Introduction to the Indonesian Cinema

April 20, 2017
By: Tito Imanda

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Since the first documented locally produced film, Loetoeng Kasaroeng (1926), the Indonesian cinema has developed as commercial entity. Now, it strives to get stronger foundation for fulfil its function as public space and as a medium for artistic experiment and expression. Just like in different places in the world, the development of the cinema of Indonesia is part of the political economy, progress of technology (that influences film production as well consumption), public’s more open access to filmmaking and film appreciation (with so many film production clubs and communities, film watching and film review club, or with the new licenses for new film schools), and with the higher rate of media literacy. 

In the commercial side, there are good and bad news. The film industry –that might still in household scale compared to Hollywood’s– proved that they are competitive by producing several films in 2016 that could compete with the American blockbusters. If in 2015 there were 115 local feature films with 16.2 million spectators, while in 2016 the number raised to 124 films, with spectators doubled to 34.5 million.  Number of spectator of Warkop Reborn that reached 6.8 million is fantastic because it completely beaten an 8 years record holder, Laskar Pelangi, with 4.7 million spectators.  However, it has to be noted that most of the films produced could not reach break-even point solely from the movie theatre income. Total spectators from the top 15 films in 2016 is 30.3 million, or in average 2 million spectators per film (or 87% from the whole spectators watching Indonesian films). It means for the other 109 films, the average number of spectators is only 38 thousand.  

Beyond these competitions, Indonesian cinema is still too centralised. It still has problems in distributing film production and consumption from Jakarta and its surrounding areas to other regions. Almost all of feature film production companies are located in or around the capital, while roughly 43% of film theaters are located in the same area (while there are 33 provinces in the whole country). This imbalance represents the country’s problems in distributing wealth in general. With the current massive development of new film theatre buildings, we can expect that the balance will get better in the near future. This limited access also affects filmmakers in regions. Several local feature films, with local languages and dialects, discussing local problems, and entertaining with local humour found it problematic to get to their market because of limited local outlet. These local film spirits will get better with support from anywhere, but especially from the local government policies.

Another thing from commercial film is how the Indonesian cinema is the need to explore new market possibilities. Awareness that international film festival as film market must be embraced by filmmakers. Beside that, the industry needs to add shorts, documentaries, animation, and experimental films as potential products to the established feature films, television series, and advertising films. Perspectives that see short film is beginners play, animation is expensive, documentaries are activists’ films, or experimental films are made by wacky artists, can be damaging and unproductive. There is a need to embrace the fact that each choice of medium has specific audience, ways of viewing, and financial income, or that these choices need to be explored and properly understood to be sustainable. There is also a need for explorations for new medium and channel, as also new ways of storytelling (just like web-based series, that probably naturally mastered by millennials). All of these require film stakeholders to redefine film, what are new ways to produce and consume it, who are the producers and spectators that most probably to meet and develop chemistry. Another note is specific film statement for specific market, just like some Islamic films rely on Quran reading groups for promotion. Anggy Umbara, director of Warkop Reborn, also made films with strong Islamic statements, like film 3 Alif Lam Mim. He believes that this kind of film should also explore foreign markets.  

Beyond the commercial, film goers and film community make conscious effort to fulfil film function as public sphere capable to mediate social, political, and cultural statements in a democratic country.  Long features, shorts, documentaries, even animation gets more spaces to conduct discussions about important issues among concerned citizens. This is a special situation, considering until the 1998 reform film was politically constrained. On the one hand, this freedom might be still limited compared to older democratic countries, and we still hear authorities totally reject films to be screened in Indonesia for reasons perceiving audience as irrational and incapable to conduct healthy dialogue. On the other hand, the number of box office films with important social statements turns out to be significant. The local top ten box-office films of all time list shows this. Laskar Pelangi at second place with 4.7 million spectators asks about equal opportunity in education, or Ayat-Ayat Cinta at number 5 with 3.5 million spectators offer religious statement, all marking this trend. Other films in top ten list also emphasize social statements in their promotion kits, even if the films themself are comedy or romance.  

On the other hand, the push to different themes and statements must also use cultural differences and involve local governments, with bonus argument for them that local cinema is good for economy. For that, one door policy for arranging permit in district level becomes a challenge to get film investment to the regions. Meanwhile, local filmmakers who usually do not get access to screen their films at Jakarta bound film theatre network, are already bringing local contents in any choice of genre. The success of Uang Panai and Silariang to get spectators at Makassar,  or how the success stories of Yogyakarta based filmmakers such as Ifa Isfansyah, Eddie Cahyono, Joseph Anggi Noen or Ismail Basbeth at local and international film festivals, and brought home new producers and investors from outside the province, show region films potential is bigger than the available infrastructure. Different film festivals with various themes and scales in regions attract thousand of submissions emphasize this potential. Film communities, production and appreciation workshops happen more regularly, audio-visual vocational schools are more common. With new licenses for film schools at university level in Yogyakarta, Surakarta, Makassar, Padangpanjang, Surabaya, Bandung, Denpasar, and Jember, there must be something done to connect filmmakers and their audiences. 

Meanwhile, filmmakers with lower production budget has lighter financial burden and has more freedom to make statements through the films and engage in discussions outside commercial film theaters. Short fiction that quicker to digest, documentaries that can tell stories deeper, had brought important public issues to surface such as farmer struggle against cement factory penetration, or the increase of violence in urban areas. Long featured filmmakers are still doing documentaries and shorts; Nia Dinata and Shanty Harmayn are actively involved in documentary productions, while Joko Anwar or Riri Riza have been exploring shorts in between their long feature productions. In the end, with emphasize in the statements and aesthetics, regions film festivals that many cases focus on shorts, documentaries, and experimental films, become real festive when the filmmakers gather and celebrate their works, exchanging information, resources, and experiences. Anti-corruption film festival engages in dialogue to combat corruption, environment film festival involves in discussing conservation, or Festival Film Purbalingga encourages filmmakers to embrace Banyumas dialect and culture.

Exploration to the medium and new storytelling, local topics and statements, and new aesthetics are fundamental for the survival of cinema. Just like the nation, film also needs diversity. Stagnant technology, aesthetics, storyline and formula would fail films to adapt to changing audience needs. All of these, and with reluctance to connect to the real world, would deny film potential to discuss important topics, and eventually fail to empower filmmakers as well as spectators. Failure to use new channels of communications and acknowledging new groups of audience, would –for the engaging filmmakers– throw opportunities to connect and engage dialogues of important issues, and –for the industry–potential to diversify income. Lack of interest to children films would prevent films to nurture the future and create new generation of strangers to film and cinema.


(2)  Number of spectator 2007-2017 data from

(3)  ibid, and number of spectator 2016 data from

(4)  Taken from Film Forum discussion resume, Filartc 2017, Nasional Film Day, 31 Maret 2017, at Perusahaan Film Negara (PFN) studios, Jakarta.

(5)  For instance, in 2005, two Indonesian film critic, Eric Sasono and Ekky Imanjaya, involved in polemic about healthy balance between orientation to make social statement and commercial motivation (Kompas Daily, 17 Juli 2005, and laman Layar Perak, 2005), with conclusion that the “young” film industry was still looking for its identities.