismail in his filmmaking and organizational aspirations.[8] Malik however unsettles the categories of film nasional because of his commercial orientation. In a period when the Chinese producers were criticized for being nothing more than traders and businessmen, Malik’s commercialism was simply excused:

Djamaluddin Malik in his ambitions wants to support cultural sentiments but in his execution is more inclined to the commercial stream of the Chinese group. This fact is not that disturbing, because Djamaluddin Malik is originally a trader who of course judges everything from that perspective. (Ismail, 1983: 58)[9]

Moreover, at the first FFI, when Persari’s film Tarmina (dir. Lilik Soedjio) won best film jointly with Ismail’s Lewat Djam Malam, many saw this as cynical self-promotion. Then, to make Indonesia’s first colour film, Goenawan Mohamad says Persari simply “stole a story popular in the Philippines” (Mohamad, 2005: 34). Despite this dubious record and his commercial orientation, Malik is celebrated alongside Ismail as an exemplar of film nasional. One reason he is excused is because he is pribumi, which fits with the ethnic politics of Indonesian nationalism.

At the same time, Chinese producers were routinely criticized for making “cheaply made [films] simply to pander to the taste of the populace” (Biran, 2005: 6). Salim Said goes as far to suggest that the ‘original sin’ of the film industry, namely the dominance of commercially oriented rather than nationalist-idealist films, can be traced to the work patterns established by the ethnic Chinese in the pre-independence industry. Yet it is ironic that Darah dan Doa was only completed with financial aid from a Chinese cinema owner, Tong Kim Mew (Said, 1991b: 51). Moreover, the only ethnic Chinese to earn a venerated place in film history—Teguh Karya, aka Steve Liem Tjoan Hok—achieved this by denying any trace of his Chinese heritage and by reproducing the ideology of film nasional (see Karya, 1988; Sen, 2006). The reason why Malik could be elevated to the status he is, whilst figures such as Tong have largely forgotten or why Karya needed to refashion himself, is because of the primacy given to pribumi as the only legitimate creators of national culture.

From 1950 to 1965, the ideology of film nasional was by no means dominant and competed with other intellectual and political definitions of film and its purpose.  In particular the conflict that would come to define the late 1950s and into the 1960s was that between left, primarily the PKI (Indonesian Communist Party) linked film workers’ union SABUFIS and LEKRA (Institute of People’s Culture), and right through organizations such as LESBUMI (Institute of Indonesia Muslim Artists and Cultural Workers) and PPFI (Association of Film Producers). Broadly the left wanted to use film as a political tool and to highlight issues of social class, whereas LESBUMI were more religious and status-quo orientated. Although it needs to be noted that both the left (Siagian, 1964: 4-5) and right (Ismail, 1954; Sani, 1997: 302)[10] attributed commercialism to the Chinese producers, denying them any place in film history. Although both nationalist in orientation, their political and ideological visions were different.

Yet as Krishna Sen (1983; 1985) shows, with the ascension of the New Order in the late 1960s, history would be rewritten to describe the coup of September-October 1965 as a failed communist plot. Instead, the army would be elevated in recent history to justify their intervention in 1965 and establish them as a key institution in the establishment of Indonesia, and conversely discrediting the communist party in all its incarnations as an agent of disorder (Heryanto, 1999; McGregor, 2007). The same pattern was seen in the film industry where films about the military, in particular Darah dan Doa and Enam Djam di Jogja, were venerated and filmmakers associated with LEKRA/PKI such as Bachtiar Siagian were discredited, blacklisted, and imprisoned and their films destroyed.

In their version, the leftist filmmakers were ideological zealots and troublemakers responsible for politicizing film and causing the instability and decline in film production in the early 1960s. LEKRA were said to have worked against consensus and the formation of a unitary nationalist film industry by introducing political ideology. Many also blamed the campaign and ban on American imports, which at the time was led by the PKI-linked PAPFIAS (Action Committee to Boycott the Imperialist Films of the United States of America), for driving audiences away from the cinema and causing cinemas to close. Although much of what LEKRA fought for in this period including efforts to reduce American imports would be claimed to be the work of conservatives themselves! (Sen, 1985). Nevertheless, the early 1960s are commonly described as a ‘dark period’ for film nasional, which in keeping with New Order ideology, is blamed on the activities and beliefs of LEKRA and the PKI.

Sen’s later work continues this line of critique by concentrating on the New Order state and its domination and control of the film industry, including its purposeful separation from the years leading to 1965. What Sen’s work indicates is that there is a dominant narrative that informs film history in Indonesia, and 1965 is a pivotal moment to that narrative. It is not only the victory of the New Order that shapes film history, although it is a crucial moment, film nasional is a prescriptive ideology that seeks to define the function of film, what films are to be considered as legitimate culture, and the type of person who qualifies to make them. What is known as film nasional is the product of locally generated ideas and concepts about film inflected through the historical and socio-cultural conditions of Indonesia. More than just a means of defining the nation, film nasional constitutes a cultural project within a national context.

Bernafas dalam Lumpur (Breathing in Mud, 1970)
Bernafas dalam Lumpur (Breathing in Mud, 1970) by Turino Djunaidy

The Concept of Film Nasional

1. Film Nasional must be a product of the culture of the Indonesian Nation.
2. Film Nasional must replace the domination of foreign films, just as the Indonesian People were victorious in destroying colonial domination.
3. Film Nasional must serve the People and Nation of Indonesia in developing the Indonesian CHARACTER and NATION BUILDING.

Soemardjono (1979)[11]

In his three points above, director Soemardjono shows how film nasional is a nationalist project with both material and cultural aspirations. In many ways it appears like a ‘national cinema’. More than simply an analytical concept, film nasional prescribes the dominant narrative of film in Indonesia providing both a historiography and an epistemological framework for what are to be appropriate or representative films. Imagined within the history of Indonesian independence and self-expression, film is placed at the centre of a struggle to define and articulate the nation and its economic triumph, something that is not expected of any other cultural form in independent Indonesia. The cultural elite in Indonesia promoted what they saw as appropriate films in order to inculcate their ideas of national identity and national culture to audiences. It has effectively become a form of legitimate culture.

Although the ‘victors’ of the 1960s were now able to write history as they saw fit, the debate around film nasional took on new impetus under the New Order, requiring further definition and articulation. Accompanying the New Order’s consolidation of power, the regime sought to normalize cultural and social life following the violent purges of 1965-1966 that saw up to a million people killed and thousands of others imprisoned. There was an effervescence of pop culture in magazines, novels, music and film, which had all declined or been straight jacketed under President Soekarno and his fervent nationalism. Slamet Bratanta, a minister in Suharto’s first cabinet, even likened these early years to the Prague Spring of 1968 (Schwarz, 1991: 33). Jakarta, under governor Ali Sadikan (from 1966 to 1977), was known for its casinos, massage parlors, discotheques and a new arts centre which provided a space for a variety of arts and performance.[12] Indicative of the times, the iconic Djakarta Theatre located at Sarinah in Central Jakarta, was built using the proceeds of the casino next door.

In filmmaking, a new era of popular film emerged built on the back of an open-door import policy often containing sex, violence and/or immorality. Proponents of ‘quality’ film lamented what they saw as the dominance of cheap, crass films both imported titles and increasingly domestic productions. In response, the DPFN (National Film Production Council) under Asrul Sani, funded four films as examples of quality films for local producers to emulate. The four films were expensive failures, although one did win at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in 1968.[13] Director General for Film, H Djohardin defended popular tastes against nationalist critics saying:

Let us not ignore the taste of the millions of people just to please those pseudo-intellectuals who give high honors to such (commercial) failures like What Are You Looking For, Palupi? In my opinion, the national film industry has made great strides forward: our actors are living better; so too the technical personnel, something never before seen in the last twenty years. (as quoted in Said, 1991b: 120)[14]

Djohardin’s position and the ‘quantity approach’ taken by the Directorate for Film disappointed nationalist critics who felt that the state had betrayed the mission of film nasional by cultivating “the cinema as industry handled by private enterprises under government control” (Mohamad, 1975: 78).

Whilst audiences came to watch these comedy, horror and sex films, observers decried the commercial orientation of the industry that films like Bernafas Dalam Lumpur (1970, ‘Breathing in Mud’) heralded. Nationalists like Asrul Sani became more concerned about the impact this was having on the people’s morals and on the direction of the film industry generally. “At the moment it can be said, that compared with conditions in the past, film in Indonesia was never fully in the grip of commercialism like it is now” (Sani, 1997: 366).[15] “These people continued to make cheap and vulgar films,” complains Biran, “For them, films [sic] was a trade item. Why should they try to imitate the more artistically successful films if that promised no guarantee of higher profits” (Biran, 1986: 13). “The question is now,” asks Sjumandjaya, “whether the image of Indonesian films will be the personification of these adventurers or that of our artists” (1977: 29). Clearly they felt that Indonesian filmmakers were betraying their obligation to film nasional established by Usmar Ismail and others in the 1950s.

Promotional poster for Tjoet Nja Dhien
Promotional poster for Tjoet Nja Dhien

A debate that had started in the 1950s was now resurrected, centering on the image of Indonesia shown in locally made films (Mohamad, 1975). Its concerns are encapsulated in the remarks of critic Jacob Sumardjo who famously asked in 1974: “When will we see our real face up there?”[16] He felt that the Indonesian characters seen in Indonesian films of the time were not authentic, but rather copies from foreign films. These concerns became formalized when the jury of the 1977 Indonesian Film Festival failed to select a best film, and issued a statement that in part read:

Our filmmakers in general do not have an awareness of environment, geography or society, such that they have never made a film about their Indonesian environment, and because of that their films are not Indonesian films. Their films are only superficial fictions based on their dreams and obsessions supported by their excessive enthusiasm for business. (quoted in Said 1991b: 193)[17]

The FFI jury, populated by members of this cultural elite,[18] had decided to formalize their concerns about the state of Indonesian filmmaking through their institutional position.

The FFI continued to be used as the central institution from which standards of legitimate culture were defined and exemplified. Due to the nature of the industry, divided as it was, the winners at the film festivals tended to be the same people year after year. A further differentiation between commercial and ‘quality’ films happened in 1984 when the criteria for the Antemas Prize was changed. In 1975 the Antemas prize was introduced to acknowledge the most popular film at the Jakarta box-office, which generally was a commercial film. As this contradicted the principles of film nasional, the criteria was changed so that only the films nominated in other FFI categories were eligible to win. This “only gave rise to problems” says Tjasmadi (2008: 189), as in 1988 when Eros Djarot, director of Tjoet Nja Dhien, refused the Antemas prize because Saur Sepuh I had garnered more than double his audience but was disqualified for not having been nominated in other FFI categories.[19]

Efforts to formalize film nasional saw it incorporated into state film policy in 1979-1980 as the New Order became more concerned about ensuring film conformed to its ideology. Members of the Angkatan ’45 Jakarta held a conference in Jakarta, attended by vice-president Adam Malik, to outline their concerns about film. Their conference statement in part reads:

The driver of national film development is no longer towards education and enlightenment to develop national culture, cultivate and build a national character, but has already shifted and is driven primarily by entertainment which is based on trade, and just for making money.[20]

The following year, the Department of Information held an industry-wide conference on filmmaking that became the defining moment for film in the New Order. The conference laid out a set of ethical standards to which filmmakers were to adhere to (Dewan Film Nasional, 1980). As Sen and Hill note, these standards concentrated on issues of order and security and “worked against the commercial viability and the artistic freedoms of Indonesian national cinema” (2000: 142).

Film came under increased state control because of its perceived potency in being able to influence the masses. All sectors of film were bureaucratized, including compulsory state unions for producers (PPFI), actors (PARFI), and film workers (KFT). Production was controlled, with measures for script approval, shooting approvals, and post-production censorship. As a result a generic narrative characterizes films made in the New Order, says Krishna Sen (1994), characterized by a ‘return to order’ narrative arc. Here the emphasis was on showing how state agencies or state representatives could control social or moral disorder in line with how the state sought legitimacy with the population. Although film nasional is articulated most clearly in this period, the New Order’s main concern was the ideological and institutional control of filmmaking, not the creation of legitimate culture within film.

Proponents of film nasional where however willing to use state agencies and institutions to further their cause, even if it meant limiting creative and artistic freedom. Early in his career, Ismail in his vision of the filmmaker as idealist artist had insisted on the necessity of creative freedom for filmmakers and censorship as an institution to support that right, rather than an institution of coercion as it had become under the New Order. Asrul Sani, a close friend of Ismail, had boldly stated in 1957 that

the artist is the ‘conscience of a people and an era.’ And he cannot carry out his obligations as that ‘conscience’ or ‘geweten’ if he is only allowed to follow the official truth that has been taught in the schools, or from the department of education of even religion. (Sani, 1997: 321)[21]

Yet this was exactly what happened under the New Order, with its myriad controls and officially sanctioned truth. Asrul Sani, like other key ideologues Misbach Yusa Biran and Salim Said, was heavily invested in the maintenance of New Order ideology. The artist must not succumb to any illegitimate political ideology (i.e. communism or the theory of class conflict) but must affirm Pancasila,[22] Islam and traditional values (Ismail, 1983). This was a realism very much catered to the ideological demands of the New Order and built on the triumph of conservative nationalism in the 1960s. Film nasional and New Order ideology had increasingly become intertwined and in many cases inseparable.

Yet filmmakers themselves felt they were being asked to do two contradictory things. Director Ami Priyono captures the predicament of directors working in the New Order, pressured ideologically by film nasional and institutionally by New Order regulations. Priyono says “I would like in fact to produce a film with a real Indonesian image but we can’t determine exactly what the Indonesian image is” (1977: 33). He continues: “Not every film containing criticism should be censored. I am convinced that many films with Indonesian characteristics will be produced if this is made possible” (1977: 34). Box-office always remained elusive for so-called ‘quality’ films – what people preferred were comedies, love stories, and horror films which could be richly Indonesian, but would not please proponents of film nasional who saw these films as frivolous, cheap, or not serious enough.

Despite these pressures, popular film continued to thrive, catering to lower class audiences where locally made films had succeeded in becoming ‘master in their own house’. Film though had been subject to what Stuart Hall calls “the relations which define ‘popular culture’ in a continuing tension (relationship, influence and antagonism) to the dominant culture” (Hall, 1981: 235). Yet the two were never completely separated, as many actors, actresses, scriptwriters, and directors moved fluidly between the two worlds. Indeed, many of the so-called ‘quality’ films of the 1970s and 1980s were funded by commercial producers, many of Indian or Chinese ethnicity, bringing into doubt the common assertion that ethnic Chinese and Indian producers were only interested in making money and that only pribumi could make nationalist films. Nevertheless these facts are overlooked to sustain an ideology of film nasional that continues to play out in Indonesia, even now a decade after reformasi.

Still from Cinta dalam Sepotong Roti (Love in a Slice of Bread, 1991) by Garin Nugroho
Cinta dalam Sepotong Roti (Love in a Slice of Bread, 1991) by Garin Nugroho

The Elitism of Film

In national cinema, as Yingjin Zhang notes, “canonized auteurs and movements may have appeared originally as disjunctures or ruptures, but […] they were subsequently rewritten as representative of national cinema at the expense of popular (and therefore mainstream) film practices, most of them commercial in nature” (2009: 23). This is patently true of Usmar Ismail whose Darah dan Doa is now more respected than it was in 1950. In Indonesia as well, film nasional does not only dismiss popular film, but it recognizes only a small set of ‘legitimate’ filmmakers and their films. These include Soemardjono (1927-1998), Asrul Sani (1926-2004), Djajakusuma (1918-1987), and Teguh Karya (1937-2001). Wim Umboh (1933-1996) and Nya’ Abbas Akup (1932-1991), and Eros Djarot (b. 1950) are sometimes included, but their reputations are often selectively quoted because of their popular or critical output. Later works by Usmar Ismail, when he went commercial to try and earn money, are rarely if ever mentioned.

The history of film Indonesia is thus the history of an elitist cultural agenda that has sought to define film nasional as legitimate culture over popular modes. “The group desiring an Indonesian image in our films is in fact limited to a small group of thinkers and intellectuals, while our spectators are used to mass production films spiced according to a Hongkong [sic], Indian or Hollywood taste” (Priyono, 1977: 33). By the late 1980s Salim Said would acknowledge the divergence between the film nasional agenda and the audience they were trying to influence:

The failure of Usmar Ismail to realize his ideal for film to become an expressive medium must be seen as a failure of Indonesian intellectuals to claim a medium which would enable them to establish contact with the masses. (Said, 1987: 71)

Nevertheless, this agenda was still imposed on filmmakers and ultimately on audiences through the state and its agencies that they were all too willing to embrace as the vehicle through which their ideals might be realized.

Director Garin Nugroho was the first serious challenge to film nasional when he rose to prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite fitting the film nasional emphasis on the filmmaker-as-artist, he defied the film nasional paradigm by producing works that were a challenge to the New Order’s version of the nation, especially through his ethnographic subject matter that focused on stories from the periphery. Nugroho escaped the confines of the local industry and the New Order’s regulations by taking his films overseas to international film festivals and sourcing funding from there. Only later was he appropriated by the nationalist critics as an ‘idealist’, but he sat uncomfortably with their categories because of his status as a critic of the regime and its version of nationalism.

Film nasional continues to be evoked as the standard by which film in Indonesia is articulated and judged against. National Film Day (March 30) is used to reiterate the legacy of Usmar Ismail in particular and the values that he is associated with (Imanjaya, 2010; Chairil, 2010). Where criticism is leveled at the current standard of films, there is still a tendency to look to the golden days of the 1950s and the films of Usmar Ismail or to the other idealist directors of the 1970s and 1980s as exemplars of good filmmaking (Darmawan, 2008). This is despite the fact that these films only have very limited circulation, and audiences are more likely to have seen the New Order propaganda film Pengkhiantan G30S/PKI rather than Darah dan Doa. Either way, the dualism of commercialism-idealism implanted by film nasional constantly reappears in the conceptualization of the contemporary industry.

In many ways, this continues to limit how Indonesian films are understood, especially in the years following the end of the New Order when film production has increased exponentially. Filmmaking post 1998 was not driven by these so-called idealists and artists, but rather young Indonesians who were looking to experiment and create something new, or to use film to express themselves. What is missing is a way to interpret the success of the local box-office, whilst acknowledging the new forms of circulation and exhibition that include international film festivals such as Busan, Rotterdam, and Cannes, and the myriad of new politics and debates that films have engendered. Clearly these films are not nationalist or idealist in the way that film nasional imagines they should be. Nevertheless they are a reflection of Indonesia and the creativity of her people, and that is something to celebrate.


[1] “film di Indonesia akan menjadi tuan di rumah di negerinya sendiri” See DVD Extras for Ayat-Ayat Cinta.

[2] “dunia perfilman akan tumbuh kembali. […] bisa memproduksi karya-karya seni yang luhur, karya seni yang adiluhung”

[3] Indonesian artists who worked for the Japanese included Usmar Ismail, Armijn Pane (writer), Sanusi Pane (writer), Utojo (musician), Simanjuntak (musician), Raden Koesbini (musician), Raden Agoes Diajasasoemita (painter), and Djauhar Arifin Soetomo (essayist & drama writer).

[4] “barulah pada Masa Jepang orang sadar akan fungsi film sebagai alat komunikasi sosial. […] dalam hal ini tampak bahwa film mulai tumbuh dan mendekatkan diri kepada kesadaran perasaan kebangsaan.” (‘Sari Soal Film Indonesia’’).

[5] It was remade in 1972 as Mereka Kembali (‘They Have Returned’) but by then was an army sponsored project, fitting well with the ideological self-portrayal of the military in Indonesian history. In this version it is the Darul Islam followers who are vilified as traitors to the nation. See McGregor (2007: 147, 187) and Sasono (this edition). For more on Darah dan Doa see Hanan (2008).

[6] Original from 1975. “Film-film almarhum Usmar Ismail itu adalah film-film Indonesia, karena ceritanya tentang manusia Indonesia di bumi Indonesia.”

[7] “dibikin tanpa perhitungan komersial apa pun, dan semata-mata hanya didirong oleh idealisme.” ‘Sari Soal Film Indonesia’ (Ismail, 1983: 58). Translation taken from Sen (1983: 120).

[8] Before 1965, the FFI was only held twice. Once in 1955 and again in 1960. In 1960, Bachtiar Siagian won the Best Film and Best Director awards.

[9] Original from 1954 reads: “Djamaluddin Malik yang dalam tujuannya juga ingin mendukung cita-cita kebudayaan, tetapi yang dalam prakteknya lebih banyak terbawa arus komersial golongan Tionghoa. Hal ini tidaklah mengherankan benar, karena Djamaluddin Malik pada asalnya adalah seorang pedagang yang tentunya memperhitungkan segala sesuatu juga dari sudut itu.”

[10] For a further analysis of the position of the Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s, see Go (1987).

[11] Original text reads:

  1. Film Nasional harus merupakan produk kebudayaan Bangsa Indonesia.
  2. Film Nasional harus dapat menggantikan dominasi film asing, seperti halnya Bangsa Indonesia berhasil merobohkan dominasi kolonialisme.
  3. Film Nasional harus mampu mengabdi kepada Bangsa dan Negara Indonesia dalam pembangunan WATAK dan KEBANGSAAN INDONESIA (Character and Nation building).

[12] This being Taman Ismail Marzuki in Cikini, Jakarta.

[13] The four films were Matt Dower (unreleased), Nyi Ronggeng (‘The Ronggeng Dancer’), Apa Yang Kau Tjari, Palupi? (‘What are you looking for, Palupi?’) and Si Djampang Mencari Naga Hitam (‘Djampang’s Search for the Black Dragon’). See Said (1991b: 82-83).

[14] Original is from 1971 and quoted in Mohammad (1980: 79)

[15] Original from 1976 reads: “Saat sekarang ini dapat dikatakan, bahwa dibandingkan dengan sejarahnya di masa lampau, belum pernah perfilman Indonesia begitu mutlak berada dalam cengkeraman komersialisme seperti kini.”

[16] Quoted in Said (1991a: 4). The original question reads “Kapan wajah kita yang sebenarnya bisa kita lihat di sana?” Jakob Sumardjo (b. 1939) is an academic and writer, currently a lecturer in the Indonesian Dance Institute (Akademi Tari Seni Indonesia).

[17] Original reads: “Pembuatan film kita pada umumnya tidak mempunyai kesadaran lingkungan, geografis, maupun sosial, sehingga mereka tidak pernah membuat film tentang lingkungannya yang Indonesia, karena itu film mereka bukan film Indonesia. Film-film mereka cuma rekaan dangkal dari impian dan obsesi mereka yang ditopang oleh semangat dagang yang berlebihan.”

[18] Members of the jury included D. Djajakusuma, H. Rosihan Anwar, Irawati M. Sudiarso, Zulharmans, Setyadi Tryman MS., Dr. Soedjoko, D. Peransi, Taufik Ismail, Salim Said. The statement was read by head D. Djajakusuma and Rosihan Anwar.

[19] According to Tjasmadi (2008: 188), Saur Sepuh I was seen by 575,480 people whilst Tjoet Nja Dhien was seen by 204,785 people.

[20] “Tekanan pembangunan perfilman Nasional bukan lagi kepada pendidikan dan penerangan untuk mengembangkan kebudayaan Nasional, membina dan membangun karakter bangsa, tetapi telah beralih dan lebih ditekankan terutama segi hiburan yang bermotif perdagangan, untuk mencari keuntungan semata-mata.” ‘Masalah Perfilman Nasional’ Angkatan ’45.

[21] Original from 1957 reads: “seniman adalah ‘hati sanubari suatu masyarakat dan zaman.’ Dan ia tidak akan dapat melakukan kewajibannya sebagai ‘hati sanubari’ atau ‘geweten’ itu jika ia hanya diperbolehkan makai kebenar-benaran yang resmi, yang telah diakui di bangku-bangku sekolah, atau kementerian pendidikan ataupun agama.”

[22] Pancasila, adopted by Soekarno, are the nation’s founding principles. They are belief in one god; social justice; unity of Indonesia; democracy; and, just and civilized society.


Anwar, Rosihan. Insan Film Berpolitik Lagi. Pikiran Rakyat, 20 January 2007.

Barker, Thomas, and Veronika Kusuma. The New Law Will Put Films Back in the Box. The Jakarta Post, 9 September 2009.

Biran, H. Misbach Yusa. Snapshots of Indonesian Film History and Non-Theatrical Films in Indonesia. Translated by John H McGlynn, Jakarta: National Film Council, 1986.

Biran, H. Misbach Yusa. 2005. “Brief History of the Indonesian Film.” Journal of Film Preservation 69: 2-6.

Biran, H. Misbach Yusa. 2009. Sejarah Film 1900-1950: Bikin Film Di Jawa. Depok: Komunitas Bambu.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Nice, Richard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Chairil, Nova. 2010. “Looking at Both Sides of the National Cinema.” The Jakarta Post. April 28.

Darmawan, Hikmat. 2007. “Dosa Film Indonesia.” Rumah Film.

Dewan Film Nasional, 1980. Pola Dasar Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Perfilman Nasional. Jakarta: Dewan Film Nasional.

Foulcher, Keith. 1986. Social Commitment in Literature and the Arts: The Indonesian “Institute of People’s Culture” 1950-1965. Clayton: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University.

Go Gien Tjwan. 1987. ‘The Chinese in Indonesia, Past and Present.’ In Indonesian Politics: A Reader, edited by Christine Doran, pp. 77-96. Townsville: James Cook University.

Hall, Stuart. 1981. “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular.” In People’s History and Socialist Theory, edited by Raphael Samuel, pp. 227-40. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Hanan, David. 2008. “Moments of Renewal – Alternative Ways of Viewing Indonesian Cinema.”

Heryanto, Ariel. 1999. “Where Communism Never Dies: Violence, Trauma and Narration in the Last Cold War Capitalist Authoritarian State.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 2.2: 147-77.

Heider, Karl G. 1991. Indonesian Cinema: National Culture on Screen. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Imanjaya, Ekky. 2009. “Idealism Versus Commercialism in Indonesian Cinema: A Neverending Battle?” Rumah Film.

Imanjaya 2010. ‘Usmar Ismail, The Father of Indonesian Cinema.’ Film is not a Dream. Life is. Mar. 29.

Ismail, Usmar. 1983. Usmar Ismail Mengupas Film. Jakarta: Sinar Harapan.

Kristanto, J.B. 2007. Katalog Film Indonesia 1926-2007. Jakarta: Nalar.

McGregor, Katharine E. 2007. History in Uniform: Military Ideology and the Construction of Indonesia’s Past. Singapore: NUS Press.

Karya, Teguh. 1988. “In Search of Ways and Means for Making the Film an Instrument of Expression.” Histories and Stories: Cinema in New Order Indonesia. Ed. Sen, Krishna. Melbourne: Monash University.

Kurasawa, Aiko. 1987. “Propaganda Media on Java under the Japanese 1942-1945.” Indonesia, 44: 59-107.

Mohamad, Goenawan. 1975. “An Introduction to the Contemporary Indonesian Cinema.” Prisma 1: 75-82.

Mohamad, Goenawan. 1980. Seks, Sastra, Kita. Jakarta: Sinar Harapan.

Mohamad, Goenawan. 2005. Sidelines: Thought Pieces from Tempo Magazine. Translated by Jennifer Lindsay. Jakarta: Equinox Publishing.

Priyono, Ami. 1977. “Intoxicating Distractions Are Most Effective.” Prisma 7: 32-34.

Sani, Asrul. 1988. ‘Sumbangan Jakarta dan Daerah Dalam Petumbuhan Perfilman Nasional’ in Festival Film Indonesia 1988, edited by Ilham Bintang,  pp. 79-84. Jakarta: Panitia Tetap FFI 1988.

Sani, Asrul. 1997. Surat-Surat Kepercayaan. Edited by Rosidi, Ajip. Jakarta: Pustaka Jaya.

Said, Salim. 1991a. Pantulan Layar Putih: Film Indonesia Dalam Kritik Dan Kommentar. Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan.

Said, Salim. 1991b. Shadows on the Silver Screen: A Social History of Indonesian Film, Jakarta: Lontar.

Said, Salim. 1987. ‘Film in Indonesia.’ Prisma, 43: 65-72.

Schwarz, Adam. 1999. A Nation in Waiting: Indonesia’s Search for Stability, second ed. St. Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

Sen, Krishna. 1983. “Indonesian Film History: In Search of a Perspective.” The Australian Journal of Film Theory 15/16: 113-31.

Sen, Krishna. 1985. “Hidden from History: Aspects of Indonesian Cinema 1955-65.” Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs 19.2: 1-55.

Sen, Krishna. 1994. Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order. London and New Jersey: Zed Books.

Sen, Krishna. 2006. “’Chinese’ Indonesians in National Cinema.” Media and the Chinese Diaspora: Community, Communications and Commerce, edited by Wanning Sun, pp. 119-36. London and New York: Routledge.

Sen, Krishna, and David T. Hill. 2000. Media, Culture, and Politics in Indonesia. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Siagian, Bachtiar. 1964. “Ichtisar Sedjarah Perfilman Di Indonesia.” Djakarta: Komite Nasional Indonesia untuk FFAA III.

Situmorang, Sitor. 2004. Sastra Revolusioner. Yogyakarta: Mahatari.

Soemardjono. 1979. ‘Perfilman Indonesia Masa Kini dan Nanti’ Paper Presented at Lokakarya Perfilman Nasional, 3-4 March 1979, Jakarta, DHD Angkatan ’45 DKI Jakarta.

Stoddart, Helen. 1995. “Auteurism and Film Authorship.” In Approaches to Popular Film, edited by Hollows, Joanne and Mark Jancovich, pp. 37-58. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Sumarno, Marseth, and Nan Triveni Achnas. “Indonesia: In Two Worlds.” In Being & Becoming: The Cinemas of Asia, edited by Aruna Vasudev, Latika Padgoankar and Rashmi Doraiswamy, pp. 152-170. Delhi: Macmillan.

Tjasmadi, HM Johan. 2008. 100 Tahun Sejarah Bioskop Di Indonesia (1900-2000). Bandung: Megindo Tunggal Sejahtera.

Tombs, Pete. 1998. Mondo Macabro: Weird & Wonderful Cinema around the World. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

Watson, C.W. 2001. ‘Translator’s Introduction’ In Pramoedya Ananta Toer It’s Not An All Night Fair, pp. v-xv. Jakarta: Equinox.

Zhang, Yingjin. 2009. Cinema, Space, and Polylocality in a Globalizing China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.