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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 13:26 GMT
Indonesia embraces first gay screen kiss

Rachel Harvey
BBC Jakarta correspondent

A locally-produced film has proved an unlikely box office sensation in Indonesia.

Arisan, a satirical comedy, takes its title from the name given to a social get-together where friends chip in money to be won later through a lucky draw.

Scene from Arisan
Arisan explores cultural taboos among the country's elite

The theme is used as a vehicle to introduce the film's central characters - all wealthy, fashion-conscious 30-something Jakartans.

There is the successful interior designer who discovers she is infertile; an adulterous housewife who has to be bailed out of prison after a drugs bust; and their gay friend who tries and fails to resist his homosexuality.

The screenwriter, Joko Anwar, said his team wanted to tackle something a bit different from the usual Indonesian fare.

"Movies that were exported abroad in festivals or to commercial circuits, they all feature poor society in Indonesia. We think that it's time to present something new about in the Indonesian image, and this society exists and it happens to be the society that's close to us as film makers," he said.

In essence, Arisan is a satirical swipe at Jakarta's high society, and that has certainly gone down well with audiences in the Indonesian capital.

But it is the gay kiss in the middle of the film which has really got tongues wagging.

A ripple of nervous giggles spread through the cinema when an image of two men locked in a passionate embrace fills the screen.

Director Nia di Nata
Director Nia di Nata has broken new ground

Not everyone has been comfortable with the openly gay subject matter. But the critics have loved it, and so far, religious conservatives have remained uncharacteristically silent.

Veven Wardhana of the Institute of Media and Social Studies, thought he knew why.

"Religious leaders often object about things to do with sex and sexuality. But I think maybe they haven't seen this film because they'd have to pay to see it. If they showed it on TV, then you'd probably get protests."

The use of humour may also have helped made the film's sensitive themes more palatable. But movie-goers in Jakarta seemed to have recognised the grain of truth hidden behind the jokes.

"It's very accurate because I've got friends like that and gay is not something that is very unusual in Jakarta. Everybody knows that," said one viewer.

"I come from Jakarta, so I can identify with the places that they visited, although I'm not part of that group but still, you can identify with it. People find it just entertaining. People don't have to find it that serious," said another.

Arisan has been hailed as one of a crop of new films which promise to take the Indonesian movie industry into a golden new era. After years of sticking to a staple diet of action and horror, Indonesian film makers are beginning to branch out.

It may not be long before movies like Arisan are playing at a cinema near you.

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