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Opening Eyes to Tolerance Via Film

For Jakarta’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, efforts to raise awareness are countered with a need to fly under the radar. Some advocate for legislative and government reform, while others turn to creative media to express themselves. Some seek attention while others \nprefer to remain underground.

Avatar of Alessia Valenza

17th February 2012 13:33

Alessia Valenza | ILGA Asia

One of those making waves both domestically and internationally is director Paul Agusta, who just returned from the Feb. 1 world premiere of his film “Parts of the Heart” at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands.

The film centers on Peter, a gay man living in Jakarta. Over eight chapters, the film covers Peter’s life from the age of 10 to 40, battling boyhood crushes, lost love and infidelity along the way It is semi-autobiographical, according to Paul, who says each chapter is based either on actual life events or a compilation of emotions experienced throughout his life.

To Paul, activism in the LGBT community is better channeled through education and awareness rather than political and legal change.

“We’re just not there yet for policy reform,” he says. “It’s a slow process. First, we need to start with portrayals in the media. There are still psychologists being published in newspapers who call homosexuality a mental illness.”

Although his film looks at a gay man’s life amid the sociocultural pressures of Indonesia, Paul says this merely serves as a backdrop. The film is less about “being gay” and more about showing how homosexual people go through the same emotional ups and downs as everyone else.

“It is difficult to deny that how we love and how we are loved contributes in shaping who we are as people,” Paul says.

“Love and heartbreak are blind to sexual orientation, race, class or creed. It is human to love and it is human to hurt. That is what ‘Parts of the Heart’ aims to make people understand.”

In one scene, a young Peter is taken aback after a longtime male friend kisses him unexpectedly.

After realizing the feelings are mutual, the two explore their sexuality together.

Paul says this scene in particular will be a challenge for Indonesia’s tough censorship laws, which could stop the film from reaching even a limited theatrical release here. He is no stranger to the constraints of censorship, refusing to even submit his last feature film, “At the Very Bottom of Everything,” for its extensive nudity.

Provided “Parts of the Heart” passes censorship without any major cuts, Paul plans to launch the film’s local release at the 2012 Q! Film Festival. The festival, which takes place in the latter half of each year, provides a medium for filmmakers — especially those dealing with LGBT themes — to share their work.

Since its inception in 2002, it has expanded from weekend-only screenings to a two-week festival that also features stage performances, stand-up comedy and more. Similar festivals have since been set up in Bali, Bandung, Makassar, Surabaya and Yogyakarta.

Festival director Meninaputri Wismurti, more commonly known as Putri, says the festival is much less about political activism and more about the individual.

“We’re having this festival to show people an alternative, to inspire and empower them,” she says

“Every year, my biggest reward is people coming to me and saying they are inspired and that they feel they are not alone. That’s my biggest achievement.”

All events and activities in the festival are free to the public, including free HIV tests. The staff work on an entirely volunteer basis and the program relies exclusively on sponsorship from donors.

Tensions with religious groups have persisted over the years, reaching their peak in 2010 when Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) demonstrators protested the festival in both Jakarta and Yogyakarta.

“They were sending us letters saying that if we didn’t stop in 24 hours, they would burn down the venue. In one place, they entered the studio and asked audience members if they were gay or not,” Putri says.

“There were also threats to festival staff and members. We were being followed.”

They received support from the Croatian and Swiss embassies, along with security training by Protection International.

“It was an awakening moment for us,” Putri says. “That experience taught us that we need to be more prepared. We cannot close our eyes anymore.”

The Q! Film Festival returned in 2011 with fresh security management strategies. Festival coordinators removed all public outdoor advertising and the festival became an “underground” event, with information spread primarily through social media and venues changing nightly.

“We were grateful to our promotion team, who were very active on Facebook and Twitter along with using mailing lists and our database,” Putri says. “I was very surprised that the audience was so big.”

In 2012, the festival plans to retain its “underground” status despite recognizing that information spreads easily in the digital age.

“We try to keep it as low profile as it gets, but people talk through Twitter and Facebook — social media plays an important role in Jakarta like this,” Putri says.

While the Q! Film Festival focuses on appealing to the individual and director Paul Agusta believes in education over politics, LGBT activist group Arus Pelangi has its sights firmly set on the government and legislative reform.

The group, established in 2006, aims to foster discourse on LGBT issues, especially those related to bills drafted in the House o Representatives. Previous campaigns have included fighting the 2008 bill on pornography, which listed viewing images of homosexual sex along with necrophilia and bestiality as unlawful and carrying a sentence of up to 12 years in prison.

The campaign failed, but the group has continued in its efforts to better the state of LGBT rights in Indonesia. In 2012, the organization is working with two LGBT candidates vying for places on the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM). Yulianus Rettoblaut, a high-profile  member of Indonesia’s waria (transgender) community, is running for the second time following an unsuccessful 2007 campaign.

“I don’t think the country was ready. At the time, she didn’t have any academic credentials,” says

King Oey, a member on Arus Pelangi’s board of trustees. “She enrolled in a law course and now has a bachelor’s degree. She has a much better basis to get accepted.”

The waria population, whose name is derived from the Indonesian words for female (wanita) and male (pria), is one of the most at-risk for HIV/AIDS infection: A 2007 National AIDS Commission report notes an infection rate as high as 35 percent in some areas of Jakarta. Yulianis, more commonly known as Mami Yuli, hopes that through Komnas HAM she can provide support for the waria population as well as other heavily marginalized groups.

This term has seen 363 candidates apply for a position on Komnas HAM, of which 30 will be pre-selected for review by the House on Tuesday. Selected candidates will undergo fit-and-proper tests in June and July before a final selection of 15 is chosen to succeed the current commission in August.

This time around, Yuli is joined in the running by high-profile LGBT advocate Dede Oetomo, who helped create the country’s first LGBT rights group, Lambda Indonesia (later renamed Gaya Nusantara).

Dede said he was not applying for the position because he is gay or to specifically represent the LGBT community, but rather as someone who has long been an advocate for human rights in general.

“We finally convinced him to apply,” King joked.