Why did the independent Islamic film community fail in Indonesia?

Last year when I lived in Jakarta, I chased down people of the Indonesian film community – producers, directors, critics, scholars, festival organisers – to talk about the boom years of ‘Islamic cinema’ following the success of Ayat-ayat Cinta (2008, dir. Hanung Bramantyo). In the following interview, I spoke with the film scholar Katinka van Heeren on why the independent Islamic film community consisting of film producers devoted to Islamic visual ethics and oppositional cinema failed to make a mark commercially since their inception in the mid 1990s.

Some context behind the interview, particularly when Katinka mentions the Muhammadiyah organisation who were behind the fledgling community:

Concerted attempts to create Islamic film-making communities were first established in 1996 by the mass Islamic organisation, the Muhammadiyah. Compelled by the newly gifted freedom to found media broadcasting companies on the basis of faith, the organisation along with others facilitated the training, screening of, and discussion on films for budding Muslim filmmakers. Previously, there had been no official guideline for making films that would later be marketed as ‘Islamic’.

In 2003, film companies and Islamic boarding schools worked in collaboration to produce the (now defunct) Morality Audio Visual Network (MAV-Net), whose main objective is to challenge the dominance of foreign films and strengthen the role of Islamic ‘visual ethics’ in film-making. MAV-Net’s view of ‘Islamic’ films departs from the Ramadan offerings on television. Their initial view of ‘Islamic visual ethics’ were found in the fringes of the mainstream media industry in the form of pirated VCDs of dubious documentaries about warfare and the military training from abroad. However, amid fears of associations with terrorism, this initial view has been retracted.

Islamic film organisations or ‘communities’ flourished during the climate of Reformasi because of the increasing numbers of Islamic institutions that began to approve of the training of young Muslims in film and media production and saw the benefit of media as a medium for preaching (van Heeren, 2012: 84). However, despite the rise of Islamic film communities during this period, only one film was made by these Islamic film communities and with little financial success.

According to van Heeren (2012 :121), MAV-Net’s manifesto of an Islamic cinema mirrors the tenets of oppositional Third Cinema in its aims of countering and rejecting the hegemony of Hollywood cinema and its undesirable copy-cat elements in Indonesian films. By the late 1990s, conspiracy theories of the influence of Zionist domination of imported media representations became another incentive to produce images that inspired Islamic and anti-Zionist fervour in Indonesia.

MAV-Net’s manifesto stressed their responsibility towards the global Muslim community in battling Zionist-dominated media emanating in the west believed to produce misrepresentations of Muslims and weaken the Islamic faith of Muslims who consume western media. MAV-Net eventually disbanded when regulations for what was allowable on screen became too complicated, in particular regulating what female and male actors can and cannot do in a film such as holding hands and the portrayal of romance or married couples by actors who were not married to each other.

Furthermore, MAV-Net was more interested in producing independent films but when with the success of commercial big-budgeted films such as Ayat-ayat Cinta dominated the public sphere, film-makers under the auspices of MAV-Net felt they could no longer compete with the impending juggernaut of the commercial ‘Islamic’ cinema.

——-
Reference
van Heeren, Katinka (2012) Contemporary Indonesian Film: Spirits of Reform and Ghosts from the Past, KITVL, Leiden.

Direct address in Asrul Sani’s Para Perintis Kemerdekaan

In my doctoral research on the poetics of Islam and gender in Indonesian cinema, I found a few inventive cinematic devices and techniques used in the Islamic film genre to achieve various desired effects. In the case of the Indonesian Islamic film, the main desired effect is the use of film as a medium for religious teaching.

One of my favourite cinematic devices is the direct address, the moment when a character looks and/or speaks directly towards the camera, and by implication, the spectator, breaking the fourth wall. KCL’s Tom Brown has recently published a book on direct address in which he identifies seven meanings of the direct address: intimacy, agency, epistemic superior positioning within the world, honesty, instantiation, alienation, and stillness (see more on Brown’s direct address in a video interview with Film Studies for Free’s Catherine Grant here).

In the still taken from Asrul Sani’s Para Perintis Kemerdekaan (The Pioneers of Freedom, 1980), the progressive Islamic scholar Haji Wali (played by Asrul Sani himself) reminds his disciples of Islam’s openness towards religious diversity. It is one of several scenes in the film where Haji Wali dispenses progressive words of wisdom of which some are unmistakeably feminist.

paraperintis

The camera moves towards Haji Wali until we get a tight shot of him looking back at us, reciting a line from Al-Kafirun, ‘Your faith is yours/your answer and my faith is mine/Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion’. This is the only time when we get the direct address from Haji Wali which suggests the gravity of his statement.

Inter-religious Romance as Patina of Pluralist Harmony in Indonesian Cinema (an abstract)

I will be presenting a paper (titled above) taken from my doctoral research as part of the International Gender Studies Centre Trinity Term Seminar Series at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, on 16th May 2013. The theme of the seminar series is ‘Gender and Propaganda’ and I’ve somehow managed to design my paper in such a way to fit the theme.

The narrative of inter-religious romance and marriage in film, usually between a Muslim and a non-Muslim, is typically employed as a superficial statement of tolerance, pluralism, and acceptance of perceived irreconcillable differences. This is because love between two people from different social groups can sometimes be seen as a seal over group divisions and as a way to incorporate one member from a different social group to another. Depending on the historical and political context of the film and the motivations and background of the filmmaker, such representations of inter-faith romance may however tell a different story. Indonesia is a hugely diverse country but beset by bloody inter-faith conflict between Christians and Muslims since the 1990s. A few films with Islamic themes from 2008 onward transcode the discourse of inter-faith discord and subvert it into a feel-good narrative of heteronormative love and romance. However, such narratives play out a specific gendered arrangement of faith and religious conversion: female love interests are Christian while their male paramours are Muslim. Christian female characters convert to Islam for their love of the faith and the man they love but Muslim male characters do not convert to Christianity or other faiths. Such narratives may be informed by several Islamic interpretations and cultural specificities pertaining to religious conversion in Islam in Indonesia. But ultimately, what the films say about inter-faith relations through romance reveal faith-based hegemony and propaganda.

Brooding looks and fluid fingerwork

The DVD rental trial is working for me: I get to avoid the rubbish on TV. I finally got to see the 2005 film, ‘The beat my heart skipped‘. I’ve seen a couple of films about pianists, and I enjoy watching how pianists are portrayed in film. Most are troubled (Isabelle Huppert’s ‘The piano teacher’, David Helfgott in ‘Shine’), while some are heroic (‘The pianist’). In this remake of ‘Fingers’, starring Harvery Keitel as the musical thug, it strips away the original’s gratuitous sex and violence and leaves more room for the viewer to indulge in the leading character’s (Tom) emotional crisis: stay in his dad’s shady real estate business, or fulfill his dreams of becoming a pianist. Quickly paced, and has a nice soundtrack (Bach’s toccata in E-minor, Brahm’s very masculine Rhapsody in G-minor).

Three and a half out of five popcorns

Life's unsavoury dish

Last night my boyfriend and I escaped the confines of our one-room flat to watch ‘Couscous‘ or ‘La graine et le mulet’. And I’m not sure I like it. It’s too much like life. Too real. For starters, it’s about Slimane who’s been laid off work after working 35 years making boats on the coast of Southern France. On a measly severance pay he decides to open a floating restaurant out of a rust heap.

Though handicapped with a lack of business skills and a sullen personality, Slimane has the good luck of having a large family, a new lover, and her daughter who are enthusiastic about realising his dreams. All is amiss at the lavish opening night of his restaurant, aimed at impressing investors, when his ex-wife’s delicious couscous goes missing.

Attempts to allay his guests impatience become desperate: his girlfriend tries to rescue the situation by cooking her less than tasty couscous instead, and her daughter distracts the guests with an oh-so-sensual belly dance. Cliche alert! During the search, Slimane’s moped gets whisked away by three children. His absurd chase for the moped then becomes a glaring symbol of futility of success as an immigrant. At the end of the film I was left feeling a little bothered and frustrated. What bothered me was the investors will be served bad couscous: bad stereotypes of Moroccan immigrants, when there is good couscous, somewhere out there. If you can see through the subtle symbolisms and racism depicted in the film, then you might enjoy it, like my bf.

Three out of five popcorns