Ghost Like Us

Commissioned by Asian Film Archive, Singapore.

Since its genesis in the 70s, horror cinema has been a vessel for New Order’s ideology in Indonesia. Its pattern is predictable: ghost/monster/djinn/demon represents disorder that would be resolved by authority figures, religious leaders, or military personnel. Centralised power is blatantly shown in horror cinema. Conflict and terror often occur in rural areas, especially horror cinema from the 70s and 80s, which is predominantly set in the kampong. Ideal structure would involve a male protagonist who comes from the city and eventually fights the black magic in the final showdown, generating a close ending where everything goes back to normal in perfect order. This repetitive narrative mimics the Soeharto developmentalism system and patrimonialism approach, where people in the rural area is seen incompetent in solving their own problem.

The Post-New Order regimes bring a fresh approach to horror cinema. Starting from the box-office digitally shot Jelangkung (2001), open ending narratives in horror cinema are embraced. Unfortunately, this doesn’t bring change to the representation of rural. Rural areas are still represented as “the other” without autonomy or haunted locations where the urbanite seeks thrill. Parallel to this time, the decentralisation of cinematic technologies opened more possibilities for filmmakers outside the industry. The illegal VCDs market also fosters the emergence of peripheral filmmaking practice.

In 2003 - 2005, no-budget independent horror film, shockumentary, and ghost hunting video filled the local VCDs market. Misteri Bondowoso (2005) is a major hit in the VCD circulation. This film documents a ghost hunting and ritual practice in a rural area of Bondowoso, East Java. It was shot by a group of local dukun (shaman) in a verite style using a consumer camcorder. They marketed this film as a “real event of ghost sightings,” which left viewers wondering whether what they see is real or fabricated. The collective excitement of theatrical viewing is shifted to a thrilling experience of seeing ‘real ghost’ rendered from the VCD player.

Contrary to the mainstream horror cinema which driven by its aesthetic and entertainment value, the rural approach in horror seeks a new method to find—borrowing Jeffrey Sconce concept “electronic elsewhere”—a “cinematic elsewhere”, a possibility of other dimensions generated and accessed through the wonders of cinematic media and ritualistic practice. The enthusiasm for “cinematic elsewhere” brought forward by Misteri Bondowoso would have no real equal until the recent emergence of the ubiquitous livestream ghost hunting videos. In Indonesian contemporary cinema, Misteri Bondowoso might function, as coined by Clifford Geertz, as a “cultural broker” between rural and traditional worldviews of ghost and metropolitan politics of horror entertainment.

As an attempt to examine the cultural and political implication of rural approach on horror cinema in Indonesia, Ghost Like Us offers an essayistic approach that investigates the rural-urban dynamic in horror cinema from the New Order regime to the dawn of deconstructed horror genre found in the kino-pravda style Misteri Bondowoso. Based on that study, this essay film asks question, that Thomas Elsaesser famously put it, “when and where is cinema?” according to the relation between hauntology, authority-autonomy, and cinematic apparatus. In addition, it demonstrates a poetic reflection of horror, ideology, the evolution of cinema, and cinematic-thinking in understanding the current landscape of media technology in Indonesia and Asia.

Duration 20'00"

Film stills