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  • Fiadhira Rasyah

The History and Development of Indonesian Films

(Talbot, Indonesia's first ever cinema located in Tanah Abang)

The first motion picture was introduced on December 5, 1900, in Batavia. The first screening of gambar hidoep or gambar idoep took place in Tanah Abang and featured a documentary about the Queen and King of the Netherlands. One of the more specific feature films was the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina. The year 1910 itself is known as a period of the emergence of film-going culture and also film production documenting life in the Dutch East Indies in order to cultivate a closer relationship between the colonial territory and the Netherlands.

The spark of interest in film-going resulted in a turbulent history of the commodification of film tickets. Ticket prices were racially categorized: first class served for the Dutch and Europeans, second class for Chinese and Arabic descents, and third class was for native Indonesians.

(The Teng Cung, left and Wong Bersaudara, right)

In the 1920s until the late 1930s, it was all about the emergence of local films, primarily silent, starting in 1926 with Loetoeng Kasaroeng, produced by NV Java Film Company. The film industry gained momentum with the involvement of Chinese entrepreneurs who recognized the business potential of filmmaking. In 1931, the first sound film was produced in the Dutch East Indies. The narrative then focuses on prominent figures of the Tionghoa or Chinese descent, such as The Teng Cung and Wong Bersaudara, who played significant roles in the development of the film industry. Not to forget the involvement of Albert Balink and Manus Franken, Dutch filmmakers who took inspiration from successful American films and integrated it into Dutch indie films. Their collaboration with Wong Bersaudara resulted in the film Pareh in 1934, which, although not financially successful, showcased their technical skills.

Though not long after, their collaboration birthed the award-winning film Terang Boelan, inspired by a successful American film, which was a notable production featuring Indonesian actors with the accompaniment of kroncong music. The success of the film Terang Boelan acquainted Dutch East Indies film producers with audience preferences, which constructed the benchmark of film during that era. Embodiment of mooi indie ideology, which was also covered in our prior article about Mooi Indie in Visual Art.

“Resepnya adalah pemandangan yang indah-indah, lagu yang merdu, perkelahian yang seru, penderitaan tokoh utama sebelum akhirnya menang, dan pemain utama yang rupawan. (The recipe consists of beautiful scenery, melodious songs, thrilling fights, the suffering of the main character before emerging victorious, and an attractive leading actor. )”

Prayogo in Sekilas Perkembangan Perfilman Indonesia, Journal FIB UI (2009)

Aside from the involvement of Dutch filmmakers within the Indonesian film industry during the Dutch occupation, the Japanese colonization also played a significant role in cinema being used as a tool for nationalist propaganda. Many post-colonial Indonesian filmmakers acquired a deeper knowledge of the role of film in shaping national narratives. Despite the continued presence and production of Japanese films in Indonesia, Western films were still permitted to circulate.

Though it is limited in production, the circulation of films was “gatekept” by the Japanese propaganda organization Sendenbu, only allowing the Nippon Eiga Sha production house to deliver movies with chosen narratives. This meant that there were fewer films available for consumption, as these productions were primarily supported by Japan for their propaganda purposes.

(Stills from Darah dan Doa)

The film Darah dan Doa can be marked as one of the most prominent movies of the 1950s, acclaimed as the first national film, produced by an Indonesian film company none other than Perusahaan Film Nasional (PERFINI). Darah dan Doa was written and directed by Usmar Ismail, who is often hailed as the founding father of Indonesian cinema. The main storyline entails the long journey of the Siliwangi Division troops, who were ordered to return to their base in West Java after Yogyakarta was attacked and occupied by the Dutch royal forces through Dutch military aggression.

The film specifically portrays the perspective of Captain Sudarto, who led the division back to their home base. The film also emphasizes the humane side of Captain Sudarto, portraying him not only as a 'hero' but as a compassionate individual who lived his ordinary life. The first day of film production was inaugurated as our national film day, which falls on March 30th. The 1950s and 1960s are marked in film history due to important filmmakers such as the aforementioned Usmar Ismail, Djamaludin Malik, and D. Djajakusuma, who actively generated films with the main theme of ‘questioning the national identity’.

During the New Order period, the Indonesian government, particularly DEPPEN, now known as Kominfo, exerted significant influence over the film industry, particularly in content regulation. The government held the belief that Indonesian cinema should exclusively showcase films with educational and cultural value. The introduction of widescreen filming and color film was a supporting development during this era. This technological development allowed filmmakers to capture more intricate motion.

November 1828 (1979) was the first Indonesian film to be screened at the Berlin and London film festivals. The film helped to capture the resistance of Dutch colonialism during the Javanese War in the early 1820s, juxtaposing western and eastern cultures and values. This era was characterized by a bureaucratic framework, studio-funded projects, and a system of apprenticeships for aspiring filmmakers. More films from this era include Penumpasan Pengkhianatan G30SPKI, Cinta Pertama starring Slamet Rahardjo, and Tjoet Nja Dien starring Christine Hakim.

During the 1990s, the national film industry experienced an economic crisis due to the shift in filmgoers. National films had to go hand in hand with the emergence of sinetron (soap opera) on private-owned TV channels. In addition to the aforementioned issue, the technological development of laser discs, VCDs, and DVDs also allowed Indonesians to enjoy imported films, thus drifting away from local films. Though other technological advancements in cameras birthed the independent film community, experimental film was made outside the traditional film conventions.

(Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, left and Laskar Pelangi, right)

Films during the 2000s went on to be more experimental yet still adhered to much of the traditional film conventions because everyone could be a filmmaker in this era; the division between commercial and indie films emerged as a result of the differences in their popularity. The 2000s commercial cinema was mostly associated with award-winning literary adaptation Laskar Pelangi, as well as famous teen romance films like Ada Apa Dengan Cinta, which later in 2016 got its sequel, and lastly, the controversial campy horror film phenomenon that sparked a debate about objectification of the female body.


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