Dul Yani, a santri and an aspiring stand-up comedian, gets dressed before his performance at Pesantren Pondok Kebon Jambu's stand-up comedy competition. (Photo by Shalahuddin Siregar)

'A Boarding School': New Documentary Dispels Myths of Pesantren as 'Terrorist Schools'

BY :JAKARTA GLOBE

NOVEMBER 19, 2019

Jakarta. Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia, or pesantren, have an image problem. They are often derided as "terrorist schools," where young people, often boys, are said to be radicalized by hardline preachers. But just when the government seems to get even more gung ho in fighting radicalism, this stereotypical image of the pesantren is slowly being revised. Even the government themselves recently admitted the curriculum used in pesantren already teaches religious tolerance. Ironically, it is now state schools that the government fears are becoming more conservative and intolerant.

Shalahuddin Siregar is one of Indonesia's leading documentary filmmakers. His first feature-length documentary, "The Land Beneath the Fog," a fly-on-the-wall look at the day-to-day life of poor farmers living at the foot of Mount Merbabu in Central Java, won the Special Jury Prize from the Dubai International Film Festival in 2011. His second feature, "Song for My Children," which tells the story of Dialita, a choir made up of women who were imprisoned without trial for their alleged involvement with the Indonesian Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s and their descendants, had its world premiere at the DMZ International Documentary Film Festival in South Korea in September. 

Now his "A Boarding School" (Indonesian title: "Pesantren"), four years in the making, has been selected to the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2019 – the world's largest documentary film festival – and will have its world premiere there on Nov. 23.

The film has been included in IDFA's Luminous, a program featuring character-, story- or author-driven stories that "make the universal tangible through the individual."

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Boarders mind the washing at Pondok Kebon Jambu. (Photo by Shalahuddin Siregar)

Shalahuddin, who directed and produced the film himself this time, said he was motivated to make the film by a desire to challenge the popular perception of Islamic boarding schools as old-fashioned, puritanical and monolithic – indeed, he said, some even think of them as a terrorist breeding ground.

This was also why he chose Pesantren Pondok Kebon Jambu in Cirebon, West Java, as his subject. It's one of the largest traditional Islamic boarding schools in the area, with almost 2,000 boarders, and has something that many traditional pesantrens still don't have: a woman leader, Masriyah Amva, often called by her simple honorific title, Nyai. 

The film is an attempt to get a better picture – and understanding – of real life inside an Islamic boarding school with both male and female boarders, called santri. 

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A class at Pondok Kebon Jambu led by Bibah, the music teacher. (Photo by Shalahuddin Siregar)

Four of these santris appear prominently in the film: Bibah, a female music teacher; Diding, a young Islamic scholar who teaches Islamic law at the school; Dika, a senior santri; and Dul Yani, a student who dreams of becoming a professional stand-up comedian.

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Dul Yani, Pondok Kebon Jambu's resident stand-up comedian. (Photo by Shalahuddin Siregar)

Shalahuddin started working on A Boarding School in 2015. Lack of financing has resulted in several delays but the film was finally completed with assistance from the Dare to Dreams and Docs by the Sea workshops, which included mentorships by world documentary experts.

The final version of the film was edited for five weeks in Berlin by Stephan Krumbiegel – one of Germany’s best editors.

The film also received support from In-Docs, Steps International, the Embassy of Denmark in Jakarta, Talents Tokyo and two international broadcasters, NHK and Al Jazeera Documentary Channel.

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A santri reads his 'fiqh' (Islamic Law) textbook while his friends play and take a nap at Pondok Kebon Jambu. (Photo by Shalahuddin Siregar)

IDFA programmer Sarah Dawson said about the film: "the [filmmaker's] observational style allows the stories of the young people to emerge on their own terms in a way that is empowering and generous. There is a lot of wonderful wisdom to be absorbed from both the educators and the students no matter one's faith or identity and, in the end, it left me with a sense of hopefulness for the world."

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A santri checks out his exam results on a bulletin board. (Photo by Shalahuddin Siregar)

Shalahuddin, in an interview with the Jakarta Globe, said the film could very well shatter many clichés about pesantren. “Real life in a pesantren is totally different from what I imagined. It’s very dynamic, warm, open and so much fun. The school encourages the santris to take up music, even stages a stand-up comedy competition. The teachers say santris should see stand-up comedy as a new form of dakwah [preaching] that they should master. But I was most impressed by how the school teaches them to think critically, to discuss everything openly and to respect different opinions. There's a scene in the film of a fiqh [Islamic Law] class where the santris discuss contemporary issues from the point of view of Islam, including would Islam allow saying your marriage vows on Skype!"

A Boarding School will be released in 2020 and screened at universities, schools, film communities and alternative spaces.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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