Since the turn of the millennium, a variety of Indonesian films featuring Islamic characters grappling with moral issues have emerged. Although films do not always mirror social reality, films that tackle moral issues can provide an indicator of society’s understanding of contemporary social issues, such as growing Islamic identity in Indonesia.
A new trend in Indonesian Islamic film is stories focusing on the experiences of characters living overseas. This kind of plot device can reveal the tensions involved with navigating the many contradictions of daily life – the clash between personal morals and the new challenges that emerge throughout life.
One source of contradiction is found in the aspirations of the middle class. The modern consumer lifestyle is not always consistent with Islamic morality. Indonesian films often resolve this tension by providing characters with an absolute moral choice: good/evil, traditional/modern, hero/villain.
But this simplistic framing ignores the nuances of humanity and the complexities of social life. Tensions within society limit the ability of people to make such black and white choices.
One of these films is Ali & Ratu-Ratu Queens (“Ali and the Queens of Queens”). Available on Netflix, this film tells the story of Ali’s journey to New York to look for his mother, Mia, who left Indonesia for the USA, hoping to become a singer.
The film paints a sympathetic portrait of the immigrant struggle to pursue ‘The American Dream’. But the characters of Mia and “the Queens of Queens”, who take care of Ali in New York, are contrasted with the piety of Ali’s family in Indonesia.
For example, Ali’s aunt, who wears a long hijab, reminds Ali not to eat pork and asks whether he has been praying. Without exploring how the characters navigate the tension between the morals they bring from Indonesia and the challenges of their new lives, the film ends happily: Ali’s aunt, who was originally resistant, eventually understands Ali’s decision to stay in New York.
Another new film on Netflix is Layla Majnun, about the “forbidden” love between Layla and Samir – Layla is already engaged to another man, Ibnu. The film resolves the tensions between Layla’s aspirations for social mobility and her religiosity, and her “forbidden” love for Samir (an Azerbaijani), by depicting Layla-Samir as heroes and Ibnu as evil.
Ibnu is portrayed as a greedy and egotistical district head candidate, while Samir is an educated romantic, who goes out of his way to help those around him. Like Ali & Ratu-Ratu Queens, the film depicts individuals with good or bad qualities without nuance or grounding their challenges in sufficient social context.
Personal struggles with morality have long been a feature of Indonesian films with Islamic themes, such as the popular 2009 film Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (“Woman With a Turban”). The main character, Annisa, is the daughter of a religious leader (kiai), and is portrayed as an intelligent, bold and independent woman. She confronts the patriarchal values of the Islamic boarding school (pesantren) system, despite resistance from her father and older brother, and is a victim of abuse in her marriage (which was arranged by her father).
In this film, the tension between Annisa’s personal morals and her aspirations are resolved through her courage and “heroism”. She is able to both maintain her piety and struggle for the emancipation of women at the same time. Unfortunately, the contradictions between the emancipation of women and the conservative moral order Annisa operates in are only explored very superficially.
But not all films from majority Muslim societies avoid the complexities of humanity in this way. For example, the Turkish film Clair Obscur tells the story of two women from different social backgrounds, both products of modern Turkish society. Shenaz is a psychologist and is depicted as a glamorous, liberal Muslim. She is contrasted with Elmas, a younger, veiled, homely woman, who is trapped in menial domestic work after being married off to a much older man.
The two women meet when Shenaz treats Elmas following her involvement in a harrowing event. The seemingly liberated Shenaz soon realises that she has much in common with Elmas, in that they both face similar limitations on their independence and sexuality. Even though they come from different social classes, both live in a patriarchal society that provides little space for their “heroism” as individual women.
Another Turkish series, Ethos, tells the story of a range of characters from different social backgrounds: Muslims from a humble social class are contrasted with wealthier, western-educated, more secular members of society, without depicting one as inherently better than the other.
The main character, Meryem, for example, is a young woman of limited education from a traditional Muslim family. She is referred to Peri, a psychologist, after repeatedly fainting at work. The highly educated Peri views Meryem as a product of a society that oppresses women, and struggles with this personal bias while trying to remain professional. But Meryem has her own way of navigating the patriarchal society she comes from, even if she cannot be as free as Peri.
Meryem opts for quiet, subversive tactics when interacting with the dominant men in her life: she will remain silent, change the subject or lie, rather than confronting them directly. There is no heroism here, because there is no easy solution for the many dilemmas characters face, dilemmas that arise from the moral ambiguity inherent to rapidly changing societies.
Iran has also produced films that portray the tension between the values associated with a virtuous life and the temptations of the middle-class, especially for younger Iranians. One example is the highly acclaimed 2009 film About Elly.
This film tells the story of a group of middle-class friends on a beach holiday. One of the young women, Sepideh, invites her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly, on the trip and attempts to set the woman up with Sepideh’s cousin Ahmad, who has just returned from Germany. The tension between aspirations for freedom and demands to adhere to state defined notions of good Islamic behaviour is slowly exposed when Elly goes missing after trying to save a drowning child.
It is eventually revealed that Sepideh hid the fact that she had to go to extraordinary lengths to convince Elly to join the holiday, because Elly was already engaged to Alireza, even if she was thinking of ways to back out of the commitment. Societal pressure results in lies upon lies, including efforts to cover up the true nature of the relationship between Elly and Ahmad, which would have violated formal moral norms.
Clair Obscur, Ethos, and About Elly all provide opportunities to learn about the limitations on individual choice in complex social realities. Individuals are not depicted as inherently better than others just because they come from a particular social grouping (upper class, working class, secular, Islamic). Characters from different social groups are confronted with dilemmas created by tensions in a rapidly changing society. They face both opportunities and limitations on individual choice.
In Indonesian films, meanwhile, moral characters implicitly emphasise the discrepancy between Islamic morality and the modern world (even if there are some efforts by directors to present characters who are both Islamic and modern). The challenges of the modern world are depicted as temptations or a threat to moral norms.
Indonesian films tend to choose the easy way out, depicting main characters as overcoming challenges in ways that ignore social context and the many internal conflicts and contradictions they face. Focusing on the heroism of individuals does not allow viewers to explore the sources of tension in an Indonesian society undergoing significant change. As a result, viewers are not encourged to see that individual struggles are just a part of broader social struggles.
This article was originally published as “Moralitas Hitam-Putih Dalam Film Kita” in Tempo Magazine on 8 August 2021. It has been translated and republished with the consent of the author and Tempo Magazine.