A gay film festival hailed as the biggest in Asia and the only one in the Muslim world kicks off in Indonesia on Friday, hoping to draw 15,000 viewers to screenings and fringe events.
In its ninth annual edition, the Q! Film Festival (www.q-munity.org/) will showcase 150 films from more than 20 countries including France, Japan and the Philippines, highlighting such issues as gay rights and HIV/AIDS.
Festival director John Badalu said organisers do not expect public opposition but prefer to keep the event low-key due to the “stigma against gays” among conservative sections of the mainly Muslim population.
“We don’t want to publicise the event in the mainstream local media as they’re still very conservative,” Badalu said.
Social networking sites such as Twitter (twitter.com/Qfilmfestival) are abuzz with chat about the event, however, signalling it has already achieved one of its chief aims — to “let people know that the queer community exists in Indonesia,” he added.
Indonesian Muslims are often categorised as “moderate” but such generalisations, favoured by Western diplomats, upset religious and other minorities who have to endure the daily opprobrium of Islamic conservatives.
In March, a regional gay and lesbian conference was forced to cancel when scores of Islamic radicals stormed the venue and reportedly went from room to room hunting participants.
A month later, Islamic vigilantes burst into a civil rights awareness session for transsexuals held by the National Commission for Human Rights and sent the participants fleeing in panic.
Homosexuality is technically legal in the country of 240 million people but it remains a taboo, especially among the 80 percent of the population who are Muslims.
Lawmakers in deeply Islamic Aceh province last year voted to make homosexuality punishable by up to 100 lashes under local religious bylaws which the provincial government has refused to approve.
Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring, chief of an Islamic party, in June implied a link between pornography and HIV-AIDS, and questioned whether state funds used to fight the disease could not be better spent.
“The country has dispersed Rp180 billion (US$20 million) to curb HIV-AIDS. The budget should actually be reduced so the money can be allocated for other things that are beneficial for the country,” he told reporters.
Despite these attitudes, communications ministry spokesman Gatot Dewa Broto said the central government had given its assurances that the Q! festival could go ahead.
“We have no objections. As long as the content is not too sexually explicit, not too vulgar, we’re OK; we can tolerate it,” he said.
“This festival has been taking place for many years already. I’m sure the organisers know the do’s and the don’ts and consider the ethical and normative nuances in Indonesia,” he added.
Organisers are not taking any chances and have taken steps to ensure the festival takes place without incident.
Screenings, which are free, will be held in private clubs and foreign cultural centres in six cities including Jakarta and Yogyakarta, and Bali from October 13-17.
International backing also provides a protective umbrella and cosmopolitan legitimacy that radical fringe elements would be reluctant to challenge, Badalu said.
“Funding for the festival comes from foreign groups. We hold screenings at foreign centres. The radicals won’t dare to attack us. If they do, it’s like attacking several countries at one go,” he said.
He said Indonesia’s “double standards” on issues of sexuality, morality and privacy left space for events like Q! and what organisers jokingly refer to as the “Q-munity.”
“Indonesians are generally tolerant towards gays because you see, people have double standards. Some claim to be religious but surf porn websites at home; some say no to piracy but still use pirated goods,” Badalu said.
“Anyway, whatever happens, we’ll still be around. We can’t disappear just like that.”