Jane Shearwood reviews Something In The Way, a film screened at the recent Indonesian Film Festival.

Settling down in my plush seat in the luxurious ACMI cinema, the lights begin to dim and the music starts. The moment I’ve been waiting for with so much excitement for several weeks has finally arrived….the opening film at the annual Indonesian Film Festival in Melbourne is about to begin!

Since moving back to Melbourne recently after living in Indonesia for ten years, anything remotely connected to Indonesia or Bahasa Indonesia makes my heart beat faster as sweet memories of my second homeland come rushing back. The first moment I heard about the film festival, I immediately got online and ordered my tickets, imagining in my head a whole week of fantastic opportunities to watch more of those Indonesian horror films I’d become addicted to after being dragged to the cinema countless times in Surabaya with Indonesian friends who seemed to be members of an unofficial cult of horror film lovers. I lost count of the times that images of ‘Hantu Jembatan Ancol’ played in my head all the way up to the day of the opening night of the film festival. I felt sure I was about to witness more Indonesian horror films which wouldn’t be the same without the typical ‘sinetron’ style of acting I was accustomed to in Indonesian films. A bit of over-acting and simpering up to the camera with long shots of pained expressions….Can’t wait!

So here I am, glasses on and ready to see the first images of another typical Indonesian film like the ones I’d grown to love. But hang on! Am I imagining it, or am I seeing a large image of an Asian man sitting in a taxi, masturbating over a pornographic picture?! If I AM imagining it, I’m getting seriously worried! This doesn’t look like any Indonesian film I’ve ever seen. Could I have entered the wrong cinema, I wondered. I quickly look around at the audience and spot a huge number of Indonesians (I can tell them a mile off – you only need to look at the Blackberries still glowing in the dark –mine included!) and sure enough, there’s the official billboard of the Indonesian Film Festival right over there to the side of the screen and the familiar faces of the friendly crew standing in the aisles. I’m not mistaken then. So what’s going on? Ada apa dengan film ini?

Of course what I was seeing was to set the tone of the entire Indonesian Film Festival. A breakthrough in Indonesian film-making rarely seen before and a chance for Indonesian script-writers, directors and producers to showcase internationally just what the Indonesian film industry is capable of. Whoever thought that the Suramadu Bridge in Surabaya could become the centre of a V8 supercar race that rivals scenes seen in Hollywood’s ‘Fast & Furious’ films, that Indonesian actors and film crews would be filming powerful scenes across four different European countries in one film, and that film crews would dare to go deep into tribal areas of Sumatra rarely seen by locals and foreigners alike and include these ‘orang rimba’ as actors in their film? Even more importantly, these breakthrough films give their international audiences important messages about the ‘real’ Indonesia which lies well-hidden below the surface of typical stereotypes and misunderstandings about the country which we, as Indonesia’s closest neighbours, should surely start to appreciate.

The opening film ‘Something in the Way’ has never been released in Indonesia because of its explicit content that deals with pornography, masturbation and prostitution under the shadow of Islam in the form of a simple taxi driver who by day is a devout Muslim and by night deals with his strong sexual urges by regular masturbation over pornography and by becoming obsessed with a prostitute. As someone who has lived in Indonesia for a long time, including four years in Surabaya (a predominantly Muslim city in East Java), and who really only spent time with groups of locals rather than expats, I can completely relate to the reality brought forward in this film as something that is far more common in Indonesia than most people realize.

The script-writer, director and actors did a fantastic job at bringing to life a very common dilemma for a lot of young Indonesian men who struggle to find an uneasy balance between their duties to Islam, as well as to social expectations which still apply in Indonesia, and sexual frustrations that are as real for them as for any other man around the world. The fact that this film cannot be shown in Indonesia, as well as the statement made by lead actress, Ratu Felisha, during the Q&A session after the film that she would never have accepted the role if she had thought for a moment that the film would be released in Indonesia, illustrates that this reality is buried deep below the surface of society in Indonesia as something that is either glossed over or completely ignored by most Indonesians, especially among traditional Indonesian film-makers. If it were to be put out in the open in Indonesia, there would surely be an outcry which could possibly ruin the careers of the people involved in the film, at least in Indonesia.

Perhaps the blogs I read under the Youtube trailer for this film, made by young Indonesians which mostly contained the word ‘munafik’ (hypocrite) in relation to Indonesia because this film cannot be shown, are actually right on the mark after all. It does seem particularly hypocritical that such a film would be so negatively shunned when there are countless ‘dangdut’ shows and numerous well-known ‘tourist sites’ around Indonesia, such as ‘Dolly’ in Surabaya (once boasted as the largest red-light district in South East Asia) and ‘Saritam’ in Bandung, frequented by many young Indonesian men, not least by many of my friends; ‘Persib’ (Bandung football team) and ‘Persebaya’ (Surabaya football team) supporters alike, most of whom are devout Muslims by day, just like Ahmad the taxi driver. If such issues are worldwide, why is Indonesia getting left behind in bringing these issues to the big screen? Isn’t it time that these young Indonesians had a voice in the form of a film that they can relate to? Teddy Soeriaatmadja’s (script-writer & director) answer is ‘yes’.

Unfortunately, this film has not reached most of these young Indonesians yet, but with the fantastic opportunity in the form of the Indonesian Film Festival, quite a few Indonesians in Melbourne and Sydney have been able to view it, as well as an international audience, who now realize that young Indonesian Muslims have the same issues as non-Muslims and that there is a need for more cutting edge films in Indonesia which reflect what is actually going on in society as a way for people to be able to deal with it in a less conflictive way. Making and releasing such films which more people can relate to in Indonesia would surely be a sensible move to increase the number of people buying tickets to watch local films rather than choosing to spend their hard-earned money on Hollywood films (a big rival to local films in Indonesian cinemas) instead, especially among those Indonesians who are fed-up with the stereotypical 3G recipe for successful Indonesian film-making among traditional film-makers, i.e. ghosts/girls/guns.

The same breakthrough theme of the Indonesian Film Festival could also be seen during the international premiere of the film ’99 Cahaya di Langit Europa’. This is a beautifully made film telling the true story of script-writer Rangga Almahendra’s experiences in Austria and other European countries with his wife as an Indonesian Muslim couple facing the reality that they are among a minority in Europe, often openly discriminated against because of their religion. This, of course, probably comes as quite a shock to a lot of Indonesians who are used to being among the majority in terms of being Muslims (Indonesia is officially recorded as the largest Muslim populated country in the world) living in a country where every facility to support their religious duties is fully supported.

The film contains many daring lines which illustrate the lack of tolerance and understanding in Europe towards Islam, such as “Why do you only pray on Fridays? Isn’t your God in on any other day?” (asked by Rangga’s university friend who is struggling to understand his friend’s devotion to Allah) and many others including the discrimination and ridicule towards people who wear Muslim headscarves. This film has been released in Indonesia, but is the first of its kind in terms of budget (over 15 million dollars – the highest cost film in Indonesia), European location, the use of English and German by Indonesian actors, and of course the daring scenes of discrimination towards Muslims which is rarely (if ever) seen in Indonesian film.

This film was one of the most powerful films of the whole festival since it conveyed several very important messages. As an Indonesian teacher, I sometimes receive the typical stereotypical comments about how Indonesia is full of terrorists and the like. This, of course, deeply upsets me as many of my best friends are Muslims, not to mention the fact that Indonesia is one of the most welcoming countries I have ever been to. However, getting this fact across to many people who have never been there is sometimes quite difficult. This film greatly helps with this message since the main idea of this film is to demonstrate the real essence of Islam as being extremely peaceful and responding to discrimination and evil deeds by kindness.

A simple understanding of the well-thought out title of the film illustrates this main theme by highlighting that 99% of Muslims are moderate and non-fanatical who basically only want to practice their religion in peace alongside other religions, but it is usually only the 1% of fanatical trouble-making Muslims that the media choose to focus on which then sets the precedence for prejudices and misunderstandings about Islam. In short, real Islam values are seen in the film as serenity and that “Islam is not a sword, but is peace”. Not only does this help to bridge the gap between Islam and the West by dismissing traditional prejudices against Muslims, but is also very relevant to Indonesians themselves in terms of teaching about tolerance in a nation with so many different races and religions that are still discriminated against and which sometimes cause tensions to bubble beneath the surface, threatening to erupt in confrontation. Within Indonesia, there are still many prejudices and dislikes towards other religions.

For example, where I lived in Manado (a predominantly Christian city), Muslims tend to live in one small area of the city and are sometimes treated differently. On the other hand, in areas of Java, groups of Christians in certain areas sometimes experience difficulties in building churches in which to worship. This film illustrates how people belonging to a minority religion feel when their freedom to practice is compromised and belittled, which the script-writer hopes will bring to life the reality still apparent in Indonesia and help to educate against marginalizing and fearing the different religions that actually make Indonesia the unique and diverse nation it is. Script-writer Rangga Almahendra also commented that a further hope for the film was to educate Indonesian Muslims about what being a Muslim really means, which he believes is often forgotten and hidden under the outer surface of performing the usual daily rituals demanded of Muslims, i.e. praying, going to the mosque, not eating ‘haram’ foods, etc.

Again, as someone who regularly socialized in local circles in Java, I can relate to what Rangga Almahendra is saying in that simply performing these rituals is often considered as being a ‘real’ Muslim in Indonesia while the selfless acts of kindness, the constant struggle to be a “good Muslim agent” and the personal strive for devotion to Allah as demonstrated by Fatma’s (played by Raline Shah) character in the film are not so often thought about. Perhaps this breakthrough film is food for thought for many Indonesians and will set the precedence for future film-makers in Indonesia.

As the last credits of the last film of the Indonesian Film Festival 2014 fade, I take off my glasses and join in the hearty applause. I feel honoured to have been part of the multi-cultural audience of young and old alike, lucky enough to have caught a glimpse of the new future of Indonesian film. The Indonesian Film Festival serves as a significant platform for Indonesian film-makers who want to depart from the traditional 3G concept in film-making and to demonstrate that the 3G recipe has been successful in the past in Indonesia mostly because the audience has never had a choice before. Indonesian film has traditionally been focused on commercial film-making, seen first and foremost as a business, rather than on quality film-making as its main goal. Indonesian film has never really had a significant place in the international film market (with the exception of ‘The Raid’ – another 3G masterpiece) and is even often in second place locally after Hollywood films, with the quality of films in Indonesia often ending up at the butt of local jokes. However, with fantastic events such as the Indonesian Film Festival, Indonesian film-makers have shown that they are more than ready to compete with the leading names in international film.

Perhaps, then, one of the most important goals of the Indonesian Film Festival is to promote and develop the future support and possible investment of Indonesia’s closest neighbours in the up and coming Indonesian film industry. I’m sure that this is more than a possibility after being a witness to such an amazing revolution in Indonesian film.

Jane Shearwood attended Something in the Way as a guest of the Indonesian Film Festival. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Australia-Indonesia Youth Association or its partners.