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2015 has been a remarkable year for Indonesian cinema, with more than a dozen local films competing on the international festival circuit. Not since Garin Nugroho made his mark in the 1990s and early 2000s has Indonesian cinema enjoyed this kind of recognition on the world stage. And it has been achieved in the almost complete absence of government support.
Indonesian films have screened at International Film Festival Rotterdam (Another Trip to the Moon, Lonely Wolf, Siti, Waiting for News), Shanghai International Film Festival (In the Absence of the Sun, Siti, Tabula Rasa), Cannes (The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might), Berlinale Shorts (Lembusura, Onomastika), Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (Filosofi Kopi, Pendekar Tongkat Emas, Tabula Rasa), Venice Film Festival (A Copy of My Mind), Busan International Film Festival (A Copy of My Mind, Love Story Not), Toronto International Film Festival (A Copy of My Mind, Following Diana), Telluride Film Festival (Siti), and Vancouver International Film Festival (The Sun, The Moon and The Hurricane). These films have impressed international audiences and proved that Indonesian cinema can hold its own against its more established peers.
Common to these films is that they all explore “the other Indonesia”: marginalised characters and stories that are rarely seen on screen in the country. In The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might, for example, Lucky Kuswandi uses symbolism to explore the relationship between sexuality and power against the backdrop of the New Order era. Eddie Cahyono’s Siti is an intense, slow-burning portrayal of a woman who cares for her poor family after her husband is paralysed after an accident at sea, and Yosep Anggi Noen’s Love Story Not looks at the struggle of two sex workers from different social classes. Kamila Andini’s Following Diana, meanwhile, examines the experience of a housewife whose seemingly peaceful marriage is rocked by her husband’s decision to take a second wife. And Andri Cung’s The Sun, The Moon and The Hurricane is an absorbing semiautobiographical story about a young man’s search for happiness that sees him falling in love with another man.
While these films have enjoyed critical acclaim abroad, few are likely to get a run in local cinemas. Only Tabula Rasa, Pendekar Tongkat Emas and Filosofi Kopi have gained commercial distribution. This is partly because there is only a limited domestic market for arthouse films – the raw and uncompromising picture of poverty depicted in films such as Siti and Love Story Not, for example, is unlikely to connect with a broad audience. But the main thing keeping these films out of Indonesian cinemas is that most cover sensitive topics that would see them run afoul of Indonesia’s conservative censorship board.
The fall of Soeharto in 1998 saw the lifting of restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of the press and access to information. But the New Order’s Film Censorship Board (LSF) was retained and continues to apply a heavy hand. Given their exploration of topics considered taboo in Indonesian society, some filmmakers have elected not to pursue local distribution to avoid upsetting the LSF. Andri Cung and his team decided early on not to screen The Sun, The Moon and The Hurricane in Indonesian theatres and Lucky Kuswandi will likewise not seek local distribution for The Fox exploits the Tiger’s Might, partly because of scenes of masturbation and references to the New Order regime.
There are worrying signs that democratic space available to filmmakers may shrink even further. Indonesian lawmakers recently proposed a bill that would require filmmakers to send their scripts to be reviewed by government censors before production. This would be a return to the style of censorship implemented under the New Order and would be a serious impediment to the future development of the local industry.
Another factor limiting the exposure of these films in Indonesia is the monopolised film distribution system. Cinema 21 Group, which was established in the 1980s by a cousin of Soeharto, has historically had the sole power to distribute films, and owns about 600 of the 800 screens across Indonesia. Without distribution through a commercial group such as Cinema 21, films are limited to screenings at university film clubs or foreign cultural centres such as Goethe House or the French Institute of Indonesia (IFI).
Striking among these films is that they were all produced without any funding support from the Indonesian government. Given the lack of government financing available, non-profit organisations have played a crucial role in supporting emerging filmmakers. Ismail Basbeth’s Another Trip to the Moon was supported by the Hubert Bals Fund and the filmmaker’s own money. Meanwhile, The Fox Exploits the Tiger’s Might, Love Story Not, and Following Diana were produced through a collaboration between Hivos Southeast Asia and Babi Buta Film. While they don’t provide financing, local nongovernmental organisations such as Forum Lenteng and Cinema Poetica have played an important part in supporting the community, and helping young filmmakers identify funding opportunities.
A final point worth noting about these films is the prominence of directors from Yogyakarta. Since the 1950s, Jakarta has been considered the centre of the Indonesian film industry and for the past three decades has provided the backdrop for most Indonesian stories. But this year has seen the affirmation of Yogyakarta as the country’s second film city. Ifa Isfansyah (Pendekar Tongkat Emas), Yosep Anggi Noen (Love Story Not), Eddie Cahyono (Siti), and Ismail Basbeth (Another Trip to the Moon) are all Yogyakarta locals. Many of these young filmmakers trained at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts (ISI), away from the commercial atmosphere and pressures of Jakarta. The smaller city seems to have fostered a collegial and professionally supportive environment among local filmmakers.
Indonesian filmmakers will continue to produce films that are up to an international standard. Perhaps the greater international recognition Indonesian films received this year will prompt the government to acknowledge the depth of filmmaking talent in the country and provide it with more support. But it is more likely that the onus will continue to be on individual filmmakers. Sadly, the government has hampered rather than encouraged their work.