Theater and Film of Indonesia

Monday, 9 March 2009

Shadow puppets (wayang kulit) have been at the core of Javanese theater for more than 1,000 years and are still the most popular form of shadow theater. In wayang kulit, the puppeteer (dalang) manipulates leather figures so that their shadows dance across a white screen. Performances, which typically begin in the late evening and end at sunrise, are built around such Indian epics as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Other forms of Javanese puppet theater include flat wooden puppets (wayang klitik) and three-dimensional rod puppets (wayang golek).

Among Indonesia’s most innovative contemporary theater companies is Bengkel Teater, established in 1967 by Rendra, a well-known poet and dramatist. Bengkel productions blend traditional Indonesian theatrical and musical forms, such as shadow puppets and gamelan orchestras, with American and European theater, such as the works of English playwright William Shakespeare. Street theater performances increased in the late 1990s.

Two Europeans made the first film in Indonesia in Bandung in the mid-1920s. For the next several years most of Indonesia’s films were made by Indonesians of Chinese descent, who also owned most of the cinemas. In the mid-1930s the Dutch government established a film production company, and film making grew until 1942, when it stopped abruptly with the Japanese invasion during World War II.

After independence in 1949, film production expanded rapidly, peaking at 58 films in 1955. At the same time, the industry experienced a major shift toward greater pribumi (ethnic Indonesian) involvement in film making. Films were often about the struggle for independence and the government strictly censored them. In the early 1960s films became increasingly politicized. Indonesia’s most important film directors of this era were Bachtiar Siagian and Usmar Ismail, who made a satirical film about President Sukarno titled Tamu Agung (The VIP, 1955). In the violence following the 1965 coup attempt on President Sukarno, Siagian was jailed on Buru Island. Other filmmakers were also purged, and Siagian was not released until 1979.

In the 1990s Indonesia produced about 60 to 70 feature films each year, less than half the total number of new films shown in Indonesia. Before the Suharto era ended, government censorship guided the depiction of key events and individuals in Indonesian history. Most Indonesian films are in Bahasa Indonesia. One prominent exception was the highly regarded Djut Nya Dien, a story in the Acehnese language about a heroine in the Dutch resistance. In rare instances difficult social problems are addressed in films, as in Putri Giok (The Jade Princess), which examined the assimilation of Chinese Indonesians.

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