Singapore. Although Indonesian filmmakers have enjoyed more freedom of expression since the start of the post-Suharto era in 1998, they still face problems in terms of censorship and government policies, industry players said during a panel discussion at The Arts House in Singapore on Saturday (25/11).
The event, titled "Histories of Tomorrow: Indonesian Cinema After the New Order," was held as part of the 28th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) and Singapore Media Festival, which made the archipelago nation this year's country-of-focus.
Film critic Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu, filmmakers Yuda Kurniawan and Hari Suhariyadi, and Cinema Lovers Community co-founder Bowo Lekson participated in the panel discussion.
Adrian said film is the only art form with regulations in Indonesia and that the country's cinema has mostly been studied in terms of its political stance, instead of aesthetics. Each political regime has its own characteristics and set of policies that affect film content.
The New Order regime under former President Suharto for instance, was known for strict censorship of every type of media. During that era, films portrayed Indonesians as apolitical. Also, they were not allowed to show any sociocultural or economic problems that may hint at the government's failings.
"Even when you portray poor people, they must have something that elevates their status in the end," Adrian added.
Since the fall of regime in 1998, there has been much more freedom in storytelling. Filmmakers have been more open in addressing themes of politics, sexuality and religion.
There has also been an emergence of community-driven film festivals, such as the Purbalingga Film Festival (FFP), which Bowo has directed since 2007.
Jakarta had also hosted the Q! Film Festival, screening movies that advocate for LGBTQ issues, since 2002. However, the festival organizers announced in March that they would "take a break" after 15 years.
Censorship still remains after the New Order. Films intended for screening in commercial cinemas must first obtain approval from the Film Censorship Board (LSF), which Hari said is not necessarily staffed by competent people.
"Most of them don't have an educational background in film or communications. They are government officials. Sometimes they work on a rolling basis, so one time they handle film, and the next they do something else," he said.
This situation prompted Hari to take "Sunya" ("The Talisman") to festivals, instead of showing it in commercial cinemas, to avoid the risk of having it heavily cut by the censorship board.
Nonetheless, though filmmakers can turn to festivals to show uncut works, they still risk informal censorship.
"We have social, or horizontal, censorship. What happens now is that there are certain groups – not only religious groups – which feel they have the right to control others," Adrian said.
Films about the 1965 mass killings, for instance, often draw opposition. As documented by Yuda in the documentary "Balada Bala Sinema" ("The Ballads of Cinema Lovers"), Bowo and his community experienced opposition when the Purbalingga chapter of Pemuda Pancasila, a paramilitary organization, ambushed the screening of "Pulau Buru: Tanah Air Beta" ("Buru Island: My Homeland") during FFP 2016.
It is no secret that the organization was heavily involved in the abduction and killing of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members and sympathizers in 1965.
The recently released children's movie, "Naura & Genk Juara," has also met with a backlash on the internet. One mother posted a review on Facebook, saying that the film discredits Muslims because the villains are bearded men who often utter Islamic phrases, such as Astaghfirullah (God forgive me).
After her post went viral, another netizen created an online petition to boycott the film. As of now it has been signed by more than 52,000 people.
Adrian saw this as a literacy problem. People think films should represent the ideal reality they understand, and the fact that Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country paints a clear picture of how most people want to be perceived.
"We have a problem with film literacy. We think films should represent the ideal reality but they could represent any kind of reality," he said.
Where Is Indonesian Cinema Headed?
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration has made improvements, such as eliminating the film industry from the country's negative investment list, thus allowing full foreign ownership of film production, distribution and exhibition.
Two government bodies have also been established. They are the Creative Economy Agency (Bekraf), and the Film Development Center (Pusbang Film), which works under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and Culture.
Bekraf, helmed by Triawan Munaf, was established to improve output in the creative economy. It oversees 16 subsectors, one of which is film.
Though Bekraf has supported many film-related events, Adrian argued that its long-term vision for the film ecosystem is still unclear.
"In which part of the ecosystem is it going to intervene? Is it distribution? Exhibition? They should play a bigger role in market regulation, not only sponsoring events," Adrian said.
Still, Bekraf has been a medium to address existing issues such, as the welfare of film industry workers. What should be contemplated is what will happen after the Jokowi administration ends in 2019. Will Bekraf be disbanded? What type of organization will replace it?
There is little chance that Pusbang Film will take over because the nature of its mission is different. While Bekraf deals with the industry, Pusbang, as a ministerial body, deals with film as an educational tool.
Another recommendation for government bodies is to place more emphasis on the collection of necessary data. So far, the only available data relates to the number of movie theaters and screens in the country, yet box office numbers and the demographics of moviegoers are scarcely found.