Rethinking Atheism Through an Indonesian Filmmaker’s Lens
This year, Kineforum, a nonprofit cinema managed by the Jakarta Arts Council (DKJ), holds its annual National Film Month for the sixth time. A home for art-house cinema, Kineforum, located in the Taman Ismail Marzuki cultural center in Central Jakarta, screens classic Indonesian movies and holds post-screening discussions.
Syuman Djaya (1934-85), one of Indonesia’s most prominent film directors, is the focus of this year’s event. Throughout his career, Syuman Djaya produced 23 movies and won awards for his remarkable work. He attended film school in Moscow between 1959 and 1964 and his filmmaking style was influenced by his education.
One of his most famous films, “Atheis” (“Atheist”), is being screened at this year’s National Film Month. Based on Achdiat K. Mihardja’s novel (1949) of the same name, “Atheis” was released in 1974. The film begins with a scene where a young Indonesian woman cries over a body in a hospital. The scene then proceeds to documentary footages from the end of the Dutch occupation in 1942 and the invasion of the Japanese.
“Atheis” focuses on a young man named Hasan. Coming from a devout religious family in Garut, West Java, Hasan was brought up in a traditional Islamic lifestyle. His childhood moments are depicted in black and white in the film. His childhood period gives viewers an understanding of how Hasan views the world: black and white. He is a good, religious boy, while his childhood friend Rusli is naughty and has a hobby of stealing mangoes from neighbor’s trees. “Atheis” starts with an introduction to the dichotomy between good and bad.
As an adult, Hasan works as a clerk at the state water company. He is a middle-class Indonesian with demanding parents who wish him to marry a young, obedient girl from the village. Yet, Hasan dates Rukmini, a village girl his family doesn’t approve of. Rukmini then leaves Hasan feeling sad and disappointed.
Years later, Hasan reunites with his childhood friend Rusli, now an underground atheist activist. Through Rusli, Hasan meets a modern Indonesian girl, Kartini, who reminds Hasan of Rukmini.
I will not discuss the film at length but instead the issue presented by the film: Atheism.
Why did Rusli turn to atheism? The film doesn’t tell much about Rusli’s life or his background. One has to guess whether he is part of a certain underground movement or separatist movement to get the full picture. But the hardship of war might have turned a poor rural boy like Rusli into an atheist. Perhaps he became an atheist because he needs to fight for a better life.
Indonesia was on the verge of change during the period of the story, as the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had gained thousands and thousands of members across the country, promising to increase the welfare of the people when the war ended. The Communist Party struggled and fought for the poor and the illiterate, promising a better agricultural system, while at the same time promoting atheism. There are misconceptions about atheism and communism. The two notions do not automatically go together. A person who is an atheist isn’t necessarily a communist, and vice versa.
Atheists do not believe in the existence of God, do not follow any belief related to religious dogma and do not perform any religious rituals. But do they harm the community by not acknowledging the existence of God? Syuman Djaya, through the dialogues between Hasan and Rusli, offers a perspective on atheism.
God does not exist, Rusli says. That statement puts Hasan in a very uncomfortable position, to the point where he doubts his life, his family, and people in general. Hasan then starts to question the existence of God. At the same time, Rusli encourages Hasan to view his life differently. Hasan’s understanding of atheism is also reinforced by another character, Kartini’s friend Anwar, a painter and womanizer. Anwar has the opportunity to follow Hasan home to his hometown. The villagers believe that Anwar is a devil worshipper, a bad example for the community and nothing but trouble.
Hasan’s love life also puzzles him. After marrying Kartini, who once had a relationship with Rusli, Hasan somehow doesn’t feel happy with the way he lives his life. He and Kartini often get into fights. In too deep with the new atheist lifestyle introduced to him by Rusli and Kartini, Hasan begins to ponder: Is this “new” life worth living?
In Indonesia, people who claim to be atheist do not always express themselves openly in public. Being an atheist is considered a violation of the law. Pancasila, the country’s ideology, says citizens must obey their religion and believe in God. In recent months, we have seen people arrested for admitting to being atheists.
The government has implemented a law that Indonesian citizens must claim one’s religion as a private or personal matter. Religious practices and beliefs should not be regulated. One’s belief is different to that of criminal acts, such as stealing or killing. But in Indonesia, not acknowledging the existence of God is an act against the law. People have to obey and believe in God. We Indonesians cannot deny the existence of God because it’s believed that this would trigger public disorder.
Syuman Djaya tries at great length to put that message in the film. Putting aside historical aspects, he focuses on the characters’ deepest thoughts to find the true meaning of God’s existence and the debates surrounding it. The audience is left to judge for themselves.
Being an atheist is a human’s rights. It is a very basic right of people to believe or not to believe in the concept of God. Let us not criminalize people for it.
Olin Monteiro is a writer and feminist working in Jakarta.
Directed by Syuman Djaya
In Indonesian with English subtitles
“Atheis” will be screened at Kineforum on Thursday at 5 p.m.