Aug 26, 2007

Indonesia film festival takes gay issues out of closet

Indonesia's gay film festival faced violent opposition in its early years.

Members of a hardline Islamic group tried to storm theatres to stop screenings, but as the festival enters its sixth year, organizer John Badalu has no such fears.

The opening of the week-long Q! Film Festival (QFF) on Friday drew a flamboyant crowd in Jakarta, with members of the audience dressed in colorful wigs, fish-net stockings and cupid wings.

Homosexuality is not banned under Indonesian law, but remains taboo in a country where 85 percent of the 220 million people are Muslim.

"The festival has provided some sort of impetus for the gay rights movement in Indonesia, and has enabled many issues to surface," Badalu told Reuters.

The fall of former president Suharto in 1998 paved the way for greater freedom of speech, allowing topics such as politics and homosexuality to be more openly explored in the arts.

"Arisan," a 2003 feature film about a routine get-together of upper-class Indonesian women, was the first Indonesian film with a gay theme, dealing with a woman in a troubled marriage who is attracted to a young gay executive.

"People have not shied from showing homosexuality in Indonesian cinema," said Badalu. "It has been well-received so far. Many straight movies have also touched on the delicate issue of homosexuality, without many realizing it."

QFF, one of the largest gay film festivals in Asia, features about 80 films from countries including the Philippines, Thailand, Germany and Indonesia, and deals with topics such as sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS.

Indonesia, which has a small but growing film industry, steps off the beaten path of pop romances with a rare documentary on "sacred transvestites," or gay priests, in a closely knit community on Sulawesi island.

In a country where many homosexuals remain in the closet, the festival takes a sensitive look at the problems faced by an often marginalized community through films such as Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar Wai's "Happy Together," which chronicles the slow deterioration of a gay relationship.

Other international films that try to create awareness and break some myths about homosexuals include Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodovar's cult film "Bad Education," the story of a novice Spanish actor trying to sell a screenplay on his alleged childhood sexual abuse by a pedophile priest.

"What I like about the QFF is that it is a subtle movement," said Firliana Purwanti, program officer for human rights and gender at HIVOS, a Dutch agency that helped fund the festival.

"The community, by using the language of movies and keeping such a fluid structure, has enabled the rapid spread of gay rights."

This year's festival was almost pulled -- not because of opposition from Muslim hardliners but for lack of funding.

"The festival was on the brink of extinction," said Badalu. He fired off e-mails seeking financing to everyone in his address book, some of which were posted on blogs.

"A gas station worker from the Midwest sent me a long letter, describing how he, a simple working-class guy, sympathized with the festival's mission. At first I thought the letter was a joke, it was so long. But then at the bottom of the letter he said he had donated $100."

Source: Reuters

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