Membayangkan ‘Indonesia’: Produser Etnis Tionghoa dan Sinema Pra-Kemerdekaan(0)

Dengan tajam, para penulisnya mengkritisi kecenderungan umum sejarawan film Indonesia yang menghilangkan sumbangan penting pembuat film Tionghoa yang tidak hanya merintis pembuatan film panjang di Indonesia, tetapi juga mengonstruksi gambaran awal alam, orang-orang, dan kebudayaan lokal Indonesia di atas layar.


Mempertanyakan Gagasan “Film Nasional”(1)

Dan apakah itu “Film Nasional”? Thomas Barker berupaya menganalisa konsep ini dengan memeriksa kembali sejarah sinema Indonesia, dimulai dari Darah dan Doa–yang hari pertama syutingnya, 30 Maret 1950, dinobatkan menjadi Hari Film Nasional–hingga generasi pasca-1998.


Imagining ‘Indonesia’: Ethnic Chinese film producers in pre-independence cinema(1)

Promotional poster of Kris Mataram. Picture credit: Sinematek Indonesia

by Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn (La Trobe University) & Thomas Barker (NUS)

Introduction – Darah dan Doa as the beginning of ‘film nasional’?

In his 2009 historical anthology of filmmaking in Java 1900-1950, prominent Indonesian film historian Misbach Yusa Biran writes that although production of locally made films began in 1926 and continued until 1949, these films were not based on national consciousness and therefore could not yet be called Indonesian films. He holds up Usmar Ismail’s Darah dan Doa (‘Blood and Prayers’) (1950) as the first such film to reflect national consciousness and signal the genesis of Indonesian film history (2009:45). This glorification of Usmar Ismail’s Darah dan Doa as the first Indonesian film is not uncommon and can be found in many historical writings on the beginnings of Indonesia’s film industry (Said 1991; Ardan 1997; Abdullah et al. 1993). Indeed, similar accounts of Indonesian cinematic history can even be found today whereby, in an opinion editorial written to commemorate the 60th ‘anniversary’ of Indonesian cinema, film enthusiast Nova Chairil (2010) writes that the 30th of March is when this film was “directed by an Indonesian native, produced by an Indonesian production house and shot in Indonesia,” thus marking this date as National Cinema Day.

However, in this paper, we argue that Biran’s and Chairil’s claims actually undermine the richness of Indonesia’s film history as they are based on a narrow definition of what constitutes ‘Indonesian films’. In reality, feature filmmaking in the Indonesian archipelago did not begin in 1950, but can be traced back more than two decades earlier when an Englishman and a German made Loetoeng Kasaroeng (1926), a silent film based on a West Javanese local legend.[1] Thereafter, filmmaking was continued by a handful of ethnic Chinese – both peranakan and totok[2] – who popularised local stories and localised an array of already circulating stories and genres. Prominent amongst them were the Wong Brothers, who came from Shanghai and local producers The and Tan, both of whom were also cinema owners. The arrival of the Japanese in 1942 brought an end to this phase of filmmaking that had seen annual production rise to thirty titles in 1941 and relegated much of its cultural significance to history. With it, the pioneering role played by these early ethnic Chinese has been forgotten and even denigrated with the emergence of a generation of pribumi filmmakers post-1945.

As Krishna Sen argues, such bias in Indonesia’s cinematic history is premised on the emergence of ‘a self-consciously nationalist generation of pribumi or indigenous filmmakers’ (2006:173), of whom Usmar Ismail is the most celebrated figure. His film Darah dan Doa (literally ‘Blood and Prayers’) follows the Siliwangi Division as they march from East Java back to their base in West Java through the perspective of its commander. Not only does the film supposedly portray the ‘national personality’ (Biran 2009:45), the director claimed that the film was made ‘with no commercial consideration whatsoever; it was pure idealism’ (Ismail as quoted in Said 1991:51). Thus Darah dan Doa became the prime example of what the ideal Indonesian film should look like: nationalistic, idealistic, and indigenous. This ideological conception of what constitutes Indonesian films – or ‘film nasional’ as they became popularly known (see Barker, which also published in this website) – has continued to dominate the frameworks of Indonesian cinematic history until now, resulting in the marginalisation of Indonesian films made in the pre-independence era by non-indigenous filmmakers.

Indeed, anathema to the supposedly idealist film nasional is commercial filmmaking, which is associated with escapism and the entertainment films of Hollywood and Hong Kong. In popular historical accounts of Indonesian cinema, ethnic Chinese producers are seen as having introduced and perpetuated this commercial modus operandi, or as Salim Said calls it, the industry’s ‘original sin’ (1991 [1975]:22). Writing in 1951, film figure Asrul Sani contends that:

It is the case that the film producers in Indonesia are nothing other than those who prioritise their wallets and do not consider, or have intentions to, establish anything worthy of being valued. We should not doubt this anymore. It can be said: all of them are Chinese (1997:302).[3]

As a consequence of this kind of logic, Chinese filmmakers were synonymous with commercialism, and thus not ‘film nasional’. Moreover, when ethnic Chinese film producers did make films that attempted to portray local narratives and cultures, their films are labelled as opportunist, ‘devoid of idealism’, with storylines and imageries that just ‘comot sana-sini’ (‘pluck things from here and there’) (Biran, 2009b:68).

Undeniably, one of the biggest lacunae in Indonesian cinematic history is the fact that even now, little is known of the roles played by ethnic Chinese filmmakers in the establishment of Indonesia’s film industry. Although it is true that most Indonesian film historians agree that ethnic Chinese finance provided crucial support for the film industry throughout its history, ethnic Chinese cinematic legacy in areas outside of their usual economic roles remains under-researched. In many ways, this gap in the literature is surprising given that ethnic Chinese investors and filmmakers had virtually laid the foundations of local filmmaking and drove the industry from the late 1920s until the Japanese occupation in 1942 when most Chinese businesses were forced to close down. Official New Order ethnic policies only furthered this erasure of the Chinese and the historical myopia towards their role in Indonesian history (see Coppel, 1983; Suryadinata, 1992).

In this paper, we aim to re-examine the roles of ethnic Chinese filmmakers in Indonesian cinematic history as a preliminary study in the reconsideration of the early years of the film industry. Here, we regard the simplification of ethnic Chinese history in the film industry as part of a broader attempt by nationalist and New Order ideologues to ‘appropriate’ the origins of cinema and ‘national culture’ in Indonesia. On the same note, we argue that the narrative tradition that privileges ‘indigenous’ filmmakers as the originators of asli (‘authentic’ or ‘true’) Indonesian culture on screen reflects the dominant yet narrow definition of nationalism as based on ethnic and cultural primordialism. We challenge this common historical construction and assert that in the first decades of Indonesian cinema, ethnic Chinese filmmakers played pivotal roles in forming the images of Indonesian culture and peoples on screen.

We will begin with a brief outline of the film industry from the early 1920s when ethnic Chinese investors, film theatre owners, and filmmakers popularised cinema as a form of public entertainment. Here, we suggest that one of the key factors behind ethnic Chinese[4] filmmakers’ success in popularising cinema was their ability to integrate popular narratives and styles from local cultural practices such as toneel and kerontjong music (local folk music style that has strong Portuguese, Hawaiian, and Malay influences) into films. We will then look at the subsequent development of locally made films in the hands of prominent ethnic Chinese filmmakers who brought film technologies and stylistic influences from international cultural centres such as Hollywood and Shanghai to the Indies.[5] During this developmental stage, ethnic Chinese filmmakers had to appeal to both ‘indigenous’ and ethnic Chinese audiences from various societal classes, so they experimented with many genres and themes, combining local narratives and images with international styles in order to satisfy different target markets. As a result, early local films were diverse, cosmopolitan, and projected an image of an ‘Indonesia’ that is complex, idiosyncratic, and unique, yet connected to global flows and modern practices. We argue that such an image of ‘Indonesia’ is different from later insular indigenist imaginings of Indonesian belonging.

As the creators of the first locally made films, ethnic Chinese filmmakers produced some of the first visual images of the East Indies landscapes and peoples. These films for the first time portrayed the peoples of the Indies as a diverse people who possess their own stories and tastes. Through early local films such as Si Tjonat (a film about a character of the same name, 1930), Terang Boelan (‘Full Moon’, 1937), Impian di Bali (‘Dreams in Bali’, 1939), and Rentjong Atjeh (‘Acehnese Rentjong’, 1940), audiences began to project themselves into visual imaginings of ‘Indonesia’. ‘These outsiders,’ as Heider refers to the Chinese, ‘were responsible for creating the image of the common Indonesian culture’ (1994:170).

From this perspective, early ethnic Chinese filmmakers as cosmopolitan cultural brokers were crucial in the development of a pre-independence sense of ‘national consciousness’ through cinematic visualisation. We argue that it is precisely because ethnic Chinese producers portrayed a different image of Indonesia than one imagined by ethno-nationalist ideologues that their films become labelled as ‘un-Indonesian’. In reality, however, we suggest that ethnic Chinese filmmakers gave the people of the Indies their first cinematic visualisation of what ‘Indonesia’ was; a pastiche of local images and narratives drawn from various local sources, heavily influenced by international cultural flows. The ‘Indonesia’ imagined in ethnic Chinese produced films was one that represented the different layers of Indies society at a time when native, Chinese, Dutch, and other peoples and cultures coexisted. Although such an image of ‘Indonesia’ was eventually lost and replaced by ethno-nationalist visions of a single, unitary national identity, we contend that this aspect of Indonesia’s cinematic history needs to be revisited and reconsidered. Only then will we be able to understand the evolution of Indonesian cinema as a social and political medium, and one that reflects the socio-political and ideological shifts that have occurred in Indonesia’s life as a nation.[6]

Acculturatie’, theatre, and early Indies cinema

It is useful to return to accounts of cultural life in Dutch East Indies in the first decades of the twentieth century. Hildred Geertz describes an ‘Indonesian metropolitan superculture’ characterized by ‘the colloquial everyday use of the Indonesian language, and directly associated with this language are the new Indonesian literature, popular music, films, and historical and political writings’ (1963:17). Notable too were the peripatetic forms of theatre and performance, locally known as Komedie Stamboel,[7] that toured the metropolitan centres to great popular enjoyment (Cohen 2006). Groups came from overseas and originated locally, adding to a sense of international vibrancy. Film screenings often accompanied these performances as mobile cinema, and later filmmaking efforts drew from this world of theatre or popular literature of the period (Siegel 1997; Cohen 2006).

Ethnic Chinese were already heavily involved in these forms of popular culture. One of the most prolific writers of the period, Njoo Cheong Seng, moved into theatre via the Miss Riboet group and then into film in the 1930s writing and directing Kris Mataram (1940) and Zoebaidah (1940) (Chandra 2009). More generally theatre and subsequently film companies were typically owned and operated by an ethnic Chinese boss, with actors, technicians and musicians drawn from a variety of ethnic and social groups. Later, many ethnic Chinese moved into cinemas and importing films, especially as film became an economically viable business (Pané 1953:15).[8] This reflected both the prominence of the ethnic Chinese in the cultural life of the Indies and their relative economic importance.

In the first major study of Indonesian film, Armijn Pané uses the concept of acculturatie (‘acculturation’) to describe the modern cultural forms of theatre and film in pre-war Indonesia. He defines acculturatie as ‘the mixing of a variety of international and pan-Asian sources’.[9] Here, Pané elaborates further:

In short, theatre can be said to represent the acculturation between the techniques and composition of European theatre and opera in around 1900, with the technique and composition of Malay theatre already in existence and which had been influenced by India and Persia. The combination of the two was orchestrated by local Europeans with the general public in Indonesia at the time. (Pané, 1953:8)[10]

This he argued helped as an integrating force of the nation, and is markedly distinct from later primordial theories of the Indonesian nation.

Much of what distinguished theatre in pre-independence Indonesia carried over into film. Cohen (2006) in his comprehensive study of the Komedie Stamboel, notes how it captured the unique social and cultural formations of the Indies at the turn of the century. Theatre, he argues, was the domain of a ‘modern worldview’ premised on a cosmopolitan outlook, distinct from more traditional forms, such as wayang (Cohen, 2006:344). This was partly due to its variety of practitioners and their ability to combine diverse cultural influences. Early films for popular consumption employed similar stories and styles, employing people from the stage to make films. In Pané’s work, the theatre is very much the precursor to film.

Film encapsulated Indies aspirations to modernity in both its imagery and technology. Early film is regarded as a modern media, with its ability to present the world as image to large audiences through processes of mechanical reproduction (Hansen, 1995). Moreover, given that ‘cinema was international before it was national’ (Gunning, 2008:11), it was associated with an emerging global circulation of images and stories, itself linked to an early world culture. In this regard, as the Dutch were more focused on the ethnographic representation of their colony (de Klerk 2008), it became the local Chinese who developed a fictional representation of the Indies. They were clearly influenced by both Hollywood films, but also films from Shanghai which were first imported in 1924 (Arief, 2010:20).

Whilst these Chinese films (still silent) were intended for local Chinese audiences, film had been from its arrival accessible to all racial groups and indeed attracted a significant pribumi audience (Arief, 2010). Local historians make much of the fact that early screenings had separate admission prices and seating for Europeans, Chinese and pribumi, using it as evidence that racial segregation was practised and that the Chinese occupied a comprador and relatively privileged position (Ardan, 1992:7; Abdullah et al. 1993:50). Yet this also means that films were open to anyone who could afford to watch, and although expensive, they were not off limits to pribumi audiences. As a result, by 1926 almost eighty percent of the cinema-going audiences were pribumi and Chinese (Arief, 2010:20) with a growing awareness that the local Malay (Indonesian) speaking audiences constituted the biggest potential audiences for the cinemas.

Imagining ‘Indonesian’ landscapes, cultures, and peoples in pre-independence films

By the early 1930s, the Indies film industry was well established with up to seven films produced each year. However, the themes and storylines of these films vary greatly as filmmakers experimented with consumer tastes. The newness of cinema in the Indies meant that filmmakers had a lot of room to try different styles, but at the same time, very little is known about the kinds of stories and formats that would appeal to different audience segments. It needs to be remembered that even within generalised audience categories like the ‘indigenous’ and ‘Chinese’ audiences, there are also complex internal segmentations. For instance, among the ‘Chinese’ audiences, there are the totok and peranakan groups who differed in cultural orientations, languages, and tastes in films (see Biran, 2009; Nio, 1941). Likewise, within the ‘indigenous’ market, there are different regional affiliations, levels of education, and cultural orientations. As a consequence, many films failed among different audience segments and filmmakers ran the risk of bankruptcy with each film. Nevertheless, this experimental stage also meant that films produced cover wide-ranging themes and reflected the diversity of the multi-faceted and multi-ethnic Indies society of the time (Pané 1953).

In the hands of ethnic Chinese filmmakers, early Indies film combined Hollywood and Shanghainese cinematic styles with local stories and theatre styles, creating a uniquely ‘Indies’ film style that painted a picture of a cosmopolitan and hybrid people. In films such as Si Tjonat (a film about a character of the same name, 1930), Terang Boelan (‘Full Moon’, 1937), Impian di Bali (‘Dreams in Bali’, 1939), and Rentjong Atjeh (‘Acehnese Rentjong’, 1940), we can see examples of how ethnic Chinese filmmakers combined local narratives and toneel theatre styles with foreign cinematic influences like the martial arts theatrics commonly found in Mandarin films. Indeed, these kinds of idiosyncratic and rather fantastical films proved to be popular, particularly among lower class ‘indigenous’ audiences who found the style to be entertaining (see Said, 1991). More importantly however, these films are always set the local landscape, using a combination of both ‘indigenous’ and ethnic Chinese actors, and spoken or at least subtitled in the Malay language.[11] This is true for even when ethnic Chinese filmmakers make Mandarin-style martial arts films or films based on Chinese folklore.

Looking more closely at the majority of pre-independence films, it can indeed be seen that ethnic Chinese filmmakers tried very hard to portray images of local – albeit exoticised – Indies cultures in their films. One good example of this can be seen in the 1940 film Kris Mataram (‘Mataram Keris’), directed by Njoo Cheong Seng. Although unfortunately, no copies of the actual film survived from 1940, the film’s storyline, reviews, and promotional materials reveal much about Indies culture and society in the film. The film’s storyline tells the story of a young aristocratic Central Javanese woman’s struggle (played by Fifi Young) in negotiating between tradition and modernity. A review at the time pointed out the film’s message that: ‘The end of the story is a fair conclusion, that there is nothing wrong about tradition or modernity.’[12] This is a timely topic for the Indies society that was, at the time, still configuring its own character amidst colonial cultural influences and the pull of Western-style modernity (see also Biran, 2009; Kristianto, 2007). However, it is the film’s promotional poster that provides a more interesting example of cultural mixing.

Promotional poster for Kris Mataram. Picture credit: Sinematek Indonesia

The Kris Mataram poster featured a collage of images, names, languages, and marketing propositions drawn from a number of local and foreign cultures. A big photo of Fifi Young, the film’s ethnic Chinese lead actress dressed in Central Javanese lurik kebaya is placed at the centre, with the film’s title, ‘Kris Mataram’, written in a Javanese style font on the backdrop of a Javanese keris (traditional Javanese blade). The general background of the poster is a batik parang motif from Central Java contrasted with still images of scenes from the movie on celluloid films framing the left and right hand side of the poster. The film advertised that the film is ‘bitjara menjanji Melajoe’ (‘spoken and sung in Malay’), that it features over nine popular keroncong songs, and that seven of the film’s stars are former toneel stars. The words on the poster itself are written in a combination of Malay and Dutch languages, as is the norm of the time. Images of the old and the new, traditional and modern, Javanese culture, and ethnic Chinese film stars are all combined to create an image of local and international icons set in modern visual culture.

The kind of pastiche imagery presented on the Kris Mataram poster can also be seen in other film posters, such as the 1939 pirate action adventure, Rentjong Atjeh (‘Acehnese Rencong’) and the 1937 drama musical, Terang Boelan (‘Full Moon’).

In both these films, it is evident that the same kind of cultural mixing can be found, with images of exotic landscapes, along with almost primitive-looking indigenous peoples wearing traditional garments such as batik and ulos set in scenes that resemble successful Hollywood musicals that portray the exotic landscapes of Hawaii or the South Pacific. Although the pseudo-Western-gaze found in these imageries is heavily criticised by later film historians such as Biran and Said as un-nationalistic copies of Hollywood films, these images actually represent an important yet often forgotten stage in Indonesia’s film history. This period is where the predominantly ethnic Chinese Indies film producers are starting to figure out the ‘flavour’ of Indonesian films, and part of the process is to ‘Indonesianise’ Western and other foreign film styles to create a unique Indies ‘look’.

Having said that however, it is important to also acknowledge that images of the Indies found in many of these ethnic Chinese produced films are heavily essentialised and with strong Orientalist undertones. For instance, in Terang Boelan, the indigenous population are shown to be wearing batik cloths, wearing flowers in their hairs, and living an island/primitive lifestyle as found in Hollywood films like The Jungle Princess (1936). Similarly, in other films like Impian di Bali (1939), local characters are almost always seen wearing traditional clothing like kebaya or local headdresses, and traditional music like gamelan are always playing on the background as musical score. Although to fully analyse the Orientalist tendencies of these films would be beyond the scope of this paper, we suggest that these essentialised images are practical means for which ethnic Chinese filmmakers imagine a distinct Indies image on screen. Indeed, capturing the immensely diverse imagery of the Indonesian archipelago on film necessarily involves a process of reduction and self-essentialism. However, what is important here is that this Orientalising of the Indies on film can be seen as part of an attempt to place the Indies within the global flow of cinematic cultural exchange. In her 2006 article, Aihwa Ong argues that such moves to strategically ‘self-Orientalise’ is not uncommon, and can be understood as a deliberate tactic by colonial subjects to self-represent and reclaim agency in Western hegemonic projects (p. 135). This means that by ‘Indonesianising’ foreign films and portraying unique – albeit essentialised – images of the Indies as a distinct culture, ethnic Chinese producers created a niche for Indies films. William van der Heide draws a similar conclusion when he suggests that:

The production of the film Terang Boelan (Full Moon) in 1937 represented a consolidation of this tendency towards ‘Indonesianization’, and also heralded a new direction for Indonesian film (2002: 128).

From this light, the tendency to ‘Indonesianise’ storylines and images in early films is in fact an important step in the development of later Indonesian films.

It was also during this time that film producers began to construct the ‘face’ of ‘Indonesians’ on screen.[13] Perhaps ironically, some of the best-known Indies actors and actresses of the 1930s and 40s were ethnic Chinese. Names such as Fifi Young, Ferry Kok, and Tan Tjeng Bok were names associated with Indies films and celebrity. Fifi Young in particular is an interesting case whereby this young Aceh-born ethnic Chinese woman (whose Chinese name is Tan Kim Nio), became the face of demure, feminine Indies beauty in films. She wore Javanese kebaya (traditional Javanese dress that would eventually become the national dress for Indonesian women) in Kris Mataram, Timorese traditional dress in Zoebaida (1940), and in later films, she played the archetypal modern Indonesian woman that represented both tradition and modernity. She, along with many of her contemporaries, had international appeal, appearing in Malaysia, Singapore and beyond.

Fifi Young appears in Singapore in 1950 (The Straits Times 21 Nov, p.5)

Through the imagery in their films, choice of actors, and use of the Malay language, ethnic Chinese filmmakers picked bits and pieces of both local and international cultural influences to create their visual interpretation of Indonesian culture. Although perhaps their representations and techniques were not perfect, they were indeed the first images of what ‘Indonesia’ as a people looked like on screen.

In this analysis, it is important to also acknowledge that the strategy of ‘comot sana-sini’ or picking bits and pieces of various local cultures may have come about due to a number of reasons. For one, such efforts may be directed towards increasing the films’ relevance among lower-class indigenous audiences who wanted to see aspects of their own cultures on screen. This of course is also linked to the growing societal demands of the time to portray a more unitary culture of ‘Indonesia’ that is drawn from various local and international sources. However, it must also be remembered that because these films were the first locally made films that attempted to portray local cultures, there were just simply no reference points regarding how Indies culture should be portrayed in films. This is perhaps true, remembering that many ethnic Chinese producers like the Wong brothers are first generation migrants from China who must construct what they perceive to be Indies ‘indigenous’ cultures based on essentialised images of well-known local cultural groups. Nevertheless, regardless of their reasoning, as the pioneers of Indies filmmaking, ethnic Chinese producers significantly contributed to the formulation of what Cohen (2006) calls a ‘unique Indische culture’. In its further development, it is precisely this image of a unique, singular ‘superculture’ that is heavily integrated into the proto-nationalist movement of the 1940s.

Nio Joe Lan, an ethnic Chinese film historian, writes in 1941 that through early local films, people of the Indies for the first time came to the realisation that Indies narratives and landscapes were not in any way inferior to the West (1941:18). Portrayals of local stories nurtured a sense of belonging and self-reflection among the people, particularly amidst the then growing sense of national awakening and independence. Yet at the same time, it must also be remembered that the interconnectivity of regional cultural flows at the time meant that local films made by ethnic Chinese filmmakers were also consumed overseas. By the 1930s, Indies films were already highly regarded in regions around the Malacca Strait such as Singapore and Malaya (now Malaysia), and even in China. Films such as Terang Boelan (1937) were regionally acclaimed for their high quality that could almost match Hollywood produced films. Here, Nio argues that the screening of Indies films overseas showcased the beauty and characteristics of the archipelago that helped shape international perception of the Indies and its people (1941:18). The psychological effect of this international recognition, according to Nio, was a feeling of pride among the people of the Indies who were at this stage beginning to understand themselves as part of a larger, more unitary ‘Indonesia’.

It is through ethnic Chinese filmmakers’ ability to combine the local and the cosmopolitan that the people of the Indies were able to not only see themselves on screen, but also feel a sense of participation in greater spheres of regional and Western style modernity. However, it is ironic that it is precisely their cosmopolitan outlook and connections that made ethnic Chinese producers ‘dangerous’ to the budding ethno-nationalist ideologies of the new Indonesian nation from the mid-1940s onwards.

Ethnic Chinese film producers as cosmopolitan cultural mediators

As mentioned earlier, throughout postcolonial Indonesian history, the perception of ethnic Chinese ‘foreignness’ have made them ‘essential Others’ in the Indonesian nation state and its national identity based on indigeneity. Because of this, Chinese Indonesians are rarely regarded as active agents in the processes of nation making. As Karen Strassler argues, this paradigm has meant that ethnic ‘Chinese’ are always treated as a discrete group, separate from local indigenous communities (2009:398). Moreover, their cosmopolitanism has largely been regarded as a foreign liability rather than an asset to the Indonesian nation. Yet scholars have increasingly investigated the ways in which translocal imaginings fostered and disseminated by cosmopolitan actors have themselves been integral to the making of nationalisms and national imaginaries (Robbins, 1998; Sidel, 2003; Cheah, 2007). In the colonial Indies as a cosmopolitan and multicultural hub, ethnic Chinese cosmopolitanism meant that they are in the position to ‘localise’ translocal trends that in hindsight helped local subjects explore new ways in which to imagine themselves.

It is true that in their capacity as cultural brokers, ethnic Chinese filmmakers like the Wong (who migrated to the Indies as adults from Shanghai) and The brothers (who were born in the Indies but spent time in Shanghai to study) played a unique and rather privileged role in the creation of national culture on screen. Their position as first-generation migrants made them both an insider and outsider to Indies society that in hindsight perhaps gave them greater liberty in imagining and constructing visual imageries of the Indies and its people. As newcomers to the Indies who brought along foreign technologies and capital, it is safe to assume that ethnic Chinese filmmakers possess greater access to regional and international cultural flows than most people in the Indies. In terms of cinematic influences alone, it is evident from films like the island musical Terang Boelan (1937) and the martial arts Tie Pat Kai Kawin (‘The Marriage of Tie Pat Kai’, 1935) that ethnic Chinese film producers were up-to-date with foreign film styles from Hollywood and Shanghai. Although this transnational connectivity is advantageous in that it gave the ethnic Chinese filmmakers knowledge of modern technological and cultural influences from abroad that they can include in their films, it is also a disadvantage in that it gave non-Chinese Indies subjects reason to be suspicious of their multiple belongings. This is particularly so, remembering the long-running historical perception among Indies ‘natives’ of the Chinese as ‘foreign Orientals’ and economic opportunists who are located outside of indigenous society (see Coppel, 1983; Reid and Chirot, 1997).

Indeed, ethnic Chinese migrants and ‘sojourners’ in Southeast Asia have been the subject of much research that explore their often difficult positions as capital and cultural traders who possess no ‘roots’ in their new localities (see Riemenschnitter and Madsen, 2009; Cheah, 2007; Tu, 1994). Nevertheless, even though this ‘rootlessness’ meant that most Chinese cosmopolitans never achieve a state of belonging wherever they go, Ong (2006) argues that it gives them greater adaptability to cope with changing socio-political circumstances. This is certainly the case with ethnic Chinese filmmakers where, perhaps just as important as their ability to combine various cultural influences, they were also adaptive to the different political and social changes that were happening in the Indies at the time. For instance, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, ethnic Chinese producers such as The Teng Chun and Ang Hock Liem started to work together more intensively with ‘indigenous’ partners and actors such as Andjar Asmara, and Dr. A.K. Gani (one of the signatories of the historic ‘Sumpah Pemuda’ or the ‘Youth Oath’ in 1928) in films such as Asmara Moerni (‘True Romance’, 1940) and Panggilan Darah (‘The Call of the Blood’, 1941). Whereas Biran (2009) dismisses such moves as marketing ploys intended to give the film industry a sense of association with the increasingly popular independence movement, they are nevertheless real attempts to both popularise local films and make Indonesian films relevant to the national mood of the time.

Regardless of their origins and roots, perhaps ethnic Chinese filmmakers’ biggest contribution to Indonesian national culture (both on and off cinema screen) is that through their films, the people of the Indies had reference images with which to conceive of themselves as a society, a people, and, eventually, a nation. Portrayals of the Indies in ethnic Chinese produced films – however imperfect or inaccurate – represent an interpretation of society and its surroundings that reveal much about the realities of life and common aspirations of the time. In this regard, ethnic Chinese filmmakers are not dissimilar to ethnic Chinese authors writing in Chinese Malay (a now superseded language attributed as an earlier form of Bahasa Indonesia) who according to Claudine Salmon (1981) and Dede Oetomo (1991) contributed to the shaping of the national cultural imagination through their popular literary interpretations of Indies society.

As migrants and cosmopolitans influenced by regional cultural flows, ethnic Chinese filmmakers painted a picture of ‘Indonesia’ that is not defined by ethnicity, political affiliations, or an obsession towards nationalism based on indigeneity. The ‘Indonesia’ seen in ethnic Chinese produced films is one where the collective whole is characterised by idiosyncrasy. It is by and large an ‘Indonesia’ composed of a mélange of people and cultures, often as composite characters or identities, imagined as part of an interconnected regional (and global) network. However, it is ironic that it is this cosmopolitan outlook that made ethnic Chinese producers ‘dangerous’ to the budding ethno-nationalist ideologies of the new Indonesian nation from the mid-1940s onwards. At a time when the Indies society was looking to define itself as a nation free from colonial oppression, perhaps such a cosmopolitan and accommodating image of ‘Indonesia’ was too dangerously close to a sense of ‘foreignness’ associated to colonial imperialist powers. Indeed, by 1942, the end of Dutch colonialism of the Indies, followed by the arrival of the Japanese brought with it dramatic social, political, and ideological changes that would forever affect Indonesia’s national film industry.

After Japanese forces closed down a large number of ethnic Chinese businesses and banned the operations of all private film companies, ethnic Chinese filmmakers were excluded from the highly controlled film industry. Moreover, through centralised cultural organisations such as the Keimin Bunka Sidhosho (‘the Central Arts Office’), the Japanese taught young ‘indigenous’ men such as Usmar Ismail the art and organisation of filmmaking that were stylistically different from how ethnic Chinese producers conducted business (Biran 2009; Sen, 1994; Pané 1953). A major difference is that under the Japanese, cost control and profit maximisation were also not major concerns. Furthermore, much more than simply teaching filmmaking techniques, the Japanese taught local filmmakers how they could use films for political purposes (see Kurasawa, 1987). Most importantly, however, was the Japanese’s emphasis on ethno-nationalism that strengthened already existing sentiments among many involved in the Indonesian nationalist movement.

This indigenisation of the film industry gave ‘indigenous’ filmmakers a sense of ownership and pride in thinking that the only ‘true’ Indonesian films are those that reflect ‘national character’ as well as ‘indigenous’ cultural and moral values. As Said argues, although the Japanese only produced a handful of war propaganda films throughout their occupation, what changed the most were ‘indigenous’ filmmakers’ attitudes toward film and filmmaking in a way ‘radically different from the past’ (1991:36). By this time period, popular perception on how the Indonesian ‘nation’ should be portrayed cinematically had also changed dramatically. The hybrid and cosmopolitan narratives and imageries of pre-Japanese films were regarded as Western-influenced, not educative, and ‘inauthentic’. In 1954, Usmar Ismail explained why such a paradigm shift occurred:

The atmosphere during the Japanese Occupation stimulated growth and change in the content as well as the techniques of filmmaking. It was under the Japanese that people became aware of the function of film and the awakening of the (Indonesian) language … Film began to mature and to be infused with a greater sense of national consciousness. (p. 30)

This new fervour for capturing the ‘authentic’ essence of Indonesianness became an obsession for young filmmakers like Ismail who considered ethnic Chinese and Dutch produced films as ‘soulless’ (1954:31). Under this new ethno-nationalist focus in filmmaking, ethnic Chinese filmmakers also became considered as foreigners and outsiders who did not understand ‘national values’ and could only therefore make exploitative commercial films.

In the post-independence era following the Japanese defeat, ethnic Chinese film producers suddenly found themselves outside of the new industri film nasional (national film industry) dominated by indigenous filmmakers such as Usmar Ismail and Djamaluddin Malik. In films such as Darah dan Doa (1950), the Indonesia portrayed on screen is significantly different to that seen in ethnic Chinese films such as Kris Mataram. No longer was Indonesia a hybrid, cosmopolitan place. The Indonesia of Darah dan Doa is one where its citizens look inwards towards the project of nationalism as embodied in the physical and ideological struggle of the military. From 1950 onwards, although most ethnic Chinese filmmakers resurrected their film companies in the 1950s, they became marginalised players in the film industry who mainly stayed behind the scenes as financiers (see Sen, 1994). Subsequently, the legacy of ethnic Chinese filmmakers in the pre-independence era became forgotten and distorted, their vision of Indonesia replaced with one that is more aligned to the nationalist ideologies of the New Order government in particular. Such historical erasure has also meant that ethnic Chinese filmmakers have been robbed of their rightful place as the creators of the first visual conceptions of ‘Indonesia’ upon which subsequent images of national culture on screen were based.


In this paper, we have attempted to reveal another side to the history of film production in Indonesia usually described as pre-nationalist, commercial and thus not worthy of consideration. We began with Biran’s 2009 historical anthology of Indonesian films that maintained that local films made before 1950 cannot be truly regarded as ‘Indonesian films’ (2009:45). In response to this assertion, we have suggested that this position is indicative of a widespread ethno-nationalist bias that produces a narrow historiography of Indonesian films. We have demonstrated that the consequence of this bias meant that pre-independence films made by ethnic Chinese filmmakers are largely labelled as ‘not Indonesian films’. Over time, the legacies of earlier ethnic Chinese filmmakers like the Wong brothers and The Teng Chun became lost, their memories overshadowed by the famous names of ‘indigenous’ and nationalist filmmakers such as Usmar Ismail and Djamaluddin Malik who during New Order rule became known as the ‘forefathers’ of Indonesian cinema. Crucially, we have been critical of this common tendency among Indonesian film historians to dismiss the significant contribution made by ethnic Chinese filmmakers who not only pioneered feature filmmaking in Indonesia but also constructed the first images of Indonesian landscapes, peoples and cultures on screen.

Although only a preliminary inquiry in this direction – and sadly with the original films themselves unavailable for more in-depth content analysis – it is nevertheless perceptible that pre-independence films made by ethnic Chinese filmmakers presented early images of an imagined common Indies culture in which they too belonged. Film, more than any other medium, provided the machinery for this representation of Indonesia as a nation composed of a cultural melange that had come together through a process of acculturatie. This may not represent the realities of everyday life as lived and experienced by colonial subjects, but it gave a sense of the ‘Indonesia’ that many aspired to: a multiethnic, idiosyncratic society imagined as part of a regional (and global) cultural network, and participating in the exciting sphere of Western modernity.

Moreover, this paper was intended as a beginning to a comprehensive re-examination of Indonesia’s subaltern film histories largely forgotten or misunderstood. Indeed, as we have discussed earlier, most writings on Indonesian cinematic history tend to begin the chronology of Indonesian films with the production of Usmar Ismail’s Darah dan Doa in 1950 as though the local film industry had no meaningful precursors up to this point. What we are proposing is a change of paradigm in Indonesian film historiography, whereby local filmmaking in the Indonesian archipelago (from the arrival of film technology in the early 1900s until now) is seen as a long line of interconnected stages that form a historical continuity. Here, we argue that it is important to take into serious account the contributions of ethnic Chinese – as well as other, mainly Eurasian – filmmakers, actors, and film workers in the shaping of Indonesian films as we know today, both technically and stylistically.[14] Although it is true that the ‘Indonesia’ visualised in pre-independence films is different from the ‘Indonesia’ portrayed in post-independence films, we argue that such differences do not mean that one is a ‘truer’ representation than the other. Rather, the differences merely point to different ways in which ‘Indonesia’ is imagined by different cultural agents, operating in different time periods, and under different socio-political circumstances and ideologies. When viewed in this light, the definition of what constitutes ‘true’ Indonesian films is then no longer restricted to insular, nationalist leniencies.

Through its tumultuous history, the ways in which Indonesia has been imagined and defined have been the subject of much debate and subject to prevailing political ideologies. Film has often been at the centre of this ideological contestation about what Indonesia is and how it is to be represented. Sen (1983; 1985) pioneered the recovery of subaltern film histories of the 1950s and 1960s by retelling the stories and legacy of LEKRA and leftist filmmakers who were silenced and extinguished in the New Order’s rise to power. Similarly, the period before independence, we have argued, needs to be reconsidered as constituting a valid period of film production in the country and to challenge the simplistic and essentialist ideas of the ethnic Chinese in the formation of modern Indonesia. Such re-examination of history would be timely, especially remembering that in the past few years, ethnic Chinese filmmakers have begun to ‘reappear’ in the Indonesian cinema scene, producing films that have prompted researchers to ask more questions regarding ethnic Chinese histories in modern Indonesia.[15] We hope that future research in this direction can shed more light, not just into how Indonesia is visually imagined on film, but also the agents that played significant roles in the cinema industry.



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— 2009b. Peran Pemuda Dalam Kebangkitan Film Indonesia. Jakarta: Kementerian Negara Pemuda dan Olahraga.

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de Klerk, Nico. 2008. ‘“The Transport of Audiences”: Making Cinema ‘National.’ In Early Cinema and the ‘National’ edited by R. Abel, G. Bertellini and R. King, pp. 109-117. New Barnet, John Libbey.

Deocampo, Nick. 2007. Cine: Spanish influences on early cinema in the Philippines. Manila: Anvil.

Depari, Eduard. 1990. ‘Eurasian Faces in Indonesian Films.’ In Indonesian Film Festival 1990, edited by Salim Said, pp. 77-79. Jakarta: Foreign Relations Division Indonesian Film Festival Permanent Committee.

Geertz, Hildred. 1963. Indonesian Cultures and Communities, edited by Ruth T. McVey. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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Hansen, Miriam Bratu. 1995. ‘America, Paris, and the Alps: Kracauer (and Benjamin) on Cinema and Modernity.’ In Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, edited by Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, pp. 306-402. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Heider, Karl G. 1994. ‘National Cinema, National Culture: The Indonesian Case.’ In Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, edited by Wimal Dissanayake, pp. 162-73. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ismail, Usmar. 1954. ‘Sari Soal dalam Film-film Indonesia.’ Star News 3.5 (September 25, 1954): 30-31.

Kristianto, J.B. 2007. Katalog Film Indonesia 1926-2007. Jakarta: Nalar.

Kurasawa, Aiko. 1987. ‘Propaganda Media on Java under the Japanese 1942-1945.’ Indonesia 44: 59-107.

Nio, Joe Lan. 1941. ‘Pembangunan Industri Film Hindia.’ Koloniale Studies.

Oetomo, Dede. 1991. ‘The Chinese of Indonesia and the Development of the Indonesian Language.’ Indonesia. 51: 53–66.

O’Malley, W.J. 1980. “Second Thoughts on Indonesian Nationalism.” In Indonesia: The Making of a Nation. Edited by J.A.C. Mackie, pp. 601-14. Canberra: Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University.

Ong, Aihwa. 2006. ‘Flexible Citizenship Among Chinese Cosmopolitans.’ In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, pp. 134-64. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pané, Armijn. 1953. ‘Produksi Film Tjerita di Indonesia: Perkembangannja sebagai Alat Masjarakat.’ Indonesia 4.1-2: 5-112.

Reid, Anthony and Chirot, Daniel. 1997. Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation of Southeast Asia and Central Europe. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Riemenschnitter, Andrea and Madsen, Deborah L. 2009. Diasporic Histories: Cultural Archives of Chinese Transnationalism. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Robbins, Bruce. 1998. ‘Comparative Cosmopolitanisms.’ In Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, edited by Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins, pp. 246-64. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Said, Salim. 1991. Shadows on the Silver Screen: A Social History of Indonesian Film. Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation.

Salmon, Claudine. 1981. Literature in Malay by the Chinese of Indonesia: A Provisional Annotated Bibliography. Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

Sani, Asrul. 1997. Surat-Surat Kepercayaan, edited by Ajip Rosidi. Jakarta: Pustaka Jaya.

Sen, Krishna. 1983. ‘Indonesian Film History: In Search of a Perspective.’ The Australian Journal of Film Theory. 15/16: 113-131.

— 1985. ‘Hidden From History: Aspects of Indonesian Cinema 1955-65′, Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, 19.2: 1-55.

— 1994. Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order. London: Zed Books.

— 2006. ”Chinese’ Indonesians in National Cinema.’ Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 7.1: 171-84.

Setijadi-Dunn, Charlotte. 2009. ‘Filming Ambiguity: To be ‘Chinese’ through the eyes of young Chinese Indonesian filmmakers’, The International Journal of Humanities, 6.10: 19-27.

— 2009b. ‘Filming Ambiguity: Young Chinese Indonesian filmmakers examine questions of Chineseness’, Inside Indonesia, 95.

Sidel, John. 2003. ‘Liberalism, Communism, Islam: Transnational Motors of ‘Nationalist’ Struggles in Southeast Asia.’ International Institute for Asian Studies Newsletter, 32.23.

Siegel, James T. 1997. Fetish, Recognition, Revolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Strassler, Karen. 2009. ‘Cosmopolitan Visions: Ethnic Chinese and the Photographic Imagining of Indonesia in the Late Colonial and Early Postcolonial Periods.’ The Journal of Asian Studies, 67.2: 395-432.

Suryadinata, Leo. 1992. Pribumi Indonesians, the Chinese Minority, and China. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

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van Doorn, Jacques. 1987. ‘A Divided Society: Segmentation and Mediation in Late-Colonial Indonesia.’ In Indonesian Politics: A Reader, edited by Christine Doran, pp. 5-40. Townsville: James Cook University.

Wilmott, Donald. 1960. The Chinese of Semarang: A Changing Minority Community in Indonesia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Films Referenced

Asmara Moerni (‘True Romance’) 1941, dir. Rd Ariffien,  Union Film.

Darah dan Doa (The Long March) 1950, dir. Usmar Ismail, Perfini.

Impian di Bali (‘Dreams in Bali’) 1939, dir. Unknown, Djawa Film.

Kris Mataram (Mataram Keris) 1940, dir. Njoo Cheong Seng, Oriental Film.

Loetoeng Kasaroeng, 1926, dir. L Heuveldorp, Java Film Company.

Panggilan Darah (‘The Call of the Blood’) 1941, dir. Suska, Oriental Film.

Rentjong Atjeh (‘Acehnese Rentjong’) 1940, dir. The Teng Chun, The Java Industrial Film.

Si Tjonat (character’s name) 1929, dir. Nelson Wong, Batavia Motion Picture.

Terang Boelan (‘Full Moon’) 1937, dir. Albert Balink, ANIF.

Tie Pat Kai Kawin (‘The Marriage of Tie Pat Kai’) 1935, dir. The Teng Chun, Java Industrial Film.

The Jungle Princess 1936, dir. Wilhelm Thiele, Paramount Pictures.

Zoebaidah (character’s name) 1940, dir. Njoo Cheong Seng, Oriental Film.

Charlotte Setijadi-Dunn is a Ph.D. Candidate from the School of Social Sciences (Anthropology) at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Her dissertation looks at everyday forms of identity construction among young Chinese in post-Suharto Indonesia, especially in relation to historical memory, social spaces, and cultural production.

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.

[1] Documentaries had been made before this date but by the Dutch with the intention of documenting their colony, especially for consumption back in the Netherlands. See de Klerk (2008).

[2]Totok’ Chinese are generally regarded as ethnic Chinese who generally still have strong ties to Mainland Chinese – may it be familial, collegial, political, or cultural – and still uphold traditional Chinese traditions. ‘Peranakan’ Chinese on the other hand, are generally regarded as ‘acculturated’ Chinese who have developed their own unique culture in the Indies and no longer culturally or politically oriented towards Mainland China. For more on this distinction, see Charles Coppel (1983), Leo Suryadinata (1992), and Donald Willmott (1960).

[3] Sani (1997). Original reads: ‘Bahwa produser-produser film di Indonesia adalah semata-mata mereka yang hanya memikirkan kantong dan tidak menimbang atau bermaksud untuk mendirikan sesuatu yang patut diberi harga tinggi, tidak usah disangsikan lagi. Boleh dikatakan: semua mereka adalah orang Tionghoa.’

[4] Although most of these ethnic Chinese were peranakan, that is assimilated ethnic Chinese, there were also numerous totoks working in these fields. We have kept the term ‘ethnic Chinese’ to cover both these groups.

[5] The term ‘the Indies’ will be used to refer to the pre-independence colonial Dutch East Indies as supposed to the term ‘Indonesia’ in reference to the post-colonial nation.

[6] Whilst we are only looking at the pre-Independence films in this paper, this notion of cosmopolitan film provides a fecund theoretical ground for considering later works to trace many of the transnational connections that are not considered by proponents of film nasional.

[7] Komedie was derived from the ‘Komedie’ genre of theatre and vaudeville popular in Europe. Stamboel referred to Istanbul and the use of Arabic stories, especially 1001 Nights.

[8] Similar ideas of the plurality of Indonesian social and political life before independence and thus a critique of the homogenous vision of indigenous nationalism can be found in van Doorn (1987) and O’Malley (1980).

[9] Original in Indonesian: ‘bermatjam-matjam sumber internasional dan inter-asiatic jang dipergunakan.’ (Pané 1953:8 )

[10] Original in Indonesian: ‘Dengan pendek, tonil dapat dikatakan merupakan acculturatie antara tehnik serta susunan tonil dan opera Eropah sekitar tahun 1900, dengan tehnik serta susunan tonil Melaju jang sudah ada dan jang mengambil pengaruh India dan Persia. Perpaduan keduanja itu disesuaikan oleh peranakan Eropah itu dengan publik umum di Indonesia zaman itu’ (Pané: 1953:8 )

[11] Nio Joe Lan (1941) suggests that pre-independence films played an invaluable role not just in the popularisation but also in the development the Malay (later Indonesian) language. Nio argues that through increasingly sophisticated film dialogues, the Malay language underwent linguistic transformations that eventually contributed to modern Indonesian vocabulary and grammatical structures (p. 19).

[12] Original in Indonesia: ‘Akhir ceritera didapat kesimpulan yang adil, bahwa tidak ada kesalahan antara kekolotan dan kemodernan

[13] As to be expected, these Eurasian faces continue to cause controversy amongst proponents of film nasional who see their appearance as inappropriate. For one such opinion, see Depari (1990).

[14] This case is not unique to the Dutch East Indies case but has parallels in other parts of South East Asia. In the Philippines, Deocampo (2007) shows the influence of the colonial Spanish on the formation of Filipino popular culture. In Malaysia, peranakan Chinese also played an important role in popular keroncong music (see Tan 1989).

[15] For more on the ‘reappearance’ of ethnic Chinese films and filmmakers in post-Suharto Indonesian cinema, see Sen (2006) and Setijadi-Dunn (2009; 2009b). See also Khoo in this edition for a focused analysis on Edwin, a young Chinese Indonesian independent filmmaker.

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

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 ( 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:

“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.



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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.

[i] “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


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