Shenina Cinnamon as Sur in Penyalin Cahaya. Still from the film by Rekata Studio/Kaninga Pictures.

The 2021 film Penyalin Cahaya (Photocopier), co-written and directed by Wregas Bhanuteja, has recently found itself at the center of the ongoing debate on sexual violence in Indonesia. And that is not just because of its plot, which focuses on the struggle of a survivor of sexual abuse to reveal the perpetrator and obtain justice. In January 2022, the other co-writer of the film was accused of perpetrating sexual violence himself, leading the producers to remove his name from the film’s credits.

This put a stain on the achievements of the film, which dominated the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) just a couple of months earlier. It won 12 awards, including best film, direction, original screenplay, cinematography, actor, and supporting actor. Although the filmmakers did not seek a cinema release, it was a massive hit on Netflix.

Penyalin Cahaya is one of several recent Indonesian films dealing with themes of gender equality and the struggle against sexual violence. One of its main competitors for the top prize in FFI 2021 was Yuni, directed by Kamila Andini, who is no stranger to raising feminist themes in her work. Yuni is a coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl from a coastal region of Java trying to decide the kind of woman she wants to be in a conservative patriarchal society.

It was likely the first ever FFI in which the two main contenders for best film and best director focused on women and included strong feminist perspectives. Back in 2008, a well-made anthology film on issues of gender equality, Perempuan Punya Cerita (Chants of Lotus), directed by four Indonesian women filmmakers, Lasja Fauzia Susatyo, Nia Dinata, Upi Avianto, and Fatimah Tobing Rony, did not attract nearly as much positive attention. In fact, it had to face harsh censorship as it struggled for distribution in commercial cinemas.

In a previous piece on the short film Tilik, I argued that the controversy around that film was a sign of an unresolved crisis in the gender order in Indonesia. Traditional patterns of gender relations are being challenged, and ideological battles to secure hegemonic gender ideals are being fought on a range of fronts, including cinema. There is increasing public debate about what it means to be an ideal man and an ideal woman in modern Indonesia. Penyalin Cahaya, as well as Yuni and several other films, were produced amid intense public debate on gender-based and sexual violence.

A major part of this debate has been the long-discussed bill on the eradication of sexual violence (previously known as RUU PKS, now RUU TPKS), which remains on the non-priority list of legislation for discussion in the national legislature (DPR), despite strong public support. A major breakthrough was achieved last year, when the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology issued Ministerial Regulation No. 30 of 2021 on Prevention and Handling of Sexual Violence in Higher Education. The poor response of higher education institutions to sexual abuse was precisely the issue raised by Penyalin Cahaya.

The positive reviews, public acceptance, and accolades gained by films like Penyalin Cahaya and Yuni indicate shifting perspectives among filmmakers and the increasing openness of audiences to subjects previously considered taboo. As feminist ideas have grown in popularity, films of this category have come to be seen as powerful tools to voice expression of gender politics and raise awareness about gender issues.

But the commercial release of these films is also a sign of the growing commodification of feminist issues – their financial backers see feminist themes as publicly acceptable and able to generate profit. Penyalin Cahaya is a major studio film with financial backing from two major film companies: Kaninga Pictures and Rekata Studio.

So, while acknowledging the highly political content of Penyalin Cahaya, we cannot ignore the economic motives behind its production. Scholars such as Janet Wasko have warned against focusing on the political and ideological aspects of film and neglecting the powerful economic interests at play. She highlights the business side of the industry, which in many ways shapes its content, modes of production, distribution, and consumption.

The heightened public debate around gender equality has created an opportunity for its commodification. The debate has attracted various stakeholders with their respective personal, economic, and political interests, not limited to people genuinely supportive of feminist causes.

The revelation that one the writers of Penyalin Cahaya was allegedly involved in abusive sexual relations with female filmmakers demonstrates that while films may advance feminist themes, this is no guarantee that all those involved have feminist motivations. The film might not have been so well made if the filmmakers, including the alleged perpetrator, did not have some understanding of sexual violence, but awareness of the problem does not necessarily reflect genuine support for gender equality.

It is important not to reduce the genuine struggle for gender equality and elimination of sexual violence waged through commercial cinema to simply a discussion on commodification. However,  the business dimensions of cinema, which may affect what types of films can be made, who makes them, and how they are distributed and exhibited to the public, must not be overlooked.

Indeed, the commercial release of films like Penyalin Cahaya and Yuni can make the issues more visible and raise more public awareness. But the struggle for gender equality and elimination of sexual violence must continue to be vigilantly waged at other fronts to produce more substantial results.

The controversy around Penyalin Cahaya makes an even a stronger case for Indonesia to pass the bill on the eradication of sexual violence, and for education institutions to take affirmative action in support of the cause. Further, it also underscores the urgent need for filmmakers to come together to establish written ethical codes and stronger employment contracts to prevent and deal with sexual violence and gender based discrimination in the industry.

My colleagues and I at the Association of Indonesian Film Scholars (KAFEIN), have long advocated for integration of gender equality and social inclusion perspectives in the curriculum of film study programs in Indonesia. Investing in the future generation of filmmakers is as important as the legal struggle to criminalise acts of sexual violence. Young filmmakers need more exposure and training to strengthen awareness and nurture genuine support for gender equality, elimination of sexual violence and respect for diversity to prepare them to be socially aware and inclusive players in the industry.

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