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Between the banal, the wanton, and the rustic: Yogyakarta exoticism in Indonesian films

Grace Samboh
26 August 2009

IS YOGYAKARTA comprised of merely Malioboro, Wijilan, Tugu, and villages with vast, green rice fields? Of course not. To find a range of street side food vendors, you can visit UGM Boulevard in the north. Beringhardjo market in Malioboro is indeed one popular place to shop, but it is not the only one. There are still second-hand market at Pasar Klithikan, rattan works market at Godean, or batik clothes market at Imogiri and Taman Sari. Prostitution area, legal or otherwise, is not only at Pasar Kembang in Malioboro, but also in Kotagede. Tugu monument is indeed a landmark in this student city, but its appearance in many movies often creates an impression that the director needs a shortcut to show that the film takes place in Yogyakarta.

To view how the city landscape is portrayed, let us watch Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006), which presents Yogyakarta by means of the limited areas of Pasar Kembang, Malioboro, Tugu, and Wijilan (Picture 1). In this film, these locations appear according to the story of Shanaz (Poppy Sofia), who arrives at Tugu Train Station with no money. I find it strange how Parno (Dwi Sasono), an itinerant musician and a resident of Yogya, gets to know Shanaz and takes her to enjoy the Yogyakartan staple of gudeg in Wijilan, where a roving artist makes a caricature painting of Shanaz (Picture 2). Albeit eventually spending their day in a picturesque village with endless rice fields (Picture 3)—which to me seems like a form of exoticism—their previous activities require quite a lot of money by Yogyakartan standard, especially considering that Parno is merely an itinerant musician and, I repeat, Shanaz has no money at all.

Also similar is Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto, in the omnibus of Perempuan Punya Cerita (Chants of Lotus, 2008), produced by Kalyana Shira. Here, director Upi Avianto depicts Yogyakarta through Malioboro, Wijilan, Tugu, and the Kridosono stadium as a place where the Yogyakartan youth hang out (Picture 4). The funny thing is, in reality the stadium will only get packed with people when there is a music concert going on, not when there is a soccer play, and it is certainly not the place where youngsters spend their time. It is actually fine for a film to depict anything that its maker wishes regardless of the real condition outside the movie screen—this is not a documentary, anyway—as long as the logic of the story is well maintained.

Cerita Yogya also tells of an internet café that provides a room for a quick sex, with an attendant who seems to be constantly reading porn tabloids or porn books. A group of male youngsters who usually hang out at the café then go to Malioboro to look for blue films. This is also funny (Picture 5). If you go to Malioboro yourself, you are not going to find any CD/VCD/DVD vendors. Again, the problem here is that the filmmaker tries to use a shortcut to show that the film takes place in Yogyakarta. The casual use of a location along with its specific parts as featured in these films is usually called ‘visit filmmaking’ (or ‘tourism filmmaking) (Picture 6).

The Yogyakarta that the tourists know is Malioboro. While other films use this iconic area as a simple mark for the audience to recognize the city, Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudy Soedjarwo, 2007) chooses to portray Malioboro a bit differently. In the film, Malioboro does not look too crowded, as the story takes place not during holiday time, and there are many food vendors on the sidewalk, complete with the roving musicians. This agrees with the temporal actuality as well as the time span of the story in the film (Picture 7).

Jagad X Code (2009, The Universe of the Code River) even manages to depict the standard scenery in a spot-on manner. One must admit that the urban village along the Code River, which the late Father Mangunwijaya had built and nurtured from the mid-eighties to the end of his life, is indeed a highly enchanting site. This film, directed by Herwin Novianto, depicts the urban landscape with the beauty of daily lives, without the all-too-familiar cutesiness of exoticism—starting from the Sultan’s palace, Ngasem market, Taman Sari water palace, Beringhardjo market, the Central Post Office crossroad, the elite housing complex of government officials in Timoho, and the Code River (Picture 8).

Admirably, all these locations are depicted not through a touristic perspective (Picture 9). In this film, Jagad (Ringgo Agus Rahman) and his friends are indeed residents of the Code river area, while Regina (Tika Putri) is the daughter of a corrupt official living in Timoho. All the other locations serve merely as the arena where the chase scenes take place. Well, even from a cursory glance at the movie, I realize how impossible the route is. Please take a look at the route of the chase according to the chart that I have drafted (Picture 10). Indeed, movies have their own logic. They do not have to agree with the reality. But it does disturb me when a movie that bases its story on reality—and uses real elements (such as road and street signs as well as easily recognizable areas)—does not combine the facts and the fiction in a logical way.

Exoticism is the key word, which is valid for all these things, from Yogyakarta urbanscape, the image of the rustic residents, up to the interior of the house. In the film 3 Hari untuk Selamanya (Three Days to Forever, Riri Riza, 2006), a road movie about a journey that should actually take place only in half a day instead of three days, Yusuf (Nicholas Saputra) and his cousin Ambar (Adinia Wirasti) go from their city of residence in Jakarta to their grandmother’s house in Yogyakarta. After going around and around for three days—perhaps to reach the necessary time span for a feature film, which generally takes place for around 100 minutes—they finally reach their grandmother’s house, which looks very modern architecturally. A grandmother’s house does not have to take the form of a traditional Javanese Joglo house, indeed, but then we get to see another clichéd depiction as the house is full of exotic but nonfunctional objects. The interior of the house that is filled with so many exotic objects has no relevance whatsoever with the story itself (Picture 11).

To some Indonesian filmmakers, apparently Yogyakarta is not only exotic and rustic. In Mengejar Mas-mas, director Rudi Soedjarwo also tries to portray social lives in a Yogyakarta neighborhood, at least in the prostitution area of Pasar Kembang and around Ningsih’s (a.k.a Norma; played by Dina Olivia) house. Unfortunately, the women living in Ningsih’s neighborhood are still depicted as ignorant women. Ningsih thus explains to her docile neighbors: “…we can’t trust our husbands 100 percent! We shouldn’t be afraid to demand our rights! You know, there’s a whole government ministry taking care of women’s affairs… complete with a minister, too! And a female at that!” (Picture 12) Although having managed to some extent to set itself free from the constraining image of the exotic Malioboro, the film still describes how Yogyakarta is populated by rustic residents, although the area where Ningsih lives is in not far from downtown Malioboro.

Unlike Mengejar Mas-mas, Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) depicts Yogyakartan teenagers as banal and wanton youngsters. The movie begins with a scene in which a girl in high-school uniform looks furious and yells before a crowd, demanding for another uniformed student, a male, to be responsible, because her friend, his girlfriend, is pregnant (Picture 13). The boy refuses, because the girl has apparently had sex with his friends, too. It can very well be that such a group truly exists in Yogyakarta: the problem is, the short film, written by Vivian Idris, fails to create believable characters. The existence of a group of youth in Yogyakarta who in their day-to-day activities not only talk and joke about sex but also are actually having it with neither guilt nor shame seems strange. The characters also look like they are acting; they are not natural at all.

The script feels very pretentious, too. In a hotel room where Jay (Fauzi Baadila) stays, Safina (Kirana Larasati) says, with her flirtatiously innocent smile, that she and her friends are not like the youngsters in Jakarta, who have to rent a room in a hotel to have sex. The scene moves to another room, from where one can hear clearly that a couple (of teenagers, presumably) are making love. Outside the room, other young couples are playing Play Station, caressing and fondling, joking around, smoking, drinking alcohol, and smoking dopes. A veiled woman, the owner of the house where they hang out, walks by and amicably chats with them (Picture 14). To me, this looks funny, because in my experience, when I, a mature woman, smoke at the lobby of the postgraduate study center at the university, I invariably become a focus of attention, and the veiled women that come and go will eye me thoroughly. I imagine things would be a lot more intense if the scene involves drunk and doped youth.

Meanwhile, Otomatis Romantis (Automatically Romantic, 2008), directed by Guntur Soehardjo, makes a nod to the stereotypes of Yogyakarta residents as depicted by the previous films, even without having to use the city as the background to his film. “That Bambang from Yogya?” asks Nadia (Marsha Timoty), the editor in chief of GAYA magazine, to her fashion editor. Nadia is furious on finding out that one of her models fails to make it to the photo session and the fashion editor replaces him with Bambang Setiadi (Tora Sudiro), one of the runners in her office (Picture 15). You will find various versions of the sentence “That Bambang from Yogya?” with a range of tones in this movie, which tells of the clichéd story of the relationship between a superior and an underling. I remember how the sentence comes up precisely when Bambang is doing something that is not at all “rustic”, for example when an advertiser in the magazine where he works signs him to work as a model for a year (Picture 16).

It all begins when Bambang sounds out his idea to try to become a contributor for the magazine, which is portrayed as resembling the Cosmopolitan magazine. Bambang says that he has actually written an article when he was still in Yogyakarta: “…for the farmers’ magazine,” admits Bambang with a happy and proud look, and in a contrived accent (Picture 17). Bambang’s admission makes his city of origin seem like a calm village, and Bambang, therefore, must appear rustic. In reality, I must stress again, Yogyakarta is a city, not a village.

Even if there are urban villages in the city, that is entirely understandable, as urban villages do exist in an urban area. Take the Code river village, for example, which is depicted in the film Jagad X Code (Herwin Novianto, 2009). The film tells of Jagad and his two friends, who have been told by a has-been thug named Semsar (Tio Pakusadewo) to steal a thumb disk from a woman’s handbag. The unemployed youngsters naturally agree, especially because they are going to be paid 3o millions. The problem is, to quote www.21cineplex.com, “due to technological gap, the three of them have no idea what a thumb disk is” (Picture 18). We immediately know that this is a comedy—whether it is actually funny or not is another story, and has nothing to do with how the film is categorized. However, the matter with “technological gap” is rather dubious. Well, the writer at the www.21cineplex.com might just be randomly saying it. Or perhaps it was the publicist of the film, which was produced by Inno Maleo Pictures. It is certain, however, that throughout the film, there is no explanation about the “technological gap.” The Yogyakarta residents—in this case, they who live along the Code river—are again depicted as ignorant people. Perhaps this is just a shortcut, an easy path to ascertain the film’s success as comedy. The relationship between the characters’ ignorance and the area where they live, the Code river area, is never mentioned (much less explained) throughout the film. What is certain is that that is precisely the impression I got when I read the synopsis, and especially after I watched the film. It is the matter about being rustic all over again.

Jagad X Code begins and closes with a rap music in Javanese, sung by Jahanam—a hip-hop group from Yogyakarta, known for their Javanese rap lyrics. One member of the group, Heri Wiyoso (known as Mamok, generally written as ‘M2Mx’), actually lives in the Code river area. Is this a coincidence? Who knows. But the Mamok that I know is certainly nothing like Jagad, Bayu, Gareng, or any other youth portrayed in the movie as residents of the Code river area. Neither is he an intellectual figure with the potential to be corrupt, who looks like Regina’s father (Ray Sahetapy). I am sure, however, that it is impossible for Mamok not to know what a thumb disk is. The thing is, the hip-hop music that Jahanam has been writing since 2003 is digitally produced (and is often called ‘electronic music’, not because of the genre, but because of how it is created). I am not saying that Mamok is representative of all the residents of the Code river area; rather, I want to illustrate how illogical it is to present such an extreme depiction of the technological gap in Yogyakarta at the end of the last decade of the twenty-first century. Not that telling jokes should stay invariably in the domain of the logic, but it does require certain skills so that the audience—or at least I—do not feel humiliated because we do not see how it will all come into place. Perhaps, had the movie been produced in the beginning of the year 2000, I would still be able to find it funny. Perhaps.

Indeed, Jagad X Code depicts a different Yogyakartan crowd compared to what we see in Cerita Yogya, which portrays the adolescent sexual lives that do not represent how youth in Yogyakarta live. The youngsters in Yogyakarta, urban as they are, are still bound by traditions. This does not mean that the teens wear kain-kabaya everywhere they go. Still, they, especially those who still converse in Javanese, will find it extremely difficult to defy the norms—at least in appearance. Although a number of researches have shown that Yogyakarta is a city with the lowest figure of virgin students in Indonesia, the solid Javanese culture in the city still does not allow such vulgar attitudes in daily life.

Observe several female characters in the short film Cerita Yogya, a part of an omnibus of four films that the makers claim as “films about, by, and for women”: [1] a veiled student in white-and-grey high-school uniform is casually smoking in a public space, practically ignored by people around her, while a female domestic tourist who is smoking while walking along Malioboro becomes a focus of attention (Picture 19); [2] a high-school student who amicably hangs out with the guys who might have made her pregnant, while previously she is depicted as panicking, fearful about her pregnancy while apprehensive about abortion, so much so that she eventually asks the guy to marry her; and [3] the logical hypocrite woman, who initially seems more principled than her friends, eventually surrenders her virginity in the name of love, while she knows that the guy is a mere tourist staying in a hotel instead of a resident living in a rented room (which means that he will be a mere fleeting appearance) (Picture 20). Then let us also observe the male counterparts: [1] a high-school student who does not mind his girlfriend sleeps around with his friends, but is afraid his mother might catch him having sex; [2] a youthful-looking male in white-and-grey uniform who proudly proclaims that he has slept with a virgin, a student from junior-high, but is yet too naïve to realize that his friends have conspired to make him marry the pregnant female student who has “slept around”; and [3] the man who offers a solution about how to decide who to marry the pregnant girl, i.e. by drawing a lot from an empty beer can, arguing that everybody has enjoyed how good it was to sleep with the girl; still, this guy knows nothing about Miyabi—a.k.a Maria Ozawa, a highly popular Japanese porn star.

Meanwhile, in Mengejar Mas-mas, one can see the shocked, nervous, and disgusted expression of the roving musician when Shanaz says, “I’m so bored with sex!” (Picture 21). The film creates a stereotype of the male in Yogyakarta: observe the traditional lurik and blangkon that Parno is wearing. If you visit Yogyakarta yourself, you will be hard-pressed to find any young roving musician in Malioboro wearing batik, much less lurik (Picture 22). Parno is also depicted as a youngster on a bike—a common thing in Yogyakarta, indeed—who is too stupid to do something about his broken brake, which often makes him fall from the bike. The scene is funny the first time it appears, but as it appears again for the second and then the third time, one gets the feeling that the scriptwriter, Monty Tiwa, is running out of ideas. Aside from being naïve, Parno seems to have no pride, either. After the date with Shanaz, he finds out that Shanaz’s boyfriend is already waiting for them. Shanaz introduces Parno as a bike-taxi rider who has taken her around the city. The boyfriend then puts money inside Parno’s pocket, as a sign of gratitude. Without any resistance or expression, Parno gives in and accepts, then leaves the scene (Picture 23).

Nrimo—that’s the Javanese mantra, extolling the virtue of giving in. That is also the general responses among my friends who are long-time residents of Yogyakarta, or who actually come from Yogyakarta. As they see these movies, they simply laugh and say that those are all mere “garnishes” for the movies. This tickles me, as I, someone who is not originally from Yogyakarta, feel a bit irritated to see the city is depicted in such ways, and to imagine how these films would be watched by so many people, who might then believe that the films truly depict Yogyakarta. “Gee, I wonder if Yogya is truly like that!” commented a woman in an office outfit, who sat in the line before me when I watched Perempuan Punya Cerita (Chants of Lotus) in Senayan XXI, Jakarta.

All the filmmakers whose films I discussed above certainly lacked time for further research and for an in-depth take on the subject when they prepare the script, or they lacked the money to use more locations. While Daun di Atas Bantal (Leaf on a Pillow, Garin Nugroho, 1998) has successfully made the audience feel in tune with the city of Yogyakarta without resorting to exploiting exotic locations, other films precisely make use of exoticism as a shortcut to tell the audience that their films take place in Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta, August 2009
Translated by Rani Elsanti

GRACE SAMBOH was born in Jakarta, 1983. Veering away from her undergraduate degree in Advertising, which she gained from STIKOM YTKP, she continued her study in 2007 at the Art Criticism program, Graduate Studies, Gadjah Mada University. She is now busy gathering data and facts that the Indonesian art history has generally ignored, while finishing her graphic fable, Rawalelatu, with her two best friends.

The early version of this essay has been published before at rumahfilm.org on July 16, 2008. The essay is the revised version written for Karbonjournal.org, with the addition of the discussion about the film Jagad X Code (Herwin Novianto, 2009), which was released after the initial version of this essay was published.


Picture 1. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)

Picture 2. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)

Picture 3. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)

Picture 4. Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto

Picture 5. Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto

Picture 6. Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto

Picture 7. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)

Picture 8. Jagad X Code (The Universe of the Code River, Herwin Novianto, 2009)

Picture 9. Jagad X Code (The Universe of the Code River, Herwin Novianto, 2009)

Picture 10. The route,

Jagad X Code (The Universe of the Code River, Herwin Novianto, 2009)

Picture 11. 3 Hari untuk Selamanya (Three Days to Forever, Riri Riza, 2006)

Picture 12. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)

Picture 13. Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto

Picture 14. Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto

Picture 15 & 16. Otomatis Romantis (Automatically Romantic, Guntur Soehardjo, 2008)

Picture 17. Otomatis Romantis (Automatically Romantic, Guntur Soehardjo, 2008)

Picture 18. Jagad X Code (The Universe of the Code River, Herwin Novianto, 2009)

Picture 19. Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto

Picture 20. Cerita Yogya (Chants from a Tourist Town) by Upi Avianto

Picture 21. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)

Picture 22. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)

Picture 23. Mengejar Mas-mas (Chasing Guy, Rudi Soedjarwo, 2006)


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This tickles me, as I, someone who is not originally from Yogyakarta.

Parno is also depicted as a youngster on a bike—a common thing in Yogyakarta.

I am sure, however, that it is impossible for Mamok not to know what a thumb disk is.

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