I’ve written a short essay for the Indonesian film journal, Cinema Poetica, ahead of my forthcoming book, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (2017), published by Palgrave Macmillan:
There is perhaps a queasiness on the part of filmmakers, critics, and audiences alike about the label ‘Islamic cinema’. Such feelings are understandable because the creation of a fence around ‘Islamic cinema’ means constructing a very artificial unity out of a corpus of diverse films which are as diverse as the expressions of Islam and what it means to be Muslim. Although it has been used without much qualification, the genre and category of ‘Islamic cinema’ requires some unpacking.
This short essay makes a case that ‘Islamic cinema’ produced in the Indonesian film industry can justifiably be called ‘Islamic’ while at the same proposing that the ‘Islamic’ in filmmaking and other cultural practices in general be expanded and inclusive. In my forthcoming monograph, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan), I endeavour to create a systematic definition of ‘Islamic cinema’ through a gendered lens. I found, through textual analysis, archival data, and interviews with filmmakers, that the ‘Islamic’ in film can often be elusive and ambiguous rather than fixed and conveys its religious message through an intersection of gender, class, and the nation.
Cynical film critics in Indonesia argue that a film becomes Islamic when the Islamic veil is a significant feature of its main characters, setting the tone, mood and expectations for the unfolding narrative. Although the Islamic veil has become the synecdoche of Islam in the public sphere, it is too superficial a sign to signify the ‘Islamic’ film. Other critics take a more effects-oriented approach namely that Islamic cinema has the power to transform its audiences. For the Muslim audience, films with a wholesome Islamic message are thought to have a didactic effect and turn viewers into better Muslims.
On the other hand, non-Muslim audiences, especially in the post 9/11 world, are supposed to learn that Muslims are a peaceful and democratic people. While serviceable, these arguments about what Islamic cinema are inadequate when one begins to consider the range of subjects and opposing ideological and political views featured in Indonesian films with Islamic themes. Furthermore, ‘Islamic cinema’ as pure didactism and propaganda assumes the passivity of its intended audiences. ‘Islamic cinema’ may indeed have a transformative effect on its audience but not always those intended by its producers.
Scenes from ‘Islamic cinema’ Indonesia comprises of non-judgmental representations of apostasy from the Islamic faith to an unabashed celebration of prosperity Islam (and the critique thereof). In some films Muslim women valiantly challenge the patriarchal biases of Muslim men while other films portray polygamy in a romantic light. How do we make sense of a religious preoccupation in films while maintaining that these films are in some way ‘Islamic’?
To attend to this question, I take a roundabout way and find possible answers in What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, in which the late Shahab Ahmed argues for a reclamation of the Islamic within the non-legal and cultural aspect of Muslim life. For too long, the legalistic dimension of Islam remained the pinnacle of what is properly considered ‘Islamic’ in the lives of Muslims. His approach is idiosyncratic as he advances his arguments with latent texts about the Islamic virtues of wine-drinking and visualization of animals and humans. There are many contradictions within Islamic practice across history and cultures that span the globe. We must embrace those inconsistencies in a “constitutional coherent manner, because this is the only way that we can map the human and historical reality of the internal contradictions of Islam”.
Like Jewish films, ‘Islamic’ cinema stands apart from other films with religious messages like The Passion of the Christ or Ben Hur, both incidentally not called ‘Christian films’ or part of a ‘Christian filmmaking’ tradition. All films in Indonesia are subject to production regulations to protect citizens from consuming material deemed blasphemous under Islamic law. Because of the restriction in Islam against the visual depictions of God, the prophet Muhammad, his family members, and other prophets, Indonesian films with Islamic elements are rarely ever about divine beings, prophets or even stories from the Quranic texts. For these reasons, film critic Eric Sasono argues that Indonesian films about the lives of Muslim individuals and communities are not commensurable with the typologies of Indian Hindu and Hollywood Christian films which bring into focus gods, prophets and tales from sacred texts.
The use of film as a medium for propagating religious messages goes back to the earliest days of cinema. Indeed, the apparent ‘Catholicism’ of early cinema is captured in Andre Bazin’s famous quote: ‘cinema was always interested in God’. Seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War.
For the film scholar Conrad Ostwald, traditional cinema itself was a kind of secular religion: “The movie theater has acted like a secular religion, complete with the sacred space and rituals that mediate an experience of otherness”. This is because the film theater had been treated as a place of worship during the screening of biblical films. In 1908, the showing of The Life and Passion of the Christ was condemned by New York priest for taking place in a place of entertainment rather than in a church. Critics of the ‘secular’ screening suggested soothing organ music and incense burning to heighten spirituality of the film.
Biblical epics of early cinema became the wellspring for films made with other faiths in mind. The ‘Father of Indian cinema’, Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the silver screen:
While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya… Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?
The fruit of Phalke’s inspiration was the first Indian feature film, Raja Harischandra (1913), based on the Hindu Mahabharata.
Like the biblical epics of early cinema, dakwah or Islamic preaching is widely regarded to be central to the function of Islamic cinema and media. Derived from the Arabic term da’wa to mean call or invitation, dakwah in the Indonesian context is a general term to denote efforts to propagate Islam in society. Although dakwah is used to convert non-Muslims to Islam, the term is more commonly invoked for the strengthening of the Islamic faith and guiding Muslims to live by Islamic principles.
The use of cinema for dakwah, however, is vaguer in its execution. Nevertheless, it was embraced by Indonesia’s pioneering filmmakers such as Asrul Sani, Djamaluddin Malik, and Misbach Yusa Biran who made films for the purpose of dakwah. Clerics and religious commentators have often tended to define the dakwah film in terms of what it is not, in that it does not have the ‘immoral’ elements of Hollywood cinema and the preoccupation of Indonesian cinema with horror, the supernatural, and eroticized display of women.
In his 1965 essay entitled ‘Film sebagai dakwah’ (Film as dakwah), distinguished filmmaker Usmar Ismail urgued other filmmakers to ‘make films a media of (national) struggle and a media for Islamic proselytizing’. Dakwah films, he asserts, need not to be religious or commercial akin to the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster The Ten Commandments but should affirm Muslims as subjects of God.
A fellow contemporary of Usmar Ismail, Asrul Sani, however, held a more critical view. Sani argued that all dakwah films made during the New Order and the period after were misguided in their approach. For Sani, Indonesian dakwah films are preoccupied with ritualistic and dogmatic Islam with the intention of substituting the role of the Kyai or religious leader. He even rejects the term ‘Islamic film’, arguing instead that “all films that go beyond the surface of life are [actually] religious films”.
The cinematic visualization of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that films can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Films with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, sermon, an image of a holy structure, all of which allude to that something highly moral is to be learned from watching the film. Defying all classical theories of secularization and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, now repackaged in a more popular format than ever (some say commodified) has found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier, and more mobile iterations.
To what extent will cinema remain a ritual in the 21st century? Cinema-going numbers have been dwindling since the rise of home-viewing video cassette tapes, television, and the internet. The cinema is no longer the only place where one can gaze upon images of the spectacular and receive tales of moral heroism. Like stragglers of a long party, faith, and cinema alike stick around promising an experience quite profound and mysterious. In its yoking of everyday jihad with global mission of terrorism, chaste love with the seductive yet soul-destructive power of money, ‘Islamic cinema’ may provide its viewers answers for spiritual conundrums both quotidian and world-transforming. Like other genres, there is a suspension of time and space, and an immediate connection is made between the viewer and the glowing purveyor of moral truths.
I have a new journal article published in the latest issue of Asian Cinema, Vol. 26 Issue 2.
Female ghosts and other supernatural entities, including the pontianak, in Malaysian horror cinema are excessive psychosocial articulations of traditional Malay femininity gone awry. In Malay ghost stories, the pontianak is a vengeful spirit. She is the ghostly reincarnation of a pregnant woman who dies before or during the birth of her child and who then seeks vengeance on the living for causing the gruesome death that kills her and her unborn child. Since biological reproduction is the primary determinant of a woman’s social value in traditional Malay societies, the double death is devastatingly cruel. The pontianak thus embodies the horror of abject femininity associated with thwarted womanhood. Another recurring theme in Malaysian horror cinema relates to women possessed by evil spirits. Typically portrayed as lacking in emotional restraint, and therefore given to hysterical behaviour, such women are thought to be particularly vulnerable. Malaysian horror cinema has been adept at depicting psychosocial horrors of feminine excesses as such that transgress otherwise restrictive social and customary expectations for Malay femininity. This article examines the horror of abject femininity in two contemporary Malaysian films by female film-makers: Shuhaimi Baba’s Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam/Pontianak of the Tuber Rose (2004) and Zarina Abdullah’s Chermin/Mirror (2007). Both films collectively provide a spine-chilling commentary on female–female relations and motherhood that puts to play the female gaze and the monstrous feminine. This article argues that the themes of failed motherhood, death and the abject are salvaged by strong mother–daughter relations and the female gaze, making the two films a women-oriented rejoinder to spirit possession and the misogynistic tale of the pontianak.
When I first heard about the film Violette (2013, dir. Martin Provost), I had little knowledge about the life and work of the French writer, Violette Leduc (1907-1972), on which the film was based. What drew me to the film was the fact that she was one time a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir. Imagine being a protégé of Simone de Beauvoir!
The film charts her journey into writing, from being an appendage of a gay writer who could never return her love and lust to being a groundbreaking literary success. What he does offer her instead is an instruction to write, anything and everything she knows. And so she does. After he leaves her to fend for herself, she embarks on a reinvention of herself, with her first manuscript in hand, to Paris.
Leduc’s journey into writing and the occasion that led to her discovery by de Beauvoir appear cosmically serendipitous. Her chance encounter with Le Deuxième Sexe in an acquaintance’s apartment (“A woman has written a big book?”, she thinks aloud) ignites a desire to meet the writer herself.
Leduc stalks de Beauvoir in a Parisian cafe. The scene is established through Leduc’s female gaze; with her back turned to the feminist philosopher, Leduc spies on de Beauvoir using the mirror of her compact case. De Beauvoir’s first depiction as an image in a lady’s compact case is both ironic and trivialising.
When Leduc throws herself (and her manuscript of L’Asphyxie) in de Beauvoir’s direction, it appears that her literary career and its trappings (shoulder-rubbing with artists and willing patrons) are sealed. De Beauvoir adores her manuscript and is keen to mentor Leduc, who was only a year younger. Leduc is the opposite of de Beauvoir; her words spill from a body electrocuted by feeling and desire. She is shameless and openly erotic bordering on desperate in contrast to de Beauvoir’s restraint and cerebralism.
Their homes are further extensions of their opposing personality and state of mind; Leduc lives hand to mouth in a shabby rented room. De Beauvoir lives in an elegant multi-roomed apartment. Shortly after winning the Prix Goncourt for The Mandarins, de Beauvoir would purchase an even more luxurious apartment, pushing the gulf between her and Leduc further.
Pushing past forty by the time her (still unsuccessful) novel L’affamée is published, Leduc is portayed as a woman regressing into adolescence. She is tormented by the thought of being a bastard child and her mother’s maternal transgressions (“My mother never held my hand”), themes that reoccur since her debut, L’Asphyxie (1948). And yet, her mother dotes on Leduc. In one poignant scene, an emotionally exhausted Leduc is bathed by her mother, like a placid baby at bathtime.
Abandonment issues strain Leduc’s relationship with everyone she sexually desires, both women and men, along with insecurities about her lack of beauty. She attributes the unrequited desire she has for Simone de Beauvoir and her general lack of luck as a sexual woman in libidinous French culture to her apparent ugliness.
Her sexuality is written on the pages of her books. They are autobiographies of a woman’s sexuality. Her writing may evoke the contemporary criticism that women, like Lena Dunham’s écriture du jour, write in a ‘confessional’ style that pepper with TMI. They can come across as self-absorbed and narcisstic. But Provost’s portrayal of Leduc depicts a woman who does not love and credit herself enough. Her insecurities undermine the high regard the male French intelligentsia (Sartre, Camus, Genet) have for her.
Soon, and rather predictably, the emotional labour inscribed in her writing takes a toll on Leduc and she is admitted into a sanitarium to ‘recover’ via a treatment of electric shocks. Rather than a moral tale of a woman who writes and desires that ends tragically, Leduc’s episode in hospital is followed by a great literary and erotic flourishing.
Following de Beauvoir’s advice, she goes on a solo walking trip through small provincial towns, writing and wanking as she absorbs the bucolic landscape around her. She is pursued by a younger man, a builder, and yields to his attentions. The film reaches it climax when Leduc publishes her first bestseller, La Bâtarde (1964), to great national acclaim that seals her reputation as a feminist writer.
What compels me most about Violette is that it is a film about écriture féminine. It is a style of writing that may not appeal to many readers for reasons they may not realise or able to articulate. Cixous may be on the money in Le Rire de la Meduse (The Laugh of the Medusa) when she argues that the history of writing is founded on the exclusion of women and their expression. When women did write, they write in a manner as to be recognised and understood by patriarchal culture. And then enter écriture féminine and its subversion of the very grammar of writing. When women produce écriture féminine, they create
A world of searching, the elaboration of a knowledge, on the basis of a systematic experimentation with the bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity (Cixous, 1976: 876)
It takes courage and self-belief to write words that overflow their typographic vessel with affect and hot bubbling desire. The écriture féminine of Violette Leduc is, to echo de Beauvoir’s foreword to Leduc’s La Bâtarde, “a world full of sound and fury, where love often bears the name of hate, where a passion for life burst forth in cries of despair”.
The reason why women are ridiculed and devalued for their hyper-personal writing is because they are perceived to lack critical acumen. Their writing is measured against the literary success of men. Indeed, I sometimes find autobiographical feminist writing unchallenging and intellectually lazy.
And yet Violette Leduc and the film about her literary career fascinate me on an intellectual level. Though I have wondered what and how Leduc would write if she had an intellectual background like Simone de Beauvoir. Would she write very differently and more self-consciously? Would she abandon writing of the body in favour of the mind? Would her writing be less about herself and acknowledge other women like her who had come before and those who will emerge in decades to come, in a different place?
Cixous, Helene (1976) ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen), Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 875-893
First published in The State on 2nd January 2014
1. Exhibition of the year. Traces: Ana Mendieta Retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, 24th September – 15 December 2013.
When Cuban artist Ana Mendieta fell to her death from her New York City apartment in 1985, it might seem as if it had eclipsed her career. Her artist husband was rumoured to have pushed her out their apartment window during a violent argument. Comparisons between Mendieta’s dramatic death and her oftentimes morbid art were perhaps inevitable. But there was more to Mendieta than a tragic female artist as Traces, a comprehensive introduction to her career, showed. Mendieta was a self-identifying feminist artist who brought the movement’s perennial issues —violence against women and identity—to the centre of her work. At this retrospective of Mendieta’s brief but prolific career, one gets a sense of a woman who was on a primordial quest of finding herself in earth, stone, fire, and blood.
Germaine Greer once commented, disparagingly, about how female artists tended to nearly always use their (often naked) bodies in their artwork. Mendieta was not so different in that respect. Known as ‘earth-body’ art, Mendieta’s nude body merges with the natural world; in mud, into a tree, on grass. In a series of photographs, the outline of her body is eerily imprinted on the ground like an empty ancient burial site, set ablaze with the heart alight last. In another morbid photograph, a white sheet indiscreetly covers a blood-soaked body resembling a post-sacrificial scene. Mendieta has the posthumous power to spur women to take control of their own lives, but more significantly, how their lives will be remembered long after death if they can help it.
2. Film of the year 1: Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)
Most couples would be able to identify with the post-honeymoon romance of Celine and Jesse in Before Midnight; the last of Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Before Midnight has a more melancholic perspective on long-term relationships in contrast to the more hopeful and hopelessly romantic Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It is almost a cautionary tale of two beautiful much-in-love people who seem to be in a blissful ever after. The film is a triumph of sorts. Like its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, the film consists of conversations only. Little happens, and yet it tells us nearly everything about the mythical eternal fire of love threatened by an affair, diminishing youth, career let-downs, and parental guilt. Before Midnight and films like it (all talk, where nothing really happens) is a rare achievement in filmmaking for a medium so conducive to the spectacular.
3. Film of the year 2: Hannah Arendt (2012, Margarethe von Trotta)
Prior to Hannah Arendt, there have been few films about the life and work of a female philosopher, let alone a film featuring a woman thinking deeply about an epoch-defining moral problem. Von Trotta’s film reveals only but a glimpse of Arendt’s complex persona and work on morality, when she is faced with the task of writing an essay on Adolf Eichmann’s kidnapping and trial in Jerusalem. Published in the New Yorker in 1953, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a thought piece into the imperceptible abyss of a Nazi officer’s feelings and actions that led millions of Jews to their deaths. With Eichmann obscured far into the background, Arendt and key protagonists—who would influence and reject her writing—play out a more interesting narrative in the foreground. We get to see Arendt, the thinker, encircled by the filmmaker’s over-use of cigarette smoke, the erstwhile youthful lover of Heidegger, and the intellectual provocateur. For a film about the Holocaust and the afterlife of the Second World War, it is highly unlikely to appeal to macho military history aficionados and all the better for it.
4. Read of the year: articles on gender and hyper-employment
There has been much talk about what our over-reliance on media technologies is doing to our everyday existence. For Ian Bogost in his article on The Atlantic, many of us are hyper-worked; being employed in one job while doing a number of other job-related things, (no) thanks to mobile technologies that allow us to do work anywhere, anytime without necessarily getting paid. A number of articles, more notably by Karen Gregory, Robin James, and Gordon Hull, have highlighted the feminised nature of hyperwork. They point to Marxist feminist analysis of preexisting under-valued feminised hyperwork in the hearth: the never-ending work of cleaning, cooking, caring, and secretarial duties in service of higher status and better paid men. Women, they argue, have been the hyperemployed before the the advent of advanced mobile technologies.
Media saturated societies have been blessed (or cursed) with the much feminised skill (or burden) of multi-tasking. Mobile technologies make it easier for us to check emails, listen to music, glance spreadsheets, and play games on the go. Sometimes all at the same time for the restless 21st century media user. The convenience that we gifted by perpetually improving media technologies may one day mean that the line between work and leisure is blurred most of the time. Steven Poole’s essay on the pitfalls of productivity coheres well with the discourse of hyperemployment. Technology-assisted hyperemployment is likely to change how we view paid/unpaid work and gender relations in profound ways in the very near future.
5. Documentary film of the year: The Act of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)
Much ink and talk have been spent on The Act of Killing, Oppenheimer’s disturbing documentary on Indonesian anti-Communist death squads who recall their blood-soaked heydays in 1965. It may be hotly tipped for a variety of awards and recipient of many accolades, but The Act of Killing is a towering achievement in the art of documentary film-making—a source of much debate on ethics and morality in its own right. Oppenheimer encountered his film subjects, a ragtag team of boastful mass murderers, quite by chance. Their openness to discuss their bloody exploits, or heroics in their view, on film take them on a journey of confronting their amorality and twisted heroic delusions. Often mixed with bizarre and fantastical proportions filled with personalised cinematic references. These references where the retired villains adopt with zeal, is where Oppenheimer’s documentary takes a remarkable turn of events. Will the re-enaction of their crimes under Oppenheimer’s occasionally manipulative gaze jolt the men into humanity and repentance? But why should they? Regardless of these difficult moral speculations, Oppenheimer’s ethnographic ethics of engaging with his subjects, in fluent Indonesian, and collaborating with them in the making of the film is enough to get the research geek (like yours truly) salivate in delight.