One of the films that will be screened at this year’s Outfest Fusion is “Pria” (“Man”), a short film set in present Indonesia about a gay Muslim teenager stuck in an arranged marriage.
Aris (played by Chicco Kurniawan) is a sixteen-year-old student living in an undisclosed rural village in Indonesia. He and his mother Ros (Karlina Irnawati) are preparing for his fixed nuptials to Gita (Gladhys Syahutari). But Aris has feelings for his teacher, a gay twenty-one-year-old American named Peter Roberts (Jacob McCarthy), fresh out of undergrad. And Peter flirts back.
On the eve of the wedding, Aris goes to Peter’s house to confess his true feelings about the marriage, and they share a kiss.
“Pria” director, Yudho Aditya, tells Faglandia that the short didn’t start out as a gay film. It wasn’t even set in Indonesia.
Dea Kulumbegashvili and Barbara Cigarroa originally wrote a script about a Muslim girl in an arranged marriage living in the eastern-European country Georgia.
The film’s producer, Valerie Martinez, wanted to switch the setting to Southeast Asia, since she’s Filipina. Aditya immediately agreed with the idea because he identifies with themes in the script, namely not fitting in and idealizing and romanticizing Western ideals.
They decided on Indonesia because it’s a Muslim-majority country and Aditya was born there. (He moved to the US when he was ten years old and is currently pursuing an MFA in directing at Columbia University, New York.)
“I was at Frameline in San Francisco, doing a Q&A of my other short film and I realized that I was the only person who’s not white on stage,” Aditya says. “And this was a few days after marriage equality became legal. So, I thought about it and how lucky I was to be here in a place where I had the option of expressing my sexuality publicly and I decided that the film should center around a gay character.”
Indeed, Indonesia doesn’t exactly embrace the queer community. On January 24, 2016, Republika, a conservative-Islamic-leaning newspaper, splashed the headline “LGBT a Serious Threat” on its front page. That day, Higher Education Minister Muhammad Natsir denounced The Support Group and Resource Center on Sexuality Studies of Universitas Indonesia (SGRC UI). Natsir said that the group was not “in accordance with the values and morals of Indonesia.”
Universitas indonesia is regarded as the most prestigious university in Indonesia. In the 2015/2016 QS World Universities Ranking, UI is ranked 1st in Indonesia, 79th in Asia and 358th in the world.
Since then, the LGBTQ community has been under constant attacks, including from other ministers, government officials, and the local terrorist group Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender Front/FPI) who conducted raids. It took President Joko Widodo nine months to finally release a statement urging Indonesians to practice tolerance to the queer community. Widodo is considered to be the least corrupt and most progressive president Indonesia has ever had.
Needless to say, “Pria” was filmed when situation wasn’t at its safest. This gave another layer of fear during production. The village they chose is in a rural area in Bogor, West Java. And Bogor has a terrible reputation when it comes to tolerance.
But the filmmakers found their way around this.
“There wasn’t any threat because we did give [the cast] a different version of the script, well, one where we omitted two scenes that may be considered ‘gay,'” Aditya tells Faglandia.
And he admits that casting was “hard and super scary.” He and the casting director went to gay venues (in Indonesia) and theater shows, and “stalked” people on Instagram. They hired an actor for the lead, but had to fire him. This decision led to Chicco Kurniawan, who was one of the first to audition for the part.
“Chicco is great, he’s such an open human being,” Aditya says. “I think the only hesitation he had was asking me how to kiss a dude. ‘Have you ever kissed a girl?’ [I asked]. ‘Yeah,’ [he said]. ‘It’s like that but with more hair,’ [I said]. ‘Ah, okay,’ [he said]. — that’s basically how it went down.”
Aditya may have been born in Indonesia, but he moved to the US seventeen years ago, and even so, he was raised in Batam, an island city that’s closer to Singapore than to Indonesia. He decided that to add authenticity to the movie, he had to live in Indonesia.
He initially struggled with coming to terms with having “the right” to tell this story. For a while, he believed there were other Indonesian queer filmmakers who could’ve probably given fairer treatment to the film, which he says revolves not around sexuality, but around the merging of the conflicts of being Indonesian, Muslim, and gay.
“But, I figured, since I had the opportunity to do this, I will do this as ethically and authentically as possible. The POV has to come from someone who is gay and living in a village. The last thing I want is to promote my ‘western’ ideals,” Aditya says.
To familiarize himself with the subject matter, he did some research before going to Indonesia. He read Tom Boellstorff’s The Gay Archipelago and UNDP’s most recent report on Indonesian LGBTQ. For five months, he traveled across Java by train, reaching out to activisits such as Dédé Oetomo (a prominent figure in Indonesian LGBTQ rights movement) and queer organizations such as Rumah Cemara in Bandung, West Java. This led to a gay teen living in a small village in Sulawesi, who became the basis of the main character of “Pria.”But strangely, he received almost zero support from Indonesian queer organizations.
“I’d imagine that from their perspective, here’s some random dude from the US who can’t really speak Indonesian and is asking all these questions about LGBT life there,” Aditya says. “Most of the organizations I contacted didn’t contact me back and when they do, they mostly referred me to someone else. I knew that I had to prove myself to be taken seriously, and that goes with the film industry there too.”
Apart from the main themes that deal with religion and sexual identity, “Pria” explores the interracial relationship between Aris and Peter the American teacher.
“[The interracial relationship] was an element from the original script,” Aditya says. “But when I got to Indonesia, there’s this huge fascination with the “bulé” [foreigners, mostly used to refer to Caucasians] there that was interesting. And it makes sense, because growing up I felt the same way. That the media perpetuates this ideal of the Westerner.”
Aris and Peter are both gay, but they live very different lives. Aris is an Indonesian Muslim in a rural village, and trapped in an arranged marriage. Peter can go back to the US where gay rights are relatively more recognized. So this relationship is more or less doomed from the start.
“It was also interesting to explore this white dude who is part of something like the Peace Corps. and wants to make a difference, but actually is only there for a year at most. What can you actually do in that time? The kids you’re teaching will still be there and will probably still be in the same circumstances but you get to leave with these “exotic” experiences (not to say that all westerners are like this). I think the idea there is to shatter this myth and idealization.”
Despite the current situation in Indonesia regarding the LGBTQ community, Aditya still hopes that “Pria” will get a wider release and be seen especially by Indonesian queer teens. He believes the cast and crew are prepared for the consequences, whether it’s positive or negative.
“I wouldn’t have given the roles to any of the actors if they didn’t know what they’re getting themselves into. I think Chicco [Kurniawan] is the type of actor who’s very brave and loves to explore. The empathy in that kid is really something. I’m hoping that if it reaches a wider audience, people would be receptive to his honest and open performance than his character’s sexuality.”
“Pria” is slow, and that is a good thing. Aditya isn’t afraid to linger in each scene, capturing emotions through pauses and sighs, and the effect is devastating. Years of suppressed emotions are captured in mere 21 minutes, kudos to the actors, especially Syahutari who embodies her role as a bitchy bride-to-be. The subtitles aren’t always accurate, but sometimes you don’t need to know the meaning of each word to feel the characters.
Faglandia gives it tens across the board.
“Pria” will be screened at Outfest Fusion 2017 on Friday, March 3 at Arena Cinelounge as part of the No Place Like Home: Queer Asian Shorts presentation.
Featured photo: Chicco Kurniawan as Aris in “Pria.” (2016/Indieflip and Babibuta Film.)