For Indonesian filmmakers inclined towards challenging, controversial, or oppositional work, festivals and streaming platforms have become an important part of their marketing and distribution strategies. Not only do they offer an alternative to the constraints of the domestic market characterised by a limited theatrical distribution circuit and entrenched media companies, but they also avoid many of the content constraints imposed by censorship, capricious authorities, and disruptive protesters.
When filmmaker Garin Nugroho targeted international film festivals in the 1990s as a means to evade the New Order, a global media ecosystem was activated that allowed Indonesian filmmakers to go beyond the nation in pursuit of accolade, distribution, and recognition. Over the past decade, the rapid adoption of streaming technology in Indonesia has had a similar effect with global platforms Netflix, HBO, Disney+, Amazon Prime Video, and WeTV (formerly iflix) offering new opportunities to Indonesian content.
Festivals and streamers offer Indonesian filmmakers an economic alternative to the domestic industry, with many now participating in a new media ecosystem that is global rather than just being confined to the national. Streaming platforms open new income sources and allow Indonesian content to reach audiences around the world. Festivals continue to build exposure for emerging filmmakers, often helping build networks, source funding and investment, and earn critical prestige.
Streaming platforms facilitate creative expression through their capacity to reach audiences and give platforms to diverse voices. This role is also profoundly political and enables a new means of understanding the relationship between cinema and democracy, at a time when filmmakers grapple with new pressures on their freedom of expression and Indonesia’s democracy becomes increasingly complicated and contested.
1990s and Garin Nugroho
In her 2003 piece ‘What’s ‘oppositional’ in Indonesian cinema?’, Krishna Sen discusses the challenges of making cinema under the New Order in the 1990s. She argues that ‘a plethora of regulations [have] forced cinema in a national strait-jacket and have circumscribed whole bodies of ideas from Indonesian cinema’. At the time, the structural constraints within the industry also worked against ‘experimentation’, producing bland work and ultimately the decline of local cinema.
Yet the 1990s also produced Garin Nugroho, a filmmaker who defied these constraints and who carved a unique career and body of work. Sen shows how Nugroho employed a unique cinema practice that showed parts of the nation expunged or erased from the national narrative by presenting the poor and marginalised, and parts of the archipelago outside Java. She argues his films presented the local and the peripheral as ‘site[s] of opposition’ to the prevailing logic of national representation. He also developed relationships with international film festivals – notably Rotterdam, Singapore and Tokyo – to screen his films, and to find sources of investment and recognition outside Indonesia.
This was a period when other filmmakers like Eros Djarot also worked to challenge the regime, by protesting film regulations in the early 1990s and supporting oppositional media (founding political tabloid Detik, banned 21 June 1994) and political parties. Garin’s leadership in cinema also helped inspire the filmmakers behind Kuldesak (Riri Riza, Rizal Mantovani, Mira Lesmana, and Nan T Achnas, 1998) which is often regarded as the first new generation film. The Kuldesak filmmakers worked to circumvent the prevailing regulations around feature film production by engaging in community-based and guerrilla filmmaking like shooting at night, calling in favours, and negotiating directly with the owner of 21 Cinemas to have their film released.
In the 1990s what was clear was the singular focus of opposition and critique, namely the New Order regime of President Suharto, the military and its cronyism, and its attendant ideologies. Although there were many other pieces to this puzzle – labour rights, a free press, anti-dwifungsi – the identifiable target was the regime, leading to efforts aimed at toppling it.
New democratic era
Following the end of the New Order regime in 1998 and the beginning of the reformasi and democratic era, in the first instance there was an explosion of new media making, new voices, and as the film industry was rebuilt, a marketisation and a ‘going mainstream’. This opened the industry to a range of new players, and companies, and integrated film into pop culture including music, literature, advertising, and celebrity. This was also seen as an era of fragmentation, rather than unity around key issues such as opposition to the operation of the Lembaga Sensor Film (LSF, Film Censorship Board), such that the LSF was able to persist and in fact strengthen as an institution.
Since the 2000s, and quite different to the situation in the 1990s, the film industry has undergone a process of decentering away from Jakarta, to other cities like Yogyakarta and is increasingly characterised by new networks of collaboration, idea sharing, and exchange. This has created new publics around festivals and in komunitas or community, and enabled a greater sharing of resources, experience, and ideas. Thereby updating Sen’s concept of the ‘oppositional’: no longer in the local per se, but in the komunitas.
There has also been a backlash to the democratisation process and the multitude of new voices and visibility of communities. For example, the Pornografi Law of 2008 marked a significant re-assertion of conservative social norms and restrictions on individual behaviour and expression. There were multiple instances of films being protested during their production or exhibition. In late 2008, Lastri, a project by Eros Djarot about 1965 was protested and shutdown during its production; screenings at cinemas and TV stations were also protested such Hanung Bramantyo’s Tanda Tanya (2011); or more recently Garin Nugroho’s film Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku / Memories of My Body (2018).
Democracy and creative work
In parallel, but somewhat external to these events within Indonesia, is a renewed focus on what democracy means in respect to creative work, the media, and rights. Notably, the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions issued by UNESCO has contributed to a new discourse of rights and democracy. The Convention’s ‘primary objective is to strengthen the five inseparable links of the same chain; namely, creation, production, distribution/dissemination, access and enjoyment of cultural expressions conveyed by cultural activities, goods and services – particularly in developing countries.’ This seeks to prompt states ‘to formulate and implement their cultural policies and to adopt measures to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions’ (Article 5). These are linked to democracy in Article 2:
‘Cultural diversity can be protected and promoted only if human rights and fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression, information and communication, as well as the ability of individuals to choose cultural expressions, are guaranteed.’
The 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions was ratified by Indonesia in January 2012. In line with the UNESCO definitions of artistic freedom, Koalisi Seni published Rupa Kebebasan Berkesenian di Indonesia (State of Artistic Freedom in Indonesia) in November 2020. The report recorded 57 violation cases from 2010 to 2020, of which 24 relate to film.
‘The second-highest number of violations happened to the right to have artistic work supported, distributed, and remunerated – a total of 62.2 percent of the cases, or 28 out of 45 cases. Most of the violations occurred within the film industry. In 22 out of 28 cases, the violations involved intimidation, a film ban, or cancellations of film screenings in cinemas or other art spaces. One case involved a structural problem that prevents access to the art form itself: the ban on cinemas in Aceh, issued in 2004 in adherence to the province’s Sharia law’.
As alarming as these incidents are, we have also seen a much stronger sense of community and shared language emerge in response to these incidents as well. The Indonesian Film Directors Club (IFDC) representing over 60 directors issued a statement in April 2019 in support of the ‘right to free expression’. Koalisi Seni’s report also identified censorship as of particular concern as films have been banned (‘tidak lolos kualifikasi’) by the LPF or protested by members of the public after passing the LPF.
Festivals and streamers
In this new complicated and contested landscape, film festivals and streaming services play an important role both economically but also in support of cultural democracy. Film festivals and streaming services are becoming a part of this contested cultural domain, which derives from their transnational reach and deterritorialised platforms.
A recent example is Garin Nugroho’s film Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku / Memories of My Body (2018) which was banned in five provinces including Depok, Kubu Raya, Pontianak, Palembang and Riau. The Depok administration in West Java requested an immediate ban of the film for presenting ‘deviant sexual acts and blasphemy,’ while the Palembang administration in South Sumatra said it ‘includes negative content that will likely influence the younger generation.’ In response, Garin Nugroho and the production company Four Colours Films engaged in a media campaign to push back against these claims and to open dialogue.
In his statement, Nugroho points to his international film festival credentials as a means of deflecting criticism. Many filmmakers use international festival accolades as part of their marketing, but it also becomes an important counterargument to those claiming the film is ‘pornographic’ or offensive. Its success at festivals confirms its cultural value. Before its Indonesia premiere at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival 2018 (on 13 December 2018), Memories of My Body had already premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival (Orizzonti section), and been screened at festivals in Busan, Singapore, Rotterdam, and Locarno.
Festival recognition also provides a film like Memories of My Body with some leverage to negotiate stronger distribution agreements on streaming platforms. Streaming platforms may not be subject to the same censorship requirements as films released in the cinema or television, meaning that very often the complete uncensored work can be shown.
Distributing on streaming platforms also removes the film from the ‘public eye’ such as when a film screens in a cinema or on television, where it is at risk of becoming a focal point for protest. Streaming platforms are usually accessed by subscription and have different ways of making material visible or discoverable. As Roman Lobato (2019) has argued in his work on Netflix, as a ‘deterritorialised’ platform for distribution and consumption, streaming services allow content to escape the confines of the nation state.
This is also the way in which the streaming services – Netflix in particular – create audiences, not based around nations, but around interests and niches. A work like Memories of My Body has a strong chance of being picked up for distribution because of its festival accolades and its subject matter. Allowing it to find an audience that is not constrained by the national ‘mass audience’ of television (Marcus 2022) or the first weekend take at the cinema box office.
For filmmakers making challenging, oppositional, or controversial work, the logic of the established film industry often works against their interests. It is difficult to get a slot in the cinema, then get an audience, then hold the audience long enough to make money. Streaming services offer an attractive proposition for filmmakers, connecting local/national film industries with global audiences.
In their search for content, ‘cinematic legitimacy’, and subscribers, the streaming platforms are upending many of our assumptions about screen media. They exist in a cultural economy along with film festivals in fostering ‘quality cinema’ and delivering films to niche audiences. The streaming services are not driven by the logic of mass cinema and as such they are more willing to take on risky work because their reach is global, and their audience concept has space for niches, not just masses.
Streamers undoubtedly also have a commercial interest in obtaining quality content, for the cheapest price, and selling it to subscribers all without revealing much about their metrics and viewership. But in doing so, the streaming platforms are opening new spaces for diverse cinematic voices. For Indonesian filmmakers, this is also a way of recouping their production costs so ultimately, they can continue to tell their stories.
Thomas Barker (email@example.com) is author of Indonesian Cinema after the New Order: Going Mainstream. Hong Kong: HKU Press, 2019.