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INDONESIA - Jan 5, 2004

by Devi Asmarani

A movie called Arisan! has become an unlikely box office hit in Indonesia. It has also generated talk on a previously taboo issue. I was not prepared for its popularity when my former colleague, Joko Anwar, then an aspiring scriptwriter and movie reviewer, told me months ago that he was working on the film with director Nia Dinata. Neither were many viewers warned about its controversial subject of homosexuality when the movie was first screened, before any reviews came out.

Yes, it is an Indonesian movie whose hero is gay - one that features a man planting a kiss on another man's lips. And the audience loved it! What made it even more controversial was that it came out just months after the government proposed legislation to criminalise homosexual intercourse in a controversial draft Bill that also bans cohabitation between unmarried men and women.

Arisan! pokes fun at Indonesia's upper crust. The name comes from the term for that quintessentially Indonesian social activity - a monthly social gathering in which a group of friends or relatives contributes money to a pot before drawing the lucky winner. Call it potluck lottery. Prizes range from cash to kitchen appliances to thousands of dollars' worth of jewellery. It is hugely popular in the country with both villagers and professionals, but it is especially gossipy housewives who are addicted to it.

The movie is told through the eyes of three 30-something characters: a successful but infertile interior designer, a housewife seeking revenge on her unfaithful husband through sexual escapades with younger men and a closet gay man with a matchmaking mother.

Viewers thought it was hilarious, reviewers raved about its daring originality and champions of gay causes hailed it as a breakthrough. Those who saw it recalled jeers over the applause - likely from gay men in the audience - during the kissing scenes. Yet even the staunchest heterosexuals emerged from the cinema with a smile on their faces.

'I am glad that finally someone has made a movie about gay people that is real,' said a gay friend. 'It's like finally acknowledging that people like us exist in flesh and blood, not just in cliches.'

Where previously gay characters were relegated to jester roles or confined to effeminate or cross-dressing stereotypes, Sakti, the movie's handsome gay character, is his own man. This friend, like other gay people I know, identified with Sakti's struggle to maintain a 'normal' front outside his closest clique. There are potentially thousands of others like him in this city alone who have been yearning to see themselves reflected honestly in the media. And their straight friends, like me, cannot help but share their enthusiasm.

That explains the success of Arisan! In four weeks of showing in Jakarta alone, it has drawn more than 100,000 viewers, a major feat considering the competitive local market. Riding on the back of the revival of the Indonesian film industry after a decade-long vacuum, it stands out among current cinema offerings which consist mostly of teen flicks or horror films. On top of the same-sex kissing scene, Arisan! features several suggestive as well as potentially risque scenes. But it has yet to provoke dissenting opinions, even from Muslim conservatives.

In the past three years, tamer stuff on TV - like scantily clad Baywatch babes or live ballroom dancing contests - have been the target of attacks by the Council of Ulemas (MUI), the country's highest Islamic body. A condom TV advertisement and a public service message on the diversity of the country's Muslim communities were forced off the air by the tiny but zealous group, the Majelis Mujahiddin Indonesia. But Indonesian society is relatively tolerant of homosexuality, unlike other Muslim countries. On some streets in downtown Jakarta, policemen leave streetwalking transvestites alone - unlike their female counterparts. The tolerance comes in the form of a quiet, unstated acceptance, rather than through open demonstrations of support.

The issue is rarely talked about openly. Homosexuals may let their close friends know, but their own families are usually either oblivious or choose not to notice. There are celebrities and political figures, including a former minister, who are supposedly homosexuals but have never 'come out'.

Gay rights activist Dede Oetomo [winner of a 2001 Utopia Award] told Reuters recently: 'It's more like 'I know you exist, but please don't bother me'. That's why we have everything from fanatic groups to gay rights groups. After all, this is democracy.'

That probably explains the absence of a backlash against the movie so far. Or maybe Indonesians like the movie because it makes fun of rich and shallow people. Just maybe.

- and movie crowds lap it up.

Article reprinted by kind permission of the author and Straits Times

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