Historical Inheritance and Film Nasional in post-Reformasi Indonesian Cinema(1)
By: Thomas Barker (National University of Singapore)
When Ekskul (2006, ‘Extracurricular’) won best film at the 2006 Indonesian Film Festival (FFI), a large group of young filmmakers protested and many returned their awards from previous years’ festivals. Their protest centered on what they saw as the obvious unprofessionalism of the FFI in awarding best film prize to a film that had plagiarized music from other, notably Hollywood, films. Careful to avoid criticism of the director Nayato Fionuala and producer Shankar RS (Indika), they formed the Masyarakat Film Indonesia (MFI, Indonesian Film Community) to direct their concerns about the film industry. Later in 2008, members launched an unsuccessful case in the constitutional court to challenge the legality of the film censorship board. They clearly felt that many of the old institutions still needed reform.
In writing about this new generation of filmmakers and the films that have been produced in the post-Suharto period, after 1998, many commentators express disappointment in the films being made. The writers from the influential online film website Rumah Film (www.rumahfilm.org) have developed the most consistent discourse in this regard, and it is worth quoting Ekky Imanjaya at some length here:
“Why don’t they try to express their hope and critical ideas through films? Although the Reform has opened many opportunities to make films in accordance with their idealism, only few political films were produced. While Garin Nugroho often makes clear political and cultural statements in his films, this younger generation mostly shows the opposite indication. […] Why does the young generation choose political movement [i.e. MFI] instead of aesthetic movement?” (Imanjaya 2009)
Fellow writer Hikmat Darmawan echoes this sentiment, saying that contemporary films are “still afflicted with the sickness of deintellectualization” (2007).[i] Underpinning these criticisms is the idea that the new generation of filmmakers has somehow shortchanged the audience, reformasi and the legacy of Indonesian filmmaking.
During the MFI campaign against Ekskul, senior commentator Rosihan Anwar (b. 1922) stepped into the debate accusing the young members of MFI of being arrogant. “They think that the ‘world begins with them’ and history is just belittled just as the works and efforts of their forefathers are simply dismissed. They have no respect for their seniors and do not want to socialize with their elders.”[ii] More importantly though, Anwar likens the MFI actions to the 1964 boycott of American films by the PKI (Indonesian Communist Part) backed PAPFIAS (Action Committee for the Boycott of Imperialist American Films)[iii] which, he says, paralyzed the film industry precipitating the events of 1965 a year later. “This history of Indonesian film is not known by the current generation of filmmakers. […] So if film workers want to get political again, it is best if they explain what is the meaning and intention of their actions.”[iv] Anwar too evokes the legacy of history, and importantly the events of 1964-65, to question the sincerity and commitment of contemporary filmmakers.
These are the same filmmakers who less than a decade earlier were hailed as a new generation of filmmakers, rebuilding film production in a new era of democracy and free speech (Sumarno and Achnas, 2002). In fact far from creating a whole new film industry, new generation filmmakers are engaged in a dialogue with the ideas and institutions of the past that continue to inform and structure debate in the post 1998 film industry. In this essay I identify the concept of film nasional, as the dominant narrative that continues to inform the cultural politics of filmmaking in Indonesia. Formulated in the 1950s, and institutionalized in the 1970s and 1980s, film nasional continues to exert influence over how film is evaluated in Indonesia and the standards to which it should aspire to. This essay attempts to reveal how this concept came about, what it embodies and what its effects are on both previous and contemporary filmmaking in Indonesia.
Genesis of Film Nasional
Film nasional is tied to the formation of an independent Indonesia in 1950, to its politics and its aspirations. With independence, artists and writers came to occupy a coveted position as orators and representatives of the new nation and cultural production. Most significant was the Angkatan ’45 (Generation of 1945) of whom poet Chairil Anwar is the most venerated, but which also includes Asrul Sani, subsequently an important figure in the film industry. Of all the art forms, film was perhaps the last to be appropriated by these nationalist artists who felt it to be the most effective medium for representing and propagating national culture to the people of independent Indonesia. They believed that under colonialism, film was nothing more than escapist fantasy with little pretence to educate or enlighten the audience, let alone promote nationalism.
Utilizing film this way did not come about spontaneously, but was the lesson artists learnt working for the Japanese propaganda unit (Kurasawa, 1987).[v] “The arrival of the Japanese in this country together with their propaganda films, caused a huge shock to the thoughts of Indonesians about the function of film and introduced them to a new way of thinking” (Biran, 2009:346). “Only then during the Japanese period were people made aware of the function of film as a tool of social communication. […] In this way, it became obvious that film was starting to emerge and grow closer to an awareness of nationalism” (Ismail, 1983:55-56).[vi] To fully realize film nasional however required political independence, and all films made prior to 1950 are ‘not Indonesian films’ says Biran (2009:45).
When local production restarted following the end of the war, nationalists saw themselves in competition with the commercial film industry which they believed had returned to pre-war patterns of escapist entertainment. So stark were the perceived differences, that Salim Said says there are
“two main patterns evident in Indonesian movie production. The first, geared to commercial gain and pioneered by the Chinese in prewar days was continued in post-war days, and imitated by many non-Chinese movie makers. Usmar Ismail and his friends tried to develop a second tradition, one motivated not merely by profit but by a desire for self expression. If the first approach was based solely on what would sell, the pattern adopted by Usmar Ismail did not afford absolute priority to public opinion. In short, while the first approach was without idealism, Usmar Ismail’s emphasized it.” Said (1991b:6)
In line with prevailing nationalist thinking which was premised on the primacy of indigenous pribumi Indonesians, their criticism has a racial edge, which continued through into the New Order as ethnic Indians joined the industry. These dichotomies of idealist-commercial and pribumi-Chinese underpinned how the industry of the 1950s was imagined. Even in the late 1980s, Teguh Karya, a second generation idealist, could write that “in my view and experience, these two patterns have become something of institutions” (1988:6).
Of these idealist filmmakers, Usmar Ismail stands out as the pioneer of Indonesian film with his first film Darah dan Doa (‘Blood and Prayers’ 1950). Ismail (1921-1971) came from an aristocratic family in Bukittinggi (Sumatra), to attend school in Java where he became known as a talented playwright. When the Japanese occupied Indonesia, he worked in their propaganda division writing plays and other material. After shifting to Yogyakarta with the Republican Government for the four year struggle against the returning Dutch, he moved to Jakarta in 1948 where he directed two films for the Dutch film company SPCC. Darah dan Doa, which Ismail claims as really his first film, was made by Perfini (Perusahaan Film Nasional Indonesia) a production company he set up with Rosihan Anwar. He continued to make films throughout the 1950s, and became an important figure in the film industry both in the association of producers (PPFI) and in LESBUMI (Institute of Indonesia Muslim Artists and Cultural Workers), the arts organization established to counter the PKI-linked LEKRA (Institute of People’s Culture).[vii]
Darah dan Doa (sumber gambar: Jurnal Footage)
Of all his work, Darah dan Doa (Blood and Prayers) is the most revered, establishing the prototype for film nasional.[viii] It follows the Siliwangi Division as they march back home from East Java after their successful defeat of a Muslim rebellion in Yogyakarta. The drama is told through the perspective of the Division commander (Captain Sudarto) who is troubled by the experience of war and by his affections for two women. The film ends with him being shot by members of the 1948 PKI rebellion in Madiun. Although controversial on it release for its less-than-flattering depictions of the army, in 1962 the film was officially recognized as the first ‘national film’ with National Film Day celebrated on 30 March, the date Darah dan Doa went into production (Kristanto, 2007:15). Subsequent films of his that are highly regarded, namely Enam Djam di Jogja (‘Six Hours in Jogjakarta’ 1951) and Lewat Jam Malam (‘Past Curfew’ 1954), similarly focus on the military and the armed struggle to unite the Indonesian nation.
In both the film and its maker we find the principles of film nasional. It is, first of all, nationalist in its scope, narrating the military struggle that was central to the formation of modern Indonesia, fighting not just the Dutch but also internal threats to national unity (namely secessionist Islam and Communism). Salim Said, pronounces, somewhat axiomatically, that Ismail’s films are “Indonesian films, because the stories are about Indonesian people on Indonesian soil” (1991a:192).[ix] The figure of Usmar Ismail himself is crucial to the film’s status as he was the first pribumi to independently make a film in post-independence Indonesia. For the ethno-nationalist concept of film nasional these are essential criteria. He famously says of Darah dan Doa that it “was made entirely without any commercial considerations whatsoever, and motivated entirely by idealism,”[x] adding to its reputation and differentiating it from commercially orientated productions.
Although respected in his time, the veneration of Usmar Ismail is most pronounced retroactively, in the years after the political turmoil of the 1960s. Whereas in Ismail’s own writing we find praise for Dr. Huyung, a former Japanese propaganda officer who stayed in Indonesia, and for Basuki Effendi, a LEKRA filmmaker, amongst others, after 1965 these figures are almost entirely erased from film history. Dr. Huyung, who was actually Korean born, suggests a film history that is complicated and transnational, and therefore a challenge to insular ethno-nationalism. Neither Dr. Huyung nor Effendi fit the ideological narrative of film nasional. Instead, placed alongside Ismail is the Persari producer Djamaluddin Malik, and together they are venerated as the forefathers of Indonesian film.
Malik however unsettles the categories of film nasional because of his commercial orientation. Malik’s Persari was a commercial company, modeled on the big American studios. In a period when the Chinese producers were criticized for being nothing more than traders and businessmen, Malik’s commercialism was simply excused:
“Djamaluddin Malik in his ambitions wants to support cultural sentiments but in his execution is more inclined to the commercial stream of the Chinese group. This fact is not that disturbing, because Djamaluddin Malik is originally a trader who of course judges everything from that perspective.” (Ismail, 1983:58)[xi]
Malik did establish the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI) in 1954 to support local production and supported Ismail in his filmmaking and organizational aspirations.[xii] At the first FFI, when Persari’s film Tarmina (dir. Lilik Soedjio) won best film jointly with Ismail’s Lewat Djam Malam, many saw this as cynical self-promotion. To make the Indonesia’s first colour film, Persari simply “stole a story popular in the Philippines” (Mohamad, 2005:34). Neither are the honourable acts of a nationalist.
At the same time, Chinese producers were routinely criticized for making “cheaply made [films] simply to pander to the taste of the populace” (Biran, 2005:6). Salim Said goes as far to suggest that the ‘original sin’ of the film industry, namely the dominance of commercially oriented rather than nationalist-idealist films, can be traced to the work patterns established by the ethnic Chinese in the pre-independence industry. Yet it is ironic that Darah dan Doa was only completed with financial aid from a Chinese cinema owner, Tong Kim Mew (Said, 1991b:51). Moreover, the only ethnic Chinese to earn a venerated place in film history – Teguh Karya, aka Steve Liem Tjoan Hok – achieved this by denying any trace of his Chinese heritage and by reproducing the ideology of film nasional (Karya, 1988; Sen, 2006). The reason why Malik could be elevated to the status he is, and figures such as Tong largely forgotten or Karya refashioning himself, is because of the primacy given to the pribumi (natives) as the only legitimate creators of national culture.
These categories of film nasional were forged in the period prior to the New Order but still operated in competition with other concepts of history and film culture. Although it needs to be noted that both the left (Siagian, 1964:4-5) and right (Ismail, 1954; Sani, 1997:302)[xiii] attributed commercialism to the Chinese producers, denying them any place in film history.[xiv] Krishna Sen (1983; 1985) identifies 1965 as the defining moment in how the narrative of film history has been constructed. Indeed, this has much in common with studies of history in general that show how the New Order came to redefine Indonesian political and social history by elevating the military to a preeminent role and discrediting the communist party in all its incarnations (Heryanto, 1999; McGregor, 2007). When the victors of the 1965-1966 purges subsequently wrote the history of the 1950s and 1960s, they sought to discredit the leftist LEKRA/PKI filmmakers and their ideology, blaming them for the politicization of film and agitation that led to the decline of the industry.
In their version, the LEKRA filmmakers were responsible for politicizing film and thus fragmenting the realization of a unitary nationalist film industry. Film they believed should support and further the interests of the nation and provide a reflection of social reality which came to be known as film nasional. Much of what LEKRA fought for in this period, especially through their PAPFIAS organization, was later claimed as the work of the conservatives themselves (Sen, 1985). Despite the obvious similarities of their positions, this period has been labeled as the ‘dark period’ of film nasional and is squarely blamed on LEKRA and the PKI, entirely consonant with New Order ideology.
Sen’s later work continues this line of critique by concentrating on the New Order state and its domination and control of the film industry, including its purposeful separation from the years leading to 1965.[xv] What Sen’s work indicates is that there is a dominant narrative that informs film history in Indonesia, but 1965 is only one episode in that construction. Film nasional is more than just the erasure of the left, it is a prescriptive ideology that seeks to define the function of film and indeed what qualifies as legitimate culture. What is known as film nasional is the product of locally generated ideas and concepts about film inflected through the historical and socio-cultural conditions of Indonesia. More than just a means of defining the nation, film nasional constitutes a cultural project within a national context.
The Concept of Film Nasional
1. Film Nasional must be a product of the culture of the Indonesian Nation.
2. Film Nasional must replace the domination of foreign films, just as the Indonesian People were victorious in destroying colonial domination.
3. Film Nasional must serve the People and Nation of Indonesia in developing the Indonesian CHARACTER and NATION BUILDING.
- Soemardjono (1979)[xvi]
In his three points above, director Soemardjono shows how film nasional is a nationalist project with both material and cultural aspirations. In many ways it appears like a ‘national cinema’, that is a cultural form that embodies and reflects the nation, and a useful framework for understanding film and film industries around the world (Stoddart, 1995). More than simply an analytical concept, film nasional prescribes the dominant narrative of film in Indonesia providing both a historiography and an epistemological framework for what are to be appropriate or representative films. Imagined within the history of Indonesian independence and self-expression, film is placed at the centre of a struggle to define and articulate the nation and its economic triumph, something that is not expected of any other cultural form in independent Indonesia.
It leads into the problematic area of defining an Indonesian nation and national culture, itself a product of both historical contingency and imagination. Karl Heider provides the most lucid account of how Indonesian film portrays a national culture, through the expressions, stories and characters visible on the screen (1991). Yet following the logic of Heider’s work, it is readily apparent that the definition of a ‘national culture’ is largely axiomatic and fails to identify the interests embedded in that representation and indeed its political dimensions as well as the discourse that sustains film as national culture. Heider’s work is important however because it concentrates on popular film, but it misses the active promotion of film nasional in the film industry.
In national cinema, as Yingjin Zhang notes, “canonized auteurs and movements may have appeared originally as disjunctures or ruptures, but […] they were subsequently rewritten as representative of national cinema at the expense of popular (and therefore mainstream) film practices, most of them commercial in nature” (2009:23). This is patently true of Usmar Ismail whose Darah dan Doa is now more respected than it was in 1950. In Indonesia as well, film nasional does not only dismiss popular film, but it recognizes only a small set of ‘legitimate’ filmmakers and their films. These include Soemardjono, Nya Abbas Akub, Teguh Karya and more recently Eros Djarot. Later works by Usmar Ismail, when he went commercial to try and earn money, are rarely if ever mentioned.
Film nasional corresponds to what Bourdieu has called ‘legitimate culture’ (1984), which in post-colonial Indonesia is inflected by both class and nationalism. In Bourdieu’s work, legitimate culture is the product of a class-based process of distinction, whereby the cultural tastes of the dominant class is codified into the canon or high art. Although this happens in a national context in France (for the case of Bourdieu’s work), in Indonesia, not only was this concept developed by the cultural elite, but film takes on an educative and propagandizing role as well. The cultural elite in Indonesia promoted what they saw as appropriate films in order to inculcate their ideas of national identity and national culture to audiences.
‘Real Face’ Debate of the 1970s
When we come to the 1970s, the debate around film nasional took a new form and new impetus under the New Order. Film came under increased state control because of its perceived potency in being able to influence the masses. All sectors of film were bureaucratized, including compulsory state unions for producers (PPFI), actors (PARFI), and film workers (KFT). Production was controlled, with measures for script approval, shooting approvals, and post production censorship. As a result a generic narrative characterizes films made in the New Order, says Krishna Sen (1994), with an emphasis on the ‘return to order’. I argue that the film policies developed under the New Order were not particular to its ideological imperative, but that they gave form and institutional sustenance to the pre-existing cultural politics of film in Indonesia. Although film nasional is articulated most clearly in this period, it has deeper roots beyond the New Order whose main concern was the ideological and institutional control of filmmaking, not the creation of legitimate culture within film.
Reading Sen’s work, it is perhaps difficult to see that the initial years of the New Order were relatively liberal. Relatively because the ‘left’ had been eradicated with President Soeharto’s rise to power, and was increasingly sensitive towards dissent and criticism. But there was an effervescence of pop culture in magazines, novels, music and film which had all declined or straight jacketed under President Soekarno and its fervent nationalism. Slamet Bratanta, a minister in Soeharto’s first cabinet, even likened these early years to the Prague Spring of 1968 (Schwarz, 1991:33). Jakarta, under governor Ali Sadikan (from 1966 to 1977), was known for its casinos, massage parlors, discotheques and a new arts centre which provided a space for a variety of arts and performance.[xvii] Indicative of the times, the iconic Djakarta Theatre located at Sarinah in Central Jakarta, was built using the proceeds of the casino next door.
In filmmaking, a new era of popular film emerged built on the back of an open-door import policy. In 1970 Bernafas Dalam Lumpur (Breathing in the Mud) starring Suzzana, the actress who would come to dominate popular films in the 1970s and 1980s, was released to great audience enthusiasm but critical consternation. Often cited as one of the first ‘daring’ (Said, 1991b:81) or ‘sex’ films, it is also a fascinating representation of Jakarta, as a young housewife journeys to the city to find her errant husband. After a series of predatory men have sex with her, she becomes a prostitute, wherein a kindly client falls in love and attempts to rescue her. She dies from a mysterious disease. Observers who concentrated on its “numerous bedroom scenes” (Tombs, 1998:67) failed to see the social relevance and its commentary on urban life. Critics such as Goenawan Mohammad (1975; 1980) who saw these representations as perfectly reasonable, had little effect on the nationalist critics.[xviii]
Proponents of ‘quality’ film lamented what they saw as the dominance of cheap, crass films. In response, the DPFN under Asrul Sani, funded four films as examples of quality films for local producers. The four films were expensive failures, although one did win at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in 1968.[xix] Director General for Film, H. Djohardin attacked the conservative nationalists saying:
Dari film Apa Yang Kau Cari Palupi (sumber gambar: Mubi.com)
“Let us not ignore the taste of the millions of people just to please those pseudo-intellectuals who give high honors to such (commercial) failures like What Are You Looking For, Palupi? In my opinion, the national film industry has made great strides forward: our actors are living better; so too the technical personnel, something never before seen in the last twenty years.” (as quoted in Said, 1991b:120)[xx]
Djohardin’s position and the ‘quantity approach’ taken by the Directorate for Film disappointed nationalist critics who felt that the state had betrayed the mission of film nasional by cultivating “the cinema as industry handled by private enterprises under government control” (Mohamad, 1975: 78).
Whilst audiences came to watch these comedy, horror and sex films, observers decried the commercial orientation of the industry that films like Bernafas Dalam Lumpur heralded. Nationalists like Asrul Sani became more concerned about the impact this was having on the people’s morals and on the direction of the film industry generally. “At the moment it can be said, that compared with conditions in the past, film in Indonesia was never fully in the grip of commercialism like it is now” (Sani, 1997:366).[xxi] “These people continued to make cheap and vulgar films,” complains Biran, “For them, films [sic] was a trade item. Why should they try to imitate the more artistically successful films if that promised no guarantee of higher profits” (Biran, 1986:13). “The question is now,” asks Sjumandjaya, “whether the image of Indonesian films will be the personification of these adventurers or that of our artists” (1977:29).
A debate that had started in the 1950s was now resurrected, centering on the image of Indonesia shown in locally made films (Mohamad, 1975). Its concerns are encapsulated in the remarks of critic Jacob Sumardjo who famously asked in 1974: “When will we see our real face up there?”[xxii] These concerns became formalized when the jury of the 1977 Indonesian Film Festival failed to select a best film, and issued a statement that in part read:
“Our filmmakers in general do not have an awareness of environment, geography or society, such that they have never made a film about their Indonesian environment, and because of that their films are not Indonesian films. Their films are only superficial fictions based on their dreams and obsessions supported by their excessive enthusiasm for business.” (quoted in Said 1991b:193)[xxiii]
The FFI jury, populated by members of this cultural elite,[xxiv] had decided to formalize their concerns about the state of Indonesian filmmaking through their institutional position.
The FFI continued to be used as the central institution from which standards of legitimate culture were defined and exemplified. As the state took a greater interest in film in the 1980s, their cultural agenda merged with that of the FFI, clearly visible when Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI (1982) was nominated for best film in 1984, winning in the best script category. Due to the nature of the industry, divided as it was, the winners at the film festivals tended to be the same people year after year. A further differentiation between commercial and ‘quality’ films happened in 1984 when the criteria for the H. Antemas Prize was changed. In 1975 the H. Antemas prize was introduced to acknowledge the most popular film at the Jakarta box-office, which generally was a commercial film. As this contradicted the principles of film nasional, the criteria was changed so that only the films nominated in other FFI categories were eligible to win. This “only gave rise to problems” says Tjasmadi (2008:189), as in 1988 when Eros Djarot, director of Tjoet Njak Dhien, refused the Antemas prize because Saur Sepuh I had garnered more than double his audience.[xxv]
Their concerns were incorporated into state film policy in 1979-1980 as the New Order became more concerned about controlling discourse. Members of the Angkatan ’45 in Jakarta held a conference to outline their concerns about film, attended by vice-president Adam Malik.
“The driver of national film development is no longer towards education and enlightenment to develop national culture, cultivate and build a national character, but has already shifted and is driven primarily by entertainment which is based on trade, and just for making money.”[xxvi]
The following year, the Department of Information held an industry-wide conference on filmmaking that became the defining moment for film in the New Order. The conference laid out a set of ethical standards to which filmmakers were to adhere to (Dewan Film Nasional, 1980). As Sen and Hill note, these standards concentrated on issues of order and security and “worked against the commercial viability and the artistic freedoms of Indonesian national cinema” (2000:142).
Proponents of film nasional argued that the appropriate subject matter of film should be like the films of Usmar Ismail which they said were realist in the style of Italian neo-realism. Ismail however never spoke of Italian neo-realism, and was more inclined to Hollywood and had studied at UCLA in 1953 on scholarship. Given that commercial films dominated the cinemas and were seen as cheaply made copies of foreign films and thus presented an alien world of wealth and fantasy,
“the issue is how to make our films a means to talk to their audiences about their real situation that is encountered around them. So that film can be developed to become a tool that can push audiences to engage in dialogue with themselves: so that film can help them understand their reality in a better way. It is only in this way that we can give a contribution to national development” (Sani, 1988:84)[xxvii]
The form of social realism thus advocated, was just to “commit to the reality that is around us. Stories have to be about: our ups and downs as Indonesian people” (Said, 1991a:200).[xxviii] Clearly it was not to be like the work of the “‘social realistic’ communists” (Biran, 1986:10) such as Basuki Effendi or Bachtiar Siagian (Sen, 1983).
The social realism thus advocated was closer to naturalism,[xxix] that is to show the ‘realities of life’, not necessarily to understand them. There were of course critics of this ideological whitewash, but part of the success of this elite position was that its critics were erased with the establishment of the New Order. A case in point is Sitor Situmorang, who wrote the story on which Darah dan Doa was based. He writes in 1965 the following:
“Statements from the realists say that the social situation can provide an understanding about the existence of suffering, but it does not provide understanding of its causes, moreover it often hides it, with the reason: that is just humanity!” (Situmorang, 2004:213)[xxx]
In their version of ‘realism’ the artist must not succumb to any illegitimate political ideology (i.e. communism or the theory of class conflict) but must affirm Pancasila,[xxxi] Islam and traditional values (Ismail, 1983). This was a realism very much catered to the ideological demands of the New Order and built on the triumph of conservative nationalism in the 1960s.
Yet for filmmakers themselves, they were being asked to do two contradictory things. Director Ami Priyono captures the predicament of directors working in the New Order, pressured ideologically by film nasional and intuitionally by New Order regulations. “I would like in fact to produce a film with a real Indonesian image but we can’t determine exactly what the Indonesian image is” (1977:33). He continues: “Not every film containing criticism should be censored. I am convinced that many films with Indonesian characteristics will be produced if this is made possible” (1977:34).
Advocates of film nasional, now embedded in the state chose to overlook these issues of creative and artistic freedom. Early in his career, Ismail in his vision of the filmmaker as idealist artist had insisted on the necessity of creative freedom for filmmakers and censorship as an institution to support that right, rather than an institution of coercion as it had become under the New Order. Asrul Sani, a close friend of Ismail, had boldly state in the 1957 that
“the artist is the ‘conscience of a people and an era.’ And he cannot carry out his obligations as that ‘conscience’ or ‘geweten’ if he is only allowed to follow the official truth that has been taught in the schools, or from the department of education of even religion.” (Sani, 1997:321)[xxxii]
Yet this was exactly what happened under the New Order, with its myriad controls and officially sanctioned truth. Asrul Sani, like other key ideologues Misbach Yusa Biran and Salim Said, was heavily invested in the maintenance of New Order ideology.
Despite these pressures, popular film continued to thrive, catering to lower class audiences where locally made films had succeeded in becoming ‘master in their own house’ (tuan di rumah sendiri). Film though had been subject to what Stuart Hall calls “the relations which define ‘popular culture’ in a continuing tension (relationship, influence and antagonism) to the dominant culture” (Hall, 1981:235). With the introduction of private television, filmmaking went into severe decline as local audiences migrated away, prompting a boom in the local genre of sinetron (a syncopation of sinema elektronik, similar to soap opera). It too was reviled by critics in much the same way as popular films had been. This antagonism between pop culture and film nasional continues to play out in Indonesia, even now a decade after reformasi.
The elitism of film
The history of film Indonesia is thus the history of an elitist cultural agenda that has sought to define film nasional as legitimate culture over popular modes. “The group desiring an Indonesian image in our films is in fact limited to a small group of thinkers and intellectuals, while our spectators are used to mass production films spiced according to a Hongkong [sic], Indian or Hollywood taste” (Priyono, 1977:33). Nevertheless, this agenda was still imposed on filmmakers and ultimately on audiences.
“The failure of Usmar Ismail to realize his ideal for film to become an expressive medium must be seen as a failure of Indonesian intellectuals to claim a medium which would enable them to establish contact with the masses.” (Said, 1987:71)
They were all too willing to embrace the state as the vehicle through which their ideals might be realized, and continue to use state institutions to promote their cultural agenda.
Film nasional continues to be evoked as the standard by which film in Indonesia is articulated and judged against. National Film Day (March 30) is used to reiterate the legacy of Usmar Ismail in particular and the values that he is associated with (Imanjaya, 2010; Chairil, 2010). Where criticism is leveled at the current standard of films, there is still a tendency to look to the golden days of the 1950s and the films of Usmar Ismail or to the other idealist directors of the 1970s and 1980s as exemplars of good filmmaking (Darmawan, 2008). This is despite the fact that these films only have very limited circulation, and audiences are more likely to have seen the New Order propaganda film Pengkhiantan G30S/PKI rather than Darah dan Doa. Either way, the dualism of commercialism-idealism implanted by film nasional constantly reappears in the conceptualization of the contemporary industry.
One recent attempt to move beyond this commercial-idealist dichotomy has been offered by critic and scholar Ekky Imanjaya (2008). Laying out the standard dualism, noting how it has structured thinking about film in Indonesia since the 1950s, Imanjaya proposes that the members of Miles Films (director Riri Riza and producer Mira Lesmana) are the contemporary idealists, who in their recent film Laskar Pelangi (‘Rainbow Troops’ 2008) successfully combine both idealism and commercial interests. However Imanjaya’s conclusion sits uncomfortably with his opening quote from Mira Lesmana who says, “There is no dichotomy between art films and commercial films… There are only good films and bad films.” Lesmana obviously sees the debate in different terms, suggesting that that Imanjaya has neither problematised nor moved beyond these dualistic categories.
Almost a decade earlier, producer Mira Lesmana attended a discussion at the national film development council (BP2N) following the box-office success of Petualangan Sherina (Sherina’s Adventure 1999). When she arrived, a large banner greeted her ‘Filem Indonesia Sudah Bangkit! Selamat Datang’ (Indonesian Film Has Returned! Welcome!).
“And I’m like what is this? We are then beginning to learn about all the politics, all the people, all the different interests that they have. And I thought my god it is messy, it is very, very messy.” (personal interview 30 January 2009)
Political reform did not necessarily mean institutional reform, and the ideology of film was very much alive in 2008 as it was in 1999. Lesmana and Riri Riza, the director, saw themselves outside these politics and the legacy of Indonesian film, but by virtue of their success were now being claimed by it.
With the return of local production, a number of Indonesian filmmakers have become prominent on the international festival circuit. Following in the footsteps of Garin Nugroho who used film festivals as a means to circumvent domestic film politics, filmmakers such as Joko Anwar, Edwin, Nia Dinata, Nan Achnas and others have been well received by festivals but struggled to find audiences at home. I do not claim to make any judgment on the films themselves here – although many of them have commendably tackled difficult or controversial themes – their predicament echoes the paradox of film nasional films in the 1970s and 1980s. Although none of them subscribe to the values of film nasional, there is a similar cultural elitism about their work that hints at the formation of a new culturati. Whether this will evoke a reiteration of film nasional remains to be seen.
Anwar, Rosihan. 2007. ‘Insan Film Berpolitik Lagi’ Pikiran Rakyat, Jan. 20.
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Thomas Barker recently completed his doctorate at the National University of Singapore with a dissertation that analysed the cultural economy of the contemporary Indonesian film industry. He currently resides in Brisbane, Australia where he works as an independent researcher.
“masih digerogoti penyakit deintelektualisasi.”
[ii] “Mereka menganggap ‘dunia bermula dari mereka’ dan sejarah sebelumnya diremeh-remehkan saja serta karya dan usaha para pendahulu dilecehkan. Mereka tidak punya respek terhadap orang-orang senior dan tidak mau bergaul dengan yang tetua” (Anwar 2007).
[iii] Panitia Aksi Pengganyangan Film Amerika Serikat.
[iv] “Tentu cerita sejarah perfilman Indonesia masa lampau tadi tidak begitu diketahui oleh generasi sineas sekarang. […] Maka bila mengatakan insan film berpolitik lagi, sebaiknya dijelaskan lebih dulu apa arti dan maksud tujuannya.”
[v] Indonesian artists who worked for the Japanese included Usmar Ismail, Armijn Pane (writer), Sanusi Pane (writer), Utojo (musician), Simanjuntak (musician), Raden Koesbini (musician), Raden Agoes Diajasasoemita (painter), and Djauhar Arifin Soetomo (essayist & drama writer).
[vi] “barulah pada Masa Jepang orang sadar akan fungsi film sebagai alat komunikasi sosial. […] dalam hal ini tampak bahwa film mulai tumbuh dan mendekatkan diri kepada kesadaran perasaan kebangsaan.” (‘Sari Soal Film Indonesia’’).
[vii] LESBUMI stands for Lembaga Seniman dan Budayawan Muslimin Indonesia. LEKRA is Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat. For more on LEKRA and their legacy see Foulcher (1986).
[viii] It was remade in 1972 as Mereka Kembali (‘They Have Returned’) but by then was an army sponsored project, fitting well with the ideological self-portrayal of the military in Indonesian history. In this version it is the Darul Islam followers who are vilified as traitors to the nation. See McGregor (2007:147, 187) and Sasono (this edition). For more on Darah dan Doa see Hanan (2008).
[ix] Original from 1975. “Film-film almarhum Usmar Ismail itu adalah film-film Indonesia, karena ceritanya tentang manusia Indonesia di bumi Indonesia.”
[x] “dibikin tanpa perhitungan komersial apa pun, dan semata-mata hanya didirong oleh idealisme.” ‘Sari Soal Film Indonesia’ (Ismail, 1983:58). Translation taken from Sen (1983:120).
[xi] Original from 1954 reads: “Djamaluddin Malik yang dalam tujuannya juga ingin mendukung cita-cita kebudayaan, tetapi yang dalam prakteknya lebih banyak terbawa arus komersial golongan Tionghoa. Hal ini tidaklah mengherankan benar, karena Djamaluddin Malik pada asalnya adalah seorang pedagang yang tentunya memperhitungkan segala sesuatu juga dari sudut itu.”
[xii] Before 1965, the FFI was only held twice. Once in 1955 and again in 1960. In 1960, Bachtiar Siagian won the Best Film and Best Director awards.
[xiii] For a further analysis of the position of the Chinese in the 1950s and 1960s, see Go (1987).
[xiv] See Setijadi-Dunn and Barker (this volume) for more on the ethnic Chinese and their erasure from film history.
[xv] In particular Sen (1994).
[xvi] Original text reads: “1. Film Nasional harus merupakan produk kebudayaan Bangsa Indonesia.
2. Film Nasional harus dapat menggantikan dominasi film asing, seperti halnya Bangsa Indonesia berhasil merobohkan dominasi kolonialisme.
3. Film Nasional harus mampu mengabdi kepada Bangsa dan Negara Indonesia dalam pembangunan WATAK dan KEBANGSAAN INDONESIA (Character and Nation building).”
[xvii] This being Taman Ismail Marzuki in Cikini, Jakarta.
[xviii] A similar phenomenon is evident in other filmmaking practices in the region during the 1970s. Oftentimes sex was necessarily inserted into films to attract an audience, but could also be used to disguise social commentary or political content. In the Philippines this was particularly evident in the ‘bomba’ films of Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal. I thank Khoo Gaik Cheng for pointing this out.
[xix] The four films were Matt Dower (unreleased), Nyi Ronggeng (‘The Ronggeng Dancer’), Apa Yang Kau Tjari, Palupi? (‘What are you looking for, Palupi?’) and Si Djampang Mencari Naga Hitam (‘Djampang’s Search for the Black Dragon’). See Said (1991b:82-83).
[xx] Original is from 1971 and quoted in Mohammad (1980: 79)
[xxi] Original from 1976 reads: “Saat sekarang ini dapat dikatakan, bahwa dibandingkan dengan sejarahnya di masa lampau, belum pernah perfilman Indonesia begitu mutlak berada dalam cengkeraman komersialisme seperti kini.”
[xxii] Quoted in Said (1991a:4). The original question reads “Kapan wajah kita yang sebenarnya bisa kita lihat di sana?” Jakob Sumardjo (b. 1939) is an academic and writer, currently a lecturer in the Indonesian Dance Institute (Akademi Tari Seni Indonesia).
[xxiii] Original reads: “Pembuatan film kita pada umumnya tidak mempunyai kesadaran lingkungan, geografis, maupun sosial, sehingga mereka tidak pernah membuat film tentang lingkungannya yang Indonesia, karena itu film mereka bukan film Indonesia. Film-film mereka cuma rekaan dangkal dari impian dan obsesi mereka yang ditopang oleh semangat dagang yang berlebihan.”
[xxiv] Members of the jury included D. Djajakusuma, H. Rosihan Anwar, Irawati M. Sudiarso, Zulharmans, Setyadi Tryman MS., Dr. Soedjoko, D. Peransi, Taufik Ismail, Salim Said. The statement was read by head D. Djajakusuma and Rosihan Anwar.
[xxv] According to Tjasmadi (2008:188), Saur Sepuh I was seen by 575,480 people whilst Tjoet Njak Dhien was seen by 204,785 people.
[xxvi] “Tekanan pembangunan perfilman Nasional bukan lagi kepada pendidikan dan penerangan untuk mengembangkan kebudayaan Nasional, membina dan membangun karakter bangsa, tetapi telah beralih dan lebih ditekankan terutama segi hiburan yang bermotif perdagangan, untuk mencari keuntungan semata-mata.” ‘Masalah Perfilman Nasional’ Angkatan ’45.
[xxvii] Original reads: “Tapi soalnya adalah untuk menjadikan film kita menjadi alat yang bicara pada penontonnya tentang kenyataan sebenarnya yang terdapat dilingkungannya. Supaya film kita dapat dibina menjadi alat yang bisa mendorong penonton mengadakan dialog dengan dirinya sendiri: supaya film dapat membantunya untuk memahami kenyataan dengan cara yang lebih baik. Karena hanya dengan cara begitu kita dapat memberikan sumbangan pada pembangunan bangsa.”
[xxviii] Original from 1978 reads: “Harus kommit dengan realitas yang ada di sekitar kita. Ceritanya harus bercerita tentang: suka-duka kita manusia Indonesia.”
[xxix] C.W. Watson provides a nice overview of realism and naturalism in Indonesian literature in his introduction to Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s It’s Not An All Night Fair.
[xxx] Situmorang, Sitor (2004) Sastra Revolusioner, Yogyakarta: Mahatari. This essay landed Situmorang in jail because of the perceived sympathies with a leftist interpretation. Original text reads: “Pengungkapan realis tentang keadaan sosial dapat memberi pengertian tentang adanya penderitaan, tapi tidak memberi pengertian tentang sebab-sebabnya, malahan sering menutup-nutupnya, dengan dalih: namanyalah manusia!”
[xxxi] Pancasila, adopted by Soekarno, are the nation’s founding principles. They are belief in one god; social justice; unity of Indonesia; democracy; and, just and civilized society.
[xxxii] Original from 1957 reads: “seniman adalah ‘hati sanubari suatu masyarakat dan zaman.’ Dan ia tidak akan dapat melakukan kewajibannya sebagai ‘hati sanubari’ atau ‘geweten’ itu jika ia hanya diperbolehkan makai kebenar-benaran yang resmi, yang telah diakui di bangku-bangku sekolah, atau kementerian pendidikan ataupun agama.”
The article appears for the first time at Asian Cinema Journal – Special Issue on Indonesian Cinema, Fall-Winter 2010 edition, edited by Thomas Barker and Gaik Cheng-Koo, lead by John Lent, Temple University, Florida