The title for this particular film is ingenious. Rather than the oft-used ‘Tanda Tanya’, it is actually ‘?’. It was chosen primarily because the director, Hanung Bramantyo, wanted a more universal title, one that would not necessarily insult people of different creed. Hang on, I stand correct: without making other people feel insulted. There is a minor, but significant difference there.
That’s the tricky part about people from this region. Malaysia, of course, is the country with which I have had the most experience of in such (in)sensitivity, but to proclaim that ours is the only country afflicted with this to such an extent is probably an ignorant approach to things. Going beyond religion, other issues such as race and the oft-forgotten/conveniently-unmentioned issue of class, amongst many others, are also factors to contend with.
As such, titling the film ‘?’ is an ingenious move on two fronts. First of all, it is a universal symbol. Whatever the language, the signifier and signified is likely to be the same across the world. You can cross over any alphabetic system, but this particular sign is pretty much the same anywhere. A perfect way to bridge divides, then.
Secondly, the film itself does not necessarily intend to provide an answer. Though it is primarily set in Indonesia, and would therefore have more relevance in environments similar, it aims to raise questions as to how we see ourselves and the world we live in. In that sense, it’s my kind of film.
What is it about, though? The story is set in Semarang, and we follow several different characters. Tan Kat Sun (Hengky Sulaeman) is a restaurant owner who sells both halal and non-halal food. Fret not, my fellow Muslims; they are prepared using different utensils, so that makes it more OK by most people’s standards. His son Hendra (Rio Dewanto), however, does not share this particular view, and believes concentrating on a particular kind of food (halal or non-halal) is a more profitable venture. As such, he comes and goes whenever he pleases, but one of the reasons why he comes is because of Menuk (Revalina Sayuthi Temat). She works for Sun, and he is very attracted to her.
Unfortunately, he appears to be fighting a losing battle, for Menuk is married to Soleh (Reza Rahadian). Soleh, however, is going through something of an identity crisis, trying to find ways in which he can contribute effectively to the Muslim world. Being unemployed, he finds himself feeling emasculated by being financially supported by his wife, and all this was laid out in a directly-worded speech early on in the film.
At the same time, we also see the trials and tribulations of Rika (Endhita), who converted into Catholicism, while her son Abi remains a Muslim. She is a bookstore owner, but this causes all sorts of issues within a community who like their greys either black or white, and to remain so. This situation is not made any less complex by the addition in their lives of Surya (Agus Kuncoro), a down and out Muslim actor, who Rika helps on a regular basis.
Note that in the above descriptions, there’s a very strong ‘othering’ process going on the describing certain characters. There is a strong divide created between the Muslims and the non-Muslims, and while I am no fan of such an approach, this is necessary to present a better understanding of not only the text, but also the context of the stories being told. For example, Surya was encouraged by Rika to audition for a play her church was putting on. He eventually got the part, and it was a part which helped to put him on the right path, so to speak. The role? That of Jesus Christ. Almost predictably, and in an eerie instance of art prophetically imitating life, a segment of the audience in the story took offense to that, and do not wish for him to continue in the role. Such an intervention could be seen coming from a mile away, but it is an important scene, because each characters are clearly marked out according to their respective religions and, to a certain extent, race.
Hanung Bramantyo did want to explore a more multi-pronged approach to religion and Islam (one of his apparent areas of specialities), and so this film can be seen, perhaps, not just as a wish for a more tolerant present but also as a pre-emptive portrayal of what would happen in real life if one is to cross certain barriers. He is no fool, and at least momentarily, I do believe that he wishes for the audience to at least know and understand what it feels like when the weight of the authorities pushes down on creative industries in such manners. While his is not necessarily the main character, Surya is a sympathetic one, whose kindness, honesty and sincerity would be appreciated by any audience.
Going beyond the somewhat meta notion of a Muslim character playing a Christian character in a play within a film, we also see tolerance promoted in other fashions. I mentioned earlier about Sun making great efforts to present a harmonious front for his customers by making sure that their culinary desires are not compromised by his decision to sell pork in the restaurant. Unfortunately, certain people are not able and/or willing to accept that; for one customer, just having the head of a pig in the shop window is more than enough for her to pick another restaurant. The pig’s head is harmless, almost cute, even, but this, then, is an example of how the truth is not as important as how the truth itself is seen.
For my part, I believe it to be an interesting and intelligent approach. Sun is a man fully aware of his surroundings, and his sensitivity in such an issue reflects a strong desire by The Other to be accepted in the community. Hendra, however, believes in not kowtowing to others who lack a deeper understanding of the difference between race and religion (they are Buddhists). In a sense, his completeness comes only from having a totalitarian approach, one which strangely puts him in conflict with both his father and the environment of their existence.
On some level, this film can be seen as making a nuanced exploration of the discrimination against Chinese people in Indonesia. It is a fairly sensitive issue throughout the region, and the film opens, literally, with a bang: a bombing carried out by more militant wings of Muslim organisations in Indonesia. Though it doesn’t necessarily concentrate on that, it does allow us to be positioned, if ever so slightly, in their shoes, and see what goes on. I would recommend Edwin’s ‘Babi Buta Yang Ingin Terbang’ if you wish for a more artistic (but no less relevant) treatment of such an issue.
However, let us not stray from the main path. This is a film that is done almost with the positioning of Islam at the centre, though it plays its role on the fringes as well. This is about how other people are affected by Islam as it is practised within the context of its setting. It may claim a more pluralist approach, and as I have mentioned earlier, it does posit certain questions from a different angle. Nevertheless, the entire film, viewed as a whole, operates on an inclusive level, integrating everything into one. By that I mean that while there is a definite pluralist approach to portraying the events on screen, Islam remains the one sphere of influence that everyone gets drawn into, rightly or wrongly. How pluralist is this? You decide.
I do admit, however, to being somewhat disappointed by the inconsistency of the visual treatment of the film. In a previous review, I spent some time talking about the aesthetics of different kinds of looks. Here, it is not quite the same thing, but I can’t help but feel that the jumping around from one filmic shot to another, more TV-drama in nature is not helpful. At the film screening, this treatment resulted in some laughter amongst the audience, and I include myself as someone who couldn’t help but laugh at the film. In one shot, you’d have a nice puddle reflection being cut by a bicycle, before it pans up to reveal the subject of the reflection in its reality. “Oh, beautiful,” I quietly thought to myself, “I may steal that for a future project.” Near the end, a combination of low-frame rate slow motion, flashback, and cheesy voiceovers made me feel like I’m watching an episode of a sinetron drama instead. While the story itself remains supreme, I felt quite sad that such an important scene was ruined by that, at least to my eyes.
As an aside, I was greatly encouraged by the discussion that followed this screening. It was a special screening organised in honour of a student’s thesis, who was exploring such issues for her research. It was very heartening to see and hear a number of very different viewpoints presented in a very civil manner. These are the people who will take the lead in the future, and while it is not representative of how others may see it, I take heart in the fact that at least some of the hands for the future will be fairly safe.
Fikri shoots first, then shoots again before he thinks about asking a question.
Featured image credit: The [R] Project