Islamic films have found a devoted market in Indonesia. Commercial success will prolong the trend.
A new Islamic-themed film titled “Bismillah, Aku nikahi Suami mu” (In the name of God, I marry your husband) has just released in Indonesia. The title identifies strongly with its devoted audience.
There has been a mushrooming of movies promoting Islamic values since the late 1990s when Indonesia’s Reform Era allowed a renewed religious freedom of expression. Many of these films have had substantial box-office success.
Propaganda does not always have a negative vibe. From an Islamic point of view, there is actually a term which aligns with “propaganda”. Dakwah refers to preaching, not only in the traditional way but also via new ways of communication to spread Islamic values. Dakwah and propaganda have a similar tone.
And in Indonesia, entertainment and propaganda go hand in hand in promoting Islamic values. Most films in this article are commercially successful. Movie makers in the so-called dakwah films are always aligned with commercial imperatives.
The phenomenon started with the Ayat-Ayat Cinta (Verses of Love, 2008) which attracted 3.7 million viewers. The premiere was attended by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. After the screening he said the movie could become an economic power.
In the late 2000s, Islamic-themed movies boomed. Ketika Cinta Bertasbih (When Love Hymn) was the second
Others that made box-office lists include Sang Pencerah (The Englither), Dalam Mihrab Cinta (In the Niche of Love) both produced in 2010, Hapalan Shalat Delisa (Delisa’s Salat Recitation), Tanda Tanya (Question Mark), Di Bawah Lindungan Ka’bah (Under the Protection of Ka’bah) (all in 2011), Negeri Lima Menara (The Land of Five Towers, 2012), Hijrah Cinta (The Hijrah of Love), Assalamualikum Beijing (both in 2014), Surga yang Tak Dirindukan (The Heaven None Missed) which was the best-performing movie in 2015, Bulan Terbelah di Langit Amerika 2 (Split Moon on America’s Sky), Surga Yang Tak Dirindukan 2 and Insya Allah Sah (both in 2017).
The phenomenon did not stop in the 2020s, including Pintu Surga Terakhir (Last Door of Heaven, 2021) and Bismillah Aku Nikahi Suamimu (In The Name Of God, I Marry Your husband) this year. In the past three years horror films with familiar Islamic teachings, such as Islamic exorcisms like Qodrat, and Islamic terms (e.g., Ghibah, Qorin, Jelang Maghrib, Hidayah), have also become popular. The films follow the commercially successful path of more general horror films such as Danur (adapted from best-selling novels) and Pengabdi Setan (Satan’s Slaves), remade of a legendary horror film, and pioneers for these new approaches of the horror genre.
Many of these films were adapted or based on best-selling novels. Some Muslim activists working in literature, such as Forum Lingkar Pena (established in 1997), produced bestselling novels and anthologies of short stories, later adapted into films mostly by big production houses.
Indonesia has a variety of Muslim denominations. In terms of producing films they are best described in three ways: The Idealists, the Commercialists, and the Ideologists.
The themes have a pattern. One of them tells stories of successful people (respected professions or studying abroad) that struggle in relationships (finding spouses or polygamy) to comply with Islamic values. Others depict socio-culture and politics to criticise in comedic ways issues such as corruption as in Ketika (2004) and Alangkah Lucunya Negeri Ini (2010).
Some films represent Muslims as world citizens and romanticise the golden age of Islam when Muslims became the centre of global civilization (99 Cahaya di Langit Eropa, Bulan Terbelah di Langit Amerika). There are also films with international issues, such as defending Palestine’s rights over Israel in Hayya (2019) and Hayya 2 (2022). Other themes highlight specific Muslim problems such as the Hajj pilgrimage and Ramadhan/Eid in Emak Ingin Naik Haji, (2009) and Mencari Hilal (2015), blended with the importance of family values, as also underlined in Rindu Kami Pada-Mu (2004).
There are films which are preachy showing characters or Muslim clerics preaching or even quoting some verses of the Qu’ran or the saying of the Prophet. The only film propagating Khilafah is a short documentary Jejak Khilafah di Nusantara (2020), by Hizbut Tahrir, a now banned Muslim organisation. More moderate and liberal filmmakers who graduated from Islamic boarding school (called santri) made films representing (anti)radicalism and religious tolerance in Indonesia such as 3 Doa 3 Cinta Khalifah (2011) and Bid’ah Cinta (2017).They represent the insider who understands Islamic values.
Another trend is biopics of prominent Muslim clerics, including the founders of two of the biggest Muslim organisations: Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. One film is about the former president BJ Habibie and his wife, Ainun. Another shows the life and struggle of a prominent Muslim figure BJ Habibie, who later became the head of the Muslim think tank Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Indonesia (Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals) and the third president of the Republic of Indonesia. The founder of an Islamic denomination that later founded an Islamic political party was part of the list of popular themes on the big screen.
Madani films have Islamic values as the main message. They tell stories on Muslim culture, with Muslim problems and focusing on living Islam rather than just the doctrine. Madani films, as suggested by Bosnian female director Aida Begic and Muslim scholar Haidar Bagir, are the ones that are “the less preachy, the better.”
Some politicians have benefited with the blooming of Muslim thematic films. There is a film relating to the 212 highly political movements titled 212 The Power of Love. Several politicians attended the 2018 premiere and made a statement related to the films, mostly about tolerance and moderate Muslims. Prabowo Subianto, who was a presidential candidate in 2014, made a short documentary, Sang Patriot linking him with one of Prince Diponegoro’s officers, a prominent Muslim hero from the 1800s.
Filmmakers who produce Islamic-themed movies mostly try for commercial success and the dakwah spirit in one go. After all, filmmaking is a costly and risky business, and one needs to secure their profit or “break-even point” status and at the same time spread the dakwah. Kill two birds with one stone.
Ekky Imanjaya is a faculty member of the Film Department, Bina Nusantara (Binus) University, Jakarta. He is also a film critic specialising in Indonesian cinema and published books on Indonesian films, pop culture, and Islamic culture issues. Ekky is the chairperson of the Film Committee at Jakarta Arts Council, a board member of the Madani Film Festival and Jakarta Film Week. Dr. Imanjaya declares that he has no conflict of interest and did not receive specific funding.
Editors Note: In the story “Film as propaganda” sent at: 08/03/2023 09:33.
This is a corrected repeat.