Luna Maya as Suzzanna. (Photo courtesy of Soraya Intercine Films)

Wanted: More Women Film Critics


DECEMBER 27, 2018

Jakarta. Soraya Intercine Films announced on social media last week that its Suzzanna tribute, "Suzzanna: Bernapas Dalam Kubur," or "Suzzanna: Still Breathing in the Grave," had attracted a total of 3,343,661 viewers, making the horror movie its biggest box office hit of the year. This Thursday, the film – starring Luna Maya as '80s queen of horror Suzzanna – will start its run in Malaysian cinemas.

Most reviews of the movie focused on whether or not Luna Maya (and her prosthetics) succeeded to become a doppelgänger for Suzzanna. The rest were the usual press release-driven glowing reviews.

Among all these, one review stood out for pointing out that the new Suzzanna film was less progressive than the '80s cult horror B-movies starring the real Suzzanna – and it was written by a woman film critic.

The writer was Permata Adinda, a graduate of the prestigious Bandung Institute of Technology, where she spent most of her free time organizing screenings for the university's legendary Liga Film Mahasiswa (Students' Film League, or LFM), and now a film critic for Jurnal Ruang.

In her review, Permata argued the late Suzzanna should be lauded not only as a horror queen, but also as a feminist icon, and that the new movie does not live up to that legacy.

In "Sundel Bolong," for example,  Suzzanna plays Alisa, a woman who kills herself after she is raped and then blamed for what happens to her when she takes her case to court.

She then returns as a ghost to haunt and kill her rapists.

Sundel Bolong has been seen as a feminist tale that exposes and criticizes a patriarchal Orde Baru society that oppressed women and often condemned them as the source of society's ills.

The new Suzzanna movie, as Permata points out, appears to ignore its own social context and even punishes Suzzanna for avenging her death.

Criticism of representation of gender roles in Indonesian films outside of the academia is still rare in Indonesia.

This may have to do with the fact that the country's film industry – which includes film criticism – is still very much dominated by men.

Unfortunately, no official statistics are available on the number of men and women film critics in Indonesia.

In the United States, a USC Annenberg study revealed that 63.9 percent of film reviewers who wrote about the top 100 films of 2017 were "white males."

A quick survey of traditional and online media suggests Indonesia is suffering from the same problem, if not worse.

But in the absence of stats, perhaps we should address a more pertinent issue: why is it important for Indonesia to have more women film critics?

"Men and women film critics offer different perspectives because their experiences are different, the way they are treated in society are different. This is why I'm drawn to gender issues in a film. It’s not that men can’t [talk about them], but women have more insights into these issues because we relate more to them," Permata told the Jakarta Globe.

Critic-turned-programmer Lisabona Rahman also pointed out that Indonesian films in general are still misogynistic, and that feminist film critics are needed to call out this tendency.

Lisabona singled out "Islamic" films whose plots revolve around polygamy – a trend since Hanung Bramantyo's "Ayat-Ayat Cinta" ("Love Verses") was released in 2008.

These films invariably feature a polygamous male hero. The films either never question the polygamy depicted in the movie, or exist entirely to justify it.

Nia Dinata’s 2006 drama "Berbagi Suami" is perhaps still the only commercial film that tries to offer a different perspective on polygamy by focusing on the plight of the women – depicted as victims of their husband’s uncontrolled sexual desire.

"If we don’t use a feminist perspective, we might not be able to tell the difference between Ayat-Ayat Cinta and Berbagi Suami. We can only say that both of them address the issue of polygamy. We need the right critical approach to review a film or else we'd unwittingly let misogynistic values be reproduced," Lisabona said.

Permata has also written about these "religious" films, and she has identified another typical trope: there's always pressure on the female protagonists to get married, but not on the men.

"If the protagonist is a woman, about the only thing she would think about is her marriage prospects. They also tend to glorify the hijab, and belittle women who choose not to wear it. And these films are made by men," she said.

Movie blogger Festi Noverini emphasized the need for more diverse perspectives in film criticism by mentioning critical reception of Asghar Farhadi’s "The Salesman" and Edwin’s "Posesif."

"Both show how patriarchy works to reduce women’s presence into objects to satisfy men’s ego. Unfortunately, they take a realistic position, describing it instead of criticizing it. [They are] good but they leave us uncomfortable, not in a good way. But this issue probably doesn’t cross the minds of those who don’t experience patriarchy. It’s difficult to find this argument in the reviews I’ve read," Festi said.

Why Don't We Have More Women Critics Already?

Author and academic Intan Paramaditha, whose 2014 PhD thesis at New York University is titled "The Wild Child's Desire: Cinema, Sexual Politics and the Experimental Nation in Post-Authoritarian Indonesia," said women in Indonesia have always been discouraged from critical thinking.

"Women have been discouraged from activities that involve critical judgment at various levels and stages of their career. From the family: be a good daughter, work in a bank, achieve economic stability. From friends/people around her: we value nice, sociable women (be a teacher, PR, marketing communications officer) or pretty women (be models/actresses/ beauty queens). Criticism is for the nasty and/or nerdy. It can expose problematic things, and women have always been taught not to be confrontational," Intan said.

She added that the local arts and culture scene is male-dominated, filled with "men endlessly debating each other."

"Perhaps some women are reluctant to join because, really, these debates are characterized by machismo, mansplaining and all-male panels. Perhaps women don’t really feel comfortable there," she said.

Permata said she recently took part in a film criticism workshop in Yogyakarta in which the only male participant in the group still felt entitled enough to dominate discussions.

Permata said one of the reasons she prefers to write film reviews instead of joining a discussion is because she is more likely to find a sympathetic audience on an online journal or a blog than in a male-centered forum.

"Society needs to change and see that our opinion matters," she said.

Festi pointed out there seems to be more women film critics in the blogosphere and hinted that the fault could lie with traditional media's reluctance to hire more women critics.

"In non-mainstream media, blogs and websites, the proportion [of men and women film critics] seems to be equal. So the question becomes: is our mainstream media still patriarchal?" she said.

In an encouraging development, some of these women film critics have taken the fight into their own hands.

Intan and fellow author Lily Yulianti Farid recently organized "Period Workshop," a series of literary and film criticism classes taught by women, prominent academic Melani Budianta and Lisabona.

"The workshop is open for all – men, women and others – but we prioritize women participants to encourage more women to get involved in the scene," Intan said.

Lisabona, who used to write film reviews for The Jakarta Post from 2005 to 2007, said the classes, which wrapped up last week, were meant to teach young writers to review films from a critical perspective and encourages them to be more sensitive to social issues such as gender, class and power relations.

Unsupportive Environment

Before we even begin to address the issue of the lack of women film critics in Indonesia, we should remind ourselves that the state of film criticism in this country is already moribund to say the least.

Writer Umi Lestari, who writes for Jurnal Footage, said there are more filmmakers than critics, researchers or archivists in the local film scene.

"There are so many print and digital media, you can even write your own blog. But why are there so few critics left now?" she said.

Both Lisabona and Permata said perhaps one of the reasons is that being a film critic simply doesn't pay the bills.

They mentioned Joko Anwar and Paul Agusta, once acerbic critics who now bat for the other team, becoming filmmakers themselves. Lisabona herself also stopped writing film reviews and is now making her name as a programmer and archivist.

Nevertheless, it is still easier to remember the names of contemporary men film critics. Take Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu from Cinema Poetica and former Rumah Film duo Eric Sasono and Ekky Imanjaya as examples.

Is there any woman film critic whose name rolls off the tongue for you except perhaps for Tempo's Leila S. Chudori?

Corry Elyda, an editor at Cinema Poetica, said the sorry number of film critics in Indonesia is mostly due to the "lack of a 'culture of criticism' in any art discipline'" in the country.

"Film studies is not a sexy subject, even for film school students. There's no systematic regeneration of film critics here. Having more women critics will be great, but it's more important to have a knowledgeable critic. As a woman, I naturally pick up on women's issues. However, I don’t specifically write about them. Workshops are important since we don’t have any bonafide film studies program in our film schools," Corry said.

Stephany "Teppy" Josephine, (in)famous for her GIF- and meme-filled irreverent film reviews on "Movie Review Suka-Suka," and now the host of film review web series Teppy O Meter, said she can only hope that people start to appreciate "exchanges of opinion."

"As a nation, I don't think we're at a point where everyone has the guts to get involved in a real debate, to say what we want to say, to speak up and express our opinion about anything, including film. I hope that more people will write about film, and if we can encourage more 'discussion,' then we might have more film critics and, perhaps, even more women among them," Teppy said.