As the fasting month draws nearer, the country’s cinemas are embracing their spiritual side by welcoming a spate of new releases based on religious themes.
This week’s premiere of “Surat Kecil Untuk Tuhan” (“A Little Letter to God”), a film about a teenager suffering from cancer who finds salvation through religion, is just one of many spiritual cinematic excursions sure to greet moviegoers over the following month.
These theistic theatrics are, for the most part, welcomed with open arms. As a country steeped in spirituality, Indonesia is no newcomer to the idea of religion-themed entertainment.
Religious releases have previously done extremely well at the box office here. In 2009, the homegrown blockbuster “Ketika Cinta Bertasbih,” roughly translated as “When Love Is Glory,” sold more than 115,000 tickets on its first day of screening, according to the film’s producers. Based on a novel about an Indonesian student in Cairo, it became 2009’s most-watched film, attracting over three million viewers.
Riding on the first film’s success, the producers released a sequel only three months later, selling another two million tickets.
A further testament to the film’s popularity is the numerous fan sites dedicated to it — a rare thing for a local film. Of course, the next step was to turn the story into a popular soap opera series.
In 2008, “Ayat-Ayat Cinta,” or “Verses of Love,” reached even greater heights, selling 3.65 million tickets — still a disappointment for executive producer Manoj Punjabi, who expected sales of around six million. It too was based on the life of an Indonesian student in Cairo and dealt with the problem of mixed religions becoming an obstacle for marriage.
The growing trend toward religiously-themed entertainment doesn’t stop with movies. Just count how many religion-based ads are shown during any single TV commercial break, or the number of religiously-themed releases there are in record stores.
While many Indonesians undoubtedly see this barrage of religious entertainment as a fitting celebration of the upcoming Ramadan season, others may not share their enthusiasm.
These dissenters come from a new generation whose defiance of belief in a religious entity is an active pursuit. They are Indonesian atheists — and they are struggling to make their displeasure at the sight of all this religiously-themed entertainment heard.
An online movement called Indonesian Atheists now claims to have more than 400 members. The movement’s founder, Karl Karnadi, 28, said religious movies were becoming more commonplace and were also weighted heavily toward the country’s majority religion, Islam.
“I don’t have any statistics, but from my personal observations, the quantity of religious entertainment in Indonesia, both at the movies and on TV, has increased over the past couple of years,” Karl said. “It’s also becoming increasingly infused with dogma catering toward one specific religion instead of spreading more universal religious messages.” Karl said the core of the issue is the supply and demand of religious films.
“The increasing number of productions shows there is an increase in demand. This in turn shows that religious piety is increasing in Indonesia. But the direction of the causality can go both ways,” he said.
In the atheist group’s online forums, there are discussions regarding the aftereffects of what Karl and many other members of Indonesian Atheists consider propaganda through entertainment.
“Religiosity in Indonesia is influencing what kinds of movies are produced — and those movies are meant to indoctrinate the younger generation in becoming more fundamentalist about their religion. The negative effect is that it further polarizes young people of different religious groups, instead of educating people about [the official Indonesian motto] Bhinneka Tunggal Ika [Unity in Diversity].”
Indonesian Atheists co-founder Qosdil Alc added that, in his opinion, religious movies and TV shows were “leading Indonesia’s lower economic classes to rely on irrational stuff like religion and God in dealing with their social problems.”
But the huge ticket box sales and burgeoning online fan communities show that plenty of Indonesians like what they see.
One user on the “Ketika Cinta Bertasbih” Facebook fan page writes: “I read the book, saw the movie and now there is the soap opera. It’s all so amazing and touches my heart.”
It won’t be an easy battle for Indonesian atheists to reach their goal of bringing about a sea change in how religious films — if they must exist — are handled and presented in the country.
“I do hope that more films about religious diversity in Indonesia will be produced in the future, instead of films that serve to only indoctrinate,” Karl said. “We have a lot of problems lately caused by religious fundamentalism and I think it’s very important that people start to have constructive discussions about it. I think film is the best way of bringing people into those discussions.”