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Love Letters
Feature by: Tiffany Limsico



A letter from a fiction writer/scholar-wannabe to the post-Suharto generation of filmmakers*

From Intan Paramaditha


I am writing this letter to you, the post-Suharto generation of Indonesian filmmakers, who in the past decade have revived Indonesian cinema and made the film scene more vibrant than ever. People watch and talk about Indonesian films everywhere: mainstream cinemas, cultural centers, galleries, film festivals, kine-clubs, and universities. Despite, or rather because of, my love for you, please allow me to make an unromantic statement: the more I think about the current problems you are facing, the more I am preoccupied with cartography. This letter is the beginning of an ongoing process of situating you on a map: the larger context of post-authoritarian cultural production in Indonesia.

Before you raise your eyebrows, my beloved friends, let me begin by expressing my feelings about the crucial issue that I encountered upon my return to Indonesia this year for my dissertation research (some of you might already know how I feel, but love letters are always performative; they tend to underline emotions that have always been there). In September 2009 the new film law was passed, in haste, by the Indonesian government, to replace the 1992 law as the legacy of the New Order regime under Suharto. After many of you – under the umbrella of the Indonesian Film Society – protested against censorship last year, the government admitted that the 1992 film law was no longer in sync with the development of the film industry and the spirit of post-Suharto Reformasi. But we were all questioning the good will of the government to reform, as the draft contains problematic articles that still reflect the old repressive paradigm. In addition to regulations that maintain bureaucracy, the famous Article 6, as you are all aware, states that films are prohibited from depicting pornographic acts, provoking violence or conflicts between social groups and races. You were wondering why filmmakers are suddenly seen as criminals vis-à-vis society.

The law was passed despite much protest, and I shared your feelings of anxiety, frustration, and anger. When Criticine asked me to contribute to their ‘love letters’ project, I was thinking of using the opportunity to write a letter to the government to say that their effort of performing democracy (involving you in a hearing at the House of Representatives and incorporating your suggestions in the revised draft) does not conceal the underlying paradigm of the new law. The law is not intended to support but to police the Indonesian film industry.

While writing such a letter might channel my concerns on this issue, I decided not to take that direction. Perhaps it is hard to locate the affective dimension of what’s supposed to be a love letter when you write to the government. But more importantly, having followed the efforts for advocacy to protest the law before and after it was passed, there are two main reasons that stopped me. The first is related to the issues of agency and “speaking on behalf of the other.” As someone who spent four years abroad and is engaged with Indonesian cinema from a certain distance, I might be falling into the trap of appropriating the voices of those who have been fighting for Indonesian cinema – those who have always been here and are there now. Secondly, the opportunity to attend the meetings for film advocacy – to discuss strategies of how to deal with the state, and to witness people getting drained mentally and emotionally – has made me reflect on my own position. I realize that the film law is not only about film; it is about how we, the post-1998 generation, think of our place in the transitional age, with paths leading in various directions that are not yet clear to us.

My beloved friends, you might wonder what relationship exists between us, or whether we should be related at all. Why do I care so much about Indonesian cinema other than for the purpose of writing my dissertation? As I mentioned earlier about map, I am trying to situate you within the dynamics of post-authoritarian socio-political contexts. On the one hand, we witness the rise of youth movements and the euphoria of Reformasi and its promises (post-authoritarian democratization, decentralization, freedom of expression, etc); on the other hand, secular youth cultural activism has grown side by side with the stronger influences of Muslim groups and their visibility in the public sphere. I believe other people – especially the so-called scholars in Asian Studies or, more specifically, Indonesian Studies – have similarly tried to map this situation. At this point you might say that you have no interest in cartography, but map-making is inevitable. Recent edited volumes on Indonesian arts and culture indicate different ways in which Western academics label their maps: the ‘post-Suharto Reformasi’ map, the ‘popular culture’ map, the ‘media and culture’ map, and so on. As a Ph.D. student working on Indonesian cinema in the United States, I initially thought that with these maps I should assume the position of Dora the Explorer. Our little heroine always carries a map in her backpack whenever she ventures into new territories. But this is not a map of some strange land for me. This is a map of Dora’s house, and Dora is included in the map.

How could I detach myself from the space that you are in? As a fiction writer, I must say that I have been shaped by literary circles that have gained prominence after 1998, as well as those celebratory and exhausting discussions on post-Suharto ‘women’s writing.’ As a researcher, I am a part of the broader sphere of public intellectuals where formal academic institutions are not adequate to capture the complexity and the urgency of post-authoritarian cultural movements. While some young independent researchers established cultural studies and film studies groups such as KUNCI, Rumah Sinema, and Rumah Film, some prominent academics are pulled out from the ivory tower and are pressured to become activists.

The fact that I, too, have been produced by the same socio-political sphere in which your experiences are located, affects the way I see my study on post-1998 Indonesian cinema and the research methods of film studies in general. The relationship that exists between us is much more than the relationship between the object of study and the researcher (a distant observer who categorizes and labels phenomena so that they are legible by Western academics). This letter is an attempt not only to map you, but also to see how you and I are connected within the map. The questions I pose to you are the questions that I pose to myself.

Like many of you, my beloved friends, I grew up in the 1990s, watched MTV, listened to alternative rock, and was saddened by the death of Kurt Cobain. My younger self testified to how much Suharto’s foreign policy influenced consumer culture. I watched Hollywood films in theaters (we did not have much choice anyway, thanks to the New Order monopoly practices) and affirmed my taste for film and fashion by watching Academy Awards ceremonies on television. When I watched Kuldesak (1999), I felt that my generation spoke to me, not only about how inspirational Pulp Fiction and Nirvana were, but also about our teenage angst and rage toward paternalism. In the 1990s, paternalism infused various relationships from the domestic to the political levels. The world we knew was the world of our fathers, bureaucrats and the state. (And of course Suharto claimed himself as “the father of national development”, addressing his subordinates as "children", and we were all the children of the nation and so on.) But even the arts, which one might consider as potentially subversive, were not free from this. Film culture was paternalistic; you could never be a filmmaker unless you became an apprentice of powerful (male) directors.

So when the students brought down Suharto in 1998, it was like a symbolic killing of the father by the child. Your films are populated with young people, fractured families, single mothers, and helpless fathers. Talking back to the father – and its many faces – using the voices of mothers and daughters is also a recurrent theme in my fiction. And it was not a coincidence that the student movement in 1998 was supported by Suara Ibu Peduli, a group of feminist activists and intellectuals who call themselves ‘mothers.’ Reformasi was the moment to challenge the New Order constructions of mother-ism and the apolitical-middle class families. Issues of gender and sexuality should be out in the open. Thus, for the first time in the history of Indonesian cinema, we have a gay and lesbian film festival (Q Film Festival) and a women’s film festival (V Film Festival). And there is nothing more exciting than to see the burgeoning of women filmmakers and women producers such as Nan Achnas, Nia Dinata, Mira Lesmana, and Shanty Harmayn. Though literature and film have only begun to intersect lately (you probably do not know that I write fiction, as most people in literature do not know I am a film researcher), both are actually on the same trajectory. Recent literary critics have diverted their attention from the great male authors and their grand ideas of nationhood to how women writers explore issues of gender and sexuality.

Like many of you, my frameworks and aesthetic taste are shaped by global cultural references. We seek for languages outside because the language at home – the language of our fathers – has become the marker of the old time; it evokes the trauma of being forced to speak a language that does not represent us. The older generation’s taste for realism, highly influenced by modern theater, as many of them came from theater tradition, made you want to do something else. Thus we see a different kind of realism in Riri Riza’s films, or even an allusion to film noir in Joko Anwar’s. But the desire for a new language is not exclusively yours. In late 1990s young public intellectuals learned cultural studies – by themselves – because they wanted to talk about tattoos, hip hop, underground music; in short, their everyday life. Even theater – which you associate with the world of the old filmmakers – is presenting before us a different stage. Traveling is important for us. While we consume global images, we have also become transnational subjects circulated by capital. You went to schools abroad, sent your films to international festivals, and after 2006 some of you chose not to participate in the national film festival. You do not ask support from the state. You provide your own funding or – like what happens in many arts communities and NGOs – you rely on transnational funding network. Of course, as we become older and wiser, we also learn that our fathers’ references were also transnational even though they were obsessed with “the real face of Indonesia.” And they, too, have traveled. But as young people elsewhere, isn’t it almost imperative to feel that what we do is completely new? A touch of naiveté is to some extent forgivable.

My beloved friends, you have shown to the world that, as the wayward children of the New Order, you learned to walk and speak precisely during your father’s absence. And now, you are wondering, after everything has flowed on its own, why the state wants to re-enter the game with the new film law. This is a unique case for film people, as film is arguably the most successful in creating its followers, its own market. There is no law for literature or theater simply because there is not much money at stake. You are the enviable child and everyone wants to be your stakeholder. But what haunts you reveals something that does not only concern you: state paternalism does not die. It assumes different masks that complicate its presence. Sometimes it strictly controls you, especially with regards to financial investment. Sometimes it gives you freedom: you ‘may’ (as the law suggests) engage in some fun, create-your-own-activities (festivals, film discussions… you can even make your own film archives and film schools!), but the state has no legal obligation to give support. It reminds us of how the state views education policy: do your own thing with your education institutions, we will help a little. Sometimes the state plays hide and seek: the Censorship Board will not cut your film as they did in the old days, but they can pull your film from theaters if there are protests from ‘society’ (“It is not us who’s censoring. It’s the radical Muslim group”). When censorship is disguised as protection, does it not echo the recent debates on the Pornography Bill?

My beloved friends, as we all become wary of this long struggle, there is the chance that a preoccupation with details will consume us, and we are forced to prioritize some things over others. Perhaps we need to constantly remind ourselves that it is not only the film law articles that we need to problematize, but the very logic behind the existence of that law, which returns us to the map where we are all interconnected. In this map, you are not alone. And you should not be. But how do you convince yourselves of that, and how do you convince others? How do we draw our map together, opening up a space for dialogues where we learn from one another and decide where to go from here? How do we open up possibilities to expand – using your term – the ‘stakeholders’ of Indonesian cinema? If the film law is a part of the long project of reimagining ‘Indonesia’, how do we locate ourselves in the project? My letter does not offer a simple solution, but let’s ponder these questions together.

I have written too much. This is where I should stop. And this is where we might begin.


* I would like to thank Ugoran Prasad, who is also a post-1998 fiction writer/researcher, for extensive discussions on cartography and its problems.


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Intan Paramaditha is an Indonesian fiction writer and a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Cinema Studies, New York University. She is currently doing research on film culture, sexual politics, and (trans)nationalism in post-authoritarian Indonesia. Her collection of short horror stories, Sihir Perempuan (Black Magic Woman), was published in 2005 and shortlisted for the Khatulistiwa Literary Awards in Indonesia.
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