The Slow Death of Cinema in Aceh

Originally published on 24 August 2014 at The Jakarta Post


Around 2009, Raisa Kamila and Ferry Gelluny were teenagers traveling all the way from Aceh capital Banda Aceh to Medan in North Sumatra just to see the latest films. It was, and still is, a 12-hour drive by car. On 26 December 2004, a quake-triggered tsunami put an end to once-established film culture in the town. The apocalyptic film Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, the last film screened at Banda Aceh’s Gajah Theater, coincided with the disaster, Raisa recalled.

“It was just two weeks prior to the quake,” said Raisa, now a college student in Yogyakarta. “They sold tickets for Rp 7,500 [54 US Cent] or so—way cheaper than spending hundreds of thousand rupiah or even a million to see a film in Medan, which we practically had to do after the tsunami.” Post-tsunami reconstruction, the Helsinki peace accords, implementation of regional autonomy and sharia (Islamic) law have since reshaped Aceh over the last decade. It’s common to speak of cinema as part of collective memories, taking individual films and recalling shared experiences of going to old movie theaters.

In Aceh, such talk leads to politically-charged topics, such as whether films are too sexy—and about sharia law, rants against the authorities which undermine public space and of the province’s decades-long separatist insurgency Today, it is hard to find posters, remains of movie theaters tickets or old (tempo doeloe) pictures of movie theaters in Banda Aceh. This loss of memory goes hand in hand with moral and religious arguments against movie theaters.

“Right after the tsunami, everybody spoke of repentance, as if we, Acehnese, were lost, sinful Muslims deserving a deadly punishment,” said Oryza Keumala, a student activist who frequents Tikar Pandan, an alternative cultural center. “Through this talk of repentance, sharia stepped right up to your door and then no movie theaters, no public space where men and women used to normally see each other, even so far as they once proposed to separate women students from their male compatriots,” Oryza said.

Efforts to reopen movie theaters have been met with challenges from religious groups, such as the Majelis Permusyawaratan Ulama (MPU/Ulema Consultative Assembly), and local authorities. Their usual argument: movie theaters are opposed to the spirit of sharia, which stipulates that men and women should not sit side by side. However, what is foreign to Aceh is not movie theaters. Instead, according to Ferry, it’s their absence.

“Movie theaters had been around in Aceh since the colonial era. Between the 1920s and 1940s, there were two movie theaters in Banda Aceh alone: the Rex Bioscope and the Deli Bioscope,” he said, referring to the Indonesian word for movie theaters. “The Deli Bioscope was later renamed the Garuda Theater and became famous since (first president) Sukarno delivered a speech there during a visit to Aceh. The Rex has now been turned into a foodcourt. Nobody said [the theaters] were opposed to religious values.”

There’s a desire to watch films in Aceh. Pirated DVDs are selling, such as in a well-known three-story store in Banda Aceh’s Peunayong that sells an exhaustive catalog of films ranging from Hollywood, Bollywood to virtually every festival in Asia and Europe. Episentrum Uleekareng, a small studio run by Tikar Pandan, has organized several film festivals, including an Arab film festival and the Europe on Screen festival, and is encouraging filmmakers outside Aceh to come and screen their work.

In 2010, Rahmad Hasan Basri, a local standup comedian and film buff fond of public theater, released an online survey asking whether or not the Acehnese need movie theaters. The survey went viral and became a hot topic among local netizens, who overwhelmingly answered yes. Last year, Fauzan Febriansyah, a young politician, launched an online petition, asking the MPU to support the government to give permission to reopen movie theaters. There has been no further response.

The province has since been rebuilt and gained autonomy from the central government, as well as ended a decades-long separatist insurgency and introduced sharia, which led to movie screens going dark in Aceh for the last decade. While no permits to reopen movie theaters have been issued, officials remain quiet and have not officially banned theaters either. As Banda Aceh Mayor Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal said, “we are not in the position to decide. It’s up to the MPU”.

Meanwhile, Karim Syeikh, the head of the MPU’s Banda Aceh chapter, said he never heard of the several petitions to reopen Aceh’s cinemas. “Local movie theaters stopped operation some time prior to the introduction of Sharia. But people have now their own television sets at home. They don’t need any kind of public theaters,” he said. “Any enterprise that hinders the implementation of sharia will not be authorized,” he went on.

Banda Aceh Sharia Agency chief Syahrizal Abbas expressed a different opinion to members of the Indonesian Censorship Board on June 19, claiming the local government has never opposed the business. “Investors might have different concerns—they are not confident enough,” Syahrizal said, “if cinema can contribute to national character-building, there is thus no reason for the Acehnese government to oppose movie theaters.”


Grindhouse Cinema

Part of the hesitance about reopening movie theaters in Banda Aceh stems from memories of now-defunct bioskop mesum, literally dirty cinemas. Once locally owned and operated first-run cinemas, the theaters turned into grindhouses, showing grade-B action movies and sexploitation films as well as old Hong Kong martial arts films from the 1980s or 1970s.

Also on the marquee were softcore erotic films, some made in Indonesia, known locally as esek-esek. The theaters were often not air conditioned, featured unpadded seats and screened decades-old 35mm film prints that were full of splices and emulsion lines. Ticket prices rarely exceeded Rp 5,000 (36 US cents), attracting a humble audience of wong cilik (common people), teenagers on dates and children with nothing to do after school.

“Roughly 70 percent were international films, mostly old American and a number of esek-esek films; the rest, 30 percent were Indonesian productions,” said Ferry Gelluny, recalling the movies at Banda Aceh’s now-defunct grindhouse Gadjah XXI, which illicitly appropriated the name of the nation’s largest theater chain. “Indian films were another attraction. Even without theaters, Indian films proved to sell better than any other in pirated DVD kiosks,” he added.

Raisa recalled her memories as a junior high school student in 2004. “The last surviving theater was the Gadjah XXI. There was another one in Beurawe shopping center that closed in 2003, the Djelita Theater. I never went there, but they used to put out raunchy posters. There were bioskop named Pas XXI or Gajah XXI, but in no way were they part of 21 Cineplex Group,” said Raisa. Bioskop Pas XXI had long stopped operating their studios, after a big fire in 2001. “They just borrowed the name,” she said.

Grindhouses were not unique to Aceh. The still-operational Grand and Mulia Agung theaters, which sit next to Plaza Atrium shopping mall in Senen, Central Jakarta, are bioskop mesum. In recent years, however, different towns in Java have witnessed threats or even physical attacks against the theaters. A local hard-line Front Pembela Islam (FPI/Islam Defenders Front) chapter, for instance, threatened to shut down a bioskop mesum, the Borobudur Cinema in Pekalongan, Central Java, during Ramadhan in 2013.

The decline of the theaters into grindhouses parallels the rise of the 21 Cineplex network, the nation’s largest film exhibitor. According to a report compiled by in 2012, hundreds of independent movie theaters throughout the nation rely on low-cost independent distributors, whose supplies of film prints are limited, according to researcher Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu.

“Since its entry to the distribution business in early 1990s, the 21 Cineplex group has possessed powerful control over access to the latest films, more than any regular national distributor. In practice, they sell the films, buy the films, and in so doing tear down their competitors,” Adrian said. Independent theaters within 50 kilometers of a 21 Cineplex chain theater cannot license current Hollywood releases films from local distributors that do business with 21 Cineplex, prompting owners to buy the rights to the only films they can: outdated action and sexploitation films, according to Adrian.

Viewers staying home and watching DVDs lead to dwindling tickets sales. Owners who could not afford to upgrade facilities or obtain in-demand movies, lead to more closures and worse conditions. The result was consolidation—and isolation.

While more than 800 movies screens in the nation are owned by the 21 Cineplex group and its main competitor, Blitzmegaplex (now CGVblitz), the Tourism and Creative Economy Ministry says that there are theaters in only 55 of the nation’s 538 cities and regencies. Nine provinces have no cinemas whatsoever—Central Sulawesi, West Sulawesi, West Nusa Tenggara, East Nusa Tenggara, Aceh, Gorontalo, Bangka Belintung, North Maluku, and West Papua.

21 Cineplex spokeswoman Catherine Keng, however, remained upbeat. “21 Cineplex plans to expand its theaters to Java, but also to eastern parts of Indonesia, Kalimantan and Sumatra. Aceh is part of this.” However, when asked if 21 Cineplex has established contact with local authorities, Catherine answered, “not yet”.

Before the tsunami, young couples would often see movies at the grindhouses in Banda Aceh. However, now some consider sitting in a dark room un-Islamic, focusing on what appears on screen as opposed to the distribution system that has led to the demise of the silver screen in Aceh.


Grassroot Movements

Kotak Hitam Banda Aceh (Banda Aceh Black Box) community held several days of public film screenings last week to commemorate the signing of the Helsinki peace accords nine years ago.

“This is a statement on what role cinema can take to maintain peace and coexistence in the community,” said Fairuziana Humam, a spokeswoman for Kotak Hitam Banda Aceh, a week before the screening. “We are going to do this in a public park, introducing a smaller-scale bioskop [theater] in a public space to prove that having a larger and more proper bioskop is completely acceptable.”

One of the speakers at a post-screening discussion, Nur Djuli, a senior Acehnese journalist, expressed a similar sentiment. “In war, nobody would admit who started the fire. But that’s not the main point. The question is, how are we to learn to manage conflicts without resorting to violence?” Nur, who also represented the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM/Free Aceh Movement) at the Helsinki peace talks, said. “It’s crucial that we organize these public screenings to reflect on the long history of violent conflict in Aceh—from the colonial era to [the period of conflict] between GAM and the central government.”

On the first day, 115 people flocked to the cinema. On the last day, partly thanks to the premiere of Cahaya dari Timur (We are Molluccans), audience numbers reached 160. The event offered a retrospective screening of Eros Djarot’s classic 1988 film about Tjoet Nja Dhien, the famous Achenese freedom fighter against the Dutch, on its second day. “We screened Tjoet Nja Dhien on the second day, and we were lucky enough to have the producer come to the event,” said Raisa.

The film, released when the central government started to impose a brutal military policy in the province that lasted for ten years, is well-remembered by the Acehnese—showing how film can reflect history, memory and identity. The aftermath of the tsunami and the decades-long violent separatist insurgency have given way for local indie filmmakers to flourish, both in terms of the number of films they have produced and the content of the films.

Watching those movies, however, is difficult, given that there are no movie theaters in the province. “We need public theaters, both commercial and non-commercial,” said RA Karamullah, the Acehnese director whose documentary Pulo Aceh: Surga yang Terabaikan (Pulo Aceh: An Abandoned Paradise) won the audience award at the SBM Golden Lens Documentary Film Festival in 2012.

This article is an amalgam of three articles: A Decade Without Silver Screen, ‘Bioskop Mesum’ Grindhouse cinemas and the slow death of movies in Aceh, and Taking cinema to the streets of Banda Aceh. All three are published on 24 August 2014 at The Jakarta Post.