JAKARTA, Indonesia —
One smoggy morning a few months ago, acclaimed Indonesian director Nia Dinata made her way to an angular eight-story building in south Jakarta. The building is home to Indonesia’s film censorship board, and when she walked in, she was struck by the presence of white-clad men who sat in the lobby, watching people go in and out.
She recognized them as members of the Islamic Defenders Front, a violent conservative Islamic vigilante group known by the acronym FPI. Its ranks have swollen in recent years as Muslim conservatives have grown in political and social clout in Indonesia.
“The FPI were just sitting in the lounge!” she said.
And as the director of Indonesia’s first full-length film to feature a gay protagonist, Dinata is someone they have an interest in keeping an eye on.
That first groundbreaking film was “Arisan!” It was released in 2003, soon after the collapse of the authoritarian Suharto era in 1999 swept in an artistic and cultural renaissance, one that LGBTQ people in the film industry now wistfully refer to as a “golden age.” Writers, directors and actors breathed free air and crafted boundary-pushing, powerful cinema of the sort that would have been unthinkable during the previous repressive decades, when gay and transgender characters, if visible at all, usually served as the butt of jokes.
Suddenly these characters were portrayed as having inner lives, with complexity and nuance. In 2010, a transgender superhero fought against intolerance in “Madame X,” for which Dinata served as producer alongside director Lucky Kuswandi.
But the golden age proved to be brief.
“We were so busy with the euphoria, with the freedom of expression, that we didn’t realize they were busy planting the seeds,” Dinata said.
Dinata and Kuswandi are part of a small but determined cadre of filmmakers fighting to continue telling diverse and progressive stories in an Indonesia that no longer wants to let them, at a time when these kinds of stories have become sought after and respected on the world stage. Garin Nugroho’s “Memories of My Body,” a film about a Javanese dancer and his brushes with sexuality, was chosen to represent Indonesia in the category of best international feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Meanwhile, Nugroho was forced to organize small independent screenings of the film in conservative parts of his own country where Islamist leaders had effectively prevented its release.
Among those calling for a ban was the influential Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Islamic body, whose leading cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, has since become the country’s vice president. President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s decision to select Amin as his running mate ahead of last year’s election was widely seen as a strategy to shore up his Islamic credentials.
When it comes to tolerance of sexual and gender minorities, Indonesia has a complicated history. Masculine and feminine have long been blurred in the languages and traditional performance art of cultures across the archipelago. Islam has historically been practiced moderately in this, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. Homosexuality has always been legal at the national level. LGBTQ rights groups have been active here since the 1980s.
For most of its existence, Indonesia wasn’t the easiest place in the world to be gay, bisexual, transgender or non-binary, but it was far from the worst. Things began to change in early 2016 when a torrent of hatred and persecution aimed at the LGBTQ community swept across the country, seemingly overnight.
Read the full article at the Los Angeles Times.