Film Studies in Indonesia: An Experiment of a New Generation

Intan Paramaditha

Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 173 (2017) 357–375

This essay aims to discuss the state of the art of the study of Indonesian cinema with a special focus on what is being written in Indonesia. Although the number of academic publications on the subject within and outside the country has grown in the past decade, it is still relatively small in comparison to scholarship on other Asian cinemas from Japan, China, and South Korea. This demands us to look at different kinds of writing and publishing practices in Indonesia, including the publication of more popular journals outside of academia that are mostly published online. Beyond the problem of limited sources, delving into this specific local practice of writing and publishing also allows us to examine the larger socio-political contexts with regards to the ideas of nation, citizenship, and experiments in cultural production in post authoritarian Indonesia.

My interest in Indonesian cinema began in 2005, when I started compiling a bibliography to prepare for my Master’s thesis in the United States. It was the first time that I noticed that Indonesia had a long history of national cinema, with the first film made in the Dutch colony in 1926, and that it had produced more films than many countries in South East Asia. However, I was immediately confronted with the scarcity of writing on this subject. With only a handful of books available in English, Indonesian cinema was hardly a ‘field.’ In this lonely path, I decided to find allies. As film programs, courses, and publications were almost non-existent back home, I became acquainted with young film-makers, critics, and activists interested in the study of Indonesian cinema, including Ekky Imanjaya and Eric Sasono, well-known film critics and founders of the online film journal Rumah Film, and Tito Imanda, a filmmaker who at that time was also in the U.S., writing a thesis on the political economy of Indonesian cinema. Twelve years later, film studies has become an emerging field in the country, and the bibliography on Indonesian cinema has expanded. Monographs in English are still rare, but there have been more theses, dissertations, journal articles, and book chapters published in English and Indonesian. In early 2017, the Association of Indonesian Film Scholars was established, involving more people beyond the small circle I knew in 2005.

Recent publications on Indonesian cinema demonstrate an attempt in the past decade to establish the field of film studies in Indonesia. I argue that the formation of the field, largely shaped by independent writers and communities in its initial stage, took place outside of academia. I further argue that this should be contextualized within the changing landscape of cultural production after the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. Shaped by the narratives of the student movement and a wave of democratization that followed, a new generation of artists, activists, and scholars emerged and transformed the cultural fields – including cinema – with various kinds of cultural practice that have projected new ideas about nation and citizenship. Embracing a cosmopolitan worldview and a DIY (Do It Yourself) mode of production, this generation rehearses what I call ‘the scenario of experiment’ outside the confinement of the state and formal institutions in order to make cultural intervention. Underlining that film studies in Indonesia is part of the post-1998 generation’s experiments, I will provide an overview of existing studies on Indonesian cinema, describe the characteristics of the post-1998 film generation, and identify three types of publication that show experiments at home as well as transnational trajectories as factors that contribute to the emergence of film studies in the country.

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This article was written as part of the KITLV Research Fellowship in January-February 2017.