Children of Srikandi (2012)

Scene from Children of Srikandi. Photo: Director: Laura Coppens (concept) and Children of Srikandi collective.

George McT Kahin wrote in his Introduction to Benedict Anderson’s Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese (1965) that “anyone interested in contemporary Indonesia, its organization and social and political articulation… comes to realize that in order to achieve any real depth of understanding for these phenomena, it is first necessary to appreciate the enduring and frequently manifest residuum of traditional, pre-Western culture”.[1] The documentary film, Children of Srikandi (2012) precisely does that in telling eight stories interwoven with scenes from Wayang Kulit, the puppet shadow theater of Java and Bali traditionally performed by male pandawas. While the documentary scenes tell of the struggle of diverse gender identities—from finding acceptance in their families to reconciling contradictions between their sexuality and religion—the shadow theater tells the story of Srikandi, one of the characters of the Indian Mahabharata who was born as a female but later transforms into a male to fight a great battle. As the first queer film to be produced locally (with support from international organizations) and publicly shown in Indonesia, the film was a breakthrough, albeit one that took fourteen years after the fall of dictator Soeharto. The relative lateness of this achievement is attributed by Indonesian critic Intan Paramaditha to the regulation of sexuality and sexual representation during the Orde Baru of the Soeharto regime. According to Paramaditha, “Soekarno’s [Soeharto’s predecessor whom he overthrew in a coup in 1965] relatively tolerant “Guided Democracy” (1945-1966) was marked by economic and political instability. Soeharto attempted to keep every political, economic, social, and cultural aspect under control through the military.”[2] Paramiditha’s view of censorship “as one of the language codes that sustain national consciousness”[3] seems novel (also dangerous) but completely in tune with the logic of both art and law of the Orde Baru that holds cinema as a medium of mass communication that plays an important role in “developing the national culture” and “improving security to support national development.”[4]
            The logic of national development from the regimes of Soekarno and Soeharto that doubled-down on cen­sorship to establish national identities has unfortunately excluded indigenous beliefs along with bodies and gender considered undesirable by the state. Their authoritarian regimes had to mark the territorial and cultural boundaries and viewed any kind of sexuality other than the one beneficial to the dictatorship as a threat. The queer women presented in Children of Srikandi overturn this structure. They reclaimed their place in a nation through poetic and filmic self-representation and developed a way of working as a collective which was non-hierarchical and inclusive. In combining the format of the feature film with a collective means of production, the anthology also transcends the borders between documentary and fiction and presents a picture of a future Indonesia that will forever contend with its mythologies and contradictions.

[1]  Benedict R O’G Anderson, Mythology and the Tolerance of the Javanese, Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia Program, Dept of Asian Studies at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1965, p iii

[2] Intan Paramaditha, “Cinema, Sexuality, and Censorship in Post-Soeharto Indonesia,” p. 71

[3] Ibid.,p. 72.

[4] Ibid.

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