Who's Afraid of the Flicks?


Last week, the Australia Indonesia Institute (AII) withdrew its grant to the Jakarta Film Festival. Awarded in August, the grant was suddenly withdrawn less than 24 hours before the Festival opened, specifically in reaction to the choice of films.

The response in Jakarta has been outrage, disbelief and bemusement that now, perhaps, Indonesia might show Australia a thing or two about democracy.

In Australia, this action raises many questions, both in relation to this particular case and more broadly in terms of arts funding.

The AII was established in 1989. Like the Australia China Council (ACC) and the Australia Japan Foundation (AJF) on which it was modelled, it is a body of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), but its Board, which shapes policy and makes funding decisions, is made up predominantly of outside professionals.

The creation of the AII was a significant step away from the previous ‘cultural exchange’ program which used to be run solely from DFAT by career diplomats. It meant a broadening of the scope of cultural exchange and a significant devolution of responsibility for decision-making. It made DFAT more of a partner with outside agencies and expertise.

This ‘Prague Spring’ of opening up was also reflected in hiring. In 1989, the positions of AII Director and Cultural Counsellor in Jakarta were advertised outside DFAT and filled by non-diplomat professionals. I was one of them, and worked as Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta from 1989-1992. DFAT no longer has such positions. Embassies no longer have dedicated cultural officers. The positions have been melded with public affairs and are held by career diplomats.

Film poster of Levy & Dean’s film The President Versus David Hicks

The Jakarta International Film Festival (JIFF) began in 1999. With miniscule core funding from the Jakarta Arts Council, it scrapes together funds from private sponsorship, foundations, and foreign embassies. This year, it showed a total of 201 films from 40 countries. To showcase a new documentary category, JIFF selected acclaimed recent international films, including two award-winning documentaries from Australia, one Australian TV news documentary, and a short experimental film.

The Festival applied to the AII for funding for a workshop with Australian documentary directors and producers, and to show Australian documentaries, which at the time of application were not yet finalised. The Festival selected four films: a short experimental film We Have Decided Not to Die (directed and produced by Daniel Askill); Garuda’s Deadly Upgrade, an SBS Dateline film by David O’Shea about the murder of the Indonesian activist, Munir; Dhayikarr vs the King, an Aboriginal story of reconciliation (produced by Graeme Isaacs, directed by Tom Murray & Alan Collins); and The President Versus David Hicks (directed by Curtis Levy and Bentley Dean) about David Hicks’s father’s search for information.

The films were programmed, the festival schedule finalised, and the Australian workshop leaders had already arrived in Jakarta when JIFF suddenly received notification that the grant was withdrawn because the four films chosen ‘did not meet the objectives of the AII.’ The objectives of the AII, as set out in the Order of Council when it was established, are:

to develop relations between Australia and Indonesia by promoting greater mutual understanding and by contributing to the enlargement over the longer term of the areas of contact and exchange between the people of Australia and Indonesia.

Taken at their word, the AII objectives are totally compatible with the Festival’s choice of films, which showcased different documentary styles and showed Australian concerns at home and in the world. They clearly provide an understanding of Australia, showing varied expertise, and the society where these films are made and shown a country with difficult stories (like all countries), where the documentary is a form that tells these stories.

So it seems that something about the content of one or more of the films was considered to be troublesome. But to whom?

Concern for cultural sensitivity is, in itself, not a bad thing, of course. One would not expect official endorsement of material that is clearly offensive (inciting racism, for instance), or which might offend the religious mores of another culture (nudity, for example).

But none of the Australian films that the festival chose could be considered offensive in Indonesia. They had passed the Indonesian censor. Even the SBS TV documentary about the activist Munir could not possibly be considered ‘sensitive,’ when the investigation of his murder is supported by the Indonesian President himself, and there had just been a landmark prosecution in that investigation a couple of weeks earlier.

Whereas, formerly the primary concern in Australian ‘cultural exchange’ used to be about images that might offend there taking care to be culturally sensitive in the host country and culture it seems there is a shift. Now, the concern is about images that offend here.

The AII blurb now even includes a new phrase, not mentioned in the Order of Council, saying it aims ‘to project positive images of Australia and Indonesia in each other’s country.’ The danger is that the ‘positive image’ to be projected is one of Australia as that monolith ‘Australia’ (the Government) sees itself. And that a ‘positive image’ does not include images that are controversial at home, such as a citizen imprisoned without trial in Guantánamo and deserted by his government.

In short, one can only surmise that the films which the Jakarta International Film Festival selected, were sensitive in Australia’s political and social climate, not Indonesia’s. Perhaps their fault was that they precisely revealed too much understanding of Australia.

What does all this mean in the larger context of arts funding in Australia?

Firstly, that many filmmakers, artists and organisations, both Australian and Indonesian, will now be reticent to apply to the AII, fearing control and being left in the lurch. A probable fallout will also be that the AII will become even more reticent to fund ‘arts’ exchanges in Indonesia, which will be perceived as dangerously unpredictable and bad for PR channelling those funds into other safer, more controllable and innocuous activities.

The problem is that there are so few other sources of support for cultural activity involving Australia/ns and Indonesia/ns. There are the Australia Council and Asialink, but their programs are specific and limited. Both are also partners of the AII, at least sometimes. The Australia Council has provided funds on occasion directly to the AII, and Asialink receives them from the AII towards its residency programs.

Still from David O’Shea’s film Garuda’s Deadly Upgrade

The map is complicated and overlapping. Of the three organisations, only Asialink and the AII is set up to accept applications from both Australians and non-Australians (like the Jakarta International Film Festival), so the transfer of funds between organisations is often a way to facilitate the application process. Furtherrmore, of the three only Asialink has a strong base of non-government funding, although it receives significant government funding for its arts programs both first hand (from DFAT) and one step removed (from the Australia Council). Overall, one can say that grantees are likely to meet government funding somewhere along the line.

I have always thought this was a good thing. Australia’s map of arts funding lies somewhere between the US and European models. We do not relegate the arts to the private sector as in the US, where there is ingrained suspicion of government and a highly developed system of philanthropy. Nor do we have the high levels of government support for the arts of many European countries, where there is deep suspicion of US-style philanthropic foundations that are seen to be linked to big business and inequitable tax systems.

In Australia, we do expect our government to fund arts and culture, including the funding of Australian culture abroad. This is something we demand of it as taxpayers.

Now, however, I am no longer sure this is a good thing.

After arguing the case for government funding or government-philanthrophic partnernships at many an international meeting, I am alarmed to see developments in Australia, of which this AII/Jakarta International Film Festival case is an example. Government funding works when it is what it says it is when independent boards can make and uphold independent decisions, or conversely when it is clear to all that there is no independence, but there are well-funded independent alternatives.

Government funding is fine as long as it is truly works for the needs of the people the artists, viewers and audiences the government serves. Once the government begins to see artists and audiences as merely its servants, once ‘people’ are replaced by ‘relationships.’ once the government becomes deeply fearful of anything that might tarnish its own image of itself as ‘Australia,’ then we are in deep trouble.

An edited version of this appeared in The Age on Friday 16 December.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.