This article is part of a series to commemorate Indonesian Independence Day on August 17.
The evolution of the Indonesian film industry is marked not only by its economic development, but more importantly by the contribution of the country’s best filmmakers.
In a chapter of my book, Cultural Specificity in Indonesian Film: Diversity in Unity, I highlight some of Indonesia’s most innovative and culturally significant films and directors over the past 70 years.
Since the nation’s independence Indonesian cinema has gone through three main periods – the Sukarno era, the Suharto New Order, and the post-reform era – in parallel with the rise and fall of the country’s changing regimes.
The birth of modern Indonesian cinema
Within months of the international recognition of Indonesia as an independent nation at the end of 1949, Perfini – a company formed months after the creation of the new nation – was addressing issues raised during the struggle for independence.
The company was headed by Usmar Ismail. He is regarded as a key pioneer of Indonesian film in the early independence period.
Perfini’s first film after independence, Darah dan Do’a (“The Long March”, 1950), and the later Lewat Djam Malam (“After the Curfew”, 1954) were inspired by Italian neorealists of the 1940s such as Roberto Rossellini. Rossellini’s neorealist films depicted the struggle against the Nazi presence and continuing fascist rule in Italy in the later stages of the second world war.
However, Usmar Ismail went even further than the Italians by highlighting moral ambiguities and human rights abuses during the revolutionary period. In Lewat Djam Malam, for instance, the central character, Iskandar, is shown to be troubled by war crimes he committed as a freedom fighter.
So highly regarded are the early Usmar Ismail films that March 30 – the anniversary of the first day of shooting of his first post-independence film, Darah dan Do’a – is celebrated as National Film Day in Indonesia.
In 1955, Perfini made what is probably the first political satire by an Indonesian filmmaker, Tamu Agung (“Exalted Guest”). The film satirised Sukarno’s cult of personality and explored the dangers of charismatic political leadership. In 1957, Perfini produced the first Betawi comedy film, Tiga Buronan (“Three Fugitives”), directed by Nja Abbas Akup.
However, Indonesia’s film industry experienced periods of decline as well as growth.
There was a decline, for instance, in the late Sukarno period and the years following the post-September 1965 anti-communist purge. Only seven feature films were made in 1968.
Social critique in the New Order
Between 1970 and 1988, average production of Indonesian features rose to 70 per year, partly due to the introduction of wide screen and colour.
In the 1970s new directors, such as Moscow-trained Sjuman Djaya, emerged. Another was Teguh Karya, who, working with his Teater Populer group, made 13 films between 1970 and 1988.
These included the culturally significant historical epic, November 1828, completed in 1979. Aside from depicting events from the point of view of ordinary villagers in resisting Dutch colonialism during the Java War of 1825-1830, it also provides ways of seeing cultural contrasts between Javanese and colonial Western values.
November 1828 was the first Indonesian film to become widely known in Europe. It was screened at the London and Berlin film festivals.
In 1985, Teguh wrote and directed his most innovative film, Secangkir Kopi Pahit (“Bitter Coffee”). Using an original flashback structure, the film depicts the fates of people migrating to the city from rural areas in different parts of Indonesia.
Sjuman Djaya also made important contributions, including films that expanded the range of social critique in film. His film Si Mamad (1973), in its satire on corruption among bureaucrats, widens the tradition of using film for social critique.
His Kerikil Kerikil Tajam (“Sharp Gravel”, 1984) traces the dangers that beset village women journeying to Jakarta to find employment not available to them in their villages.
Another of Sjuman Djaya’s films, Si Doel Anak Betawi (“Doel the Betawi Child”, 1973) – in combination with the numerous B-movies of Benyamin Sueb – helped Indonesian society as a whole develop some important identification with the Betawi lifestyle.
The popular culture of the Betawi, regarded as the original inhabitants of Jakarta, went on to become an important staple in Indonesian popular culture over the next 40 years.
Sjuman Djaya’s adaptation of major works of Indonesian literature provided vivid depictions of religion and patriarchy in Indonesian history. Notable examples include Atheis (1974), based on Achdiat Kartamihardja’s novel, and Raden Ajeng Kartini (1982), his film biography of the Indonesian women’s emancipatist, R.A. Kartini, based on her letters.
In the 1990s the production of feature films declined dramatically. This was due to competition from the newly established commercial television industry. Only four features films were produced in 1998.
Post-reform era: international recognition and the rise of women filmmakers
Talented young women who had studied at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts – such as Nan Achnas and Mira Lesmana – played an important role in achieving a breakthrough for women into the film industry. Other major women writer-directors include Nia Dinata, Mouly Surya, Djenar Maesa Ayu and Kamila Andini.
Nia Dinata directed some very innovative films that explored new topics such as the limits of polygamous marriages in Berbagi Suami (“Sharing Husbands”, 2006).
Another aspect of the post-reform era is the continuing presence of internationally acclaimed filmmakers.
Garin Nugroho made his first feature film, Cinta Dalam Sepotong Roti (“Love on A Slice of Bread”) in 1991. But in the post-reform era he has continued to make films that challenge audiences in numerous ways.
In 2002 he made Aku Ingin Menciummu Sekali Saja (“Bird-Man Tale”), a feature film that raises questions about the behaviour of the Indonesian army in its attempts to control the indigenous Papuan population.
His most recent film, Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku (“Memories of My Body”, 2018) – dramatising the experiences of a young lengger (a traditional cross-gender dance from Central Java) dancer – engages with issues of gender in Indonesian society.
The film challenges its audiences by deliberately portraying Indonesian traditions of bisexuality and homosexuality and the prejudice fostered towards them.
Newly emerging director Ifa Ifansyah’s Sang Penari (“The Dancer”, 2009) depicts dance groups in Java including left-wing dance groups that become victims of the repression of the left in Indonesia after the events of September 30 1965.
Kamila Andini has made films about young people in distinctive local communities. Notable examples include Laut Bercermin (“The Mirror Never Lies”, 2011) filmed among the seaborne Bajau people in South Sulawesi, and Sekala Niskala (“The Seen and Unseen”, 2018), filmed in Bali.
Preserving ‘critical national cinema’
The early films of the Perfini company are often seen as providing a foundation for a “national cinema”. However, these films are also a form of “critical national cinema”, which highlight and engage with negative aspects of the new nation.
Their themes included human rights abuses by freedom fighters, corruption in the army, and the dangers of charismatic political leadership.
This concern to make socially relevant films evident in the early Perfini films has been taken up in new and inventive ways by the second, third and fourth generations of Indonesian filmmakers.