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Review: “Arisan!” and the Rise and Fall of Queer Cinema in Indonesia

How has Indonesian society evolved to accept—and then reject—homosexuality in cinema?

By , 27 Sep 19 04:51 UTC
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Courtesy of Kalyana Shira Films.

When the Indonesian film Arisan! came out in 2003, critics praised it for its positive depiction of a same-sex relationship. Directed by Nia Dinata and written by Joko Anwar, the film featured the first on-screen kiss between two gay male characters in Indonesian cinema.

In Indonesia, an arisan is a regular social gathering, often with a component of pooled savings between members who draw lots at the gathering to see who will take home the money. It is commonly associated with housewives, both rural and urban, with each member taking turns hosting the gathering. The arisan of this film involves upper-class members, and it deals with their personal struggles set against the cosmopolitan back-drop of early 2000s Jakarta.

Stylistically and thematically, Arisan! echoes Sex and the City, as well-heeled socialites gossip and discuss their love lives. The film is most notable for the homosexual romantic relationship between two male characters—Nino (Surya Saputra) and Sakti (Tora Sudiro). At the beginning of the film Sakti is unsure about his sexuality, but gradually begins to embrace it once he meets Nino and their chemistry develops. The most talked-about portion of the film is an on-screen kiss they share.

Arisan! was popular upon release, sweeping the major categories at that year’s Film Festival Indonesia. On the merits as a film, I’m not a huge fan (and not a big Sex and the City fan either). But viewers can tease out the true significance of this film by placing it in its socio-historical context.

The Return of Liberalism

Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, which for three decades from 1966 to 1998 was ruled by President Suharto’s authoritarian New Order regime. During that period, state security clamped down upon conservative Islamic forces to discourage any ideological challenge they might pose to the regime’s dominance.

The regime kept artistic endeavors that might pose a challenge under wraps as well. This is why Indonesia’s most famous novelist, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, wrote This Earth of Mankind while languishing in prison during the 1960s and 70s–his ideas and his writing were unacceptable to the regime’s narrative.

Suharto’s resignation in 1998 ushered in an era of wide-ranging political and social reforms. These reforms freed up civil society in dynamic new ways, and a flourishing of ideas and concepts that had previously been forbidden followed in the heady post-reform period.

This is probably why Nia Dinata and Joko Anwar felt in 2003 that the time was right to make a film prominently featuring a positive depiction of gay characters and themes, something which would have required a certain amount of daring given Indonesia’s conservative social mores. That the film was made at all, and that it was well-received, hints at the loosening of social constraints during that time period and the sense that a new more liberal and permissive era was dawning.

The Conservatives Strike Back

The optimism of the early 2000s proved short-lived. In a free and open democratic system, all voices have a guaranteed right to be heard. In a socially conservative country like Indonesia, this means that hard-line Islamic groups are able to compete in a free and open marketplace of ideas, no longer constrained by the state security apparatus. And it turns out those voices have found a very receptive audience in the public consciousness.

For years now, religious conservatism has been deepening in Indonesian society. In just the last few years, many cities and local regencies have banned the sale of alcohol at convenience stores and supermarkets. A new draft law before the legislature is looking to criminalize sex outside marriage, although human rights groups believe the true target of the bill is the LGBTQ community. In 2018, several municipal authorities even tried to ban Valentine’s Day on the grounds that it encouraged teenagers to engage in promiscuous behaviour.

The rise of social conservatism impacted the film industry, which is rapidly growing and changed itself much since 2003.  The target audience for Arisan! was the kind of upper-class professionals who were featured in it, a limited market who even then were probably more liberal than the majority of Indonesians. The domestic film market has grown significantly since then, with hit movies regularly pulling in millions of viewers up and down the archipelago rather than just the hundreds of thousands of upper-middle class viewers who frequented theatres in 2003.

With the hardening of religious conservatism, the subject matter of contemporary Indonesian films is far less likely to tackle a controversial issue like homosexuality, even obliquely or through coded symbolism. A film featuring openly gay characters kissing on-screen would risk severe public backlash, if it could even make it past the censors in the first place—which it almost certainly could not.

Arisan! therefore represents an interesting entry in Indonesian cinematic history.

It marks the first feature written by future auteur Joko Anwar, and it reflects his interest in making films that probe the gritty realities of Indonesian society, such as dealing with homosexuality in a socially conservative country. But it also captured a unique and fleeting moment in time, when state control over media and society had relaxed sufficiently that a blockbuster could openly explore themes of homosexuality, but before the rise of Islamic conservatism effectively stamped out such films in contemporary Indonesia.

This article is part of a series that will take a critical look at the work of Indonesian director Joko Anwar, with a focus on the ways in which he has used film to promote Indonesian mythology and explore social issues. 

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Arisan!—Indonesia. Dialogue in Bahasa Indonesia. Directed by Nia Dinata and written by Joko Anwar. Running time 2 hours 9 minutes. First released December 10, 2003. Starring Cut Mini Theo, Tora Sudiro, Surya Saputra, and Aida Nurmala.

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