Aug 09, 2020 Last Updated 3:42 AM, Aug 7, 2020

Film revolution?

Krishna Sen

In 2004, for the first time, a woman took away the best director’s award at the annual Indonesian film festival. The winner, Nia Dinata, is one of Indonesia’s new generation of women film producers and directors. Her film, Arisan, was produced by Kalyana Shira, a production company set up expressly to support the work of women directors.

Only three women had worked as directors between the production of the first film in Indonesia in 1926 and the end of the New Order in 1998, producing between them only half-a-dozen or so films. These won neither critical nor popular acclaim. On screen, women were most commonly seen in domestic settings, dependent on and defined by the male protagonist.

By contrast, Arisan is one of a number of successful films since 2000 that have been produced and/or directed by women, and tell women’s stories. But does this represent a gender revolution in Indonesian cinema?

Women behind the camera

Some of the most prominent directors of the New Order (by definition, men) were no longer making films by the end of the 1990s. At the same time, the rise of serialised television family drama (known in Indonesia as sinetron) had brought increasing numbers of women into the edges of cinema. When a new generation of film-makers emerged after 1998, there were as many women as male directors, writers and producers. Particularly important among them were Mira Lesmana (independent producer and director), Nan T Achnas (writer and director of Pasir Berbisik) and Nia Dinata (director of Ca-bau-kan and more recently Arisan).

These women, and many of the women on their production teams, have much in common with each other and much that separates them from the older generation of male film directors. All are young, articulate, fluent in English, and trained in western universities. They all cut their artistic teeth in television and advertising. Lesmana and Achnas were part of the self-aware film movement that launched itself via the collectively produced experimental film Kuldesak in 1998. Dinata burst onto the wide screen with the sumptuously produced Ca-bau-kan (The Courtesan) in 2000.

Ideologically and artistically, these women never experienced the restrictions of the New Order. However they were all born into well-connected families and in different ways grew up within mainstream New Order culture. Nan Achnas and Nia Dinata have both made films that explicitly set out to challenge the New Order’s gender regime. But their films don’t escape its influence.

Abject women on screen

Nan Achnas’ Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sands, 2001), promoted as an art film, depicts death and destruction in an arid countryside. For a post-New Order audience, the violence the film portrays is readily equated with the meaningless and erratic brutality of that regime. Yet, as in many commercial feature films of the New Order, the film’s female leads are portrayed as the powerless victims of that brutality.

Nia Dinata’s Ca-bau-kan also breaks many New Order cinema boundaries. Even its Chinese title, a language banned from all media after the coup in 1965, would not have passed New Order censorship. The male hero of the film, Tan Peng Liang, challenges most of the moral and ethnicìstereotypes of New Order media culture. However, the female lead, Tinung, is a re-enactment of perhaps the most common female archetype of Indonesian cinema: a young woman whose survival depends on her status as a wife or courtesan (ca-bau-kan in the film’s title). There is hardly a single scene where she is not entertaining, serving or mourning for a man, or being raped or abused by them.

Beyond commercial cinema

As these films show, the arrival of women into the film industry may not by itself necessarily revolutionise gender codes. However, technological change is now opening up more opportunities than ever before.

Digital recording technologies are now being used to produce an amazing array of films in Indonesia. Short films, documentaries and experimental film, produced on campuses and in NGOs by women and men are re-defining ways of both making films and looking at women.

In these films, shown to tiny audiences in kine-clubs, cafes and college common rooms, we find everything from the bizarre to the poetic, and the most gut-wrenchingly realistic documentaries on women political prisoners. It is here, perhaps, that we discover the potential cinema holds for women’s emancipation on screen and off, in an age where the moving image is no longer the preserve of the commercial media.

Krishna Sen ( is Professor of Asian Media and Dean of Research in the Division of Humanities, Curtin University of Technology.

Inside Indonesia 83: Jul-Sep 2005

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