Contesting narratives of the divine: Film religi and Islamic discourses in post-Soeharto Indonesia

Uploading more of my junk here. The following is my research proposal:

Hanung Bramantyo's Perempuan Berkalung Sorban (2008)

The recent upsurge in Islamically-themed films, or film religi, in Indonesia can be viewed as a reflection of the increasing prominence of Islam discernible in the media and consumption patterns (Widodo, 2008). Following the commercial success of Ayat-ayat Cinta (Verses of Love) in 2008, a love story with polygamy at the heart of its narrative, as many as nine films with religious overtones have been produced with varied success. Ayat-ayat Cinta’s phenomenal success could be owed to its youthful and good-looking cast, stunning production value, and melodramatic rendering of sensitive issues such as polygamous relationships and Christian-Muslim relations. Subsequent films, however, have diverged from the romance to tackle a range of other issues from a strictly Islamic perspective. Moreover, what is significant in religious films since Ayat-ayat Cinta is the critical engagement with contesting Islamic discourses reflective of the climate in current Indonesian socio-politics. Thus, these films as an instrument of ideology and spiritual aspirations provide an important site of study in the case of Indonesia after 1998.

Despite cinema’s ambivalent relationship with the more conservative expressions of Islam, the Islamic film genre is by no means unique to predominantly Muslim Indonesia, and has enjoyed considerable popularity in Turkey, Iran, and Egypt in past decades (Dönmez-Colin, 2004; Siavoshi, 1997; Schohat, 1983). Films with overt religious themes earned attention in Turkey as ‘white cinema’ in the 1990’s when Islamist parties gained political dominance (Dönmez-Colin, 2004). A distinctively Islamist cinema that adhered to fiqh-based ideology (Islamic jurisprudence) was promoted in Iran during the First Republic following the 1979 revolution lasted until the mid 1980’s (Dönmez-Colin, 2004). It is worth noting here, however, that research on the role of Islam, and faith itself, in film has been at best limited to being part of nationalist cinematic discourse and in the emerging theological analysis on visual media. At present, film religi as a tenable genre in its own right remains a void in scholarly writings on the recent history of Indonesian film-making.

The emergence of Islamic films after 1998 – in the wake of Soeharto’s fallen New Order – is significantly momentous as far as Indonesian cinema is concerned. Many restrictive regulations formulated under Soeharto’s government relating to film production and screening were dissolved. A democratisation of the media was witnessed under the presidency of B.J. Habibi (1998-1999), while during during Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency (1999-2001) saw the Ministry of Information abolished and the Lembaga Sensor Film’s (Film Censor Council) authority questioned. These events heralded a freer cinematic expression and posed a challenge to religious authorities and the more conservative public in general. The rise in Islamic films in recent years is seen as borne as a reaction to the liberated mediascape often assumed as a westernisation of popular culture, while at the same time reflective of the increasingly divergent discourse on Islam in Indonesia generally (Widido, 2008). Interestingly, the films are also part of a wider phenomenon of commercial Islam found in its appropriation in popular brand names, print media, and cultural products (Fealy, 2008).

Methodology and purpose of study

What I am interested in is performing a textual analysis to shed light on where the film religi fits in its social, cultural, and political environment. Due to the different nature of several Islamic films in style and representation of Muslim identities, a better understanding of the changing content, distribution, exhibition, and discourse of Indonesian cinema at large against the backdrop of evolving socio-politics in post-Soeharto Indonesia would represent an important aspect of my research. Furthermore, by building on Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagining and “re-presenting” elements of what constitutes a nation via textual means, a question as to whether the film religi identifies with and imagines certain Muslim communities/audiences and can harmoniously incorporate within Indonesian nationalist cinema is also a matter of analytical concern. In addition to a “top-down” relationship of film-makers/religious leaders construction of Muslim identities in films is the audience reception, which can be viewed as a “bottom-up” relationship that determines a film’s commercial (and possibly, ideological) success. For Muslims cinema-goers, watching films, particularly film religi, is part of their meaning-making. This can be perceived through how so-called “real” or “ordinary” film-watchers, rather than critics and academics, are reacting and responding to certain films.

Adding to the elements that constitute identities of an imagined nation are class and gender as demarcators of cultural and ideological boundaries. This is particularly important given that class-based and gender-sensitive representations of characters in recent Islamic films can be considered as an embodiment of changing attitudes and aspirations in Indonesian cinema today. As part of this research I intend to combine the analytical training in Gender Studies developed through my MA programme at SOAS, fluency in spoken and written Indonesian, experience in Muslim women’s activism, and as a film reviewer and critic to build on the study of Indonesian cinema, considering the scant scholarly writings on religious films in Indonesia at present. I believe that my proposed research project will be enhanced by the sensitivity and experience of not only as a Muslim scholar and cinema enthusiast but also by being a socially aware academic that I am. Based on my developing expertise as a film critic and academic, these are the justifications for my suitability for this particular research subject.

1.Widodo, Amrih, 2008. Writing for god: piety and consumption in popular Islam. Inside Indonesia, 93,
2.Fealy, Greg (2008) Consuming Islam: Commodified religion and aspirational pietism in contemporary Indonesia, from Expressing Islam – religious life and politics in Indonesia. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.
3.Dönmez-Colin, Gönül (2004) Women, Islam, and Cinema, Reaktion Books.
4.Schochat, Ella (1983) Critical Arts, Volume 2, No. 4.
5.Siavoshi, Sussan (1997) International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, No. 29.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.


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