Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 4, No. 2, 1991
Television and ...
Edited by John Hartley

Si Boy looked at Johnny: Indonesian Screen at the Turn of the Decade

Krishna Sen

Correct cultural film making, writes Trinh Minh-ha, "usually implies that Africans show Africa, Asians Asia, and Euro-Americans, the world." 1 Since the 1950s almost every Asian film that has entered the mainstream Anglo-American discourse on cinema, has staked its reputation on the extent to which it represents the 'authentic' Asia. Recent successes, like Yellow Earth, Red Sorghum and Salaam Bombay, no less than their 1950s predecessors like Rashomon and the Apu Trilogy, make the grade for western film critics by virtue of the access they provide to the otherwise hidden, 'real Asia'.

Satyajit Ray's most recent English biographer Andrew Robinson writes: "By the standards of most directors not very much happens in most of Ray's films, and yet each seems to embody a section of Bengali society; together like Kurosawa's films they describe a culture.'2 In much the same way, the American Donald Richie writes of Red Sorghum that it "does for Chinese cinema what Rashomon did for the opens a whole world of myth and beauty.' 3 The metaphor of 'opening up' cultures is persistent through western critical writing on 'serious' Asian cinema. Richie's critical action upon the film opens up what might be regarded as the 'inscrutable orient' of an old colonial discourse and the 'closed communist society' of the newer cold war one. The film critic can now perform something of the traditional function of anthropologists. Only now the 'field' comes home, if not to your local suburban theatre, then to the metropolitan film festival scene.

But films that interest the critics are not central to the audiences of Asian nations, the overwhelming majority of whom have consistently rejected the films that western and national aesthetes (the latter frequently following the directions of the former) have declared as the best films of their lands.4

This paper weaves between 'expert' film criticisms and popular receptions, attempting to see the patterns in both. The unpicking of the expert's design ranges speculatively over readings of third world cinemas over the last 30 years or so, while the attempt to understand popular audiences' responses is located in the late 1980s in Indonesia. This uncomfortable scramble for the global and the local is necessitated partly by the extreme marginality of almost any Asian national cinema and television, and especially the Indonesian one, in mainstream academic discourses in Australia. These moves are necessary, too, to demonstrate that there are critical questions to be answered in relation to the popular media in Asia, which current theorising of third world cinema does not begin to ask.

Authentic Asian or Native Narratives

Since western critics discovered Asian cinema in the 1950s, much of their critical engagement has been with films not popular in their country of origin, which have then become identified as good Asian cinema. In the 1950s these films were graded on a realist scale depending on the extent to which the film revealed the assumed reality of China, India and so on. This presumption of reality allowed the rejection of both popular spectacular cinema such as the Bombay films, and the overtly political films of Communist China.

Realism has died a slower death in Asian cinema than in film theory as a whole, in part at least because the Asianist scholar's reason for existence is to discover an Asia, simultaneously different from and accessible to the west. Also, the Asian bureaucrats and critics have retained a colonial realist notion of cinema, and have refused to make the shift from "realism as reflecting the real world" to "realism as a way of talking about the world." 6

In the 1980s, the older search for Asian reality in Asian cinemas had become somewhat unfashionable. The contemporary western audience looks for authentic representations of Asian culture, for 'culturally correct' works of art. "The Third World representative the modern sophisticated public ideally seeks is the unspoiled African, Asian, or the real native -- the truly different ...'6 The search now is not for the real Asia, but for a native narrative, the further from the classical realist traditions of western cinema the better.

How then is this distance measured? It seems to me that there have been two methodological barometers for this analysis. First, and most common, the method that reads Asian screen texts primarily in relation to Hollywood, Jullianne Burton calls Afro-Asian and Latin American cinemas "marginal cinemas" which need to be explained in terms of their "implicit and explicit contestation of mainstream (read western) culture."7 Robert Kolker writes that "in fact, no direct split between film making in America and elsewhere exists. There is rather an interplay in which the dominant style/s of American movies are always present to be denied, expanded upon, embraced and rejected, only to be embraced again".8 It is difficult to think about many of the Asian cinemas as marginal. Popular films of Hong Kong or Bombay are not, of course, marginal at all to the cultural life of millions of spectators in south, east and southeast Asia- But then Kolker and Burton are dealing with either politically engaged cinema or 'art' cinema, which are largely insignificant to these audiences. Especially in Kolker's case, the art films he is concerned with are frequently those made with the international film critic, rather than a local population, in mind.

The second method of analysis starts not from Hollywood, but from ancient local mythology. There is now a substantial and very interesting body of literature analysing Chinese and Indian cinemas in terms of classical texts. The Sininity or Indianness of these cinemas then is seen as dependent on the extent to which they reproduce a set of mythological tropes.9 Vijay Mishra writes, for instance,

In examining the Bombay film as a particular signifying practice and a culturally specific art form we would like to claim that the Indian epics themselves (Ramayana and Mahabharata) constitute a 'grand-syntagm', a massive narrative form which governs individual segments of the Indian filmic text. 10

This kind of reading has been persuasive in the context of western academic film theorising, in part I think, because it duplicates the construction of the Orient as unchanging, bound by the ancient and the mythic. Culturally correct cinema then becomes a demand that you remember and reproduce a pre-colonial past, the repository of the true Indian or Chinese narrative.

This position has the advantage that it wrenches Asian film traditions away from a permanent dependence on Hollywood. But it does so only at the expense of making them permanently dependent on classical texts, assumed to be the repository of a national culture. But is this pure ancient, pre-colonial in any sense available to the popular audience? In India, where new gods are still being created, and in Indonesia, where the ancient demons and god-clown Punakawans ride motorbikes and use English or Dutch in the wayang repertoire, how useful is it to read the contemporary text against an ancient narrative? Is it in fact not more useful to see how the contemporary media have altered the reading of the ancient text? Is it the Ramayana's popularity or television's that made weekly televised Ramayana the longest running Indian television series? To read Indian or Indonesian screen texts with the great epics in mind, rather than colonial history, the contemporary state and, at the most immediate level, the structure of the media industry, may well mean that we fall into an essentialist (and in this case essentially orientalist) position of emphasising continuities and universalities, so that we miss what is more significant --changes, interruptions and disruptions.

Although the terms of assessment of Asian cinemas have shifted from 'representing-the-real-Asia', to 'evoking-Asian-culture', films categorised as the former in the 1950s and 60s have something in common with those in the 1980s categorised as the latter. It is possible to identify images and sounds which, for the sophisticated audiences in the west, represent that essential and essentially different Asia.

In a course on Asian cinema at Murdoch University, I tried to get students (including a number of southeast Asians) to compare a range of Asian screen texts. On the one hand, they saw Pather Panchali (Song of the Little Road), the first film in the Apu trilogy, which catapulted India's Satyajit Ray to international fame in the late 1950s, and Yellow Earth, which did the same for China's Cheng Kaige, in the late 1980s. On the other hand, they watched a popular Indonesian teenage romance film, a film remaja, the most popular Indonesian genre for at least the last decade. Entirely in agreement with the international scholars and critics the class clearly identified Pather Panchali and Yellow Earth as the distinctively Asian texts, while rejecting the Indonesian teenage film as a more or less crude copy of western popular media, reflecting the preferences of some sort of marginal 'westernised' elements of the country. Many were a little surprised to discover that the teenage romance films, reflecting what they saw as 'westernised' values, were in fact immensely successful with popular audiences in Indonesia, whereas Yellow Earth failed at the Chinese box-office, and Pather Panchali developed a cult following amongst the educated Indian elite, only after the western critics had proclaimed its greatness. 11

The students own unpacking of what they saw as Asian or western in Asian screen products is quite revealing. At the most obvious level, in the Indonesian teenage romance, the clothes of the characters, and the surroundings, houses, cars, highways all looked familiar and similar to things Australian. On the other hand the identifiably different clothing in Pather Panchali and Yellow Earth signified Asianness. The empty spaces, the slowness of the camera and the starkness of the scenery were seen simultaneously as marks of the rural and the Asian. The urban, it turned out, was equated with 'not authentic Asia', while the narrative and photographic foregrounding of poverty in Pather Panchali and Yellow Earth were identified as distinctly Asian.

Pather Panchali and Yellow Earth have another less tangible element in common. Both films construct a nation's past. In Yellow Earth overtly by the use of dates early in the film, in Pather Panchali by making the whole film a childhood memory, certain narrative devices are used to indicate 'this story is not of now'. But against this image of Asia as poor, rural and historical (and therefore unchanging, because the past cannot change), we need to recognise that some Asian societies like Singapore are almost entirely urban. And India has an urban middle-class many times the size of the entire Australian population. Indonesia's capital Jakarta alone has a population of 12 million. No matter how small a proportion of Asia's total population these constitute, the fast growing urban sector constitutes the principal film audiences of these countries. Do we then disenfranchise their rapidly changing lived realities and culture by authenticating only a certain sort of Asian screen text?

Si Boy of Jakarta

By all accounts, the total number of movie-goers is on the rise in Indonesia. This is despite anxious predictions in film circles in the mid-1980s that the VCR boom, and especially the consequent easy and cheap availability of uncensored English language films, had doomed the local film industry. By late 1989, however, AMPEA (American Motion Pictures Exports Association) was visibly worried by the degree to which local products were consistently outselling the imports. The market researcher employed by AMPEA to investigate the Indonesian film market (who had also incidentally worked for several other American industries involved in business in Indonesia) commented that the Indonesian consumer market for all kinds of goods and services was growing now to an extent that it made Indonesia an "interesting prospect for the Americans businesses", including film and television producers. AMPEA's consultant in Jakarta told me that their research had concluded that unfair trade practices in the Indonesian film distribution sector were largely responsible for the low growth in Hollywood's share of the expanding film market.

There is no doubt that restrictions, legal and illegal, do impede the operations of a free market in Indonesia, in all goods, material and symbolic. What such market research does not explain though is why the latest James Bond film, which opened amidst great advertising blitz in Jakarta, was reportedly out-grossed by the top selling Indonesian film Catatan Si Boy 111 (Boy's Journal III).12 A film set in the elite suburbs of Jakarta and in California in the USA, Si Boy 111 is not a film that Indonesian critics have taken seriously. Nor is it the kind of film that international critics would look at. Si Boy's director, Nasri Cheppy, said in an interview: "I keep asking myself, why is it that films that win the Citra (Indonesian national film awards) are only ever seen by few people...I analysed the situation. Then I made the film...It appears, that the society needs films like these." 13

Si Boy is by all accounts the second most popular Indonesian film to date, after Saur Sepu, which was also made at about the same time. Therefore, a reading of the Si Boy series (there have been four films from 1987 to 1990) in relation to specific conditions operating in the industry, may allow us to understand some of the forces shaping contemporary Indonesian screen texts and their national audiences.

Indonesia's Displaced Ads

In the western media, radio and television rather than film are the media of the advertiser. When a film is screened in the movie theatre, there may be a few ads during the interval, when half the audience is out buying popcorn, but it would be unusual to see a film (unless it is on TV) which is either broken up every so often for sponsors' messages, or incorporates large amounts of direct brand advertising within the narrative. Bottles and trademarks of Coca-cola and Pepsi form a remarkably prominent part of the mise-en-scene in Si Boy, even by Indonesian standards, where despite some controversy a certain amount of 'sponsors' messages' within films has become acceptable since the late 1970s.

In Indonesia, the expansion of the consumer market in the 1970s meant the expansion of radio and television audiences. While television was introduced in 1962, it was not until the early 1970s that anyone took the medium too seriously. In the years immediately following the civil war of 1965-66, the Information Minister regarded radio as the main instrument for winning people over to the new military government. l4 By the late 1970s, however, there were as many people watching television as were listening to the radio, around 60% of the population over all.15 As the hours of transmission expanded in the only and state-owned television channel, so did the amount of advertising. But in 1981 the government started phasing out television advertising, on the grounds that advertising was partly responsible for social unrest caused by rising consumer expectations among the poorer sections of the population, especially in rural areas.

The advertising industry responded almost immediately by seeking other audiovisual avenues for delivering consumers to retailers. Advertisers entered into arrangements with mobile film units to pay for free screening of films in rural areas in return for inserting long ad-breaks into the screening. Layar Tancep (literally 'screens stuck on the ground') have been the commonest mode of film watching in rural Indonesia since the arrival of cinema in that country. Dozens of registered (and possibly many more unregistered) companies operate with a truck, a screen, a generator and a projector, which they can set up in open air communal areas of villages and show films paid for by advertisers, whose messages take up as much time as the film, thus providing a free evening's entertainment for the villagers. There are no dependable statistics about the numbers of spectators at these mobile cinemas. According to figures produced by the Central Bureau of Statistics, under 4% of the rural population watches films in any given week, while over 50% watch television. On the other hand an officer of the Association of Mobile Cinemas (PERBIKI) estimated that by 1980 mobile cinemas were visiting 80% of villages on a regular basis. 16 In 1982 these were regarded as such an effective mode of reaching the rural population, that a film production company owned by senior police officers and producing propaganda films about Suharto was considering setting up its own mobile film unit, which it was confident would be paid for by advertisers, and at the same time carry government propaganda into remote parts of rural Indonesia, where there were no movie theatres. 17

A new device for taking audio-visual advertising to the comparatively wealthy VCR owning households appeared in 1988, when two companies got permission to start 'video magazines', containing all the normal ingredients of a television magazine program, including large amounts of advertising. 18 A slightly different and earlier version of using the VCR as a replacement for television were the very cheaply produced serialised narrative on video, which consumers could hire on a regular basis, and follow the episodic tales in much the same way that fans follow TV soaps. A more significant channel of access to Jakarta residents opened up with the coming of private pay television in 1988. Indonesia's first private television station RCTI (Rajawali Citra Televisi Indonesia), owned by the President's son Bambang Trihatmojo, was initially expected to broadcast only to a small well-heeled Jakarta elite. Subsription to RCTI telecast was hugely expensive, requiring a decoder and antenna worth about US $ 2000, plus an annual subscription of $500. 19 "This will buy viewers a fare of 85% entertainment -- mainly US TV shows ... and a few movies." And advertisements. "The advertising community" one executive reportedly said "is overjoyed". Even before RCTI started transmissions, 70% of its prime advertising slots were sold out. RCTI expected major multinationals operating in Indonesia to increase their advertising budgets for Indonesia as a response to the new-found access to consumers. 20

Both video magazines and especially the private TV took years to negotiate and establish. But while these long term structural changes to the Indonesian media were being negotiated, the soap opera was being reinvented in the Indonesian film industry. Soap operas started as serialised radio plays with the messag about household products built into them. Brand names, trade marks and immediately identifiable consumer products started to appear in particular films quite frequently in the early 1980s. According to two producers I interviewed, the advertisers "sponsor" a film and contribute a specified amount to its production. Then rush copies can be examined to work out the amount of exposure their products are likely to receive in the film, and further payments negotiated on that basis.

In the mid-1980s, Indonesia's 1,700 registered cinemas sold around 120-140 million tickets a year, 35-40% of this shared by 70 or so Indonesian films produced each year.2l This is not an enormous reach per film from the advertiser's point of view. A serialised story, which could depend on a regular following, is much more suitable, in terms of both targetting specific sections of population, and having regular access to them.

Saur Sepu and Si Boy, which turned out to be top grossing films, were both serials but directed at distinctly different audiences. Intended mainly for a rural audience and set in prehistoric times, Saur Sepu is the adventures of a hero who rides on the large mythical bird Garuda, magically destroying his enemies. Not a particularly suitable story line for showing modern consumer goods, but it did have sponsorship from an Indonesian pharmaceutical company whose products are advertised at the begining of each screening of the film. 22

Si Boy had started as a weekly, hour-long radio serial in 1985, on a station that played the 'top 40' and had a strong following amongst young Jakartans. The story centred around a smart, intelligent high-school kid from a super-rich family, Boy, and his friends. It was a perfect story line into which images of all kinds of consumer goods, directed especially at teenagers and young adults, could be included. Noticeably, the characters' tastes in brands of cigarettes and soft drinks change between the first and third film of the series. Coke appears to have sponsored the first and Pepsi the third. The success of each meant more advertising money was available and advertiser's goods more prominently displayed on the screen. A radio serial was thus transformed into a soap opera, in the original sense of the term, where the ads merged into the narrative. The structure and constraints of television and the needs of the retail industry could then be seen as one force in shaping a new film genre in Indonesia, and one that was extremely successful.

Open Ends and Generation Gaps

Si Boy II ends with Boy's plans to go to university in the USA. The next film starts with Boy's experiences in the US, where he is quickly joined by his girlfriend Vera and best friend Emon, from Indonesia, who have come to spend their end of school holidays. Much of the film is taken up with watching American television, and seeing the tourist sites of California with a few skirmishes with a group of local thugs, led by an Indonesian male, who turns out to be a former boy-friend of Vera. The thugs are pushing drugs. A little before Vera gets to California, Boy manages to save a Philippine-Indonesian woman from their clutches. She makes passes at both Boy and Vera, who in the last scene of the film are planning to set her up with the very effeminate Emon "because they are both just a bit off!" Horsing around in a park, Emon is pushed into a lake. End of film -- but not of the story. No doubt in the next episode more of the characters' pasts could be dredged up to add minor adventures to the very pleasant present.

Each Si Boy segment ends with the possibility of another beginning. It ls not so much that the narrative has an open ending, rather that the film stops at a particular point in a story that we know keeps going. Like television soaps, and like its radio origins, the Si Boy films are in present continuous, rather than in the conventional past perfect tense of a narrative film, or even serials that generally start with a crisis which has been resolved at the end of the episode. In this Si Boy marks a change from the filem remaja (teenage films), the most popular genre of Indoneisian cinema since the mid 1970s, and of which Si Boy is a part in terms of its setting, images, stars, characters and audiences.

I have argued elsewhere that how a story ends is very important to Indonesian films, because of the way censorship operates. Time and again the Board of Censorship has dictated the final sequences of films to ensure 'morally correct' (read politcally convenient) interpretations. The rules and conventions about endings operate as both constraint and contingency. A film can contain (in the sense of both carrying and limiting) contentious images and ideas, as long as it achieves the 'correct' conclusion. And audiences, aware of such conventions, can read the film without or against its narrative closure.23 The film remaja, which depend on the construction of the diegetic teenagers (and spectators) visually, linguistically and socially as a distinct group, always conclude with the assimilation of the teenager into the adult world, either through the teenage lovers getting married (which equals graduating into adulthood) or through the resolution of the teenagers' conflicts with their parent, or both. Through the genre as a whole, then, teenage and youth come to be defined as natural phase of life, where human beings behave in distinctive ways, resulting in conflicts that are resolved by integration into adult life. The narrative device simultaneously acknowledges and denies generational difference and conflict.

By avoiding a closure Si Boy escapes the need to define teenage as a temporary phase of life, and thus avoids having to accept adult perspectives and practices (such as marriage and family) as both correct and natural. It begins to define the distinctive lifestyle of the young urban men and women as a social phenomenon of contemporary Indonesia. The discourse on sexuality in the film is a good example. Since it does not have to conclude, the film is able to construct sexuality without reference to marriage, but without the moral condemnation that attaches to s~ex outside marriage in conventional Indonesian screen texts. The reference to homosexuality is particularly interesting. Homosexuality is always defined as an aberration needing to be cured (in a very few exceptional films it is tolerated as some human frailty or disability), or marginalised as a joke. In Si Boy, homosexuality, both male and female, can be referred to as just another aspect of sexuality. The form of the unending story can in effect map out all kinds of minority behaviour condemned as aberrant in dominant ideology, without having to directly confront the structures of dominance.

The older generation intrudes upon the snapshots and dialogues of teenagers only rarely, and then mainly as a source of money, which buys the teenagers their lifestyle. In the third film of the series for instance, Boy's parents appear only briefly towards the end. Vera's and Emon's parents appear in only two sequences where they provide their kids with the funds to go to California, then see them off at the airport. Teenage life is not described in its contradistinction to 'normal' adult life, but in its own terms. The marginality of the parents to the progress of the films also allows an age-based lifestyle to be explored without reference to the wider social question of disparity of wealth and power which itself makes possible that lifestyle of Mercedes cars and foreign travels. The question of acquisition of wealth is foregrounded briefly in the first film, where the father of Boy's first girlfriend (not Vera), an honest bureaucrat, stops her from seeing Boy on the grounds that his father is a corrupt businessman. His daughter argues vehemently that Boy cannot be held responsible for his father's actions. It is not that one argument wins over the other, but that they are both dispensed with and become insignificant.

This dispensation given in the film to the children of the corrupt Jakarta elite is duplicated in real conversations in an interesting way. An anthropologist friend, who watched the film with me in Jakarta, told me afterwards of a conversation he had had with a young Jakarta businessman about the access to lucrative businesses that were available to Suharto's children. The young businessman said "Tommy (Hutomo, the President's youngest son) is really clever with his business. He can't help it if his father is the President." Even more remarkable, a former political prisoner of the Suharto regime commented to me in a casual converstion: "Suharto won't let me get work. But my son works for his son's company. You see, the fight is between us, not in the next generation." Si Boy then forms part of a discourse of legitimation of unequal access to wealth in New Order Indonesia, legitimation of an exceptionally luxurious lifestyle, accessible only to few, but acceptable to many.

This legitimation is only possible by excluding the generation whose cnmes and corruptions resulted in the great wealth of the contemporary urban upper class. It is only possible through a separation of the consumption of wealth from its production.

Prambors radio station, where Si Boy was first conceived, has "refused to grow up" (as one of its directors commented) since its begining as a backyard illegal operation in 1967. 24 Ongky Alexander who plays Boy in the films is now planning with some friends to pull out of the Indonesian film festival, "where the jury are all old and have no understanding of the movement and language of young people," and because awards go to histoncal films and not to film remaja. Youth culture, closely linked to advertising's construction of the the young consumer, is now seeking a legitimised space on screen, as it has succeeded in establishing in the area of print and radio.

At the same time, the open ending leaves politcal options open to the film's characters and its spectators in a way that constant pressure to resolve conflicts in favour of the older generation and the establishment does not. College student Epri, twenty-three years old, "long-haired, babyfaced" as one Indonesian journalist describes him, who originally played Boy on the radio, described the similarities between himself and his alter-ego as "hobinya, ngtrend", that is 'favourite pastime, being trendy!' That 'Engdonesian' language, very much the language of the film, is interesting in itself as a special language of class and age bound group. 'Ngtrend' describes the act of being 'in', whether it is in clothes, music or politics.

Boy and his friends can change with the audience, following trends in every aspect of behaviour. The political perspectives of Si Boy could change quite dramatically without the risk of losing the fans or the advertising revenues. Indeed, Boy must change in order to keep the constantly changing young audience and as such he is an indicator of social change in Indonesia.

Post-colonial Joke-fantasy

Boy has access to more wealth than any other Indonesian film hero I have found in about 300 films. The house where the family scenes were shot is reportedly the residence of Sudwikatmono, a cousin of President Suharto, and one of the richest men in Indonesia. Boy has a house, full of every conceivable luxury item and an army of servants. And the garage is full of top of the range latest model sports cars. Ongky Alexander, who plays Boy, started university in the USA in mid-1988. In the next episode, Boy followed. Almost three-quarters of the film was shot in the United-States, mostly in Los Angeles.

Early in 1990, in West Sumatra, bouncing along on flooded roads, in the back of a small truck converted into a passenger vehicle, I tried to ask young men from small towns why they follow the exploits of Boy, what do they like about the films. "Because it's a good film"; '~ecause he is rich and smart, but still sopan" (which is both moral and well-behaved); "because Indonesian films are not usually high quality like American films, like Si Boy is".

There is no way, of course, that you can judge the technical quality of a film by the time it gets to rural Sumatra. Even in villages close to the capital Jakarta, the print might rip three times in an average length screening, and it is not unusual for the roof to leak when the rains come. The theatres are mostly decrepit, and equipment is so old that Clint Eastwood can sound like Mickey Mouse. As I pursued the issue of 'high quality', it became increasingly clear that this was not a matter of sound or image quality, but the icons a film contained of western, technological society. The sportscars, the fridges with their magnetic stickers (incidentally, always bearing brand names of consumer goods), the soundsystems, and even the full length Pepsi ad on the simulated American TV programme, all translated as 'high quality'. Quality, then, is not the quality of the film, but a quality of life, that becomes symbolically accessible to the audience via the film.

In Si Boy III, not just an 'American standard of quality', but America itself, becomes available to the Indonesian spectator, as the film moves overseas. Colonial relations are symbolically inverted, not only because Indonesian cameras visually take possession of American sights and sounds (in much the same way that Hollywood has intruded upon Asia and Africa), but more significantly, because in terms of social relations the diegetic Americans are literally servants of the central Indonesian characters. The most striking scene is when Boy first arrives in America and goes to stay with his very wealthy uncle who lives in Los Angeles. A tall, blonde, white woman brings in the tea. The uncle orders her in polite Indonesian, she responds in high Javanese "yes, Master". Javanese is used precisely because in Indonesian such servile language is impossible to reproduce. Of course, the scene is half-joke, half-fantasy, but it is distinctly a postcolonial joke. It is only possible since colonial memory of powerful, cruel Dutch colonisers, which dominated all Indonesian fictional representation of the West for many years after independence, has faded and has simply become another Indonesian story, told in another genre, such as historical films and plays, and dredged up on television every year on independence day.

Si Boy is certainly not the first Indonesian film set in the contemporary west. Since about the mid-70s, a number offilm remaja have been shot partly in Europe or America. And although the particular construction of Americans as always playing subordinate roles to Indonesians is unusual (for example there are no scenes involving Boy's university classes, which might conceivably have contained Americans as teachers) it is not so much the particular construction, but the assertion of the right of Indonesians to symbolically reconstruct their relationship to the west that is most interesting. There is a peculiar, perhaps even dangerous, kind of construction of 'us Indonesians' in relation to ousider westerners here, in which the spectators, who share almost nothing of the protagonists' lifestyle, are implicated, and in such a way that rural, lower class Sumatran audiences can see the spoilt rich Jakarta kids as part of that imagined 'us', instead of an exploitative, powerful, corrupt, minority upper class.

End of a Story?

Private television has been spreading quickly through the cities of Indonesia since the opening of RCTI in August 1988 in Jakarta. A second private television, SCTV (Surabaya Central Televisi), largely owned by the President's cousin Sudwikatmono, started its trial run in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, in January 1990. By mid-1990, RCTI was expanding its operation to Bandung, and SCTV started broadcasting in Bali. Other cities are expected to follow since the government has now agreed to allow private television stations in all provincial capitals. 25

The government seems less convinced too about its own earlier arguments about the links between advertising on television and social unrest amongst lower classes. Despite opposition from the state television TVRI on July 14 1990, "the Head of the Nation gave permission to RCTI to broadcast without a decoder".26 Without the expensive decoder, RCTI executives expected its (and therefore the advertisers') audience reach to multiply dramatically, from some 125,000 households with decoders, to about 6 million people. Some would say that advertising was taken off state television precisely to give the President's son the perfect start to building a media empire.

As private television spreads, both horizontally and vertically, through Indonesia, the specific conditions of the media industry that produced Si Boy are substantially transformed. With prime time on RCTI being taken up almost exclusively with programs titled 'Benson and Hedges Box Office' and 'Dunhill Double', and showing successful American films, soaps and music-video shows,27 advertisers can soon expect to reach most of the Si Boy audiences without Boy.

Si Boy IV, released in mid-1990, does not however appear to have been deprived of advertising revenue. One review of the film says: "Wherever he goes, Boy must demonstrate his ability to carry the load of advertisements!'2s Nonetheless, there appear to be signs of a certain amount of down-grading of the series as a whole. The highly paid comedian, Didi Pepet, who played Boy's best friend in the first three films, has left the cast. The last film was shot in Bali, rather than in some more exotic and expensive European or American location. It is hard to predict how Boy's story will progress. If the story does not end, as television advertising expands, Boy may have to make some serious adjustments in terms of his target audience and the nature of the products he sells.

My reading of Si Boy, though by no means exhaustive, is contradictory, in the sense that I see it as challenging certain systems of dominance, while reproducing others. But it is precisely to see these contradictions that one needs to read any complex popular text (I'd assert all popular screen texts are complex) in relation to many interlinking political and social relations. The different readings, in relation to different contexts, reveal how, to what degree and where, dominant ideology is being contested. But it would be of little help to examine whether or how far it reproduces some classical Indonesian cultural practice, to ask if it was culturally authentic Indonesian, because what is Indonesian is itself an area of contestation. If, however, we respect the judgement of popular audiences, and accept that all popular cultural work is somehow both Indonesian and belongs to the present, we may be able to get a step closer to the constantly changing cultures of Indonesia.


1. Trinh T. Minh-ha, "Not You/ Like You: Post-Colonial Women and the Interlocking Questions of Identity and Difference", Inscriptions, nos.

3/4 (1988), pp.71-77; this quotation, p.74.

2. Andrew Robinson, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, (Berkeley: University of

California Press, 1989), p.91

3. Richie, cited in Yuejin Wang, "Mixing Memory and Desire: Red Sorghum, A Chinese Version of Masculinity and Femininity", Public Culture, v.2, n.1 (Fall 1989), pp.31-53.

4. On the surface this is not much different from the Anglo-American popular audience's rejection of art cinema. The difference is that art cinema is not privileged as the repository of national or ethnic cultural truths, in the same way that certain Asian films are.

5. I have argued elsewhere that censorship in the Dutch East Indies was the direct result of the colonial bureacrats' belief that "the inner life of the European" (Filmland, December 1926) displayed in American films would adversely affect the respect of the uneducated natives for their white masters. See Sen, Indonesian Films 1965-1982: Perceptions of society and History, unpublished PhD, Monash University, 1987 pp.27-29. For evidence of similar British colonial realist readings of cinema see "The Cinema in the East", The Times, 18 September 1926. Reproduced in Review of Indonesian and Malaysian and Indonesian Affairs, v.15, n.1 (1981), pp.151-155.

6. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Femin*m (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), p.88.

7. Jullianne Burton, "Marginal Cinema and Mainstream Critical Theory", Screen, v.26, n.3-4, pp.2-21.

8. Robert Kolker, The Altering Eye (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p.5.

9. See, for example, Esther Yau "Yellow Earth: Western Analysis and a Non-Western Text", Film Quarterly, v.41, n.2 (1987-88), pp.22-33; or Jenny Kwok Wah Lau, "Towards a Cultural Undestanding of Cinema: A comparison of Contemporary Films from PRC and Hong Kong", Wide Angle, v.11, n.3 (1988), pp.42-49.

10. Vijay Mishra, "Filmic Narrative: Text and Transformation in Bombay Cinema", Continuum, v.2, n.1(1988/89), pp.9-43; this quotation, p.15))

11. Ray's biographer, Andrew Robinson suggests that this belief "that the film was a failure in India until its success at the Cannes Festival in 1956" is incorrect. But Robinson also quotes Ray himself as remembering that at the first screening of the film in Calcutta "only English people came forward" "to say how much they liked it", none of the Indians did so! Robinson, op.cit., pl~. 88-89.)

12. I could not find sales figures for these films. But this appeared to be a widely held belief amongst producers and distributors in Jakarta.

13. Tempo, 17 December 1988, p.71.

14. Interview in Jakarta on 31 August 1982, with Budiarjo, Minister of Information 1968-72.

15. Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics figures.

16. Interview with A.Muthalibsyah, Jakarta, 18 March 1982.

17. Interview with the director of the company, Col. Wiranatakusumah, Jakarta, July 1982.

18. Tempo, 21 January 1989, p.96.

19. Loc.cit.

20. "The Making of a Cash Cow", FEER, 24 November 1988, p.82.

21. Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics figures.

22. Tempo, 12 November 1988, p.72.

23. See my "Power and Poverty in Indonesian Cinema: Conflicts on the Screen", in Paul Alexander (ed.) Creating Indonesian Cultures (Sydney: Oceania, 1989), pp.1-20.

24. Tempo, 17 December 1988, pp.71-72.

25. Tempo, 25 August 1990, p.77.

26. Loc.cit.

27. See RCTI program schedule in Monitor.

28. Monitor, 21 October 1990, p.22.

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