The release of an award-winning Indonesian film about a male dancer exploring his sexuality has led to a backlash from religious groups in the south-east Asian country.

The release of Garin Nugroho’s Memories of My Body comes at a time of increased antagonism towards the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

The film was released last month in about 40 cinemas around the country. Nugroho has since received death threats, and a growing number of cities have banned the poetic drama, which is now only being shown in three cinemas.
Film Sparks Backlash
A petition urging authorities to ban the film, which is based on the life of choreographer and dancer Rianto, has garnered more than 93,000 signatures and is growing by the day. It expresses concern that “the LGBT film” will make the younger generation “imitate the behaviour seen” in it.

According to the Jakarta Post, Mohammad Idris, the deputy mayor of Depok in West Java, wrote to authorities complaining that the film allegedly showed “deviant sexual acts and blasphemy”.

“I reject and strongly criticise the behaviour of people who make petitions without having seen the film,” said Nugroho. “I have always made films about sensitive issues, but [it’s important that there is] a room for dialogue [and] freedom of expression and democracy in Indonesia, as the biggest Muslim country.”

Memories of My Body, which premiered at the Venice film festival last year, follows four stages in the life of Juno, a young boy in a Central Java village who becomes infatuated by the lengger lanang, a traditional dance that often has male dancers taking the role of female dancers. The inspiration for the film came from a dance work entitled Medium, a recent collaboration between Rianto and Nugroho.

Director Garin Nugroho says efforts to get his film Memories of My Body banned are a symptom of democratic decline in Indonesia

“Medium and Memories of My Body are part of a long research [project] on masculinity and femininity in various islands in Indonesia, especially in traditional performance art or dance,” said Nugroho.

Historically, several films released in Indonesia have discussed LGBT issues openly without any problem, but attitudes are changing, said the director. “In this past 10 years, more than 10 films had [faced] bans. For me, it shows a decline in the state of democracy in my country and the growth of radical [religious groups] in Indonesia.”

A number of Nugroho’s previous works have touched on sensitive topics, not least his 2011 film Blindfold, about radical Islamist organisations recruiting Indonesian students.

“I didn’t expect some cities to ban the film, but the important thing for me is that many young people supported me on social media, writing”: ‘I am with Garin.’ It looks like a simple thing, but it is a beautiful hope for the future,” he said.

LGBT rights in Indonesia have rolled back in recent years. Same-sex relationships are not criminalised under Indonesia’s penal code, except in the autonomous Aceh region, where homosexuality is punished with 100 lashes and gay men have been publicly caned.

According to a March report on state-sponsored homophobia by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association: “Indonesia’s Pornography Law, which includes ‘bodily movements’ in its coverage and imposes heavy fines as well as long prison terms, has also been used to target LGBTQ people.”

The report said several jurisdictions within Indonesia had “enacted laws and regulations that severely restrict human rights and/or stigmatise LGBT people”.

Hartoyo, a prominent activist, has firsthand experience of violence against sexual minorities in Indonesia. In 2007, the police in Aceh urinated on his head and physically attacked him and his boyfriend.

“Indonesian people do not get good information about LGBT [people], so there is a moral panic,” he said. “[The level] of persecution and violence against LGBT people is very high. In Indonesia, it’s very difficult to live safely as LGBT citizens.”

Tunggal Pawestri, a women’s rights activist, said the film has attracted so much controversy because of growing “religious-based intolerance in Indonesia and the growing hatred against LGBT people”.

Pawestri said: “The film depicts at least three issues that were considered sensitive and taboo: sexuality, political trauma, sexual and gender minorities.”

Hera Diani, managing editor of the Indonesian feminist web magazine Magdalene, said: “LGBT used to be a don’t-ask-don’t-tell issue. It was frowned upon, but public persecution was very rare.” But now, she said, persecution is on the rise and LGBT people are turfed out of their neighbourhoods.

An Indonesian social worker who writes under the pseudonym Downtown Boy said reactions towards the film showed how increasingly polarised Indonesia is becoming when it comes to LGBT issues.

“In the past, there were no prosecutions against LGBT because the general communities used to turn a blind eye on us. Nowadays, we’ve become a political scapegoat, because many conservative politicians have been using anti-LGBT rhetoric to gain popularity and greater influence among the increasingly religious society,” he said.

“Our trans sisters and brothers are having it the hardest way. It’s no longer safe for a trans person to casually walk down the street.”