The entertainment industry cannot be set apart from a country’s political and socio-cultural situation, especially for a wide-ranged audience of films. As a form of expression and art, films celebrate freedom by varying in genre, style and concept. Yet, they are bound by censorship or the society of their own country.
The filmmaking process is one thing, but getting its permission to release for public is another thing. We have witnessed films, sometimes even good films, being banned by the government or censorship institution. The level and characteristics of censorship are different in every country. In Southeast Asia, forms of entertainment, including films, have been filtered since the days of colonialism. Films that ignited the natives to overrule the colonizer or, later after some countries have been freed, the ruling regime.
In Indonesia, the most restrictive regime, in terms of banning films, is the New Order of President Soeharto’s. Films are strictly censored by Department of Information and Film Censorship Committee (now Film Censorship Institution). Since the regime is highly corrupt and authoritative, the government carefully banned films that explicitly or at least somewhat direct the citizens to run against the ruling government. They control the citizens not only through politics, but also ideology. This is why many films are banned during that time for they are considered as delivering messages that are against the government. Specifically, films are automatically banned if they indicate any message or symbol of communism.
Although nowadays such authoritative censorship has lessened significantly, socio-cultural norms still play a huge part in banning films. A Buddhist-themed horror film titled Arpat was initially banned in Thailand for showing scenes in which a fictional monk is involved in offensive activities to Buddhism. A young monk kissing a girl and drinking alcohol are part of these scenes. It finally passed censorship by cutting some scenes and was selected as Thailand’s submission in the 89th Oscars for Foreign Film category. However, the public has mixed feelings about the selection as some of them felt like such controversial film should not represent the country.
Back to Indonesia, even though the New Order regime has long ended, film banning still comes from public opinion. Ironically, some of the banned films are permitted in other countries and even won in international film festivals. Most of the time, the public are disturbed if they feel that the films are triggering people to deviate from social norms, even when the purpose of the film is to educate or raise awareness to the ever changing socio-cultural conditions. Recently, the film Kucumbu Tubuh Indahku (Memories of My Body), although permitted by the government, was banned immediately in the region of Padang, West Sumatera. Padang Deputy Mayor Mahyeldi said the film contained elements that go against the religious, social and cultural norms in the region. The film itself was about a young boy’s journey and exploration of his sexuality. Internationally released, this film was given Cultural DIversity Award of the 2018 Asia Pacific Awards (APSA) and was screened in several international film festivals. Aside from Padang, the city of Depok in West Java and Palembang in South Sumatera also rejected the film. The controversial film also stirred the social media and an online petition emerged to support a public boycott. The petition raised over 5,000 signatures as of April 26th 2019.
Countries, both the government and the public, need to acknowledge that film is the most commercial form of expression, thus it will deliver messages and raise awareness that for some or most of us are disturbing. Yet, perhaps we feel disturbed because the films are too close to reality. People are not supposed to be given just fantasies or subtle messages about the reality around them. Sometimes, they need a loud ‘bang’ through strong visuals. However, not all the public needs to be exposed to such harsh films, for instance films with graphic scenes. Countries need to specify the classification of film audience, instead of banning the films all at once.