Swimming Against the Current: A Look At Nia Dinata via Dispatches

Nia Dinata. Photo by Timur Angin/Imaji via The New York Times.

Nia Dinata. Photo by Timur Angin/Imaji via The New York Times.

CBC radio’s weekly documentary program, Dispatches, recently ran a documentary by Natasha Fatah on Nia Dinata, one of Indonesia’s best known film directors. In the documentary, entitled Cinema, censorship and sex, Fatah speaks with the internationally acclaimed director about her latest film, Chants of Lotus, as well as her experiences with film making in Indonesia.

The documentary begins at the national premier of Chants of Lotus at a cinema in a high-end mall in Jakarta. The film itself is, as Fatah describes, “an anthology dealing with AIDS, prostitution and drugs.” We soon find out, though, that despite Dinata’s international success hardly anyone has come to the national premier of her latest film. About 10 people “trickle in” after it begins. A small number considering the cinema holds 300 people.  After the film Fatah asks a few of the women who have attended their views on the film. The response is not good. These women felt that the depiction of sex was inappropriate and that talking about sex and girls was just “too much.” Fatah expresses her confusion as her impression of the film was very positive, despite it being gritty and disturbing. So she decides to ask Dinata herself about the reaction of many Indonesians to her film.

Dinata explains that this film is not for those looking for light entertainment. Its a difficult film to watch and, as Dinata says, requires that the viewer be prepared to not only be disturbed but also to show empathy toward less fortunate people. And this she said, is something most Indonesians are not wanting to do when they view films. Indonesians, she says, want entertainment in their films. And as Fatah says,

“Dinata’s films most certainly cannot be called entertainment. They’re are about gender and sexism. And she doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of the lives of Indonesian women.”

Fatah explains that Dinata’s films are a hard sell. Not only do they compete with Bollywood and Hollywood, but they are also subject to censorship which often leaves films “disjointed and hard to follow.” When asked what she thought of the censorship Dinata responds that it feels like rape because the censor boards don’t understand the films and so end up chopping out things that need to be in the film. And its not just sex that they censor but, as Dinata describes, certain lifestyles are cut out. An example she provides is scenes of women in hijab smoking, even though this happens in real life. She says that censors are worried about angering religious groups.

Another one of Dinata’s films, Love for Share, caused some controversy as well. As Fatah describes this film was about “the devastating impact of polygamous marriage on women.” Dinata herself, we find out, was impacted by polygamy as her father took on a second wife (whom he later divorced) when Dinata was 18. Since then Dinata has been strong critic of polygamy. But the film created an outcry from certain groups in Indonesia.

And this gets to the crux of the issue. Dinata depicts aspects of Indonesian women’s lives that many may find offensive, even though they are reality. She depicts, what it seems, the more troubling and difficult lives of women in Indonesia. It appears that many religious groups are against her films and work because, as she says, they fear that from watching her film on polygamy women will turn against the idea of polygamy.

It seems to me that the lack of popularity of Dinata’s films in Indonesia may be a combination of factors. Not only are the religious conservatives against portraying sexuality in films, the audiences of Indonesia it seems would rather some lighter fare when attending the cinema. And this is not unique to this country. In India, mainstream Bollywood masala films have typically done much better at the box office than have art films which deal with gritty and realistic matter. In Canada, the vast majority of people watch glitzy and glamorous Hollywood films as opposed to the “independent” and often quirky Canadian films. Films which deal with the gritty and often disturbing realities of life don’t usually fair as well as those that allow audiences to be transposed into a type of fantasy world. I see a similar phenomenon occurring in Indonesia.

But of course this does not deny that extreme conservative voices are not trying and successful in silencing certain elements of Dinata’s films. It does not deny that certain elements of Indonesian society are successful in limiting the representation of elements of their own society on the big screen, thus denying trying to deny such such marginalized women do exist. Dinata’s aim, it would seem from this interview, is to get the average Indonesian to sympathize with those less fortunate and marginalized. If Dinata is not allowed to present her stories in completion these sentiments may be left untouched. So there is a certain harm in such censorship.

And this harm was realized recently in Canada as well when our federal government decided to monetarily favour Canadian films which met their moral standards. Many here saw that as an attempt by the Canadian Conservative government to censor our films. I guess conservatives will be conservatives wherever they are, Indonesia or Canada.

This Dispatches documentary comes very close to striking a balance of explanation, though the religious conservatism does come out as the main problem for Dinata. And this may very well be simply the way it is. In recent years we have heard stories from Indonesians about their reservations regarding the increase in religious conservatism, especially from women. So the tipping toward conservatism may be a reflection of, if not the whole society, then at the very least of the film industry.

Finally, Dinata tells us that she continues to fight the censorship boards for not only her films but for the future of Indonesian films and the for the rights of the audiences to watch complete films. She fights on despite the fact that the courts have ruled against her in her case against them, but that the courts have said that the censors need to find better ways of working with the film makers. Fatah then ends the documentary by stating that, for Dinata, the best way for her to balance being Muslim and modern was to continue telling the gritty stories of her films. Although to me “Muslim” and “modern” are not exlcusive concepts which necessarily need balancing, I did understand this within the context of the documentary in which Muslim is seen as traditional and through the lens of the country’s conservatives who feel her films are offensive. Therefore, I view Dinata’s efforts, and this particular closing statement, as stating that one can be a “proper” Muslim while telling the stories she does.

If you would like to hear the documentary go to CBC Dispatches archives page, scroll down to the heading of January 12/18 and then scroll down to find Cinema, censorship and sex.


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