Budi Irawanto – The short film Tilik (Ladies on Top), directed by young filmmaker Wahyu Agung Prasetya, has become a social media sensation in Indonesia.
It was uploaded to YouTube on 17 August 2020. Since then it has earned more than 16 million views and generated mixed reactions among netizens.
Utilising the "road movie" genre, Tilik narrates the trip of a group of women from a rural area as they ride on the back of a truck to visit their sick Bu Lurah (village female head) in the hospital.
On the way, these women gossip enthusiastically about a young woman named Dian who allegedly has "improper" jobs and a romantic relationship with Bu Lurah's son (Fikri).
The audience and fellow filmmakers have praised Tilik for its great cinematography and acting. However, it also drew controversy for its supposedly objectionable portrayal of women.
Many critics argue Tilik glorifies certain stereotypes of women, such as perpetuating unverified gossip. The film's ending also reinforces the negative stigma against women as "homewreckers".
Another critic describes this film as "misogynist" since it allegedly despises and is strongly prejudiced against women.
However, I believe Tilik is more complex than that due to the diverse women it portrays.
Looking at different angles
Looking closely into Tilik's narrative and the portrayal of its characters, women take centre stage in this film.
UK film expert Steve Neale explains that stereotyped characters in film provide "a stable and repetitive structure of character traits".
The diverse cast of women in this film, from the notorious Bu Tejo to the mysterious Dian, offers varied and nuanced representations of women, thus disallowing a rigid portrayal of women in it.
Hence, it can be said the stereotyping of women is largely absent from this film.
In Indonesia, women tend to be portrayed in domestic roles or in marginal positions due the society's strong patriarchal culture.
Tilik has tried to break this stereotype with its Bu Lurah character. The village these women inhabited has a female leader. She is not only portrayed as a capable woman for leading the village, but she is also a beloved leader. The villagers eagerly took the initiative to visit her once they learnt of her hospitalisation.
In fact, the backstory about her runs counter to conservative social norms.
This is because Bu Lurah became a single mother who lived with her son after divorcing her husband, Minto. This runs counter to the image of women we often see in the mainstream media like television, where women are mostly represented as an accessory to their male spouses or relatives.
The portrayal of the group of women who seemingly love and enjoy gossiping in Tilik cannot be perceived as a stereotypical image. This is because the male truck driver, Gotrek, is also portrayed in the film as enjoying listening to the women gossiping in the back of his truck while he drives.
In another scene, Gotrek also attempts to eavesdrop a phone conversation. In short, this film also represents a man as a gossipmonger.
The ending of the movie reveals a surprising twist where Dian is caught having a romantic relationship with Bu Lurah's former husband, not her son.
Many have criticised this as reinforcing the stereotypical image of a young, single woman as a homewrecker. However, if we look at it from a different angle, this film shows Dian is an independent career woman who consciously decided to have a relationship with the older man.
Produced by Yogyakarta-based production house Ravacana Films and funded by the Yogyakarta Cultural Agency, Tilik premiered in the 13th Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film (JAFF) in 2018. It was Best Short Film in the Maya Awards in the same year.
With nuanced female characters and almost no verbalism in delivering the message in Tilik, some members of the audience blame either the filmmaker or the local cultural agency for the film's lack of a clear "moral lesson".
Ironically, the audience have applied to filmmakers the infamous authoritarian policy of the New Order regime that stipulated any film should embody "cultural and educative values", rather than appreciating more artistic freedom for young filmmakers.
Rather than judging hastily, we should read the short film Tilik carefully to gain different perspectives as well as to enrich public discourse on gender issues in Indonesia.
[Budi Irawanto is an associate professor of communications, Universitas Gadjah Mada.]