“Cinema, Sexuality, and Censorship in Post-Soeharto Indonesia” by Intan Paramaditha
in Southeast Asian Independent Cinema (Hong Kong University Press, 2012), pp. 70-87.
Edited by Tilman Baumgärtel
At the end of 2007, the omnibus film Perempuan Punya Cerita (Chants of Lotus, 2008), directed by four women filmmakers and produced by independent production house Kalyana Shira Film, was severely cut by the Indonesian Censorship Board for showing sex scenes regarded as obscene by Indonesian standards and for portraying a veiled woman involved in a casual conversation about sex. The filmmakers – Nia Dinata, Upi Avianto, Lasja Fauziah, and Fatimah Tobing Rony – believe that the cutting has disrupted the narrative coherence of the movie and that this act of censorship underlines the problems pertaining to sexuality in Indonesia such as abortion, women trafficking, teenage sexuality, and AIDS. The censoring of Chants of Lotus demonstrates that even after the New Order authoritarian regime under president Suharto ended in 1998, film policy still operates based on the old, repressive paradigm. The persistence of censorship caused a large number of young filmmakers to join the Indonesian Film Society (Masyarakat Film Indonesia/MFI) in 2006 and urged the government to abolish the 1992 Law of film censorship that they regarded as no longer relevant to the contemporary situation. The demands were brought to the Constitutional Court and rejected in April 2008.
The anxiety about sexual representation in cinema exemplified by Chants of Lotus reveals how the discourse of sexuality has become an inseparable element of the public debate in Indonesia. Since Suharto stepped down in 1998, various national phenomena ranging from the launching of Playboy Indonesia to the controversial erotic dance of dangdut singer Inul have stirred up a moral panic among some Islamist groups, which have gained more power in politics and triggered the state to push the Pornography Bill (Rancangan Undang-Undang Pornografi) that regulates the public depiction of sexuality. While these groups supported the Bill, cultural activist, artists, writers, and filmmakers protested against it for its underlying patriarchal and anti-pluralist logic. After almost a decade of debates, revisions, and demonstrations, the Bill became law in October 2008 as the Pornography Law.
Within this sphere of tension around sexuality, my essay explores the connection between the ways in which the new generation of Indonesian filmmakers channel their aspiration through Masyarakat Film Indonesia/MFI and the larger discourse of post-Suharto sexual politics. I attempt to answer the following questions: How do the new filmmakers see sexuality, and how does this perspective differ from that of the state? What is the significance of depicting sexuality in contemporary Indonesian cinema? My research focuses on the debates around censorship between MFI and the Censorship Board in the Constitutional Court as well as some films, particularly Chants of Lotus and Perempuan: Kisah di Balik Guntingan (Women: In the Cut, 2008), a documentary on how Chants of Lotuswas afflicted by censorship. Elucidating the historical context of censorship and sexuality in Indonesia, the logic behind post-Suharto film censorship, and the way that MFI criticizes the Censorship Board, I will show that the new filmmakers conceptualize sexuality differently from the state and deploy sexuality to both question and reconstruct national identity. I will also argue that there are limitations and ambivalences in the new filmmakers’ desire to explore and problematize sexuality as a national issue.
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