copyright 2007, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 49, spring 2007

Pasir Berbisik and
new women's aesthetics
in Indonesian cinema

by Intan Paramaditha

Nan T. Achnas’ Pasir Berbisik (Whispering Sands, 2001)[1][open notes in new window] was produced during the early years of Indonesian reformasi, a new era of democracy after the end of New Order regime under Suharto’s authoritarian leadership in 1998. It is an important film not only in terms of political context but also aesthetics, as the first work directed and produced by women with a conscious feminist agenda.[2] The film, however, has not been extensively discussed. An explanation for this is inaccessibility; it received critical acclaim in various international film festivals yet did not have a wide distribution.[3] Even in Indonesia, copies are only available in VCD and without subtitles. And there both critics and viewers have shown a lack of interest. The film's minimal dialogue and slow pace have led to its commercial failure as many people find it “simply boring and confusing.”[4] On the other hand, critics tend to see it as an unnecessarily beautiful film that is neither “realistic” nor political enough.[5]

Set up in a village in East Java in 1960’s, Pasir Berbisik presents a complex relationship between a mother, Berlian (Christine Hakim), and her teenage daughter, Daya (Dian Sastrowardoyo).[6] Berlian’s husband, Agus (Slamet Rahardjo Djarot), had left the family when Daya was still a little child. As a single parent, Berlian earns a living by selling jamu, Indonesian traditional herbal medicine, and assisting a midwife in childbirth and abortion. While Berlian is overprotective toward her daughter, Daya constantly daydreams about her father's returning as a real hero. Meanwhile, external political tension between the military and the Indonesian Communist Party threatens the remote areas of the country, forcing the mother and daughter to flee from their village. In the new place they settle in, the long-lost father finally returns and transforms their lives.

Offering long, lingering shots of vast landscape of sands, mountains, and small villages, the film is stylistically indebted to neorealism. As described within Deleuze’s framework, space in neorealist films offers subjective images built up of “purely optical situations” rather than action (1989: 2), reflecting people’s interpretation of their environment and circumstances. Characters' actions, as in Pasir Berbisik, do not necessarily entail linear progression, and the ways in which they behave often do not seem to correspond to their immediate situation. Because critics and viewers probably receive the film from the point of view of realism – especially in terms of the history of neorealism in Indonesia, which has focused more on social content instead of aesthetics [7] – they may not appreciate that the film's aesthetic subordinates or integrates representing the "real" to a psychological and social foregrounding of the perspective of its female characters. The sands as depicted in the film are more than a physical setting, rather something integral to the characters’ world view.

For example, sometimes we may see a sandstorm that prevents people from doing their activities, displaying nature’s vital role in shaping the villagers' lives. Every morning Daya and her mother have to clean their house from a pile of sand, an evocation of the Sisyphus myth in an age of desperation where the lives of poor people are easily torn apart by a greater power, in this case, the 1965 political turmoil. Time and space have a subjective meaning in the film, emphasized by a recurrent image of Daya pressing her ears against the sands and imagining that they are whispering.

The film thus gives access to the point of view of marginalized peoples so as to illuminate an angle of history often dismissed by previous “historical” films.[8] Among those films, Pengkhianatan G30S/ PKI (The 30 September Movement Treason, 1984), the official film about the 1965 Communist’s coup, revolves mainly around stories of the great players, good military generals versus the evil communists, and it touches very little upon the impact of high politics on poor civilians.[9] Additionally, although neorealism has inspired many Indonesian filmmakers to present class tensions, their focus is usually on poverty and not on women's subjectivity. Even if those films try to depict woman’s experience, they are usually framed within the perspective of male filmmakers.

Krishna Sen, a notable critic of Indonesian cinema, praises Pasir Berbisik as “an art film” that portrays “the meaningless and erratic brutality of that [New Order] regime,” yet she is pessimistic about the feminist tone of the film as according to her it treats the central characters as only “powerless victims of that brutality.”[10] Sen’s argument can be understood in terms of the lack of critique that Pasir Berbisik offers about the narrative of 1965 tragedy, much distorted by Pengkhianatan G30S to glorify Suharto and military heroism. I would argue that the film creates a strategy to challenge New Order history not by providing a contesting narrative closer to the actual political conflict, but rather by engaging the audience to consider the personal experiences of women in the periphery, who were forgotten and silenced in the New Order historical films. Within the film's aesthetic, female characters need to be understood as seers rather than as real agents within contemporaneous or historical temporal continuity. Through its cinematic language, Pasir Berbisik explores the dimensions of female gaze and female voyeurism as well as reappropriates the Oedipal narrative structure. It thus offers a new feminine aesthetics that one could hardly find in Indonesian cinema since 1926 until the end of the New Order era.

Women in Indonesian cinema

The discourse of the representation of women in Indonesia is inseparable from Indonesian politics. Until the end of New Order period, women’s roles in Indonesian cinema were predominantly created by male directors with a male standard of aesthetics. Indonesian B-grade films blatantly displayed women as fetishized as well as demonized sexual objects. The work of serious (male) filmmakers, in more subtle ways, usually portrayed one-dimensional female characters who followed the old dichotomy of good/bad: idealized versions of femininity or "fallen women" in need of moral reform and redemption. Women were characterized in a typical New Order fashion — as supporters of men and the state who, despite their activities in the public sphere, did not forget their "nature" as mothers and wives.[11] The position of women as secondary also occurred in the film industry, in which only a few women could participate other than as actors. Krishna Sen in her much cited work, Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order notes that, from 1965 to 1985, there were only a dozen films directed by women. Moreover, these films inclined to uphold the traditional representation of woman:

“[Women directors] can do little more than imitate the middle-of-the-road work of the men, in order to gain acceptance and survive” (1994: 135).

Female directors had to internalize masculine perspectives in producing their works for the sake of career stability, resulting in the lack of women’s voices in the male dominated tradition of Indonesian cinema.

The end of Suharto reign in 1998 marked a new beginning of democracy and freedom of speech in Indonesian politics, arts, and media. Although New Order film regulations and censorship were still implemented, people began to openly challenge rigid boundaries of gender, class, and ethnicity. The first woman director who expressed a feminist stance was Nan T. Achnas. Before directing Pasir Berbisik as her first feature film, Achnas collaborated with three other young directors – Mira Lesmana, Riri Riza, and Rizal Mantovani — to produce Kuldesak (Cul-de-Sac, 1998). Released months before the end of the regime, the film depicts more a young generation rebelling against established bureaucratic system rather than feminist themes, but it demonstrates Achnas’ attempt to explore women’s subjectivity through a series of long close-up shots of the main character, a lonely urban woman who finds comfort in her gay best friend, with her voice-over revealing her fantasies about love and family. A more bold thesis about a women’s film can be seen in Pasir Berbisik, and in terms of its production, it is also a manifestation of female bonding between Achnas as a director and female colleagues, scriptwriter Rayya Makarim and producer Shanty Harmayn, who were all relatively new to the film industry at that time. The film portrays women as central characters with a depth and complexities one could hardly find in earlier films.

When examining the aspect of gender in Indonesian cinema, Sen focuses her analysis on Suci Sang Primadona (1977, Suci the Prima Donna), directed by Arifin C. Noer. Despite that film's moral tone in the script about a sexually liberated Prima Donna who finally realizes her "true" identity as a mother, Sen argues, the female character's body is visually eroticized to fulfill a male spectator's fantasy(Sen: 145). These conflicting agendas in that film more generally characterize the prevalent male perspective shaping Indonesian mainstream cinema, which exemplifies Laura Mulvey’s theory of the gaze in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Mulvey borrows from Freud the concept of scopophilia, the pleasure of looking at another person as an object, and argues that the gaze is exclusively masculine. Women on cinema are women on display, providing an access to the (male) spectator to play with a voyeuristic fantasy (1989: 16). A female character is objectified by different levels of the gaze: the characters in the film and the spectators in the auditorium. Her body implies the erotic “to-be-looked-at-ness;” she becomes the signifier of male desire (19). What is interesting to me here are the ways that Pasir berbisik complicates Mulvey’s theory and its Indonesian patriarchal context by problematizing the look of the camera, the characters, and the spectators. Through her feminist lens, director Nan T. Achnas allows the spectator to see from the eyes of a woman (director and characters) and to explore the possibility of how women can be in control of, or at least negotiate, (cinema's and, within the film, men's) "look."

Challenging the gaze

The film opens with an image of a shadow puppet reflected on the sands, filling the mise-en-scène with symbols that recur throughout the film. Daya remembers her father as a puppeteer who traveled around and told stories to villagers. As she grows up, she often plays with puppets to console her as she longs for her lost father. The shadow of the puppet is thus the shadow of the father, who is absent until half of the film but lingers in the memory of the daughter. The sands have a softness and tremendous power, on the other hand, that parallels the dualism of the mother, portrayed as both loving and stern. The beginning of the film establishes the relationship between Daya, the mother, and the sands as the camera lingers on a barren land out of which Daya appears in an extreme long shot. She walks closer to the camera and throws herself on the sands, listening to their whisper and humming. Later her mother appears from the same direction and walks toward her. She bends down and caresses Daya while her daughter, feigning ignorance of the mother's presence, tries to feel grains of sands. The feminine imagery of mother and daughter searching for tenderness from skin and sands foreshadows the main storyline, which revolves around the affection as well as tensions between the two women.

The first sequence in which the audience can see interaction and dialogue between mother and daughter begins with a long shot of a village as Daya’s voice-over is heard:

“As long as I can remember, there were only two of us. Mother and I. Berlian, the hardest stone.”

The scene cuts to a door of a traditional bamboo house shot from a low angle. Daya enters the mise-en-scène, approaches the door, kneels, and peeps through the keyhole. A subjective shot shows Berlian cooking jamu. From Berlian, the camera moves to show Daya, now framed in close up, and while she is watching her mother the girl starts counting,

“One, two, three.”

On the count of three, Berlian suddenly turns her head toward her daughter, the camera, and the spectator. Daya immediately stops watching and hides, while Berlian turns her head again and continues working. As the camera shifts from Berlian to Daya, hiding behind the door, the spectator can hear Daya’s voice-over,

“Mother always knows where I am.”

As  Daya gets up and opens the door, the scene shifts from outside to inside, where Berlian is crushing herbs. Without looking at Daya, she says coldly,

“Why did it take so long to fetch water?”

Daya, framed from behind, replies,

“I was just going to do it.”

Berlian stops crushing, gazes at Daya and says,

“Child, come here.”

Her voice now sounds surprisingly calm. When Daya sits down on the floor and faces her mother, Berlian caresses her hair, picks up a bowl of traditional facemask, and applies it on Daya’s face as sun protection. As she is doing this she says,

“It’s very hot outside. How many times do I have to tell you not to go to the bushes?” Daya ignores her mother’s look and says there was nothing harmful there.

Suddenly Berlian’s voice sounds harsh again as she reminds her daughter,

“People around here say girls shouldn’t go there. It’s forbidden.”

Daya replies in a casual tone, “But you always go there.”

Berlian stops applying the mask on her daughter’s face. She gazes at her for a while before she finally gives Daya a big bowl of herbs and commands her, in an austere manner,

“Dry this.”

The sequence demonstrates the intricate relationship between Berlian and Daya. Berlian is visualized as a cold-hearted mother who limits her daughter’s freedom, but the scene where she applies the facemask onto her daughter’s face implies the intimacy of touching. Daya, however, does not understand her mother’s love and views her as domineering and restricting. When we are aligned with Daya’s gaze, the film puts us in the daughter's position, allowing us to enter into her subjectivity and listen to her voice as a young girl. We see another woman through her eyes, but rather than being eroticized, the woman under scrutiny is presented as an omniscient mother, fully aware that she is being watched by another character, and thus implicitly by the cinematic apparatus. She seems totally in control of the gaze — since on the count of three, Daya as well as the camera and the spectator have to stop viewing and hide. The mother not only disrupts Daya’s action but also image continuity. Berlian’s omnipotence is even confirmed later by a male character who tells Daya,

“Your mother has an eye behind her head.”

Another sequence provides an expanded narrative tracing Berlian’s power over the gaze. First, in Berlian’s house in the evening, she gives Daya a warm drink to have a good sleep. She then leaves for her neighbor’s house, a midwife, to assist a pregnant woman in labor. When Daya hears a woman’s voice screaming from pain, she jumps out of bed and rushes toward the door. The scene now shifts to the outside of the midwife’s house. Once again, in voyeuristic fashion, Daya peeps through a window to see her mother, the midwife, and the pregnant woman. Recurring in the film is a visual motif of walls with gaps between the boards, indicating the interplay between the image of the house – traditionally seen as a claustrophobic domestic space — and the rupture within that space through which a female character can connect with other women.

Similar to the previous sequence, Daya, the camera, and the spectator are in the position of watching the mother. Daya counts until three, and as the spectator can predict, the mother looks at all her viewers. Among the three women in the mise-en-scène, Berlian is the only person aware of being watched. As she looks at her daughter (and us), Daya hides her face from the mother’s gaze and stops watching. After the baby is delivered and the scream fades out, we have a long shot of Berlian looking at the camera again. She gets up from the bed and approaches the camera. When she opens the door, she finds Daya asleep on the bench by the window. As she gazes through the window, in the same way as when Daya watched her before, the film frames a close-up shot of a figure peeping into the room. This time the audience is not aligned with Daya’s point of view but the mother’s.

Now we are following both the camera and the mother’s eyes, looking into the midwife’s room. The scene shows the midwife sitting on the floor, looking exhausted, and it soon cuts to the close-up shot of Berlian, who is still looking through the window. This is followed by another shot of the room in which Berlian helps the ill-looking midwife to sit on the bed. Berlian sits closely by her side, rubbing her chest with body warming oil. Then a young woman appears after knocking on the door impatiently, insisting on having an abortion. The woman comes in, leading the film to a series of shots where Berlian and the midwife perform the abortion. Another scream is heard, and finally, the two women receive their payment. Another abortion and another childbirth are repetitively shown in that room, plunging the spectator into the banality of giving life and ending it.

Afterward the film cuts back to the close-up shot of Berlian peeping into the window. This gives the impression that the series of childbirth and abortion that we saw were only in her imagination. By placing herself in Daya’s peeping place, the mother tries to put herself in her daughter’s position and align with her daughter’s gaze. The film thus complexly underscores that voyeuristic desire is not necessarily male and hence the cinematic and narrative structure make a female gaze possible and necessary. What Daya – and later her mother – watches is not sexualized, but the work of women in a domestic setting: brewing, crushing herbs, giving birth. The activities seem to be trifling, monotonous, and banal, yet they bind these marginalized women together in their endeavor to survive.

The idea of women frankly seeing other women’s private lives challenges New Order historical films, in which the male heroes have the privilege of looking into the lives of anonymous civilians before they decide on important actions. In Pengkhianatan G30S, some scenes depict poor people complaining about soaring food prices to present the film's negative outlook on President Sukarno’s authoritarianism and alignment with the Communist Party. They set up a framework for the audience to justify military intervention. In contrast, with this historical event treated as an almost obscure background, Pasir Berbisik detaches its worldview from grand political schemes. When villagers gather to see dead bodies by the sea, Berlian only explains that in a hot, dry season people tend to be more hostile to one another. Clearly this is an inadequate explanation that alienates the audience from the real political context, yet such dialogue may lead viewers to understand that they are here seeing bloody history from the perspective of the people that are missing.

Daya’s way of looking, furthermore, proposes a different dimension of voyeurism, which cannot be categorized as perversion but rather, as the desire to unravel the mysteries of life. Her curiosity hence shows that the Oedipal desire to solve a crucial riddle is not exclusively masculine. 

Mulvey claims that the “conditions of screening and narrative conventions give the spectator an illusion of looking in on a private world” (17). Within this framework, Sen points out how female characters in Indonesian cinema do not control how much they are exposed. Referring to Annette Kuhn, who argues that an important part in enjoying voyeurism is the object’s ignorance of being watched in a “caught unawares” pose, Sen provides examples from voyeuristic shots in 7 Wanita dalam Tugas Rahasia (Seven Women on a Secret Mission) in which women sleep on the ground with legs apart (1994: 153). Pasir Berbisik challenges the illusion of unawareness. Since the very first scene, Berlian’s omnipotence is emphasized. She is not only conscious of being watched, but she also disrupts the pleasure of viewing activity. Every time she returns Daya’s (and our) gaze, Daya has to hide, and the spectator also has to stop looking.

It is important, however, to note that the film does not completely escape the male gaze. Some sequences present male characters who take pleasure in seeing women, yet the male gaze in the film is always interrupted by the mother. In a sequence in which two male customers are drinking jamu in Berlian’s little shop, we are presented a point-of-view shot of men catching a glimpse of Daya, who is walking from screenleft. We can only see Daya for a moment because the camera immediately moves to focus on Berlian, now alerted that her daughter is being watched. One man comments about how Daya has grown up as she is passing by. The two men laugh, which makes Berlian uneasy. As they are laughing and enjoying their view of Daya, Berlian drops a plate with a cold look. The noise alarms the two men; they stop staring and turn their heads from Daya to her mother.

With Berlian interrupting male voyeurism, the film foregrounds an interplay in which the gaze of both male and female characters is contested. As a result, the spectator’s identification with male characters is disrupted. In her “Afterthoughts” Mulvey refines her proposition, much criticized for dismissing women from the audience, by arguing for the experience of “masculinization” of both male and female spectators when watching film. Using Duel in the Sun as her object of analysis, Mulvey claims that female protagonists are unable to achieve a stable sexual identity since they move back and forth from passive femininity and regressive masculinity (1989: 29). This instability is parallel to the dilemma of the female spectators, who unconsciously enjoy the freedom of action of a male hero and thus adopt the masculine point of view, yet ironically they are left unfulfilled, for the masculinization remains a fantasy, or as Mulvey puts it, “restless in its transvestite clothes” (1989: 29-30). Pasir Berbisik responds to these boundaries; it allows for a female gaze by aligning the spectator with Daya’s voyeurism, making the gaze of female character and spectator possible. At the same time, it destabilizes the masculinity of the gaze by presenting Berlian as a castrator of male voyeuristic pleasure.

Berlian's severity contrasts with her sister Delima's sexiness. As an erotic Tayub dancer, Daya’s aunt offers a completely different version of femininity.[13] She represents the prostitute figure that New Order cinema would condemn or save, yet the film provides her agency with her sexuality.[14] Like Berlian, she is not afraid of the male gaze, but instead of looking at men with disgust, she seduces men with her eyes. Berlian begins to worry when Delima teaches Daya erotic dance. Every time Daya watches her aunt dancing with admiration, Berlian always calls the daughter and interrupts the scene. Berlian’s hostility toward erotic dance and the male gaze it invites is emphasized in a sequence where Daya, unaware of her surroundings, practices dancing. Captured in a long shot, she enjoys liberating her body without acknowledging the presence of others. We soon learn that there is a spectator, however — Suwito (Didi Petet), a vile merchant who desires Daya, faces Daya like a spectator in the auditorium. As soon as Daya’s mother appears from the screenright, she returns the merchant’s gaze, looks at her ignorant daughter, and calls her: “Child!” Daya stops dancing and follows her mother. Once again, the male character and the spectator are not allowed to engage in a long, continuous activity of voyeurism.

Protective mother and symbolic order

The sequences discussed indicate Berlian’s ambiguous character. She is a loving  and at the same time harsh and controlling mother who prohibits all curiosity and pleasure. She is the mother whom Daya is dependent upon and from whom the daughter wants to flee. The complex relationship between Berlian and Daya in the film reflects the psychological relation between mother and child in the imaginary realm. Describing that psychological mechanism, Mulvey draws on Lacan to indicate how a woman has two options:

“Either she must gracefully give way to the world, the Name of the Father and the Law, or else struggle to keep her child down with her in the half-light of the imaginary” (1989: 29).

Instead of submitting Daya to patriarchy, which is established by suppressing femininity, Berlian chooses the second option: protecting her daughter and keeping her within the maternal sphere.

In Lacan’s topographic mode of human development, the Imaginary is the phase in which the border between a child and the (m)other is not rigidly distinct. The mirror stage gives the infant the first experience of personal unity as the infant is looking at his/her reflection in the mirror, but even this coherence is “guaranteed” by the mother. Jacqueline Rose in the introduction to Lacan’s Feminine Sexuality stresses mother’s dominant role in the child’s recognition of his/her “salutary imago” since it is through the mother’s look and presence that the child perceives himself as a whole (1982: 30). This explains a child’s dependency on his/her mother in discovering him/herself. The mirror stage, nevertheless, is not only a phase of finding excitement in seeing images but also a phase of misrecognition where the human imago “dominates the entire dialectic of the child’s behaviour in the presence of his similars.” Lacan further illustrates:

"The child who strikes another says that he has been struck; the child who sees another fall, cries. Similarly, it is by means of an identification with the other than he sees the whole gamut of reactions of bearing and display, whose structural ambivalence is clearly revealed in his behavior, the slave being identified with the despot, the actor with the spectator, the seduced with the seducer." (1977: 19).

Seeing his/her image reflected outside, the child keeps identifying him/herself with the other, given that he/she still cannot clearly define who is viewing and who is viewed. The mother, whose body a child feels undifferentiated from as a baby, is the one he/she is identified with.

Dependency and (mis)identification are recurring themes throughout the film. Berlian’s act of calling her daughter "Anak" (Child) instead of "Daya," which means "ability" or "power" in Indonesian language, underlines the mother-daughter dyad in the Imaginary where totality and separation are not completely achieved. By calling her daughter “Anak” (Child), Berlian claims that Daya’s existence cannot be separated from her as “Ibu” (Mother). Daya in turn is obsessed with her mother voyeuristically as a child searches for her own image projected onto the other. Yet mother’s rigidity that forbids all pleasures, including the pleasure of looking, makes it difficult for Daya to identify with her. The sands, therefore, serve as a displacement of the mother image, offering Daya more gentleness and comfort.

When Delima comes and stays with the mother and daughter, Daya feels a warmer affection than she receives from her mother. In a sequence where Daya looks at herself in the mirror, allowing the spectator to see her dancing and imitating her aunt, she becomes identical with the image of the aunt she admires. Berlian does not allow this, as according to Rose, a mother does not “mirror the child to itself; she grants an image to the child, which her presence instantly deflects” (1982: 30). Berlian gets vexed when one night Daya sneaks out to watch Delima dancing with men. In the morning, she burns Daya’s red kebaya[15] given by Delima, a violent gesture that can be interpreted forbidding identification.

A "normal" subjectivity can be achieved when a child leaves the Imaginary and enters the Symbolic Order, in which he/she acquires language and marks him/herself as different from the other. Unlike the Imaginary where the prominent figure is the mother, The Symbolic Order is regulated by the Name-of the-Father:

 "… The attribution of procreation to the father can only be the effect of a pure signifier, of a recognition, not of a real father, but of what religion has taught us to refer to as the Name-of-the-Father."

"Of course there is no need of a signifier to be a father, any more than to be dead, but without a signifier, no one would ever know anything about either state of being." (Lacan 1977: 199)

The father in the Symbolic Order is not the flesh-and-blood father, but a paternal image representing the law, order, and the rational world governed by the Phallus. Only by repressing the maternal/Imaginary, can one access a place in the Symbolic Order, a patriarchal world which requires one to be regulated, signified, and judged within masculine parameters. As Lacan’s topography can be read as both diachronic and synchronic, the Imaginary does not always end when the Symbolic begins (Grosz 1990: 73). And if one reads topography as synchronic, it entails understanding that the Imaginary coexists with the Symbolic in an individual's life as a binary opposition. People inevitably overlap the two modes of relating to self and world, and each mode bears meaning only in relation to the other.

Berlian’s over-protective gestures make her seem like an egocentric mother unable to admit her daughter’s independence, yet her own traumatizing experience as a woman forces her to interfere with the Symbolic. In this film, the Symbolic refers to the masculine sphere of the 1965 violent conflict. The film gives more emphasis on the experience of individuals, especially women as victims, and later survivors, against a greater force. As a village woman, Berlian has to flee and relocate after witnessing her home burned. As a wife, she has to let her husband leave the family to seek an adventure, "something out there" — anything but domesticity that is claustrophobic from the masculine viewpoint. Culture in the Symbolic, which determines appropriate gender roles, tends to exclude non-conformist women. Raising a child without a husband and earning money from performing abortions, a woman like Berlian does not then meet the moral standards set up by Javanese society.

Furthermore, women’s sexuality has no place in the Symbolic other than to fulfill man’s desire. Since Berlian witnesses how sexually liberated women — especially her sister — are objectified, she views woman’s sexuality as a threat. The act of burning Daya’s kebaya is difficult to read as it does not seem to encourage female bonding, but it can also be seen as Berlian’s distinct way to survive within the Symbolic. Berlian is the imaginary Phallic mother who denies her annihilation by disturbing the masculine world, especially where the Law of the Father imposes separation, violence, and rigid gender roles. Due to the absence of the father figure in the first part of the film, Berlian incorporates both the mother and father principle by becoming the source of love as well as the law for Daya. This complex mother figure is relatively new in Indonesian cinema since mothers in the New Order period were usually imagined as both submissive and supportive.[16] Even an interesting, resistant mother character in Teguh Karya’s much-admired film Ibunda (Mother, 1986), eventually supports the Symbolic through her role as a unifying figure of class and ethnic differences under the New Order’s multicultural umbrella.

While Berlian tries to protect her daughter, Daya goes through a series of imaginary identifications to discover herself. She seeks a total concept of “I” without the mother as she keeps identifying with her aunt and feeding her Oedipal desire with fantasies about her father’s adventures. Her voyeuristic desires to see what her mother is doing and what is forbidden indicate her wish to discover adulthood. While she tries to make sense of her mother’s work as a jamu seller and midwife’s assistant, her gaze upon her aunt as an erotic dancer is filled with adoration. Acting as the law for Daya, as the substitute for an absent father figure, Berlian does everything to disrupt her daughter’s gaze since she is afraid of the horror in the Symbolic Order, especially the annihilation of women's agency, that Daya might discover.

The threat of the Symbolic comes to life for Berlian when her husband, Agus, returns after “not knowing anywhere else to go” and begs her to accept him. Filmic images of the father narrating fantastic stories to his admiring daughter suddenly take over the authority of the mother, perturbing the equilibrium established previously when Berlian acted as both mother and father. Agus’ sudden appearance in the lives of mother and daughter leads to tragedy as he sells Daya’s body for money to Suwito the merchant. The film reaches its climax with a disturbing scene in which Suwito orders Daya to masturbate in front of him. In Suwito’s living room, Suwito and Daya are sitting face to face. A shot/ reverse shot is established between the two characters, contrasting Suwito in desire and Daya in agony. While rubbing his own thighs, Suwito asks Daya to touch her own body. The camera photographs Daya from over the shoulder of Suwito as he commands her to touch her nipple with her right hand and put the other hand under her skirt. Daya’s father is waiting in Suwito’s car outside, but once in a while he looks inside through the rearview mirror. This is the most troubling sequence exposing Daya’s powerlessness and inability to fight back. The two men, on the other hand, are in control; Suwito keeps ordering Daya to touch herself as he is watching and masturbating, and Agus is in total surveillance while looking at the mirror. Without the presence of the protecting mother, Suwito’s orders reflect the language in the Symbolic. He is the father who is naming, coercing Daya to acquire the language of male desire by making her aware of her body parts and the pleasure they produce for men.

After the previous series of sequences showing women challenging the gaze, this scene of sexual violence becomes problematic for showing a helpless teenager commodified by her father and sexually abused by another man. Such an abusive moment might eventually lead us to the same conclusion as Krishna Sen when she talks about the victimization of female characters. Yet even in such a difficult moment in which the protective mother’s gaze is absent, the mise-en-scène and composition prevent Daya from becoming an eroticized spectacle. Throughout the scene we do not see nudity; all the touching and caressing are going on underneath Daya’s clothes, making it impossible for the spectator to get pleasure from the sight of her. Nan T. Achnas describes a powerful contradiction in the mise-en-scène, which subjects Daya’s body to a male gaze on the one hand, yet on the other hand does not satisfy the audience’s gaze and results in the frustration of spectator desire. The composition offers what Teresa de Lauretis refers to as a “desexualization of violence” as a form of aesthetics in women’s cinema (1987: 146). Daya suffers from a mental breakdown in the harassment scene and its aftermath, but then we meet Berlian again. Having realized what her husband did to Daya, she decides to end Agus’ life by poisoning him. The mother, seemingly excluded by the Law of the Father, reappears and saves her daughter.

Even though killing the father returns power to the mother, the film's ending leads away from the Imaginary, with Berlian asking Daya to leave the village because “there is nothing left anymore.” Daya pleads to stay with her mother, but now Berlian wants separation. This can be read as yielding to the power of the Symbolic, which insists on separation from the mother. But a more optimistic interpretation can be made as Berlian starts to call her daughter by her real name, “Daya” (power/ability) instead of “Anak” or “Child.” She has entrusted Daya with her independent existence and subject-hood, a conclusion visualized in an extreme long shot of Daya facing her mother yet separated by a wide landscape.

At the end, the camera photographs Daya looking at her mother, and as in the earlier sequence, we are presented a point-of-view shot in which Berlian is seen through Daya’s eyes. From a low angle, Berlian appears in full shot, turning her back against Daya, who is counting, “One, two, three…” Daya stops, but the mother does not turn her head. As she keeps counting, the screen gets dark and the film fades into the credit title.

Inventing language, contesting narrative

Mulvey argues in “Film, Feminism, and the Avant Garde” that to counter the objectification of women prevalent in Hollywood classical cinema, feminist film should define a new language which “disrupts aesthetic unity” and “forces the spectator’s attention on the means of production” (1989: 120). Feminine aesthetics for Mulvey is therefore a de-aestheticization of women as the object of the gaze. By foregrounding a mother who is aware of the gaze and is capable of interrupting the male gaze, Pasir Berbisik tears down illusion as a necessary condition of voyeurism. The masculine aesthetics is challenged by women who engage in and negotiate with the gaze: Daya pursues a voyeurism more based on a desire for knowledge rather than perverseness. Berlian the mother sees everything, loses control, and gains it back.

The narrative, however, is not totally destroyed. Rather it leads to what Mulvey considered an exemplary model of feminist cinema — “passionate detachment” within the audience. While the style focuses on the experience of the image in itself, instead of on movement and the causal relation between action and image, it does not mean the film fails to utilize the progression of images. The marker of time here is not "real" historical time (i.e., the resolution of the 1965 political conflict), but a phase of growing, part of a personal experience of the character. Achnas subtly uses affect, especially in the depiction of sexual violence, to move the spectator emotionally. The film maintains a coherent narrative, but one that presents a feminine subjectivity that insists on its own expression.

In the end Daya’s realization of her mother’s love shows an inversion of the Oedipal drama. The shift from the desire for the father toward the mother echoes De Lauretis’ counterargument to Mulvey’s “prescription to destroy all pleasure in the text.” Instead of being anti-narrative, a film should be “narrative and oedipal with a vengeance;” it should represent “the duplicity of the oedipal scenario itself and the specific contradiction of the female subject in it” (De Lauretis 1987: 108). Pasir Berbisik literally ends with a revenge of a castrated mother, hurt and abused, yet she manages to gain her power back from the father. It is a valorization of the maternal voice and female bonding which, instead of being repressed, exist within and can even shatter masculine Law. It is a film made by a female director celebrating strong female characters and feminine imagery, a powerful example of De Lauretis’ conception of a feminist cinema which addresses “all points of identification (with character, image, camera) as female, feminine, or feminist” (1987: 133). The sands as the backdrop of the whole story are an evocation of the feminine in terms of softness and tactility. The strength of the sands, which determines the lives of the people in the village, is analogous to the mother’s persistence. Finally, the complexity of the mother, who is protective yet does not make herself available to be a moral model of femininity, challenges the Ibu (mother) prototype idealized in the Indonesian New Order period as sacrificing, patient, and nurturing figures.

Four years after Pasir Berbisik was released, more women entered the Indonesian film industry as directors, producers, or scriptwriters. Another "mother and daughter" film appeared a year later. Eliana Eliana (2002) is a road movie about mother and daughter who explore the city in a sense of modern female flânerie, trying to understand their relation to each other amidst the clash of modernity and tradition.[17] The latest “woman’s” film is Berbagi Suami (Love For Share, 2006), shown in several international film festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival and Vancouver International Film Festival. The director, Nia Dinata, feels more at home with the comedy genre, but her film shows a concern for women’s issues. Criticizing the phenomenon of polygamy in Indonesia, she also complicates the gaze by foregrounding the queer gaze in the film’s lesbian subplot. The changing political scene in Indonesia has enabled a redefinition of aesthetics, which were formerly defined by masculine standards, and has allowed filmmakers to voice women’s experience in the face of the nation’s constant struggle to reconceptualize its identity in terms of ethnic, religion, gender, and class.


1. I am grateful to Julia Lesage, Alain J.-J Cohen, and Gaik Cheng Khoo for their suggestions for strengthening this essay.

2. In my interview with Nan Achnas in 2001, she revealed that the film was a way for her to “break the glass ceiling.” In early 2002, the Department of Philosophy, University of Indonesia invited her to participate in a discussion called “Whispering Feminism in Pasir Berbisik.

3. The film won awards for best cinematography and best director in the Asia-Pacific Film Festival (2001). It was also nominated for best film in the Rotterdam International Film Festival (2002).

4. Joko Anwar, “2001 Hints at Signs of Film Industry Recovery,” The Jakarta Post, December 12, 2001.

5. In an Indonesian leading newspaper, Totot Indrarto criticized the film’s unrealistic portrayal of poor people as a result of the middle class perspective of the filmmaker (“Mencari Problem ke Negeri Antah Berantah,” Kompas, September 2, 2001). Since there is no reference to time and place, argues journalist Wilis Pinidji, Pasir Berbisik merely offers a beautiful “poet’s dream” or “a fairy tale from a neverland” with no concern on real issues (“Dongeng Pesisir Antah Berantah.” Gatra, September 3, 2001). Meanwhile, senior critic J.B. Kristanto in a discussion on “Rationalism in Film” (October 3, 2001) claims that although Pasir Berbisik should be read as an allegory, it is flawed because it often contradicts its own logic.

6. The casting of Christine Hakim as the leading female role here confirms the film’s feminist position as she is the most prominent Indonesian senior actress. She has won many awards and sat on the board of the jury of the Cannes Film Festival.

7. Neorealism was introduced in the 1950’s by filmmaker Usmar Ismail to respond to commercial films that failed to portray “the real face of Indonesia” See Salim Said, Shadows of the Silver Screen (Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation, 1991), pp. 53-54.

8. Indonesian New Order era was marked by great audience interest in historical films, many of which are government-funded propaganda films promoting the New Order military ideology.

9. I regard the film as “official” since it was funded by Suharto to commemorate the death of military generals, to demonize communism, and to emphasize the role of the army in replacing the "old" Order after the 30 September 1965 coup. Pengkhianatan G30S was aired annually on the national television until Suharto stepped down in 1998. Studies have shown that the “coup” was staged by the U.S.-sponsored Indonesian military to overthrow Sukarno’s power. More reference on this can be seen in Benedict Anderson and Ruth T. McVey, A Preliminary Analysis of the October 1, 1965, Coup in Indonesia (New York: Modern Indonesia Project, Southeast Asia program, Cornell University, 1971) and Saskia Wieringa, Sexual Politics in Indonesia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

10. Krishna Sen, “Film Revolution? Women are Now on Both Sides of the Camera” (Inside Indonesia, July-September 2005

11. Ibu or mother in the New Order period plays an important role in preserving the state power as the one who “looks after her family, a group, a class, a company, or the state without demanding any power or prestige in return” (Madelon Djajadiningrat-Niewenhuis,“Ibuism and Priyayization: Path to Power?,” in Elseth Locher-Scholten and Anke Niehofs, eds, Indonesian Women in Focus: Past and Present Notions (Dordrecht: Foris, 1987).

12. The shadow puppet image accompanied by Javanese music shown at the beginning of the film also echoes Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), the first international film set in 1965 Indonesia. Both films associate shadow puppetry with violence (either by the state or patriarchy), but while Weir’s film revolves around Western characters in the turbulent Jakarta, Achnas focuses on marginalized women living outside the capital city who are nonetheless affected by the coup.

13. Tayub is a social dance from Java known for its sensuality and is often associated with prostitution. In this dance, female dancers usually ask the male audience to join them on stage. The dance can involve a lot of touching, and after the performance, it is common that men still want to pay to get more than just a dance.

14. A film about Tayub dancer called Nji Ronggeng was made in 1969. Challenging Mulvey’s conception of male gaze, David Hanan argues that Nji Ronggeng presents a female dancer who does not let her body become objectified visually by male characters on screen. However, he also points out that at the narrative level, the film has to compromise with the New Order gender ideology, resulting in a clichéd resolution in which the protagonist chooses to be a homemaker.

15. Traditional Javanese clothing for women.

16. Eric Sasono in his article, "Single-Parent pada Sinema Indonesia,” does not specifically indicate the changing role of the mother in Indonesian cinema. However, he observes how the ideal family ideology consisting of a father, a mother, and two children promoted during the Suharto era was challenged by single-parent characters in the post-Suharto films.

17. While produced and co-written by women, Eliana Eliana was directed by male director Riri Riza. Riza, who made Kuldesak with Achnas, always engage with such themes as generation gap and gender instability. Two of his internationally acclaimed films, Eliana Eliana and Gie, subtly represent homoeroticism in addition to the main plot foregrounding characters who challenge paternal/ state authority.


Anwar, Joko. “2001 Hints at Signs of Film Industry Recovery.” Jakarta: The Jakarta Post, December 12, 2001.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 1987.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989.

Djajadiningrat-Nieuwenhuis, Madelon. “Ibuism and Priyayization: Path to Power?” In Elseth Locher-Scholten and Anke Niehofs, eds. Indonesian Women in Focus: Past and Present Notions. Dordrecht: Foris, 1987

Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London: Routledge, 1990.

Hanan, David. “Nji Ronggeng: Another Paradigm for Erotic Spectacle in the Cinema.” In Virginia Matheson Hooker, ed. Culture and Society in New Order Indonesia. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp 87-115.

Indrarto, Totot. “Mencari Problem ke Negeri Antah Berantah.” Kompas, September 2, 2001.

Kristanto, J.B. ”Film Indonesia dan Akal Sehat.” Kompas, September 7, 2001.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

_____. Feminine Sexuality. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1982.

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Sasono, Eric. “’Single Parent’ Pada Sinema Indonesia.” Kompas, May 29, 2005.

Said, Salim. Shadows of the Silver Screen. Jakarta: The Lontar Foundation, 1991.

Sen, Krishna. Indonesian Cinema: Framing the New Order. London & New Jersey: Zed Book Ltd., 1994.

_____. “Film Revolution? Women are Now on Both Sides of the Camera.” Inside Indonesia, July-September 2005

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