To the typical person, the words “conservative” and “Muslim” may come to mind when they think of Indonesia’s national identity in relation to its neighboring countries. Home to the largest Muslim population in Southeast Asia of over 260 million people, the country bears a significant Islamic presence in the region. With the exception of the more secular island states like Bali, Indonesia is a container of the multiplicity of ethnicities (and thus cultures and dialects) fragmented across many islands, and is fragilely held together by its identity politics in religion.
But the short film Joko offers an alternative view. In a country that does not condone homosexual acts and whose political stability has been questioned, the film openly contends with such taboo topics of homosexuality and the abuse of power relations to satisfy corrupt desires. The film’s vehicle, a combination of the handheld camera and the surveillance camera results in a raw confrontation of these issues that have been called out in the country’s past. It provokes the veil of stability and peace it presents to other countries.
The writer and director, Suryo Wiyogo, directly confronts the taboo of homosexuality through the exploitation of youth. The boss of a building company, referred to only as Pak by the workers, makes subtle sexual advances on the male protagonist, Joko, whose good looks catch the boss’s attention. Joko’s youth and sexual inexperience are emphasized, turning him into an object of desire for Pak. He is further objectified with the constant reinforcement of his viewing pleasure, be it through Pak’s computer monitor or his secretary’s, Indri’s, mobile screen. By capturing Joko on their screens, they engage in the act of voyeurism, reducing him to an image of visual pleasure.
Indri’s role seems to subvert the conventional male gaze as she, the only female which typically is the object of gaze to derive pleasure from, becomes the devil’s advocate and encourages Pak’s lust for Joko. She is culpable for the tragic predicament awaiting him. The film therefore twists the expectations of viewers, presenting a very warped world that drives viewers on edge all the time as we fear what happens next with each coming scene, right to the film’s ending scene.
Moreover, Rukman Rosadi’s portrayal of Pak plays a commendable role in this as he convinces us to fear for Joko each time he saunters into frame, wielding in hand the sexually charged cigarette. He exudes elegance and masculinity simultaneously, and captures the horrors of a sexual predator.
To speculate on the possible meaning behind the film’s title Joko, the film conveys something about its presidential namesake Joko Widodo. Were Joko to reflect the nation’s president, the film suggests the exploitation of national political leaders by capitalist-motivated forces, represented by Pak. We see Pak exploiting his power to carry out “dirty” tasks, and seeing such a devious man make Joko, an inexperienced boy, submissive to his every demand, the film emphasizes on Joko’s inability to stand up to the corrupt force. Thus, it suggests Widodo’s impotent leadership to bring Indonesia out of its predicament. A yield towards corruption is inevitable.
What’s unique about Joko is its dual subtitling. The film seems to make a political, and maybe even nationalistic, stance relevant to Indonesia’s complex national identity. Evidently, it intends to not only address English-speaking viewers, but also Bahasa Indonesian-speaking viewers. The Bahasa Indonesian subtitles glaringly stared at me as I followed its English counterpart and I was forced to remember how Indonesia cannot be represented by any one language, its national language per se, but to create authenticity, there must be a mouthpiece for its diverse cultures. And to the film’s credit, it does just that.
Does the film seek to project the voice of one ethnic group’s story over another? It may be wiser to say that instead, the film strives to reconcile the issue of diversity within the parameters of unity, embracing the country’s multiplicity while addressing its issues to beget empathy and a common understanding.
Perhaps it may be too much to read the film as politically-nuanced and as a bold move against the government. Nevertheless, it’s clear Wiyogo wishes to address the corruption behind-the-scenes when authority figures abuse power and manipulate the helpless inferior persons. To decide for yourself what exactly Wiyogo is trying to say with his film Joko, catch Programme 3 of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF).