At the time of writing, I was experiencing the warmth of critical acclaim bestowed on an Indonesian film that had just finished its all-too-brief exhibition at cinemas in Jakarta. The film, Sang Penari (The Dancer), is described by film critics as the apogee of Indonesian cinema 20111. Arguably the “best film” of last year, and further evidenced by its winning the award for Best Film at the Jakarta Film Festival. Based on the novel ‘Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk’ by Ahmad Tohari once banned under Suharto’s authoritarian regime2, it tells the story of the struggle between tradition, modernity, political struggle, and how it takes place on the female body, both literally and metaphorically.
Set in an isolated agrarian village in 1963, only a few years before the militarist coup led by Suharto against communism in Indonesia in 1965, the film begins with a scene of lustful village men enthralled by the ronggeng dancer and a young girl, Srintil, who is destined to take the dancer’s place. When Srintil’s father is accused of poisoning members of the villege, including the ronggeng dancer – all of whom have eaten his tempe bongrek – both Srintil’s mother and himself take their own lives by eating their poisoned product to prove their innocence.
To recover the honour of her family’s name, Srintil decides to take on the role of the ronggeng dancer herself much to the dismay of her childhood sweetheart, Rasus. Unbeknowst to Srintil however is the ronggeng’s other social role of providing sexual services to the men of the village. Realising that Srintil’s sexuality now belongs to every men and not his alone, Rasus leaves the village to become a member of the army where he is trained to participate in the crackdown of communist activity in villages, of which Dukuh Paruk will eventually play host to with fatal consequences. Although the villagers of Dukuh Paruk are mobilised to take their own collective destiny into their hands by defying a feudalistic system that contributed to their impoverished state, expressed through the melding of agrarian-centric communist ideals and the ronggeng dancer’s mystical power to bless their revolutionary efforts, their agency is proven futile and eventually diminished in a massacre.
The superstitious beliefs that the villagers invest in the power of the ronggeng, though much to the physical expense of Srintil, underscore their ‘backward’ worldview and imminent failure in the face of encroaching modernity, as symbolised by organised military and media technology such as the radio, a tool to usher in the red revolution. More heartfelt and frustrating, however, is the use of the central figure – the dancer, her body and sexuality – as the battleground of ideals and struggle pursued and fought out to various degrees of force by the men in the film. Rasus is the figure torn between nation-building and the grip of tradition symbolised by his love for Srintil. The communist activist and mobiliser Bakar is the agent of change and conflict. The dalang of the roenggeng, who legitimises Srintil’s sacred/profane role is also complicit, alongside Bakar, in the downfall of Dukuh Paruk. Throughout the masculinised machinations that determine the village’s fate, Srintil is given little agency and is thrust into one violent tribulation to another while clinging to the desire to dance the ronggeng.
Similar to other films depicting prominent female characters situated in the throes of nation-scale upheavals such as Nia Dinata’s Cau Bau Kan (The Courtesan, 2002), the fictional women are often at the mercy of the men who oppress them through the use of sexual violence. Indirectly, they are at the mercy of the state. But somehow at the same time, they are held up as (suffering) symbols of the nation. In nationalistic discourse, the nation is usually portrayed as femininie, the state masculine. The iconography of the motherland has often been constructed as either a nurturing mother or sensuous female servant3 In Indonesian nationalist discourse meanwhile, the nation, at times regarded as ibu pertiwi (the motherland) is framed as an anguished and suffering female beauty4. But I would further argue that the feminised iconograpby of the motherland requires the guardianship from invading (male) forces. The nation as feminine is passive and helpless. ‘She’ is subject to the threat of masculinised violation. The idea of the nation violated by colonial/imperialist presence is translated in literature and indeed on screen into a central female figure, whose subjugation to unwelcome (male) violation is always a sexual one.
With Sang Penari, we witness a return of the suffering feminine body as site of cultural/national struggle. And now garlanded with accolades and acclaim, we witness something of a nostalgia for cultural/national struggle that takes place on a woman’s body. The film suffers from little protest and criticism of the misogyny central to the narrative because it privileges other aspects; the film’s artistry and the recovery of a repressed literary voice, while marginalising the major strides female film-makers and feminist critics are making in redressing the male-dominance of Indonesian film-making and discourse. The unproblematic sensibility that Sang Penari receives from audiences and critics alike is perhaps reflective of its time; a time when some semblance of feminism has made a mark in Indonesian public discourse, and with it a sensibility that gender equality has at least been established since.