Indonesian Films At The Center of its anti sexual violence discourse: Shifting People’s Perspective From Posesif to 27 Steps of May
Indonesia is a country whose capital city ranked 9th on the Most Dangerous Megacities for Women list (2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation Poll); a 2016 survey done by Lentera Sintas Indonesia, change.org, and Magdalene.co also found that 2 out of 3 respondents from all gender and sexualities in the country admitted to have had experienced some form sexual violence before the age of 18; and in 2019, the country’s National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) recorded a 14% increase in case reports, totalling at 406,178 cases. Yet the nation still has no effective legal umbrella to address the issue.
Indonesian laws currently fail to recognize the complex nature of sexual violence that calls for medical and psychological aid instead of just legal aid. It also fails to recognize the parameters of the issue, the current Criminal Code (KUHP) defines sexual violence only as forced penetration of the penis into a woman’s vagina; all while completely ignoring its broad spectrum and impact which ranges from cat-calling to sex trafficking and slavery.
To address the aforementioned issues, civil society have been pushing their parliament for the past four years to urgently pass an anti-sexual violence bill. But unfortunately, the nation’s patriarchal, right-wing society has seen the bill as a threat and it was officially dropped from the National Legislation Program (Prolegnas) priority list back in July, earlier this year. What this implies is that all parliamentary progress on the bill has been annulled, leaving the fate of many survivors of sexual violence in a limbo.
To advocate for the bill, artists have utilised many tools and mediums including films as a reflective mirror of the present society. And out of those films produced and released during the four year advocacy period, Posesif (2017) and 27 Steps of May (2019) stand out as prominent portrayals of Indonesia’s variable spectrum in understanding sexual violence.
On one end of the spectrum is Posesif with its teen dating violence central narrative. Released in 2017—the year now dubbed the Year of Women after the #MeToo anti-sexual violence movement—the film gained commercial success with a total of 348,706 cinema viewers. The director Edwin gives the film his signature impeccable visual quality along with Ginatri S. Noer who provides her writing talent for the film. Posesif ranked 30th on the Year’s Most Watched Indonesian Films list by the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Cultural Affair’s Center for Film Development, tailing just one spot behind Ernest Prakasa’s comedy hit, Cek Toko Sebelah (Check the Store Next Door).
As a film, Posesif reminisces on Indonesian cinema’s early 2000s heyday of teenage romances. It looks up to films like Ada Apa Dengan Cinta (What’s Up with Love, 2002) a commercial hit that almost single-handedly revived the Indonesian film industry as it reached over 2.7 million viewers, a tremendous record after decades of most films averaging only with a few hundred thousand viewers at best.
Like Ada Apa Dengan Cinta and other similar films in the teenage romance genre, Posesif follows two high-school polar opposites as they fall in love and grow together as a person. The exuberant and academically-gifted Lala (Putri Marino) clashes with the rebellious Yudhis (Adipati Dolken). Slowly and steadily throughout the film, we see their relationship bud and Yudhis’ behaviour towards Lala growing more and more alarming.
Yudhis ticks almost all the boxes in Break the Cycle’s (an international NGO dedicated to raising awareness on dating violence) warning signs checklist. From him obsessively checking her cell phone and social networks, to his extreme sense of jealousy to anyone close to her—going as far as running over one of her close friends in traffic—and manipulating her into quitting the platform diving team that her father coaches. Yudhis constantly belittles Lala, and his temper would constantly explode if she does not as much as pick up his phone calls.
In the film, we gradually see Yudhis isolate Lala from her family and friends to the point where he begs her to apply to an out-of-town university that he is applying to even though she has another university in mind. When she rejects his command, Yudhis explodes in a fit of rage and physically assaults her. She then makes her escape and locks him out of her house, screaming that their relationship is over.
After these events, days go by and Lala starts to seek help from those closest to her. But when she confides to her father, she is met instead with him telling her off on how she has brought shame on the family by having premarital sex with Yudhis. This victim-blaming reality is precisely why survivors of sexual violence don’t like to talk about the issue. In fact, the 2016 Lentera Sintas Survey noted that over 90% of cases in Indonesia go unreported.
The story progresses and it doesn’t take long for Yudhis to break into Lala’s house and leave balloons with apologetic phrases like ‘I’m sorry’ written on them and other similar tokens all over. She finally decides enough is enough and travels to his house to confront him alone, where we are met instead with Posesif’s free dive into oblivion as a film that talks about sexual violence.
In an attempt to explain the intergenerational cycle of abuse, we are shown that in his own home, Yudhis the perpetrator/abuser is facing his own abuse in the hands of his single mother in a gruelling minutes-long sequence of domestic abuse. But that is all that we can extract out of that scene, we are not provided with any further explanation as to why his mother developed these tendencies and how the cycle of abuse was allowed to perpetuate. It is never as simple as ‘the abuser is also being abused’, most people can develop their individual agency and capacity to make their own choices.
Instead of properly evaluating the cycle of abuse, Posesif takes an easy way out and gives the perpetrator excuses. The film seems to almost deliver a message of “hey, it’s alright for you to be abused by your boyfriend because his mother was also abusing him”. Much like the very societal practices it claims to be criticizing, Posesif gives us a patriarchal perspective on how a survivor of sexual violence should act. This can be seen in how emotional Lala is written; how she never stops to think and immediately vows to take care of Yudhis, because conservative societal values believe women are supposed to inherently be thoughtless emotional creatures. We can further identify this trait in how Lala easily forgives Yudhis and drops everything she has to elope with him all from a few minutes of watching her abuser’s mother beat him up.
Lala is constantly written to have only a false sense of agency in making her own life choices, while Yudhis pulls all the strings. And the film’s conflict only concludes with Yudhis making one last choice for Lala, by leaving her all alone in the middle of nowhere. The film romanticizes how it will be best for her to be without him, and that if you love someone you should let them go.
Miraculously, Lala makes her way back on her own and rebuilds her life. She rejoins her platform diving team and her friends continue to support her. Only a few months after enduring months long of abuse, Lala graduates happily from high school with her friends. An account that couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Violence Prevention Works, teenage dating violence causes lasting psychological effects with survivors exhibiting higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse; and they are prone to contemplate or attempt suicide. The healing process for survivors is a long and seemingly endless winding road. A seemingly minor traumatic event which lasts only for a few moments can leave scars that show themselves for decades. Lala, on the other hand, endured her abuse for at least a few months and was able to get over the experience quite easily without receiving any sort of psychological or medical aid.
As a closing scene, we follow Lala a year later as she goes for a morning jog on campus. She sees an apparition of Yudhis between the trees, and she shrugs him off before continuing her jog into the sunrise. The average Indonesian teen graduates high school at the age of 17, which begs the question, do the average seventeen-year-olds have the mental and emotional strength to be doing all the things that Lala is seen doing? To heal so quickly and be in peace with everything that happened in the span of a year at an impressionable and sensitive age where you get upset from minor happenings like your friend cancelling your plans for a night out.
Posesif promised to advocate for sexual violence and rode the #metoo wave late in 2017. The film packaged itself in an audience-friendly way and received commercial success. And yet it failed to promote social justice for sexual violence, it did not showcase how the issue should be addressed properly from a survivor’s perspective. It did not address how Lala would need treatment after all she has endured and that there should be either legal or social consequences to Yudhis’ actions. This is a phenomenon that occurs because although the filmmakers are at least aware of sexual violence and all of its complexisities, social justice eventually comes secondary to commercial performance.
Posesif’s priority was to maximise profit at the lowest cost, which was done by presenting the audience with comfortable, convenient truths that they are familiar with and could consume easily as entertainment. Posesif is a lie agreed upon, a lie that has been internalised well enough that film critics who responded to the film on mass media also ignored the obvious truths in favour of a convenient narrative, and hailed the film as a good representation of the issue.
This is a problem which many filmmakers face when it comes to talking about difficult issues. It’s not just social faux pas with few complicit creators, it is a culture that is allowed to perpetuate itself through monetary interests. The people in decision-making positions have deep-seated bigoted beliefs, and filmmakers, like most workers, are forced into taking part in the system from the perspective of monetary interest. You can be screaming from the top of your lungs that sexual violence is bad, but none of that is of relevance when your paycheck is on the line and you’re not the person in charge. At the end of the day, these complicit media representations do not add positive impact onto the problem but instead empower it. You’re pointing towards the problem and saying “hey, this is cool!” And the young highly impressionable target audience buy into it.
On a societal level, the same thing is happening with Indonesia’s Anti Sexual Violence Bill and the general public’s opinion of it. People may already be aware of the general issue, but as long as those in decision-making positions don’t see the relevance of the cause and hold on to their outdated beliefs, we’ll have more similar occurrences like the July 2020 incident when the Bill was dropped through and through from all parliamentary discussions without even once thinking of taking the survivor’s side and proposing to address the issue properly.
Which brings us to the other side of the spectrum, with 27 Steps of May (2019). Directed by Ravi L. Bharwani and written by Rayya Makarim. The film may not have been a commercial success with kincir.com noting that it had only 37,654 viewers; however, it did receive various accolades including the Citra Award for Best Leading Actress and the Golden Hanoman Award in Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival. 27 Steps of May follows the story of May who was gang-raped at the age of 14 and since then has not uttered a single word for the next 8 years. She follows a strict routine of only doing 27 footsteps daily within the confines of her home which she won’t leave, even if her next-door neighbour’s house caught on fire.
27 Steps of May lives in the fine line between being graphic and artistically poetic in its presentation. It does not sugarcoat how May the survivor is driven to self-harm as she takes a razor to her arm every time her father tries to get her out of the house. It does not sugarcoat how her father as her sole caretaker is deeply, emotionally impacted as he goes to illegal fight clubs at nights to relieve his frustrations. And the film shows a rape scene that was artistically-rendered enough to move viewers into tears and honour survivors by not being graphic in a gruesome in-your-face triggering way.
In total, it took five years to produce 27 Steps of May. The filmmakers prioritized research in ensuring that they have a well-written script which takes the survivor’s side, honouring their pain and telling their story the way they would want it to be told. This is seen in how May is given her own agency and the freedom to make her choices. It is her story; she decides when she comes out of her house, she decides who she interacts with, and how she interacts with them, because this is her life; not her father’s, nor her father’s employees, or even her next door magician neighbour’s. The end goal of 27 Steps of May is to add positive discourse to the issue and to fight against the patriarchal norms. The film represents a handful of Indonesia’s population, especially its many survivors.
27 Steps of May is an independent film, co-financed by passionate producers whose priorities were not commercial gains; this is something that must be acknowledged in comparing 27 Steps of May with Posesif; that at the end of the day, people need to make a living. However, we should also not turn a blind eye to how Posesif and it’s 348,706 cinema viewers would have profited several times its production cost, while survivors of the sexual violence whose story is being profited from receive no remuneration for their pain. Survivors of sexual violence in Indonesia dare not dream of financial retribution, when their access to proper medical, psychological, and legal aid remains sparse throughout the country.
Artist Banksy once said that “film is incredibly democratic and accessible, it’s probably the best option if you actually want to change the world, not just redecorate it.” Which is why film representation of what the Indonesian public think is crucial. In a state of emergency, as it is with sexual violence in Indonesia, a filmmaker’s job is not to conform to existing norms but to continuously attempt in breaking through all of it and to give a voice to the silenced, adding onto the fight for justice and equality in the long run.