LGBT, life in general

More of victims, less of fighters? On how Indonesian pro-LGBT movies portraying lesbians

LGBT causes in Indonesia are very dear to my heart. I believe that all human beings are born equal in dignity and rights, and I happen to be an out and proud lesbian living in this country.

Therefore I’m excited that two Indonesian films about LGBT stories and lives have just been released recently. The first one is Sanubari Jakarta (The Heartstrings of Jakarta), an omnibus that consists of 10 short movies. Most of the short movies feature gay characters, but we have 3 with lesbian main characters.

The second film is Children of Srikandi. In it, there are 8 short movies, all directed by queer women (this is how they explain themselves), all reflecting their life experiences. This film has been screened in many festivals abroad, one of which is the Berlin Film Festival. Srikandi will also be shown in other LGBT film festivals around the world as well.

Both movies are trying to advance the LGBT agenda. Heartstrings is produced by the Kresna Duta Foundation whose mission is to educate public about the importance of supporting minorities’ equality and rights. The producers of Heartstrings say they consulted the LGBT activists to ensure there would be no misunderstanding and stigmatization about the subjects and the characters.

Meanwhile, Srikandi aims to “humanize the diversity of ways of life in Indonesia”. It wants to “challenge and deconstruct stereotypes about LGBT and Muslim” (see their website). Srikandi began with a workshop, lead by two indie filmmakers from Germany, amongst several queer women. During the workshop, they were facilitated to express themselves by filming their life experiences.

I strongly believe that no LGBT person should live in fear or shame. I posit that pop culture and especially film can contribute a lot to make this vision a reality.  This is why I wholeheartedly salute the effort from both parties. I came to watch both movies, wanting so much to like them.

But too bad I couldn’t.

I have been agonizing if I should keep my opinions to myself, and just be grateful that efforts have been made. Then I’m reminded that promoting LGBT rights is about changing not only laws, but also people’s minds and hearts. If I really care about the cause, I should help make the efforts gain a wider impact. To gain a wider impact, pop culture or movies that are pro-LGBT must be more emotionally engaging to a wider audience, irrespective of their sexual orientations. So if I really want to see less LGBT youth having to endure bigotry and hatred, I have to say how these movies could be better.


My main problem with Heartstrings is the way it portrays lesbian characters and lesbian relationships as victims. In two shorts from Heartstrings (“Terhubung” or “Connected” and “Pembalut” or “Sanitary napkin”), we see lesbian relationships got cut short because one party had to comply with parents’ orders to get married. There is no depiction of how the characters even consider resisting this pressure.Granted, each short film runs 10 minutes so space is an issue, but why do both shorts focus on the surrender?

Let’s contrast this with the other shorts in Heartstrings about gay characters (“Menanti warna” or “Waiting for the color” is the best and it’s really heartwarming without being sappy). None of them concludes at being the victim of family or social pressure. I truly wonder why this is so.

There’s another lesbian-themed short in Heartstrings titled “Lumba-lumba” (“Dolphins”). It tells a story of the beginning of an affair between a kindergarten teacher and her pupil’s mother. The characters are not portrayed as victims here, but the story is so underdeveloped, it has to resort to a coincidence to make it more interesting.


It’s hard for me to be engaged with all the stories in Srikandi. Firstly, there are so many shots or scenes that I find irrelevant and distracting —especially the pointless middle part where they show low-res videos about people talking in focus groups or interviews. Maybe those visuals were meant to be some sort of mise-en-scène, but I fail to see how they add into to the story or the point they want to put forward. It’s like the visuals are there because they are more about the directors expressing themselves, rather than inviting the viewers to be involved in the stories.

Those visuals in Srikandi remind me of the time when I was doing an internship as a psychology student, when I studied group art therapy. In group art therapy, everyone is expected to express his/her own feelings and face his/her own problems by making art work –normally paintings. The process is meant to be therapeutic for the participants, but it doesn’t render the painting as an art work.

Secondly, I fail to get to relate deeper with the characters cum storytellers. For me, all of them stay at a very superficial level in each segment.  Yes, I know each director has only 10 minutes to tell her story or point of view. Ideally, this should urge her to immediately open up herself and share her intimate feeling or deeply personal point of view.

If “Hello, world” director is trying to tell her story about growing up wanting to be a boy, I’m sure her segment will be much more involving if she right away brings  alive what she feels about this seemingly-unattainable longing (instead of showing still shots of food and sandals). If “No labels” director is trying to say how confusing or restrictive labels amongst LBT women can be, then quickly invite the viewers into this bewilderment or suffocation (instead of taking us to the mall).  If “A verse” director wants to tell her story about how she finds love not in her own family but in unexpected places, then please take us on that journey (instead of showing her typical day is, complete with a girlfriend who kisses her hand before parting).

Thirdly, like the impression I get from Heartsrtings, I fail to see the characters in Srikandi as fighters. Don’t get me wrong, no character in Srikandi asks for your pity. But I feel the stories are more about them trying to dance around the repressive social norms.

One of the directors of Srikandi writes that “our goal is to reach out to many LBT women in Indonesia who are afraid to come forward or feel that they are alone”. Yes, maybe watching Srikandi makes those LBT women feel they are not alone. But after that, what do the directors want to make them feel? Will this movie make them less afraid to come forward? Will it trigger them to rethink about their own circumstances? I’m afraid not.

From Srikandi’s log line (“For the first time, queer Indonesian women are breaking the code of silence”), I gather that its main ambition is to give opportunities to the filmmakers to tell their life stories and points of view. Srikandi is claimed as “the first film by queer women about queer women from Indonesia”.  If the emphasis is on the filmmakers’ self-expressions, perhaps thinking about the audience’s emotional responses becomes a secondary concern.

So what’s the point of “breaking the code of silence” if the main concern is not to connect more deeply with the Indonesian LBT audience? Perhaps Srikandi’s main audience is not the Indonesian queer women, but juries of international festivals from around the world. After all, the combo of Indonesian folk-tale (the shadow puppet), Islam, and LGBT is probably very irresistible for committees of LGBT film festival around the world. If this is the case (and I truly hope I’m wrong), I honestly think it’s a missed opportunity.

I really want to see more Indonesian movies that are sympathetic to LGBT cause. But at the end of the day, if we believe that promoting LGBT rights is not just about changing laws but people’s minds and hearts, we really should be more serious about engaging emotionally with our local audience here in Indonesia.


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