Hit the brakes. Crank the tunes. Spin the rearview mirror ball, and start tripping. Far from Bill and Ted or Harold and Kumar, this is one of the tamer scenes from the latest film by Indonesian director Riri Riza. Three Days to Forever follows two cousins of the opposite sex on a 12-hour road trip from Jakarta to Yogyakarta. Between sharing a bag of weed and, later, a mattress, the protagonists also appear to have managed the extraordinary feat of slipping by the country's infamous censorship body.
So, does this mean such taboos as incest, drug abuse and premarital sex have become acceptable topics of cinematic exploration in the world's most populous Muslim nation? "The censors are so inconsistent in what they cut," says screenwriter Rayya Makarim. "Sometimes it's a scene, sometimes it's because of the subject matter or maybe it's because of the title that a film gets pulled."
Indeed, the current screen sensation Sorry, I Got Your Wife Pregnant, showing in several major cities, has yet to provoke the ire generated by Kiss Me Quick, yanked from screens because of its supposedly racy title. Yet, the notion of adultery in Sorry seems not to have upset the censors. "We allowed it because the wife was actually separated from the husband," explains Titie Said, the 72-year-old head of the Film Censorship Board. "We have guidelines, but if we cut everything we want a lot of films would be pretty short."
Said claims to feel the pain of Indonesia's filmmakers every time she and her team of 45 have to cut a scene, but maintains that "certain elements of society" need to be protected. She cites Kiss Me Quick, a teen romance, and Pocong, a film dealing with the violence during the overthrow of former dictator Suharto, as examples of where the censors have to draw the line. "We're getting more aggressive in what we will allow, but those who attack us are getting more aggressive as well."
Still, the censors are at a loss to explain why they didn't touch a kiss between two men in the urban comedy Arisan, but cut a heterosexual kiss in the biopic Gie. "We have 12 categories of kisses," explains Said, adding that permissible kisses include pecks on the cheek and forehead but not on the lips if it could "arouse one's passion." As for the two men in Arisan, she says the scene was shot from far away and thus didn't arouse the requisite feelings. "As long as a kiss does not arouse passion or lust we don't cut it."
Filmmakers say the censors could avoid the problem by dispensing with cuts made on the basis of Suharto-era censorship regulations, and instead simply employing a ratings system. "The censors are not relevant anymore," says Riri Riza, 36, whose Three Days suffered 11 cuts. "We need to get rid of the scissors because the current system is not transparent and left to a team who operate behind closed doors."
The filmmakers plan to take their case against censorship to the Supreme Court in August. "The industry will never thrive if we constantly face these threats," says Riza. To be sure, the local industry is small, and produced only 37 films last year. "There is so much competition from foreign films," says producer Paquita Wijaya. "We need to encourage the creation of more quality films, but that won't happen unless we standardize the criteria used for classifying films."
Onscreen violence, smoking and romance among teenagers discovering their sexuality and the value of their virginity are rife in Indonesian films, because those are the images that draw the kids to the theaters. In most cases, films are made for less than $500,000, and producers need to sell at least 300,000 tickets to break even. Few reach that benchmark without a heavy dose of teen romance, superstition or horror, and even then most Indonesian films aren't shown for more than a week on a particular screen. "The only films that do well now are ones kids see over and over," adds producer Wijaya. That's a formula Hollywood knows all too well. But if Indonesian cinema is to flourish, commercially, its producers need to rely on something more predictable than the whim of the censors to determine whether their movie makes it onto screens.