Be it Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” or “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” any film that takes on the subject of religion is bound to stir controversy.
Filmmaker Hanung Bramantyo’s latest film, the enigmatically titled “?,” is a study of the role and state of Islam in modern Indonesian society. Released on Thursday, the film was stirring up heated debate and protests long before it ever reached a projection room or darkened theater.
But for Hanung, a director known for exploring religion’s role in modern society in his movies, all this hubbub is old hat. His response to the controversy — like the last time and the time before that — is simply to say that the movie is meant as a personal and honest interpretation of the current religious landscape in Indonesia, with no malicious intent toward any person or group.
Of course, this explanation doesn’t sit well with everyone, especially those who feel that they have been singled out by Hanung’s critical lens.
A group called Banser, which operates as the youth wing of the country’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, has been among the more vocal critics of his latest film. The group objects to a scene in which young Banser recruits are seen being paid to perform tasks that would normally fall under one’s charitable duty as a good Muslim.
For Hanung, it’s just one of the pitfalls a director faces when he chooses to take on the subject of religion. But filmmaking wasn’t always this complicated for him.
Born in Yogyakarta on Oct. 1, 1975, Hanung began his career directing romantic dramas.
He won best director awards in 2005 and 2007 at the Indonesian Film Festival (FFI), with his romantic comedies “Brownies” and “Get Married,” the latter of which starred Nirina Zubir and Agus Ringo and featured a cameo appearance by the pop-rock band Dewa. It went on to become the most-watched film of the year and the young director seemed well on his way to a cushy career as the king of romantic comedies.
But it soon became apparent that this graduate of the Indonesian Islamic University’s School of Economics in Yogyakarta had a different path mapped out for his career. Gradually, his films began taking on much heavier subject matter and themes. He eventually settled on religion, specifically Islam in modern Indonesian society, as the central theme for his movies.
His successful film adaptation of the best-selling novel “Ayat-Ayat Cinta” (“Verses of Love”), by renowned author Habiburrahman El Shirazy, set off a wave religious-themed movies in 2008.
In a country where nearly 90 percent of the population is Muslim, Hanung opened the cinematic floodgates when it comes to portraying Islamic lifestyles and issues in popular film.
But along with all the success and breaking down of barriers has come a fair amount of controversy.
In 2009, his film “Perempuan Berkalung Sorban” (“The Girl With the Keffiyeh Around Her Neck”) was widely protested by Muslim clerics.
“Sang Pencerah” (“The Enlightened”), a biopic on the life of Ahmad Dahlan, an important figure in modern Islam’s development in the country, also caused a stir when it was nominated for the best picture award at the FFI and was later withdrawn when festival committee members intervened, saying the film did not warrant nomination.
For all the controversy, the director’s approach to religion in his films is actually quite simple.
“All I try to do with my films is to present different perspectives. The only way we can wage a proper battle against the stupidity and ignorance that causes so many problems in our lives is to strive for a well-rounded and informed viewpoint,” Hanung said.
The filmmaker and father of two sat down with the Jakarta Globe between rehearsals for a role in the musical comedy “Laskar Dagelan” (“Comedy Troop”), which was recently staged at Taman Ismail Marzuki in Central Jakarta. Here’s what he had to say:
What do you want to say with your films?
Everything does not happen with one clear intention. Things just happen.
Now everything can be and is easily politicized and used by certain groups or political parties for their own gain. Take the word ‘pluralism,’ for instance. Once I say I’m fighting for pluralism, faith and cultural diversity, some people will immediately become my opponents.
I don’t want that. I don’t want my new film to be used as a conduit to attack those opposed to what I believe. But it seems it’s just inevitable that people will call this film a battle cry for pluralism. It’s been hard from the beginning, as some investors pulled out fearing this exact situation.
With ‘Sang Pencerah,’ I wanted to look at Islam from different angles through the figure of Ahmad Dahlan, who was the co-founder of the Muslim organization Muhammadiyah. Islam today is easily associated with intolerance toward people of opposing faiths, acts of terrorism and even violent theology.
What I’ve known all along is that Islam is a religion that brings a message of peace, truth and inclusiveness. It’s an open religion that is strong, beautiful and elegant. In this film I try to show how religious intolerance can tear all that down. I believe that it is the opposite of what we should strive for here.
‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta’ also landed you in controversy, as there is a character who converts from Christianity to Islam. Your new film, ‘?,’ has a similar character. Could you explain why?
Please remember that ‘Ayat-Ayat Cinta’ was adapted from a novel. It’s actually the author’s right to answer that.
My duty as a director is to present the visual version. There are very personal reasons that make the character convert from one religion to another.
The decision [to convert] was not an act of coercion and not done under pressure, as it was a personal wish. Besides, I find there are details [in the novel] that I skip because they are too risky to portray on screen. Bringing a novel to life on the screen can somehow limit a director’s freedom, which to me makes it a challenge. I have to be able to negotiate because it’s eventually recognized as my work, too.
The ‘?’ film experiment is more or less based on my own observations and experience. My mother has Chinese blood and converted from Christianity to Islam. My siblings are Muslims and Catholics.
Are you on your way to branding yourself as a maker of religious films?
Not really. I made teenage romantic dramas in the past. And there is also ‘Catatan Akhir Sekolah’ [‘End-of-School Notes’], which portrays the lives of troubled young people.
If I have to be known for one cinematic trait, I’d like to be known as a director who fights against stupidity and ignorance. I think these two things are our common enemies and they must be fought against.
It’s a battle we can’t afford to lose, because these are the root of a lot of problems plaguing the country. What I mean by stupidity has nothing to do with a lack of formal education. It’s a tendency to play dumb or turn a blind eye.
We’ve seen a lot of wilful ignorance lately. We’re educated and know the laws, but we just don’t have the guts to enforce them and, as a result, we will all suffer.
With ‘Sang Pencerah,’ you tried to represent Islam as a truthful and peaceful religion. Why then did you get so much criticism from Muslim figures?
Some people didn’t get the message. They called me a liberal Muslim who wants to change the face of Islam.
But I don’t want to dwell on this controversy. I have to move on with my beliefs and other people are entitled to have opinions about my work.
I’ll let my films speak for me because my films are my statements.
With ‘?,’ you are receiving even more criticism. What do you think of this?
The title represents my intention. I want to ask the general public if it is still important to be different or not.
I learned my lessons from the previous films and tried to make this new film better. People might say that I am trying too hard to explain everything, but I’m just employing what I learned from past films and people’s reactions.
Bringing up such a sensitive issue as faith, did you have problems with the film censorship body?
I respect the body and its function in the industry, so when I submitted the film I offered to meet with them for discussion if they found any scenes they felt needed to be taken out. They granted me that request.
One of their objections was about a pig head shown on display at a Chinese restaurant that Muslims were frequenting. The scene stayed, but some others are gone.
I did get a lot of protest from the Islamic youth organization Banser, because this film depicts a young character who is applying to Banser as if it were a job, giving the impression that service in the group is nothing more than a money-making profession.
The Banser chairman was invited to the film premiere. He made a point of telling me that they protested because Banser is a voluntary organization that focuses on social activities for the greater good. I accepted his explanation and rested my case. I think the misunderstanding has been ironed out.