From A Liberal Virgin: Stop Devaluing My Virginity

Originally published in Magdalene.

I had a rather early sexual awakening.

I was about seven years old and still a churchgoer. I didn’t remember why I decided to stimulate myself, but I did; it felt good. Nobody told me exactly what sex or clitoris were, but somehow my little self could deduce that a boy’s wee-wee belongs inside a girl’s hoo-ha.

Sex was as mysterious as the occasional glimpses of love scenes on TV. Nobody told me anything, so my little self would make up sexual fantasies that, come to think of it, was exceptionally kinky.

Fast-forward to my senior high school year. I was then well-acquainted with the internet already. I had female friends whom I can talk to about sex. Sex was finally demystified; faith secularized. Kinky fantasies had toned down for good. I learned other variations of penetrators and penetratees. In fact, things have come full circle and I made myself a chastity vow.

I didn’t do it in a classic Christian schoolgirl, purity-ring-wearing way the American shows portrayed and fetishized. I didn’t do it for any religious reasons. I just am, very simply, repulsed by the thought of irresponsible sex, i.e. having sex without an awareness of the risks of STIs and access to birth control and health facilities.

On top of that, I don’t want abortion, so I have to make sure I’m prepared for unwanted pregnancies too – slim chance or not. All these concerns led me to my Sumpah Palapa. No humping until I own my first house. Only clitoral stuff at best and – uh – only with the right partners.

With all those limitations, long story short, I remain a virgin. Considering the current economic situation, I will probably be one for a long time. I’m fine with that – it’s my choice anyway. A conscious, well thought-out choice, which is why I don’t appreciate the way conservatives supremacists are taking out my agency of it.

Our choice/their rules

Conservative supremacists dictates a woman’s value based on her virginity. Right now I’m a goodwoman, but my goodness marginalizes other women who choose differently. Sexually active women are called sluts, infidels, liberals, anything. Our choices are judged, our reasons dismissed.

Once my procreation “shelf life” is coming to an end, my virginity will not stay a virtue. It will turn into a liability. Conservative supremacists will make me beg for men. Stop being picky, they’d say.Don’t you want kids? You old hag, no wonder nobody wants you. Soon, the sexually active women will be the one with the upper hand. Either way, no woman wins.

It’s ridiculous how they decide to outlaw premarital sex “for the sake of women”. I am a woman; this is not done for my sake. On the contrary, it cheapens my choice. By the time premarital sex is outlawed, mine isn’t a choice anymore. It’s a default.

To the conservative supremacists, I’m merely complying with their standards. Sexually active women are merely rebelling. Our reasons are worthless. Imagine that: a society that values an organ over its citizens’ individuality. I am their hymen, soon to be their womb. Whenever I make a different choice, then I don’t know my place. As if my only organs are the reproductive ones; as if I have no brains; as if my organs are theirs.

They dare label fellow women badly just because these women don’t comply. They dare claim me into their territory just because my hymen is intact. Guess what, suckers, virgins can be liberal too.

One thing that conservative supremacists fail to understand when they decide to shove their standards on everyone’s face is the concept of discipline. Faith, whether Abrahamic or not, teaches discipline. Discipline is not blind obedience. Discipline is consciously choosing what is good, not what is indulgent.

Discipline stems from understanding, not fear. Discipline is self-trained, and force only reduces its worth. Discipline brings you a happy, healthy life regardless of heaven or hell. Authoritarianism, on the other hand, takes away the happiness without guaranteeing the existence of afterlife. My chastity vow is my discipline, and this whole ordeal reduces it to a rule.

I am a virgin not because that’s what God told me to do (God didn’t), not because I’m saving it for a man, definitely not because I’m a prude. I am doing it for myself. For the love of God, I just can’t bear to have my youth muddled by something that will happen eventually anyway. Sex is absolute and effortless; property ownership does not. I might be a virgin, but that is not all I am. I am also my own person.

Conservative supremacists, now if you’d stop devaluing the gift I gave myself, I’d like my choice to stay mine and valued, thank you.


Tabula Rasa: When Gulai Sways

Originally published in Indonesian on Cinema Poetica, 6 October 2014

To Indonesians, cuisine is synonymous with home. Diaspora tirelessly search for restaurants serving their regional cuisine to get a taste their hometown. This cuisine–home relationship is the core of Tabula Rasa. Naively interpreted, Tabula Rasa must have been chosen as a title because ‘rasa’ means flavor, which implies cuisine right off the bat. Etimologically speaking, Tabula Rasa means a blank slate—a chance to start over.

Hans is an aspiring soccer athlete from Serui, West Papua living somewhere near Jakarta. He was previously recruited in the hope of becoming the next big thing in Jakarta. Some time after, Hans ends up scraping things as a homeless. The story begins when Mak invites Hans to her Minang restaurant, seasoning him with her warmth, Natsir’s wit, and Parmanto’s bitterness.

Tabula Rasa’s story is representatively Indonesian. First of all, it features the use of Minang cuisine. Minang cuisine is the godfather of the archipelago’s cuisine, as evidenced by the blooming number of its restaurants that rivals McDonalds. Secondly, how it introduces Western Indonesia (Minang) and Eastern Indonesia (West Papua) and puts the two in Jabodetabek (Jakarta–Bogor–Depok–Tangerang–Bekasi), the melting pot of Indonesia. Tabula Rasa carries with it a grand narrative: a very Indonesian food film. The question now is whether the narrative is justly conveyed.

As a food film, it works. Tabula Rasa delivers more than food porn. Minang culture is given equal spotlight with the mouthwatering shots of sambal ulek and barbeque. Through Hans, the audience is educated with Minang culinary values: how they insist on local ingredients, types of rendang, to a humorous limerick on how to cook rendang.

Tabula Rasa also delivers various regional dialects, notably Minang and Papua, which add textures to the film. The dialects are taken very seriously, with dialect coaches present in the production team. The plot are also highly metaphorical. The spirit of unity-in-diversity is present in the cuisine, in how Mak help Hans without racially discriminating, in how Hans and Natsir jest on the capital’s microeconomy, and various other Indonesian communal values. The film serves a very ideal Indonesia present in primary schools’ Civics, a sweet propaganda safe for family consumption.

Unfortunately, the success of Tabula Rasa’s grand narrative jeopardizes Hans as the protagonist. The film’s weakness lies on its awkwardness in telling Hans’ story. Hans’ presence in the film is divided into two times: Serui Hans which ends in his departure and Jabodetabek Hans since he is cut off the team. Between the departure and the cutoff is a gaping hole of a plot which is explained only by a bite of dialogue: that he is let go because of a leg injury.

The bigger ration is given to a depressed Hans scraping for rice as a homeless man and his nostalgia about Serui which seems like an excuse to show some exotic-looking shots of Serui’s nature. The gap is not filled until Hans delivers the dialogue after two-thirds of the film. As a result, the audience fail to sympathize for Hans since the very beginning as they are too busy asking, “Why—what the heck?” Hans is like a plateful of lunch with more garnish than protein. Albeit flavorful, he does not satisfy the hunger.

Serui’s portion in Tabula Rasa is disappointing as it serves little to the story but a dash of exotic education. Adriyanto Dewo successfully told Mak’s longing for her homeland but did not tell Hans’ longing for Serui as strongly. Truth be told, it is hard to tell what Hans misses. Serui or the soccer? If the soccer, what function does Mama and the sea serve? If Serui, which side and why? His flashbacks are not strongly tied to the ongoing plot. As a result Serui Hans does not blend with Jabodetabek Hans, just like a newly-cooked rendang.

Hans’ longing (for who knows what) which is supposed to be the main course gets sidedished by insufficient storytelling. It is another dish that takes over: the iconic gulai kepala ikan. Gulai is an omnipresent force serving multiple functions; Hans’ motivation, symbol of Mak’s and Parmanto’s longing, a vessel to resolve conflict, and symbol of home with less budget requirements than Serui.

It is ironic how the audience will be able to symphatize more on Mak than Hans, even though Minangkabau is never shown through anything but a painting and gulai. Even though to think about it, the gulai is so special that it single-handedly saves Mak’s restaurant and beats its competitor. So special indeed, even the camera was tempted to always follow and dolly-in.

Tabula Rasa | 2014 | Length: 107 minutes | Director: Adriyanto Dewo | Country: Indonesia | Cast: Dewi Irawan, Jimmy Kobagau, Yayu Unru, Ozzol Ramdan

In the Absence of the Sun: How Relative is the Capital’s Glamor

Originally published in Indonesian on Cinema Poetica, 30 June 2014

Finally, a film that is contextually Indonesian without bombarding its audience with blatant nationalism. Lucky Kuswandi et al. presented In the Absence of the Sun as a tribute to Jakarta and its larger-than-life crowd. In the Absence of the Sun is told from the eyes of three metropolitan women whose night is intertwined one way or another. All might be Jakartans, but their perspectives on the city are as contrasting as they could be. The audience are led to step on these women’s shoes, lost in the confusion of crowded Jakarta.

Speaking of women’s shoes, we are introduced to a shoe-stealing towel girl in an elite gym. Her name is Indri, a working-class social climber dreaming of a more glamorous life. It is then revealed what the shoes are for: a hot date with a mysterious rich hunk with whom she has texted for awhile. Indri sashays with her new shoes, on her way to meet the man of her dream. Assuming the man wealthy and good-looking from his BlackBerry Messenger profile picture, she is immediately underwhelmed by his obese, temperamental, one-night-stand seeking date. Her dreams crumbles, and along the film, replaced by an understated romance of Faisal.

The second character, Chinese-Indonesian Ci Surya, lives in the luxurious, uptown Jakarta. Luxury is however not enough for her late husband, who cheats on her with a motel singer, Sofia. Hurt, Ci Surya decides to track Sofia down and swore vengeance. The middle-aged woman impulsively visits Sofia’s motel, only to learn that she is addressing her vengeance to a wrong place.

The third character is Gia, a recent film graduate returning from New York. Whereas Indri and Ci Surya feel at home in the capital, Gia feels foreign. She is faced with overwhelmingly different standards: celebrated pale skin, obligatory two mobile phones (one of which must be a BlackBerry), semiformal dresscode in ‘upscale’ bars, et cetera. She tries to break away by calling her old flame back in New York, Naomi (a.k.a. the rightful owner of Indri’s shoes), only to find her fitting in effortlessly with Jakarta’s jetset scene. They ended up spending a night recollecting who they were, together in a city that feels so new.

The glamorous world of Jakarta’s nightlife serves as the center of the film. It looks bright to Indri, dim to Ci Surya, and faint to Gia. The details put into In the Absence of the Sun’s Jakarta are impeccable, not to mention accurate. When Ci Surya is unloading her late husband’s closet, the call for Zuhur or Asar is creeping in; a beautiful, subtle way to show how religion dictates the rhythm of everyday’s life in the capital. In another, Gia and Naomi fail to locate their favorite nasi goreng (fried rice) tent; as if showing how the progressiveness of Jakarta has left little to no room for nostalgia.

The film delivers its finest towards the end, when Ci Surya (again) listens to the haunting performance of Sofia, intercut with the other two plots. A beautiful rendition of Pergi untuk Kembali (translated into ‘Leave to Return’) echoes Naomi’s words and the film’s tagline: ‘There’s no place for us here’. The characters’ resolutions are presented quietly: Naomi and Gia faces their undetermined future; Indri and Faisal’s romance are far from sugary; Ci Surya and Sofia are more alike than they seem. They all bow to Jakarta’s norm. Rich or poor, minority or not, all is lost in Jakarta.

Although In the Absence of the Sun delivers most of its critiques on Jakarta’s superficiality sweetly, some do not go as smoothly. Frontal dialogues are risky and harder to swallow, although delivered by strong, believable ensemble of actors. Indri and Faisal’s discussion on kerak telor (egg crust) or Gia and Naomi’s discussion on religion are the notable examples. Both are reasonable—Indri and Faisal are of the working-class and have experienced the bitterness of elite marketing firsthand; Gia and Naomi are close enough to talk about everything bitter and sensitive. Although carefully written with a clear logic, the critiques remain spicy, and spice is not for everyone.

Another risk taken by Lucky Kuswandi is censoring his film jaggedly. Davit’s insults to Indri and intimate scenes in the Lone Star Hotel are interrupted here and there, diminishing the strength of the scene and the audience’s enjoyment. The decision is supposedly an act of protest to Lembaga Sensor Film, Indonesia’s national censoring board. In defense of the film, the poster has explicitly stated 21+. Nobody knows why LSF still censors cigarettes and nudity in an already restricted audience.

Luckily, the jagged parts are not overwhelming enough to leave the audience with an unpleasant aftertaste. They are redeemed by the beautiful, detailed, seemingly candid establishing shots of Jakarta—including the trendy rainbow cake, LINE Games, ‘upscale’ bistros, and selfie stick—and the well-told tales of three lonely women in crowded Jakarta. The film gives newfound values to the simple egg crust and cheese Indomie.

At the end of the day, In the Absence of the Sun greatly benefits from its choice of time setting. Night is clearly Jakarta’s most honest hours. It is at night when working fatigue is lifted and glamor creeps along with egg crust, cheese Indomie, and other wonders. Shooting Jakarta during the day must have been a bore. If somebody is to make a rival piece called In the Presence of the Sun, it will probably be a 90-minutes nonstop traffic congestion.

Selamat Pagi, Malam (In the Absence of the Sun) | 2014 | Length: 91 minutes | Director: Lucky Kuswandi | Country: Indonesia | Cast: Adinia Wirasti, Dayu Wijanto, Ina Panggabean, Dira Sugandi, Marissa Anita, Trisa Triandesa, Lina Marpaung, Aming, Paul Agusta, Sunny Soon

Pegang Tangan: A Tale of Eid al-Freebies

Originally published in Indonesian on Cinema Poetica, 14 May 2014

‘Freebie culture’ is an arguably common term for the writer’s local society—in Tangerang, that is. Exampli gratia: bringing the hotel’s toiletries and sandals home, grabbing slightly too many testers from the supermarket, or abusing the government’s budget for—nevermind. The point being, freebie culture is, to a degree, a euphemism for theft. One might argue that in theft, there were no givers, only takers. Therefore, a line is clearly trespassed. Meanwhile, in freebie culture, there are willing givers who facilitates, for free! Regardless of manners, the two remains distinguished.

Watching Pegang Tangan then brings the writer to quite an interesting discovery on how freebie culture is apparently a nationwide phenomenon. In the film, the freebie culture is explored and contextualized in the form of the salam tempel or pegang tangan (literally translated as hand-holding). Salam tempel itself is an Eid al-Fitr (or Hari Raya) tradition familiar in Kaimana, West Papua. Basically, guests come over to the hosts’ (typically neighboring) house, shake the hosts’ hands, and be invited for snacks or feast.

The film itself is barely about its titular tradition or Eid. Both are side dishes to the freebie culture, served two ways: the practicing party and the objecting party. Representing the practicing party are Debora and Ratna, two best friends wandering all day for free snacks and feast; representing the objecting party are the hostess and Debora’s mother. What then makes Pegang Tangan special is its stance. The film tells it like it is; here are the children and here are the parents. Even more suitingly; here is the practicing party and here is the objecting party. Both are told and shown without restraints nor subjectivity, allowing the audience to autonomously identify themselves in either parts.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the practicing party, Debora and Ratna. It is made evident in their conversation their intention to get free food by salam tempel. It is a sensible act; why the need to buy in a day full of free food? To think about it, the prepared feast are likely to come to waste without guests. The two decide which house to visit as they walk hand in hand. As the film progresses, the pair becomes more daring, more gluttonous, but less logical. Their hunger seems to increase as they no longer aim for snacks, but a feast. After three houses, the pair manages to find a house preparing for one. Their once solid logic is compromised by greed, rationalized by a simple ‘they won’t recognize us if we change.’

The objecting party is not any better in the logic department. The hostess, recognizing the pair, is not thrilled by their shameless manner. In another obvious conversation, she shares the contempt with Debora’s mother. Both decide that the pair deserved no more feast within their territory, but why, really? Is the shamelessness of the guests a valid consideration to forbid them from enjoying the feast in a day of forgiveness and sharing? There is no question that the hostess supplied abundant food for potential guests that day. With no financial or charitable loss whatsoever, only poor sentiment remains to explain.

This implies that those who objects the freebie culture are those who are ethics-bound, even when ethics is irrelevant. Ethics and etiquette should be considered greatly by the guests. However, as hosts, ethical supremacy can end up a miserly act. Audience might agree that Debora and Ratna were pitiable, but so what? At the end of the day, they are only jumping into a window of opportunity, albeit shamelessly so.

In the film’s climax, Debora is dragged home once her mother recognizes the shameless girl as her daughter. ‘Embarassing,’ cries the mother. Note how Debora’s mother act is steered not by logic, but prestige. It is not only her daughter who is feasting, but she as well. Blatantly speaking, their only difference is the visiting frequency. Ethical or not, who is to say? Each generation is bound to their own standards.

In Pegang Tangan, parents are flawed. They are not seen as a moral compass, but bourgeois misers hiding behind society’s convention of etiquette. It is poetic how that mimics the way children see their own parents. The climax does not play out as a defeat to Debora, but a twist of fate, a simple miscalculation. It seems more like a backfired plan, as if Debora’s mother has to pay the price for her previous scrutiny towards the pair. The scene incites more laughter than discontent. The filmmakers tell it frankly, with no effort to make a pity act out of both characters. Audience can easily laugh at the embarrassed mother and her unlucky daughter, instead of judging or picking sides. The reason is clear, the audience has known by then that both mother and daughter are wrong. If there are any attempt to make Pegang Tangan righteously moralistic, it might have been too subtle to detect.

This stance is what makes Pegang Tangan a standout. It does not lecture its audience with ideals. Most ethically-charged films have a hero, with which the audience is given a good example to follow. When in truth, even Paulo Coelho said, ‘I learn more by not following bad examples, not following good ones.’ Hero-centric films lend no room for the audience to interact, as their stance is preset. Pegang Tangan, in turn, is told from a youthful perspective, showing two conflicting sides of flawed characters. Audience are free to take their own course. Ethical (and unethical) matters are simplified to a tease, letting the audience to assess and act on them together. What a ride it was, to engage the audience and watch them laugh at themselves along the way.

It is a pity how this fun little lesson is stained by logic gaps in the narrative. The fact that the hostess fails to recognize her neighbor’s daughter and the other way around is quite off. Perhaps showing their children off (with accompanying photographs) during local gatherings is foreign to Kaimana. Debora’s and Ratna’s craving for a feast is equally peculiar. Isn’t dinnertime traditionally a family affair? Not to mention, Debora is openly carrying a plastic bag of ‘stolen’ free snacks when she excuses herself. What is the point of being nice upfront and gluttonous afterwards?

Technically, Pegang Tangan’s cinematography is as lacking as its overtly verbal narrative. Granted, the technology used has a limited dynamic range. Thus, assessing Pegang Tangan from a strict technical point of view will not be a fair trade. It is best to let Pegang Tangan stand tall with its stance. How fascinating, a cultural portrait of Kaimana is able to paint a clear picture of a long disputed national identity: Tangerang or Kaimana, does not matter. Indonesia’s culture is freebie culture. Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, unity in diversity.

Pegang Tangan | 2013 | Length: 12 minutes | Directors: Yakobus Latulola & Pamela Kastanya | City: Kaimana, Papua Barat | Country: Indonesia | Cast: Eka Mury, Djulike Surbay

This writing is a result of Mari Menulis! Workshop Festival Film Solo 2014.