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World & Nation

In an increasingly conservative Indonesia, filmmakers fight to tell LGBTQ stories

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Posters from Indonesian films depicting gay and transgender protagonists adorn the walls of director Nia Dinata’s office in Jakarta.
(Emily H. Johnson/Round Earth Media)

One smoggy morning a few months ago, acclaimed Indonesian director Nia Dinata made her way to an angular eight-story building in south Jakarta. The building is home to Indonesia’s film censorship board, and when she walked in, she was struck by the presence of white-clad men who sat in the lobby, watching people go in and out.

She recognized them as members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a violent conservative Islamic vigilante group known by the acronym FPI. Its ranks have swollen in recent years as Muslim conservatives have grown in political and social clout in Indonesia.

“The FPI were just sitting in the lounge!” she said.

And as the director of Indonesia’s first full-length film to feature a gay protagonist, Dinata is someone they have an interest in keeping an eye on.

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That first groundbreaking film was “Arisan!” It was released in 2003, soon after the collapse of the authoritarian Suharto era in 1999 swept in an artistic and cultural renaissance, one that LGBTQ people in the film industry now wistfully refer to as a “golden age.” Writers, directors and actors breathed free air and crafted boundary-pushing, powerful cinema of the sort that would have been unthinkable during the previous repressive decades, when gay and transgender characters, if visible at all, usually served as the butt of jokes.

Suddenly these characters were portrayed as having inner lives, with complexity and nuance. In 2010, a transgender superhero fought against intolerance in “Madame X,” for which Dinata served as producer alongside director Lucky Kuswandi.

But the golden age proved to be brief.

“We were so busy with the euphoria, with the freedom of expression, that we didn’t realize they were busy planting the seeds,” Dinata said.

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Dinata and Kuswandi are part of a small but determined cadre of filmmakers fighting to continue telling diverse and progressive stories in an Indonesia that no longer wants to let them, at a time when these kinds of stories have become sought after and respected on the world stage. Garin Nugroho’s “Memories of My Body,” a film about a Javanese dancer and his brushes with sexuality, was chosen to represent Indonesia in the category of best international feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Meanwhile, Nugroho was forced to organize small independent screenings of the film in conservative parts of his own country where Islamist leaders had effectively prevented its release.

Among those calling for a ban was the influential Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Islamic body, whose leading cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, has since become the country’s vice president. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to select Amin as his running mate ahead of last year’s election was widely seen as a strategy to shore up his Islamic credentials.

When it comes to tolerance of sexual and gender minorities, Indonesia has a complicated history. Masculine and feminine have long been blurred in the languages and traditional performance art of cultures across the archipelago. Islam has historically been practiced moderately in this, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. Homosexuality has always been legal at the national level. LGBTQ rights groups have been active here since the 1980s.

Christians in Indonesia’s Lake Toba are pushing back against plans to promote halal tourism, as religious and ethnic tensions simmer in the Muslim-dominated country.

For most of its existence, Indonesia wasn’t the easiest place in the world to be gay, bisexual, transgender or non-binary, but it was far from the worst. Things began to change in early 2016 when a torrent of hatred and persecution aimed at the LGBTQ community swept across the country, seemingly overnight.

That January, the minister of higher education tweeted that LGBTQ groups shouldn’t be allowed on Indonesian campuses. Next, the defense minister warned that homosexuality was more dangerous than nuclear war and urged mothers not to feed their babies with formula, lest they grow up to be gay. Soon, #TolakLGBT (Reject LGBT) was trending on Twitter.

The escalating rhetoric culminated in raids on hotels, hair salons and nightclubs, where police, often acting on tips from extremist groups such as the FPI, arrested hundreds of gay and transgender people, justifying the arrests under existing laws such as one banning pornography.

The moral panic that swept the country that year has yet to subside. But the pieces had, in fact, been falling into place for some time. When the arrival of democracy opened a door for LGBTQ voices in 1998, it also provided an opening for Islamist leaders to make their case for a more Islamic society.

“Before 1998, this wasn’t possible because then-President Suharto kept a very tight lid on Islam,” said Sharyn Graham Davies, an associate professor at Auckland University of Technology and an expert on LGBTQ sociology and politics in Indonesia. “Even though he was Muslim, he saw it as a threat to his power. So democracy has brought about both identity politics for LGBT and identity politics for Islam, and this has been growing and growing for the last 20 years.”

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Filmmaker and actor Paul Agusta, at right in black, hosts the first meeting of the Queer Cinema Club in Jakarta in August.
(Bhagavad Sambadha)
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Indonesia’s government has always been, and remains, secular. But hard-line groups wield enough clout when it comes to policy that an overhaul of the criminal code, which among other things would have banned extramarital sex entirely, received support from Jokowi’s administration earlier this year. This would have effectively banned homosexuality, as there is no same-sex marriage in Indonesia. After mass student protests erupted over the proposed code and over the defanging of Indonesia’s anti-corruption watchdog, Jokowi called for a delay in the vote.

Director and actor Paul Agusta, speaking recently at his acting studio in south Jakarta, said he was alarmed by what he called a rise in religious extremism.

“It’s spread like a virus,” he said.

Agusta, who is openly gay and whose 2012 collection of short films, “Parts of the Heart,” is partly autobiographical, recently began hosting a monthly Queer Cinema Club meeting where filmmakers and cinephiles can gather to watch and discuss movies from a queer perspective.

He says the current climate has made it much more difficult to create films with LGBTQ themes.

“We lived in about six to eight years of very progressive times, at least for queer films,” he said. “I did pretty much everything I wanted to do with my film with casting. ‘This is a gay film. I’m looking for actors to play gay characters.’ Imagine if I did that now on Facebook and Twitter. I was able to get away with that in 2010, 2011.”

Garin Nugroho, the director of “Memories of My Body,” in Jakarta.
Garin Nugroho, the director of “Memories of My Body,” in Jakarta.
(Emily H. Johnson / Round Earth Media)

The difficulties go beyond public casting calls. Funding for progressive films is hard to come by. If directors secure enough financing to produce a major motion picture, they need to make it past the film censorship board if they want the movie to be screened in commercial theaters. But even that is no guarantee the film will enjoy a wide release. Nugroho’s “Memories of My Body” received the censorship board’s stamp of approval and was OK’d for a 40-screen release. After the backlash it received, it was banned in five provinces and, at one point, was playing in just three cinemas.

The upshot is that many filmmakers intent on exploring this subject matter have changed tack, focusing on creating short films and independent films that are cheaper to make and which they submit to international film festivals. That’s why Dinata started Project Change, an initiative of her film foundation that works with aspiring screenwriters, directors and actors to produce short films.

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“Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you should make a feature again.’ No, not until I can make whatever I want,” Dinata said. “I’m not getting cut by the censors.”

Actor, activist and model Dena Rachman is part of the latest cohort of Project Change apprentices. A former singer and television host, she is one of the most highly visible transgender women in Indonesia. She is hoping to bring trans representation to the world of cinema, where even the high-profile films telling queer stories have largely been helmed by non-LGBTQ directors and starred straight actors.

“For me, the resistance is about the visibility,” she said. “As a proud and loud trans person here, I don’t have that place to appear in the media. We are not well-represented. The actors are still cis-male and hetero from what I know.”

Director Kuswandi said the new emphasis on adherence to conservative social mores was limiting filmmakers when it came to all kinds of socially progressive stories.

“I think it’s not just LGBT issues that are difficult to talk about in Indonesian films,” he said. “Things like sexuality, right? Portrayal of women, minorities. You know, minorities like Chinese Indonesians. So I feel like the film industry is becoming more homogeneous thematically in terms of the kinds of stories that they tell.”

Still, Kuswandi said he hadn’t lost hope for the future of Indonesian cinema. He brought up the short film “Kado” by Indonesian director Aditya Amad, which explores gender identity through the lens of a teenage friendship, and won best short film at the Venice Film Festival last year.

“I think a lot of these short-film makers, they’re so much braver,” Kuswandi said. “And also documentary filmmakers here. They actually explore much more interesting stories and themes. I have a lot of faith in the next generation of Indonesian filmmakers.”

Johnson is a special correspondent. This story was produced in association with the Round Earth Media program of the International Women’s Media Foundation.


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