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The Indonesian film Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku (Memories of My Body) is winning awards and accolades around the world. But at home in Indonesia, few may get to see this evocative masterpiece because of an overblown call to censor it. Its creator, Garin Nugroho, knew the film would be provocative because of its political content, but it’s the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) content, not politics, that is proving controversial. Although the Film Censorship Board (LSF) approved the film, local Islamist leaders from Java to Kalimantan and Sumatra have effectively prevented its screening.

Garin’s film covers a period in the late 1960s, when Gen. Soeharto came to power and the army and anticommunist militias killed more than 1 million left-leaning activists. Back then, censorship was common. Authoritarian rule tolerated only one television station and one radio channel, both under government control.

In the 1980s, Soeharto was at the peak of his power. With a tight grip on the country, he positioned his generals to control almost all government ministries.

Soeharto’s fall in May 1998 opened the gate to democratic rule and the freedom of expression, but this freedom also enabled political Islamists to flex their muscles. Over the last two decades, Islamists have pushed the government to increasingly adopt legal provisions based on the sharia. Many of these regulations discriminate religious or sexual minorities. 

Indonesia has been engulfed by a government-driven moral panic about gender and sexuality since early 2016. Politicians, government officials and state offices have issued anti-LGBT statements, calling for a criminalization of or “cure” for homosexuality, and for censorship of information related to LGBT individuals and activities.

Garin’s main character in the film is a boy named Juno, who grows up as an orphan and experiences many painful episodes in his life. His father, enduring distress, disappears after seeing the massacre of many suspected communists. Juno moves from one relative to another. He is gay.

Juno is a composite character based in part on the life of a real-world dancer named Rianto, who also plays in the film. Rianto was born in 1981 in a village in Banyumas in Java. Rianto, from a young age, learned a Javanese folk dance called lengger, a traditional cross-gender dance in which “the feminine and masculinity overlap”, as the filmmaker describes it. Rianto is now an established dancer with his own dance studio in Tokyo, teaching Japanese to play the gamelan, the percussive music form from Bali and Java, and to dance Javanese dances. 

The film was released in Indonesian theaters on April 18, but local officials immediately banned it in DepokBekasiGarutBogor (West Java), Palembang (South Sumatra), Pontianak and Kubu Raya (West Kalimantan), as well as Balikpapan (East Kalimantan). The ban came after three petitioners used to ask the government to ban the film, apparently on the basis of the movie’s trailer, contending that it was an “LGBT-promoting” film. The abovementioned local authorities immediately cancelled screenings in their cities. 

“We worry that the younger generation, who are looking for their identities, will imitate the [LGBT] behavior in this film,” wrote one of the petitioners, Rakhmi Mashita

In Kubu Raya, Regent Muda Mahendrawan decreed that the film was against “religious values” and would drive young people to accept “deviant sexual activities,” stressing that he regretted that the Censorship Board had approved the film. 

Masduki Baidowi of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the semiofficial state Islamic institution, supported those local initiatives, calling on the government to ban the film nationwide. “The bad influence of LGBT people is a hot topic lately,” he said. “The MUI closely follows this development in a bid to protect Muslims from the negative impact of the LGBT movement.”

In Pontianak, a Malay youth paramilitary organization attacked a World Day Dance festival soon after the film’s ban there, claiming that the dances “promoted LGBT lifestyles.” They beat a campus lecturer and some students, claiming that the tight shirts worn by male dancers from the local university – and “dancing femininely” – were incompatible with Indonesian culture.

In fact, the dance lengger is mentioned in Serat Centhini, a 12-volume compilation of Javanese tales and teachings, published in 1814. It contains verses on sexuality, including overlapping femininity and masculinity. Serat Centhini depicts Java in the 17th century. 

Since 2017, police across Indonesia have raided saunas, nightclubs, hotel rooms, hair salons and private homes on suspicion of LGBT activities. Militant Islamists often tip off police or accompany them during these raids. Police have also initiated social media monitoring to target LGBT groups. The government’s failure to halt arbitrary and unlawful raids by police and militant Islamists on private LGBT gatherings has derailed public health efforts to curb HIV in men who have sex with men.

The film has no gay sex scenes and no kissing. In fact, it invites young Indonesians to contemplate how rich traditional ethnic culture must fight to survive imported cultures and religions, including Islam, that have entered Indonesia.

It used to be common to see LGBT characters in Indonesian movies and television. But in February 2016, the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission banned the broadcast on television and radio of information related to LGBT people, calling the ban a “protection for children and adolescents that are vulnerable to duplicating deviant LGBT behavior.” The statement contradicted the commission’s own 2012 Guidelines for Broadcast Practice and Standard for Broadcast Programs, which prohibit programs that stigmatize “people of certain sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Local governments in Indonesia are obliged to respect national laws and institutions, which includes supporting local artists and promoting artistic development. The government is required under international law to protect the right to freedom of expression for artists like Rianto and Garin. It’s sad that an accomplished dancer like Rianto openly and proudly represents Javanese traditions in Tokyo when his own story is censored at home in Pontianak, Palembang and Balikpapan.

By censoring a beautiful film like “Memories of My Body,” these local governments are discriminating sexual minorities and denying all Indonesians an opportunity to enjoy their rich culture. Indonesian culture and art will suffer a great setback with the restrictions on this film — putting the rights to security, privacy and free expression for LGBT Indonesians once again under threat.

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