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Monday, 13 November 2017

David Hanan reports on the film component of the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Bali

The Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival (UWRF) was established 14 years ago by Ubud resident, Melbourne-born Janet de Neefe, with considerable support from the Balinese community in Ubud, and from the intellectual community in Indonesia generally. The UWRF is now a formidable annual event, which, in addition to numerous seminars, panel discussions and workshops  covering recent writing, now includes a film component, with film screenings—mainly of recent Indonesian documentaries, features and short films—together with Q and A panels, and forums on both media and film issues, and some special presentations and launches. The festival brings together creative people both from abroad and from within this complex, diverse and surprising society that is Indonesia.

2017 was no exception, and four of the films shown at this 5 day event (25-29 October) were of particular interest. Their significance arises particularly given the way they engage with recent ethnic-politico-religious developments in Indonesia, where, now, not only has the (until recently) very popular Chinese Governor of Jakarta, Ahok, been imprisoned for two years for blasphemy, but his conviction has set precedents that could strengthen the blasphemy law—and where there is increasing persecution by the police of  the gay community. While homosexuality is not criminalised in Indonesia, over the last year homosexuals in gay saunas in both Jakarta and Surabaya have been arrested by police using pornography laws as the legal basis for the arrests.

Calalai: In Betweenness is a film about gender diversity among the Bugis in South Sulawesi, where at least five genders are acknowledged. In traditional Bugis thinking, in  addition to there being men and women, there are also calalai (literally ‘false men’), anatomical females, who in some regards behave like men, and may have female partners; calabai (literally ‘ false women’), anatomical males, often with male partners and to varying degrees playing female roles; and bissu (androgynous priests or shamans). Bugis society is a predominantly Muslim society. But sexuality among the Bugis is seen as fluid, without rigid differentiation between genders. Rather, genders are seen as existing along a spectrum. These fluid categories are accepted as a Bugis cultural tradition by the society as a whole, even though actually practiced by only a few. In some Bugis communities at least two of these transgender groups (bissu and calabai) have a ceremonial role, though with some bissu becoming calabai in their daily work lives. (For more information about these Bugis traditions, see the excellent books by French anthropologist, Christian Pelras, and by Australian-born, New Zealand–based anthropologist, Sharyn Graham Davies).

Calalai: In Betweenness  was made by a group of Indonesian queer, feminist filmmakers.  As was claimed by one of the film’s scriptwriters during the Q and A session after the festival screening, the film was intentionally produced as a contribution to the debate about gender in Indonesia, the aim being to provide support (or “push back” – a commonly used term at the Ubud Writers’ Festival) for acceptance of gender diversity in Indonesia as a whole, at a time of increasing repression in a hitherto largely tolerant society. This repression appears to be connected to the growing Islamisation of the society, a phenomenon more markedly occurring in the last twenty five or so years. This recent Islamisation is partly due to the missionary efforts in Indonesia of numerous Muslim preachers from Saudi Arabia, and their growing influence since the mid-1980s. The structure, content and mode of address of the film Calalai: In Betweenness  is a conservative style of anthropological documentary. At the same time the film contain some advocacy elements, and also shows the high status of some of these transgender people, and their own documentation of their traditions. While the film addresses issues of gender, it does not engage very much with the sexual practices of its subjects, largely due, I would think, to wariness of Indonesian censorship.

In contrast, the aptly titled fiction-documentary, hUSh, is a film about the sexual experiences, and sexual fortunes and misfortunes of a Jakarta night club singer, Cinta Ramlan. hUSh was written, produced and directed by the very engaged Indonesian novelist, short story writer and independent filmmaker (and award winning occasional actress), Djenar Maesa Ayu, together with Singapore filmmaker, Kan Lumé. The film’s title is apt because while the film’s topic is one that might only be broached in hushed terms, it applies potentially to US all. The film begins with its main character affirming that while in Indonesia men can get away with a lot sexually, a woman is not expected to have a sex life. The film takes the form of “to the camera narration” by its subject, Cinta Ramlan, of  her experiences, as though in interview but without an interviewer present, and with illustrative and contextual cutaways. Topics include her own experiences of child abuse, rape, an unwanted pregnancy and a subsequent abortion, triangular sex, experimentation with drugs followed by a time in prison, her candid views on men, and on when she will want to have sex with a man.

The film has not been shown in cinemas, but has been screened for the Indonesian film community, for example in December 2016 at the innovative Jogja Netpac Asian Film Festival, as well as at UWRF 2017.  It will shortly go to the Singapore International Film Festival, and to the Salamindanaw Asian Film Festival in the Philippines. The film might be described as fiction-documentary, because only some of the experiences described were personally experienced by its narrator-subject, Cinta Ramlan, and other experiences have been scripted to fill out the picture of a whole range of possible negative experiences a woman may have. Co-director, Kan Lumé, has told me there was a compact between himself, Djenar and Cinta Ramlan to not disclose which experiences described in the film had been personally experienced by Cinta Ramlan, and which had not. Cinta agreed to narrate and appear to own the whole range of experiences (some negative, others regarded askance by the society) because she believed  the topic (and the film’s approach to it) was important, and so she was deeply committed to the project.
Poster for hUSh

Co-Writer-director, Djenar Maesa Ayu, was first known via her short stories, many of which dealt with issues such as child abuse and subsequent trauma. It may be of interest to know that Djenar is the daughter (by his second wife, actress Tuti Kirana) of Moscow-trained, Indonesian writer-director, Sjuman Djaya, one of the most innovative, socially committed and brilliant directors of the 1970s and early 1980s. Djenar shares much of her father’s concern for innovation and commitment to truth.
Djenar Maesa Ayu
A third Indonesian film of great interest screened at UWRF is Istirihatlah Kata-Kata (literally ‘Take a Rest, Words’, but also known as Solo Solitude), a 97minute feature about the disappearance—towards the end of the Suharto regime—of the Javanese-born poet and political activist, Wiji Thukul. The film was written and directed by Javanese-born, Yosep Anggi Noen. Thukul was forced to go underground in mid-1996, moving from place to place, after he became known as an activist working against Suharto. The film shows him hiding out in West Kalimantan, but his whereabouts are largely unknown after a visit to his wife and children in Solo in early 1998 (with which the film concludes) and a possible sighting of him in a demonstration in Jakarta in April  1998, shortly before Suharto was forced to step down as president.  

It is believed Wiji Thukul was kidnapped and murdered by elements in the army still loyal to the Suharto regime, a fate suffered by some other activists.  The film traces this mysterious odyssey, critiquing the iniquitous state repression that was so strong under the thirty year Suharto New Order regime, and which could, perhaps, even return, depending on political circumstances. But it also celebrates Thukul’s political poetry, which is quoted or sung at times during the film. This is both a very political film and an art film. But it has been screened commercially in the Cineplex  21 Group chain of cinemas, the largest chain of cinemas in Indonesia, initially established more than 30 years ago by Suharto’s half brother, Sudwikatmono. I first saw the film at a Cinema 21 venue near Kuta in Bali, where it ran for at least a week and possibly slightly longer, earlier this year.

The film has been screened already in Australia at screenings organised by the Indonesian community. Its invitation to UWRF shows the festival’s continuing commitment to openness about issues of state repression, even though in 2015 the Ubud Writers’ Festival  found itself forced to cancel (as a result of pressure from local authorities) some of its events, including three panel discussions, a film screening (of Joshua Oppenheimer’s  The Look of Silence), and two book launches, all  programmed in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the post-30 September 1965 massacres of communists and others, mass killings that were largely a consequence of General Suharto’s drive to gain control over Indonesian society, with some American aid, in a Cold War anti-communist context.

Wiji Thukul ‘underground’ in West Kalimantan, in Istirihatlah Kata-Kata
Of related interest in the Indonesian film world at the moment is the lobbying going on in public statements made in early October, and subsequently, by influential figures in Indonesia, as to whether the thirty three years old, four hour, Suharto government-produced propaganda film about the killings of six generals in Jakarta in 1965 (killings that were seen to justify the subsequent massacres)—Pengkhianatan G30S PKI  (1984) (‘The Treachery of the Indonesian Communist Party in the 30th  September Movement’), a film which was compulsory viewing at schools in the second half of the Suharto New Order period—should be screened widely again. The head of the army, General Gatot Nurmantyo, who, it is reported, hopes to enter politics on his retirement next year, has asserted the continuing relevance of the film as a warning against the return of communism to Indonesia (unlikely), and has called for mass public screenings of the film.

Although not yet backed by any political party, there is speculation that Gatot might aim to be a running mate with one of the presidential candidates in the 2019 elections, if not as Vice-President to (current President) Joko Widodo, then perhaps with would-be presidential candidate and Suharto son-in-law, former general, Prabowo Subianto. Not only has Gatot raised the spectre of communism, but he was recently criticised in an editorial in the influential Indonesian weekly, Tempo, for currying favour with Islamic radicals, by wearing a white peci (Islamic hat) conjointly with his army uniform at the second huge anti-Ahok demonstration late last year (see editorial, Tempo, 8 October, 2017).  On the other hand, Tempo shortly afterwards (October 15 edition) featured an interview with the Minister for Education and Culture in the Jokowi government, Muhadjir Effendy,  in which he asserted that the film Pengkhianatan G30S PKI should not be viewed by anyone under 13 or even by those still in middle school, because it contains so much violence, and is a film that can incite hatred.

Finally, on a different but also important note, is As Worlds Divide, a film produced and directed by Australian, Rob Henry, on the traditional culture  and social predicament of tribes-people living inland on Siberut, one of the Mentawai islands off the coast of West Sumatra. In 2008 Henry left Australia in search of something more enriching than, as he says, the drabness and routineness of daily work in Melbourne at a time of a world wide economic crisis,  going initially to the Mentawai Islands where he was to earn a living for a time as a cameraman filming activities of tourists on surfing holidays. But he soon found himself drawn to the local people, moving within a few months to live with (and learn the language from) a group of locals on a coconut plantation on an isolated island. This population of local people were trying to eke out a living tapping local resources, rather than continuing to live—as most of the population of the Mentawai islands now do—on  a government settlement, where children go to school and are educated into the modern Indonesian world, but where unemployment is rife, where they are not educated into their former culture, and where they are not supported by the modern cash economy.

Attracted by intimations of an even richer life lived by the few hundred remaining tribes-people living inland, he trekked to their villages and was welcomed there, living with them for a time and being inducted in some depth into their lives and traditions. Henry came to realize that the fact that these people could sustain themselves without being dependent on a modern cash economy, was just one reason among many why this culture and way of life should be preserved, and its people not moved from their land by the demands of government policies linked almost certainly to the interests of encroaching, internationally-based logging companies. This film addresses many issues ignored by modern civilisation. Henry joins forces with a small number of  Mentawai educated on the mainland, who were establishing a foundation to preserve this culture and its rich and unique kinds of knowledge. As Worlds Divide is one of the results of the efforts of this foundation. Three people from the inland village were guests of the UWRF and spoke via a translator, with enthusiasm, indeed at times with great passion, to the assembled audience. Information about As Worlds Divide, and screenings of it, can be accessed at the following site: if you click here


Mentawai tribes-people, with Australian, Rob Henry, at the Q and A after the screening of As Worlds Divide at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival

All four films discussed above can be seen as part of a “push back” against increasingly dominant forces and attitudes in Indonesia, some of them global, some of them specific to Indonesia and to an increasingly less tolerant Muslim world. The selection of these films also reflects the spirit of  quite a few of the more political panel discussions held at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in 2017.

David Hanan
Biographical Note
David Hanan has recently published (with Palgrave Macmillan) the highly praised Cultural Specificity in Indonesian Film: Diversity in Unity. He was recently a guest speaker at the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival in Bali, from where he now reports on some key films screened at the Festival. For more information about his book,  click here

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