In one of the opening scenes in Hanung Bramantyo’s new film “?” (“Tanda Tanya,” or “Question Mark”) we meet one of the main characters, Rika, who is busy cleaning up and organizing the shelves in her bookstore. I don’t remember her exact words, but she says with exasperation to her friend Suryo who stops by at closing time, something to the effect of: “The novels are in the self-help section, the school books are in the business section, and worst of all… these pulp romance novels [Rika holds up a paperback with a sexy scene on the cover] are in the children’s section!”
With these few lines Rika has summed up the whole movie for us with a cute metaphor. The multi-faith, multi-ethnic characters in “?” live in an old tempo doeloe nostalgia-inducing downtown neighborhood of Semarang called “Pasar Baru” (“New Market”). Pasar Baru is like Rika’s disorganized bookstore, and the characters are the books, who try relentlessly to classify and organize each other onto their respective book shelves (by religion, ethnicity, gender and family roles), but always come up against the messy realities of everyday life that refuse simple classification. Ironic that Rika complains about her disorganized books because her story poses the most confounding and stigmatizing situation of all (like pulp romance in the children’s section) for her neighbors and family: Rika is a recently divorced single mother who is unapologetically yet haltingly in the process of converting from Islam to Catholicism. Janda murtad! Apostasy!
The characters’ melodramatic stories of faith and family, love and death, take place in present-day Indonesia, specifically throughout the year 2010, which is to say their mixed-up lives are set against the backdrop of increasingly intolerant black-or-white religious discourses. The film begins, climaxes, and ends with scenes of headline-grabbing religious violence—all in Pasar Baru no less—that sadly and too easily overshadow the small acts of tolerance, consideration and accommodation that nearly all of the characters make, with plenty of personal struggle, for one another. Here is the promotional preview clip:
Hanung Bramantyo has produced this film as a statement in favor of tolerance in a diverse society, and the film is sparking a lot of debate on social media that generally embraces the film’s message, at least on the surface. A quick search for #TandaTanya on Twitter yields a lot more favorable than negative comments. But of course, a small number of religious purists are able to hijack the debate and denounce the film making absurd statements and fatwas peppered generously with shallow understandings of words like haram, sesat, murtad, pluralism, and kafir to describe it. They say it’s a hate piece against Islam, as if there were no crass depictions of intolerance among the Catholics and Confucians, as if there were no positive images of Islamic faith and practice, as if we can safely assume that the depictions of violence were committed by Islamic extremists. Hanung addresses these silly one-track diatribes point by point here, so I’m not interested in addressing further the strange and disruptive influence of just a few adherents to Indonesia’s majority religion so dangerously insecure and uncomfortable with everyone else around them.
Although I should probably question my methods, I tried to do a little score-keeping throughout the film to see who gets the short end of the metaphorical joss stick. The main groups depicted are Javanese Muslims, Javanese Catholics, and Chinese Confucians. One character from each group dies violently in the film. We witness one conversion from Islam to Catholicism, and another from Confucianism to Islam. If we want to zealously police the boundaries of organized faith—keeping our bookshelves in order so to speak—then we might consider conversion into a faith as a net gain, and conversion out of a faith as a net loss, or a metaphorical death, for each faith community. By my count, the Confucians in the film lose two characters, the Muslims lose one, and the Catholics come out even.
Ironically, it’s the Chinese-Indonesian family in the film that makes the extra effort to accommodate the Muslim majority in Pasar Baru. They keep a separate set of dishware and cooking utensils at their restaurant for the customers who don’t eat pork; they gently remind their Muslim staff that it’s time for prayers; they cover the windows and do not serve any pork during Ramadan and then stay closed for the major feasting holiday at Ramadan’s end. It is the elderly Chinese couple who own this restaurant that stand out as compelling moral anchors of accumulated day-to-day wisdom and tolerance in the film, no doubt born from necessity living as a persecuted minority for generations in Java. They remind me of the wise old black women and men that show up in so many Hollywood films. (to be fair, there is also a wonderful young ustad and an elderly priest who each give wise counsel to their congregations throughout the film) For all that wisdom, in service of some greater communal good in Pasar Baru, the Chinese characters are rewarded with an unequal share (per capita, let’s say, for emphasis) of death and departure from faith. The film ends with a secular celebration of the New Year (2011) for everyone in Pasar Baru—its community reconstituted and at peace once again—plus an affirmation of the human capacity for change, to continuously struggle for what’s right for oneself and one’s community based on heart and faith… but there is little evidence to suggest that any deeper change has occurred. The categories that organize the people in Pasar Baru remain in tact, and the religious and ethnic minorities have made disproportionate and requisite sacrifices in order to keep it that way. Rika’s book store? Still in business!