People

Nia Dinata: Embracing freedom
of expression

JP/J.B.DJWAN

Indonesian film maker, Nia Dinata is re-visiting her award winning 2003 film, Arisan (The Gathering) that opened the cupboard door on homosexuality in Indonesia.

Following calls for a sequel from fans over the past eight years, Dinata has reassembled the original cast and crew and the next Arisan catches up with the lives of its characters almost a decade on.

“I made the first Arisan back in 2003 just after the period piece Ca Bau Kan [The Courtesan] set in the 1920s. I already had the idea of friendship in modern Jakarta — real friendships are rare these days. Arisan was shot in three weeks on a tiny budget. We did not expect to be so well received. Most Indonesian films that have more than 500,000 viewers are normally horror or children’s films,” says Dinata of the unexpected hit that focuses on the friendship between a man and woman and what happens to that friendship when the male character comes out of the closet and admits he is gay.

The international media classified Arisan as the first Indonesian gay film, which also collected a bundle of awards in Asia, Europe and Canada.

It also picked up many fans who fell in love with the characters, according to Dinata.

“Arisan lovers keep telling me  to write a sequel, because it resonates with today’s situation, particularly among the middle class who are comfortable and reluctant to change. So I felt yes its time to make a sequel because people love the characters.

We begin filming in May and the release date is December 1 on the anniversary of the first Arisan.  It was not difficult at all to gather the cast and crew. We are like a family and they were jumping with excitement to make this sequel,” says Dinata.

The pint sized film maker has long been drawn to films, which, like Arisan touch on issues long left hidden under rocks in this country.

Her earlier film Ca Bau Kan looked at the difficulties and constraints faced by Chinese Indonesians, but this desire to open discussions on issues such as sexuality and racism in a predominantly Muslim nation at times has her into hot water with the censors.

“Indonesia is a diverse country as we all know. We have very rich cultures and traditions and as Indonesians we are very easy  going people. In relationship to what is happening in the political situation where minorities, such  as non-muslims and Ahmadiyah members are marginalized — even what happened in popular culture like Ariel [Peter Pan] being jailed for private actions, whereas watching porn in the DPR is Ok; my main concern  is that because we are such an easy going people and country we are not used to expressing our concern and anger in any strategic or effective way,” says Dinata who has  taken on the censorship board through the constitutional court in the past.

She also points out that the laws that put Ariel behind bars could happen to anyone.

Dinata adds people are becoming more vocal in stating their opinions due to new communications  systems such as Facebook and  Twitter, however their voices are not targeted.

“People can be more courageous in stating their opinions, but sometimes I am sad when I see Facebook and Twitter because there is no fixed or strategic movement that finds solutions for these  problems that keep arising — they even become a stage for internet bullying — internet citizen bullying. So everyone can show their  anger on what happened in the DPR with porn, but when it comes to a strategic movement, only a few people are willing to take the time to take action for positive change,” says Dinata who was last week awarded as Honoree of the Global Social Change Film Festival and Institute (GSCFFI) held in Ubud for her many films and her activism on social issues.

That activism can be seen in  Dinata’s challenge to the constitutional court on Indonesia’s censorship laws.

“In terms of censorship, I have been dealing with this since 2001 and there has been no change. The laws need to have a strong value in embracing freedom of expression. I went to the constitutional court in 2007, but censorship laws are still controlling. What we really want  is a law that embraces freedom of expression, but evenin the preamble of the new film law that came out in 2009 — it’s still controlling.  We [film makers] went to parliament to watch how it voted. The majority passed the new law except the PDIP that walked out — they said this was because the law was still controlling and still supported censorship. We are non-political, but we appreciated that step by the PDIP,” says Dinata.

A documentary of what film makers like Dinata go through with the Indonesian censorship board, also screened during the GSCFFI,  in Ubud highlighted just how  insensitive the board can be on vital issues such teen sex and human trafficking, the subjects of Chants of Lotus a four director collaboration telling women’s stories.

In the documentary one board member says, “The film is 3,600 meters long — we’ve only cut 90 meters,” this statement drawing gasps of horror from the audience that art was being sliced up and important messages were being left on the cutting room floor.

Dinata’s activism takes on not only the hard issues facing Indonesia in the 21st century, she also finds time to engage children in film through her annual Kidsffest, a film festival for children currently running until May 1 at Pacific Place in Jakarta.

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