Diah, a young Indonesian woman with short hair, drags her male companion into a warehouse and furtively closes the door. She nervously tries to compose herself before offering her companion a match which he can strike to illuminate her vagina in exchange for 10,000 rupiah (less than US$1).

This is the crucial scene in the movie Prenjak (In the Year of Monkey), which won the Leica Cine Discovery Prize for Best Short Film at the Cannes Film Festival last year. The prize is awarded each year for a short or medium-length film made by a promising filmmaker.

The maker of Prenjak is Wregas Bhanuteja, 25. He majored in film directing at the Jakarta Institute of Arts, and was the first Indonesian to win an award at Cannes. He is currently shooting a feature-length film that promises to bring a heightened level of craft to Indonesian cinema.

Prenjak 4
A still from Prenjak by Wregas Bhanuteja. Photo: Wregas Bhanuteja

Of the Prenjak, Bhanuteja says it is “based on a story I heard from my uncle. In the 1980s some female drink sellers would let a man see their vaginas with a lighted match for money”. He was speaking during a Singapore International Film Festival discussion session called New Waves, which focuses on emerging directors.

Kindly cuts

In her review of Prenjak, French critic Marie-Pauline Mollaret wrote: “Bhanuteja banishes sordid voyeurism to the benefit of tender and humorous poetry.” The win was warmly received at home too, with the Indonesian Ministry of Education and Culture held a press conference at which the film, with its nude scenes, was screened.

Bhanuteja says he offered a censored version without the shots of genitals. “They chose the uncensored version,” he said. “They said the uncensored version should be screened, as it won the Cannes prize.”

Prenjak by Wregas Bhanuteja. Photo: Wregas Bhanuteja
One of the protagonists in Prenjak. Photo: Wregas Bhanuteja

However, the Film Censorship Board must give its permission for any film to be shown in cinemas or on television, and it has a reputation for strictness. The hard hand of the censor is not something that worries the director. “I respect the rules and views of the censorship board. I understand that if I want to do a film that goes against the guidelines, I can screen it overseas,” he said.

Bhanuteja’s equanimity is based on the experience of Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami. Getting around censorship meant Kiarostami developed a new style that celebrated ambiguity, used a documentary style, often with juvenile protagonists, and wove elements of high culture into his work.

Young Indonesian director Wregas Bhanuteja. Photo: Elena Owyong
Young Indonesian director Wregas Bhanuteja. Photo: Elena Owyong

Slowly but surely

Bhanuteja is at work on his first feature film, which is about the struggle of a woman from rural areas that is seeking a better life in the capital. “People in small cities in Indonesia want to find a better life in Jakarta. But it is tough, as Jakarta is more hectic,” Bhanuteja said.

The script for the film is still in the works. It is now being revised for the sixth time. Bhanuteja hopes to release the movie next year. “I don’t want to rush. I want to show my expression of art through this film,” he said.

Lembusura by Wregas Bhanuteja. Photo: Wregas Bhanuteja
Lembusura, a 2015 short by Wregas Bhanuteja. Photo: Wregas Bhanuteja

The director’s attention to ensuring the quality of the film is perhaps a reaction to the usual, less painstaking approach to making movies in Indonesia. “There is a lack of cinemas in Indonesia, so the schedule for film screening is like a waiting list,” he says. “Filmmakers have to rush pre-production and development to get into the schedule if they want their film screened soon. This means that the production and shooting process are also reduced.”

According to The Jakarta Post, Indonesia had 1,002 screens in 193 movie theaters in 2015. That means one screen for every 249,000 Indonesians. In contrast, Malaysia and Japan each have one screen for every 40,000 people.

Bhanuteja thinks the rush to churn out films means the scripts are underdeveloped, leaving the movies with plots that are often clichéd or illogical. “Filmmakers want to finish the films soon so that it can be screened soon for profit,” he said. “Since filmmakers in Indonesia target the domestic market and what they are doing is well received by the audience, there is no reason to change.”

The underdeveloped scripts limit the opportunities for talented actors, says Bhanuteja. “There are good actors in Indonesia but there are not many well-written characters for them to play,” he says.

All things considered, Bhanuteja argues that if Indonesian filmmakers are to make reputations for themselves outside their own country, they should stop focusing on profit. “Filmmakers can make deeper films, as there is an international market out there and the festival circuit to screen films. But few people realize it,” he said.