Young Indonesians are using an alternative film festival to promote awareness of sexual diversity
Promoting diversity and having fun: the 2007 Q!Film Festival program cover
It’s the opening night of the Q!Film Festival, and a long queue is forming in front of the Blitz Megaplex in downtown Jakarta. There’s a sense of excitement in the air, as the line of trendy-looking young couples starts to file into this luxury cinema complex in the city centre. The much anticipated alternative film festival is about to get underway.
It is now the largest queer film festival in Asia
The annual Q!Film Festival lasts for nine days. Apart from film screenings, the program also includes discussions on film and literature, photo exhibitions and the launch of new books on topics dealing with gender and sexuality. Events take place across a wide range of venues, from galleries and discussion hubs to the premises of some of the cultural missions on Jakarta’s diplomatic circuit. In terms of the number of films screened, it is now the largest queer film festival in Asia, and since 2006 it has been an official part of the Teddy Award section of the Berlin Film Festival. Outside Jakarta, it has spawned similar events on a smaller scale in Yogyakarta and Bali.
The festival’s extensive and well-packaged program is funded entirely from private donations, meaning that entry to all film showings and other events is free. To maintain their complete independence, the organisers have consistently chosen to remain free from commercial sponsorship. Even cooperation with overseas cultural missions is limited to the use of venues for film screenings and discussions.
The high profile which the Q!Film Festival now enjoys is the result of years of hard work by ‘Q-munity’, an organisation originally set up by a group of freelance journalists and others involved in the arts community in 2001. Q-munity began as a group of ethnic Chinese Indonesians with an interest in contemporary Chinese cinema – reflecting the important role Indonesians of Chinese descent have played in the broader movement for recognition of alternative sexualities in Indonesia.
Originally Q-Munity’s aim was to stage a festival of Chinese film. But reflecting the sexual orientation of the organisers themselves, their first venture turned out to be the 2002 Q!Film Festival. Directed by John Badalu, a 36 year old former employee of the British Council and the Goethe Institute, the first festival was made up entirely of films from the private collections of the organisers. Its themes were HIV/AIDS and the diversity of human sexual orientation. In Badalu’s own words, the festival was not intended to make a political statement about gay and lesbian issues. Rather, its aim was to draw public attention to quality films which dealt with the issue of sexuality.
Entry to all films showings and other events is free
The choice of the name Q!Film Festival is a story in itself. Unlike the ‘Queer’ film festivals in other parts of the world, the organisers chose not to expand the Q into ‘Queer’ or ‘Questioning’. This was part of a deliberate strategy to reach out to a wider public than just sexual minority groups. Even when the full word ‘queer’ occurs in relation to the festival, its use is designed to avoid alienating this wider audience. As Dede Oetomo, the well-known gay activist and founder of GAYa Nusantara comments, the use of ‘queer’ is much more strategic than ‘gay’ and/or ‘lesbian’ in Indonesian. Unlike the connotations that ‘queer’ can have in English, he says that in Indonesian it comes across as a more neutral term. This makes it a kind of kromo inggil, or High Javanese, alternative to ‘gay’ and/or ‘lesbian’, more euphemistic and less likely to make people feel threatened.
Ferdiansyah Thajib, the coordinator of Q-munity and the director of the Q!Film Festival in Yogyakarta, agrees. In his view, the neutrality of ‘queer’ makes it a more attractive and all-embracing term than ‘gay’. As a result, people who are ambivalent about their sexuality or who feel different for whatever reason find it a much easier term to identify with.
The festival is not intended to make a political statement about gay and lesbian issues
The strategic use of the term ‘queer’ is one reason why the Q!Film Festival has been so successful. Now into its 7th year, the festival attracts an enthusiastic response from Jakarta’s filmgoers, as the crowds on opening night make clear. Even so, it hasn’t been without its problems. As Badalu explains, the festival has provoked resistance from some Islamic groups. In 2002, during the first Q!Film Festival, the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) organised a blockade of one of its venues, arguing that the festival was campaigning for the recognition of same-sex relationships. It took a round of tough negotiations before the FPI was prepared to back off.
The big audiences that the festivals’ screenings have attracted in recent years and the wide range of social backgrounds these audiences represent are an indication of the event’s success. In the last five years around 500 films from different countries have been screened, to an audience estimated at about 75,000 people. Most of them are young middle class Jakartans, many of them drawn to the festival because of the quality of the films on offer, not necessarily because of their focus on alternative sexualities.
Films that appear in the festival are often hard to find in commercial cinemas, like Joko Anwar’s Kala (Dead Time), which was part of the local line up at the 2007 Q!Film Festival. Documentary films that have won prizes at international festivals, like Rhoda Grauer’s Last Bissu and Dhani Agustinus’s Paris Dreams, can also be enjoyed free of charge at festival venues. The program often premieres independent local films, and events around the film screenings act as a meeting ground for producers, directors and distributors from a number of different countries.
The festival also has a film history component. Past festivals have included screenings of New Order films dealing with alternative sexualities, like Chaerul Umam’s 1982 film Titian Serambut Dibelah Tujuh (The Narrow Bridge) and Wahyu Sihombing’s 1988 film Istana Kecantikan (Palace of Beauty), as part of a retrospective view of the way sexual minorities have been represented in Indonesian film. Similarly, some of the classics of international queer film history, like Bad Education, Brandon Teena, Happy Together and Boys Don’t Cry, have also featured in past festival programs.
Nurturing a new generation
In declaring their sexual identities, John Badalu and his co-founders of Q-Munity have stood out against social norms, acting as role models for others in their communities. Together with others, like Dede Oetomo from GAYa Nusantara, they have been prepared to face up to the barriers often posed by religion, traditional cultures and local attitudes to struggle for the rights of all sexual minorities. Now, as part of a movement that is nearly 30 years old, they are moving towards film, and other forms of media and popular culture, to get their message across.
The use of ‘queer’ is much more strategic than ‘gay’ and/or ‘lesbian’ in Indonesian
Their activism has created space for a new breed of activists. Whereas the earlier generation tended to be in their 30s and 40s when they came out as homosexuals, today’s Q-munity is largely made up of individuals still in their 20s. This new generation has benefited from its exposure to the global media, especially television. Ferdiansyah Thajib, for example, says that it was MTV’s slogan, ‘It’s normal to be different’, that gave him the courage and conviction to become active in Q-Munity Yogya.
Like the Q!Film Festival itself, the outlooks and activities of this generation are all part of an ongoing attempt to make Indonesian society more tolerant and appreciative of difference, especially in relation to sexual orientation. If the success of the festival is anything to go on, then they are having some success. ii
Maimunah (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at Airlangga University in Surabaya. She has just completed a Masters thesis on Indonesian queer film at the University of Sydney.