Penyalin Cahaya and the economy of feminist films
The movie 2021 Penyalin Cahaya (Photocopier), co-written and directed by Wregas Bhanuteja, has recently found itself at the center of the ongoing debate over sexual violence in Indonesia. And it’s not just because of its plot, which centers on a sexual abuse survivor’s struggle to expose the perpetrator and seek justice. In January 2022, the film’s other co-writer was accused of perpetrating sexual violence himself, leading the producers to remove his name from the film’s credits.
This put a stain on the achievements of the film, which topped the Indonesian Film Festival (IFF) a few months earlier. It won 12 awards, including Best Picture, Direction, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Actor and Supporting Actor. Although the filmmakers didn’t seek a theatrical release, it was a huge hit on Netflix.
Penyalin Cahaya is one of many recent Indonesian films dealing with themes of gender equality and combating sexual violence. One of his main contenders for the FFI 2021 top prize was Youni, directed by Kamila Andini, who is no stranger to raising feminist themes in her work. yuni is a coming-of-age drama about a teenage girl from coastal Java trying to decide what kind of woman she wants to be in a conservative patriarchal society.
It was probably the first ever FFI in which the two main contenders for Best Picture and Best Director focused on women and included strong feminist perspectives. In 2008, a well-made anthology film on gender issues, Perempuan Punya Cerita (Songs of the Lotus), directed by four Indonesian filmmakers, Lasja Fauzia Susatyo, Nia Dinata, Upi Avianto and Fatimah Tobing Rony, did not attract as much positive attention. In fact, it faced harsh censorship as it struggled for distribution in commercial cinemas.
In a previous article on the short film Tilik, I argued that the controversy surrounding this film was a sign of an unresolved crisis in gender order in Indonesia. Traditional models of gender relations are challenged and ideological battles to secure hegemonic gender ideals are waged on multiple fronts, including film. There is a growing public debate about what it means to be an ideal man and an ideal woman in modern Indonesia. Penyalin Cahayaas well as yuni and several other films, were produced amid intense public debate about gender-based and sexual violence.
An important part of this debate has been the Sexual Violence Eradication Bill (formerly known as RUU PKS, now RUU TPKS), which remains on the non-priority list of laws to be discussed within the national legislature (DPR), despite strong public support. A major breakthrough was made last year, when the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research and Technology issued Ministerial Regulation No. 30 of 2021 on the Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Violence in higher education. The poor reaction of higher education institutions to sexual abuse is precisely the problem raised by Penyalin Cahaya.
The positive reviews, public acceptance and accolades achieved by films like Penyalin Cahaya and yuni indicate changing perspectives among filmmakers and the growing openness of audiences to subjects previously considered taboo. As feminist ideas grow in popularity, films in this category have become powerful tools for expressing gender politics and raising awareness of gender issues.
But the commercial release of these films is also a sign of the growing commodification of feminist issues – their backers see feminist themes as publicly acceptable and capable of generating profits. Penyalin Cahaya is a major studio film with the financial support of two major film companies: Kaninga Pictures and Rekata Studio.
Thus, while acknowledging the highly political content of Penyalin Cahaya, we cannot ignore the economic motivations behind its production. Scholars such as Janet Wasko have warned against focusing on the political and ideological aspects of film and overlooking the powerful economic interests at play. She highlights the business side of the industry, which so well shapes regard to its content, its modes of production, distribution and consumption.
The intensification of public debate around gender equality has created an opportunity for its commodification. The debate attracted diverse stakeholders with their respective personal, economic and political interests, not being limited to people who genuinely support feminist causes.
The revelation that one of the authors of Penyalin Cahaya allegedly involved in sexually abusive relationships with female directors demonstrates that while films can advance feminist themes, that does not guarantee that everyone involved has feminist motivations. The film might not have been made as well had the filmmakers, including the alleged perpetrator, not had some understanding of sexual violence, but awareness of the problem does not necessarily reflect a real support for gender equality.
It is important not to reduce the real struggle for gender equality and the elimination of sexual violence waged through commercial cinema to a mere discussion of commodification. However, the commercial dimensions of cinema, which can affect the types of films that can be made, who makes them, and how they are distributed and shown to audiences, should not be overlooked.
Indeed, the commercial release of films like Penyalin Cahaya and yuni can make problems more visible and increase public awareness. But the fight for gender equality and the elimination of sexual violence must continue to be fought with vigilance on other fronts to produce more substantial results.
The controversy around Penyalin Cahaya further advocates for Indonesia to pass the Sexual Violence Eradication Bill and for educational institutions to take positive steps to support the cause. Furthermore, it also highlights the urgent need for filmmakers to come together to establish written codes of ethics and stronger employment contracts to prevent and address sexual violence and gender-based discrimination in the industry. .
My colleagues and I from the Association of Indonesian Film Scholars (KAFEIN) have long been advocating for the integration of gender equality and social inclusion perspectives into the film studies curriculum in Indonesia. Investing in the future generation of filmmakers is as important as the legal fight to criminalize acts of sexual violence. Young filmmakers need more exposure and training to build awareness and foster genuine support for gender equality, the elimination of sexual violence and respect for diversity in order to prepare them to be socially conscious and inclusive players in the industry.