An Indonesian film breaks new ground on the subject of teenage sexuality
Promotional poster for Coklat Stroberi featuring the characters (left to right) Nesta, Key, Citra, Aldi
Investasi Film Indonesia
In mid-2007 Coklat Stroberi (Chocolate Strawberry), a new movie for 17-25 year olds, hit the cinema screens in Indonesia’s big cities. Drawing on the themes and marketing techniques that have proved a formula for commercial success in other recent Indonesian films for young people, it was a romantic comedy about the lives of university students, starring four young and attractive actors (Nino Fernandez, Marrio Merdhithia, Marsha Timothy and Nadia Saphira). The soundtrack featured some of Indonesia’s most popular bands, and it included cameo appearances by a number of well-known stars and the rock band Ungu. The release of the film was accompanied by the launch of a novel closely based on the film, and a pop video of Ungu’s song Untukmu that included clips from the movie. What set Coklat Stroberi apart from the significant number of other romantic comedies and teenage movies of recent years was that it had a prominent gay storyline.
Alternative sexualities in Indonesian films
Depictions of transgender, gay and lesbian characters in Indonesian cinema have a longer history than most people realise. In the New Order period there were numerous comedies that featured waria and banci characters (effeminate men who may or may not be transvestites) as figures of fun, but these films were only part of the story. As far back as 1977, the true life story of a male to female transsexual appeared in the film Akulah Vivian (I am Vivian), while a range of New Order film genres, from melodrama to tales of the supernatural, regularly featured gay, lesbian and waria characters in a variety of roles. Sometimes these characters were portrayed in a sympathetic light, as in the 1988 film Istana Kecantikan (Palace of Beauty).
Almost all these films reveal some level of ambivalence towards homosexuality
One of the key features of the Indonesian film revival since 1998 has been the willingness of directors and producers to engage with gay and lesbian sexualities. The trend began with Nia diNata’s 2003 film Arisan (The Gathering), a somewhat ambiguous critique of the Jakarta elite that included a gay love affair as one of its main themes. Noted by many critics for its gay kiss (an earlier gay kiss in the independent movie Kuldesak (Culdesac) had been blurred by the censors), Arisan showed that the inclusion of alternative sexualities in a movie was not necessarily a threat to its commercial success. Indeed one blogger has remarked that the inclusion of a gay or lesbian character has almost become an essential ingredient for success in Indonesian movies. Since 2002, there have been around twenty films which have included gay, lesbian or waria characters, though almost all of these films reveal at least some level of ambivalence towards homosexuality. In this respect Coklat Stroberi is no exception.
A storyline full of surprises
The film opens with two young women, Key and Citra, who are having trouble paying their rent. To ease their financial burden, their landlord introduces another two student tenants into their household. But the story takes a surprising turn when the girls find that the newcomers are two young guys, the gym-fit Nesta and the more fragile, but still handsome Aldi. Key immediately falls for Nesta and Citra for Aldi. Little do they realise that their new housemates have been a couple since schooldays. While Aldi is increasingly confident in his sexuality, Nesta is less so, and this leads him to adopt the ‘strategy of chocolate and strawberry’, where chocolate stands for straight masculinity, and strawberry stands for being gay. To avoid being seen as gay, Nesta acts up his chocolate side and urges Aldi to do the same.
Coklat Stroberi is a milestone in the history of gay cinematic representations in Indonesia
Part of Nesta’s ‘acting chocolate’ includes flirting with Key to demonstrate his masculinity, and before long they are dating. However, this soon transforms into a real romance, with Nesta revealing to the dismayed Aldi that he had long had doubts about their relationship and urging Aldi to accept that things change. Meanwhile Aldi decides that he has to ‘come out’ to his parents, prompting his father to collapse in shock. After a number of jolts to the relationships between the four housemates, they eventually all end up as friends. Nesta’s relationship with Key is confirmed, but it is Aldi who provides the film’s surprise ending. It turns out he is dating Dani, a far from conventional gay character with an indie dress-style and lip, ear and nose piercings. When Aldi and Dani appear together at the end of the film, their relationship is charged with far more sexual desire than has been seen in all the other parts of the film put together.
Fauzi Baadila as Aldi’s surprise gay lover Dani
Investasi Film Indonesia
Positives and negatives
The work of first time director Ardy Octaviand, and writer and producer Upi, Coklat Stroberi is a milestone in the history of gay cinematic representations in Indonesia. Not only does it feature a gay relationship as the focus of the film, Coklat Stroberi also introduces gay sexuality into the genre of film remaja (teenage movies). Arisan may have been a more serious movie and may have treated the issue of homosexuality more sensitively, but it was also a film for an older audience. Like its gay characters themselves, Arisan’s intended audience was people in their late twenties or early thirties.
...for the first time in their experience, an Indonesian film had shown the lives of young gay men
Andy Octaviand states that the film attracted a very respectable audience of more than half a million, split fairly equally between men and women. Watching the movie on four different occasions in movie theatres in Bandung and Surabaya, I noticed that the late night showings seemed to attract a significant number of young male couples, while earlier shows had a more mixed audience, perhaps with more groups of young women. Responses to the movie have been interesting. Most of the reports in the press were at least reasonably positive. All of the young gay men I spoke to after they had watched the movie said they enjoyed it very much. They appreciated the fact that for the first time in their experience, an Indonesian film had shown the lives of young gay men. However it seems that the audience at the 2007 Q!Film festival was far more hostile, accusing the director and producer of political incorrectness and insensitive portrayals of gay men. Similar views have also appeared on several blog sites.
Confirming the stereotypes
It will come as no surprise that some viewers took offence at the storyline of a gay man turned straight by the charms of a pretty woman. Other aspects of the film were seen as reinforcing stereotypes: it is Nesta, the more stereotypically masculine character who turns straight, while Aldi, who is portrayed as spoilt, effeminate, disliking sports and Playstation, and preferring more feminine activities such as cooking and fashion, is the one who remains gay; it is always Nesta who drives; Aldi is too weak to even carry his own suitcases.
Ardy Octaviand has said the story is about what happens when we fall in love with someone else without wanting to hurt the one we loved before. The writer Upi is reported as saying that the movie was inspired by Brokeback Mountain and that it aimed to encourage parents and young people to speak more frankly about issues of sexuality. It may be that the intended message is the need to stand on one’s own feet and to follow one’s own heart, however hard that is on those closest to us.
However, given that this is the first Indonesian teen movie with a central gay storyline, the idea that gay sons can be turned straight by the right girl, and that talking to your parents about your sexuality may result in your father suffering a severe asthma attack and your mother begging you to become normal again (‘normal’ being the Indonesian word for straight), is understandably somewhat disappointing for some. We should also note that nowhere in the film do we get any suggestion that Aldi’s parents were later reconciled to his sexuality. As the first Indonesian film to explore youth confusion about sexuality, it may be seen as a brave move to start with a guy already in a gay relationship realising that he is really straight. But in a society where heterosexuality has been described as ‘compulsory’, this type of plot twist can be seen as harmful to the rights and interests of sexual minorities in Indonesia.
Pushing the boundaries
Despite these problems, and Upi and Ardy Octaviand’s admission that they had only limited experience of the gay world before beginning work on the movie, the film’s ending saves it from accusations of total insensitivity. By pairing up Aldi with the far from stereotypical Dani (who is played by Fauzi Baadila, an actor generally known for his straightforward masculine roles), the ending of Coklat Stroberi pushes the boundaries of representations of homosexuality in mainstream Indonesian film. Ultimately, the film’s message can been seen as one that accepts, even celebrates alternative sexualities and the decision to stay true to one’s real feelings. ii
Ben Murtagh (email@example.com) teaches Indonesian and Malay at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.