By Nicholas Snow
About ten years ago, seven freelance journalists decided that Indonesian movie screens deserved more than just Hollywood films. They determined that they would import international cinema to Indonesia, and since most of them were “queer,” the Q Film Festival – or “Q Fest” – was born.
I caught up recently with one of the founders, Executive Director John Badalu.
“When I mention to friends that there’s a gay film festival in Indonesia, they’re shocked,” I told John. “What sort of stereotypes can you counteract about Indonesia?”
“First of all, people would be shocked because although it’s the most heavily- populated Muslim country, it’s not really a country based on religion,” he explained.
“Here, there are five legal state religions. When people say, ‘Oh my god! There’s a gay film festival in Indonesia? It must be really something,’ it’s actually based upon Muslim stereotypes. Indonesia is not like Middle Eastern countries. The Islamic law [Sharia] is secondary. It’s a republic here.”
“And then, of course,” he adds, “there are always stereotypical things about queer people in Asia. But at the same time it is very different. There are a lot of queer people who are Muslim, who are quite religious but at the same time comfortable with their sexuality.”
I asked John about Muslims in Indonesia. He explained: “Homosexuality is definitely a sin in Islam’s holy book, The Koran. At the same time you have Islamic schools where usually only one gender attends. It’s not a secret that boys screw around in that kind of environment.”
One way Q Fest has gotten past traditional Indonesian norms – and the film censors – is to show their movies underground, in non-cinema spaces, particularly in cultural venues. In addition, they are not permitted to charge for admission to Q Fest. Only films which the organizers believe can pass the scrutiny of the censors are submitted for government approval; more controversial films are still reserved for the country’s non-regulated cultural venues.
John is able to finance the world travel required to select films for possible inclusion in Q Fest through his “day job” John as international publicist for Indonesian films which he happens to represent at film festivals throughout the world; this enables him to screen queer cinema on the same trips.
I asked him about the state of gay civil rights in Indonesia. “There’s no such thing,” he answered flatly. “That said, there’s no specific law against homosexuality. We are not like Malaysia or Singapore in that respect. On the other hand, we are not like India, which enjoys a more liberated climate, let’s say. We don’t have that.”
When he recalls the early days of Q Fest, he remembers thinking about it in terms of a hobby. “We just decided, ‘okay this will be fun,’” he laughs. “We did it in our spare time, but now it is taking 70% of my time. We had no idea at the beginning that it would become very big like this.”
Q Fest has Indonesians coming out to the movies, but what about coming out of the closet? John advises, “You just have to be true to yourself, especially in the journey of coming out. I don’t encourage everyone I know to come out. You have to know yourself.”
Visit www.qfilmfestival.org, and while you’re at it, I encourage you to remember John and his colleagues and go see a racy movie in a public space, in honor of the freedom we enjoy to do so.
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