Emancipating Desire, Empowering Fantasy: Cultural Politics of Contemporary Cinema in Indonesia and Malaysia


Budi Irawanto

PhD defended at: 

National University of Singapore



Political changes since the Reformasi movements in 1998 in Indonesia and Malaysia not only provide fertile ground for an “inter-reference mode of analysis” (Chen, 2010), but also an optic of emerging new visual politics amidst socio-political upheavals in these two countries. This thesis examines the intricate and co-constitutive relationship between cinema and politics within the fast changing socio-political landscapes of contemporary Indonesia and Malaysia since the Reformasi era. Employing an “inter-referencing” method and drawing on Jacques Rancière’s and Alain Badiou’s theories on the potentiality of cinema for progressive social change, I examine new film practices, genres, networks, industry structures and social struggles in Indonesia and Malaysia today which are aided by the advancement in new digital technology.

Unlike established film industries in the West, the structure of Indonesian and Malaysian cinema is marked by irregularities of economic activities (absence of film distributors, declining film theaters, rampant film piracy) that allow the emergence of a multitude of amateur and independent filmmakers outside the commercial film circuit who have contributed to the creation of a new mode of indie film production. The interconnections and informal networks formed by a “new generation” of Indonesian and Malaysian filmmakers have facilitated an alternative indie filmmaking whose spread is aided by grass root film festivals and events organized by film communities. Facilitated by the Internet, the new indie filmmaking has flourished given new virtual structures of distribution and expression which enabled it to escape from dependency on oligarchic domination and state censorship.

While conventional genres still exist, the young Indonesian and Malaysian filmmakers infuse unconventional themes (racial and religious pluralism, alternative sexuality, troubled youth and urban crisis, marginalized peripheral places) into existing genres, which make visible and audible those who have been unseen, unheard, uncounted and discriminated within society. This thesis argues that contemporary Indonesian and Malaysian indie films can no longer be understood simply as a critique or allegory of existing socio-political conditions. Rather, they signal a “coming of democratic society” which has yet to materialize but is nonetheless making its presence amidst rising conservative moral forces, social cleavages, and desperation of authoritative regimes in these two countries. As a major study of Indonesian and Malaysian independent cinema since 1998, employing an inter-referencing approach, this thesis offers intriguing insights into the interactive flows of structures, visions and politics of the independent film communities in these two countries.

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International Insitute for Asian Studies