May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Revolution of hope

Katinka van Heeren

The voice of an old man singing a song of the time of Indonesia's struggle for independence, a song of pride, hope, and great expectations for the future. His singing is accompanied by the image of the Indonesian flag, SangMerah-Putih, the symbol of the nation's pride and glory. Yet, the flag is not blowing bravely and fiercely in the wind, but is weakly flapping around the flagpole, a symbol of the confusion and disappointment of so many in Indonesia today. This fragment is the last scene of the short Indie (independent) film Kepada yang terhormat titik 2 ('To the esteemed: '). It was produced in Purwokerto, Central Java, and had its premiere there on 18 January 2002.

The film is an unpretentious account of how common people in Purwokerto see their municipality. It captures city life with a deliberately gritty touch, showing the lives of street vendors, street kids, and farmers. At the end, an old peasant recounts that throughout his life nothing Jakarta has done ever improved the meagre livelihood of Purwokerto farmers.

Kepada yang terhormat titik 2 is part of a new development in Indonesian cinema. The spirit of reformasi in 1998 permeated into the Indonesian film scene and gave birth to a movement characterised by great diversity. The independent film has become an exciting and popular model for young Indonesians who want to make their own films. They have formed a community of so-called Mafin (Mahluk Film Independen, Independent Film Creatures), which holds its own film festivals. They exchange ideas on the subject of film on the internet and at get-togethers.

The independent film movement really began with the film Kuldesak ('Cul-de-sac'). This anthology of four short features dealt with the problems of middle class Jakarta youth - drugs, homosexuality, and the feeling of absolute desolation. Its four young filmmakers decided in 1996 to produce an 'underground' film that broke free of all the rules of film production under the censorious New Order. Despite the freer political climate, one of the most radical scenes of this film, two boys kissing in a bus, was censored. It appeared to be too revolutionary even for reformasi. Today these four have become leading filmmakers, producing national successes - Petualangan Sherina by Mira Lesmana and Riri Riza, Jelangkung by Rizal Mantovani - and even an international one - Pasir berbisik by Nan T Achnas.


The unexpected fall of Suharto enabled this film to reach movie theatres throughout Indonesia in November 1998. Reformasi was reaching its peak, and many restrictions on film production and exhibition were not being applied. Its rebellious production and fresh contents and techniques set Kuldesak apart from both the films produced by an earlier generation and from the everyday soap operas on television. The press labelled it the first-ever Indonesian 'independent' film, and often highlighted its 'non-Indonesian' features. The film was highly successful among young audiences. In several cities ticket counter queues stretched into the street.

Kuldesak, made by four filmmakers who 'just went for it', triggered a euphoric energy among other aspiring young Indonesians. The freer political climate encouraged a sense of freedom and creativity. Also important was the wide availability of new audio-visual technologies such as digital video cameras and projectors. In 1999 the Community of Independent Film (Komunitas Film Independen, or Konfiden) began to hold a series of film screenings and discussions in the bigger cities of Java. The objective was to introduce the concept of independent film to a wider public. They were also a warm-up for the first Indonesian Independent Film and Video Festival (FFVII), held in Jakarta at the end of October 1999.

This festival aimed to provide independent filmmakers with a forum to screen their films. More ambitiously, it hoped to revive Indonesian film as a whole, which had virtually died in the last decade of New Order rule. The film industry had collapsed under the combined weight of three factors. Restrictive rules were becoming ever more draconian. Secondly, a business group owned by Suharto's relative Sudwikatmono (Subentra's Studio 21 chain of quality cinemas) disadvantaged local films by showing almost exclusively Hollywood. And thirdly, soapies made for the new commercial TV stations since the early 1990s proved to be highly popular.

Since that year, a similar festival has been held annually - this year will be the fourth. Konfiden now also organises filmmaking workshops, publishes a monthly bulletin, and is developing a permanent cinema laboratory in Jakarta where new filmmakers can come to learn.

Meanwhile, others also formed matching communities in several cities in Java, Lampung (southern Sumatra), Makassar, Palu (also in Sulawesi), and in Bali. These organise their own festivals, complete with discussions, workshops, and bulletins. Generally speaking the films screened are rather unsophisticated and inexperienced in their technique. However, the topics are often stimulating and original. Many include maverick ideas. One example of a very popular indie film is Revolusi harapan ('Revolution of hope'), by Nanang Istiabudi. This is a surrealistic story about a gang of thugs who go out on command to kill and pull the teeth of artists, students, and others who are in any way critical. Dunia kami, duniaku, dunia mereka ('Our world, my world, their world'), by Adi Nugroho, narrates the life of a transvestite in Yogyakarta. And Kameng Gampoeng Nyang Keunong Geulawa ('The village goat takes the beating'), by Aryo Danusiri, is a chilling testament of survivors of torture inflicted by the Indonesian Special Forces Kopassus. It was filmed in Tiro, northern Aceh.

As members of the various communities discovered each other on the internet and began to visit each other's festivals, they began to think about a coalition. About a hundred people from all over Indonesia came together in Yogyakarta for the National Indie Film Festival late May and early June 2001. At the end, after great deliberation, they decided to form a national affiliation of independent film communities. The next step was to establish an information centre (ICE). It operated an internet mailing list called Forum Film, coordinated out of Yogyakarta. They also planned to hold a national meeting every two months.

On 26 August 2001, during the BatuIndieFilmmakerMitting held in Batu (a resort near Malang in East Java), the various communities tried to formulate a collective vision. They wanted a program to acquaint a broader public with the medium of film in general, and 'film independen' in particular. After an all-night debate, three new ICE divisions were set up. In addition to the earlier Forum Film mailing list, a web site was to be coordinated from Malang, and an archive and a publication division were begun in Jakarta. The four ICE divisions would each remain autonomous bodies, standing for the same ideal but free to formulate their own policies. For example, the publication division has taken the shape of a new organisation called Terapis (Terapi Sinema, cinema therapy). It will publish books, a magazine, and a bulletin, and intends to organise workshops and seminars as well as produce educational films.

Local pride

One reason why the independent film movement has adopted the form of a national alliance, in which the different communities remain 'independent' and have an equal say, is the fear of domination by Jakarta. This fear, a New Order legacy, has had a positive spin-off. Many new independent films try to reflect the characteristics of their home region. The filmmakers want to make something that differs in every sense from a film that would have been produced in Jakarta - something that carries local pride and joy.

For example, Di antara masa lalu dan masa sekarang ('Between the past and the present', by Eddie Cahyono) is the reflections of an old man about the guerrilla struggle for independence, and Topeng kekasih ('Mask of love', by Hanung Bramantyo) is entirely in Javanese and concerns the Oedipus Complex. Both these films depict a typical Yogyakarta atmosphere. Ah sialan ('Oh shit', by Danis) is about the problems of student life in Malang. Kepada yang terhormat titik 2, made by Dimas Jayasrana and Bastian, students at the Jenderal Soedirman University in rural Purwokerto and premiered in the same city, is another creative manifestation of this feeling.

Katinka van Heeren ( is writing a PhD dissertation at Leiden University, the Netherlands. Websites:, email: terapis

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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