Friday, October 18, 2013

The quandary of animal sacrifice

On Tuesday I went for a wander through the knot of small streets behind my apartment complex in inner Jakarta. In a laneway typically occupied by bakso sellers and old people smoking kretek there was an enthusiastic crowd of men in blood-splattered T-shirts methodically carving up the carcass of a bull they'd recently slaughtered. A crowd of kids were gathered around, boys with crew cuts and girls in fine dresses, staring at the men as they got to work.

That's how Idul Adha 1434 was marked by the congregants at the Jami' Al-Ikhlas mosque in Setiabudi, and it pretty much reflects what happens in thousands of mosques across Indonesia and much of the Muslim world. Idul Adha is the festival of the sacrifice, honouring the story of prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) offering to kill his son Ismail (Ishmael) as a sign of his submission to God's command, before God offered Abraham a lamb to sacrifice instead. In many developed countries the slaughtering of an animal (usually a lamb, sheep or bull) on site at a mosque is not permitted, but it's a practice that is flourishing in many poorer places, where dozens of creatures are sacrificed and the meat distributed to poor people.

The amateur anthropologist in me trumped the squeamish vegetarian, and I went to watch the slaughtering up close at Jami' Al-Ikhlas. I took plenty of photos and uploaded a series onto Facebook (you can see the shots here - pretty gruesome). I received several responses. Many people were disgusted by the bloodiness of the scene and the pained death throes of the animal as it struggled to fight the inevitable, and I suspect a few were put off their dinner.

The process of slaughtering an animal involves progressively stripping it of its dignity. A creature bred to be killed will most likely have an unnatural upbringing, unable to bond properly with its parents. Then it will be denied any agency over its actions, forced to eat what it is provided when it is provided and mate with whom it is instructed. Then it will be physically constrained as it is taken to the place where it will die. Then it will lose control of its bowel as fear strikes. Then it will be forced to the ground by having its legs pushed from under it. Then it will spurt its blood after a blade is run across its jugular. Then it will be stripped of its limbs. Then its skin. Then its internal organs. And finally it will be cut into pieces, stripping it of its corporeal essence. It will, in the process, have moved from a bull to beef.

And as a vegetarian for more than half my life, I felt like I should be disgusted at the Idul Adha ritual. A desire to avoid the unnecessary suffering of creatures is a significant motivation for my vegetarianism, and here I was, seeing the panic of an innocent creature as it stared bleakly at its tormentors.

But instead of disgust, a felt a sense of reference at the tradition, in particular its ability to bring together who might otherwise remain separate, and its role in forcing people to confront some uncomfortable truths.

The celebration fosters a stronger sense of community. At Masjid Jami' Al-Ikhlas on Tuesday, dozens of men came together to be a part of the tradition, each playing a part in the long chain of labours involved in turning a bull into beef. These were rich men and poor men, old men and young men, office workers and street sweepers, Betawi and Batak, all involved in a common enterprise. Younger children would watch with horrified excitement, and those in their teens would be given tasks, often by their fathers, to help them learn the skills and continue the tradition. The process served as a form of charity, with wealthy locals donating money toward the purchase of cattle, and the meat being shared among hungry old people and families with skinny children. The bond between everyone involved finished the day stronger. Few events have such power.

By taking the slaughtering of an animal out of the sterile surrounds of an abattoir and putting it in people's neighbourhood makes them more aware of their place in the food chain. Many people, particularly those like me who grew up and live in cities, are allowed to remain aloof about the origins of the food they eat, deliberately keeping themselves ignorant because deep down they know the truth that their food choices necessitate the suffering of other creatures. In distancing ourselves from the slaughtering process, the suffering is no less, just our awareness of it. Bringing the slaughtering closer to home forces people to confront the reality of their own choices. Most will continue to make those same choices, but will do so in fuller knowledge of the consequences. Others might change their mind.

I read with interest that Eddie Perfect, the great Australian singer and showman, has turned his hand to writing a script for a stage-play, "The Beast". The play, according to an excellent profile in The Monthly, is about three middle-class tree-change couples who arrange for a calf to be ethically butchered for a dinner party but end up faced with the grim task of killing the creature themselves. In a way the characters in "The Beast" are taking on the same challenge as Muslims do at Idul Adha - to watch the process of suffering that leads to their dinner without flinching.

(There is a potential downside to masses of people having regular exposure to the killing of creatures: the risk of desensitisation. It is easier for ordinary people to be pushed by dark forces to become bloodthirsty killers, as happens with startling frequency in cases of community violence in Indonesia, if they are no longer squeamish about putting a blade to the throat of a creature and watching it struggle to hold onto life. It is also harder for people to maintain their sense of outrage at bloodshed if they see it so often.)

Watching Idul Adha in full swing, I'm more confident than ever that I made the right ethical decision in turning vegetarian. But I also feel no desire to criticise those who do take part in the event. Perhaps questions should instead be asked of people who are willing to enjoy the spoils of slaughter but aren't willing to participate in, or even witness, it themselves.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Q! Film Fest, fighting forces of darkness since 2002

For the past two weeks I've had the joy of seeing about a dozen films, feature length and short, at Jakarta's Q! Film Festival. So frequent was my presence at screenings around town that I think I may have earned the label "The Festival Bule" among some of the other regulars. No, I'm not gay nor in any of the other categories that the Q! festival focuses on (lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex), but I have long recognised that some of the best creative works come from people who are. It's also a worthwhile psychological experience to be around people looking at me and wondering quietly to themselves, "Do you think he's gay?"

Q! Film Festival flies the flag for creative and cosmopolitan Indonesia. It hasn't always been easy. A few years ago, the event, which is now in its 12th year, was hit by protests from some dark forces cloaking themselves in religion in their attempts to shut it down. Fears of violence and intimidation have forced the organisers to take security measures to protect screenings - the schedule is not openly publicised but requires acceptance to an e-mail list or password-controlled website, attendees at screenings must first become "members" of the festival and less public venues are used for events.

Despite the presence of many gay people in the entertainment industry, Indonesia has shown itself to be remarkably intolerant of diverse sexualities. Earlier this year, the “Global Divide on Homosexuality” study by the Pew Research Center found Indonesians were overwhelming opposed to homosexuality, with 93 percent saying that gay people should not be accepted. Such attitudes make events like the Q! Film Festival all the more vital.

The face of the festival is changing. Outside one screening, festival co-director Meninaputri Wismurti explained to me that organisers were shifting away from heavy use of foreign embassies as sponsors because they created the misleading impression that there was something "foreign" about the festival, the people involved and the cause they champion. Instead, organisers were seeking to attract local partners to support it, in an effort to make clear this was an Indonesian event and that there is no inconsistency between gay and Indonesian identities.

For the dark forces, the fact that the event has been pushed from open public view is a victory in itself. But even with this victory, they're still not happy. During this year's festival a threatening phone call was received by one of the sponsors, putting organisers on a heightened alert for trouble. But they bravely pushed ahead, and the festival ended without incident.

The extra security precautions do seem to be keeping numbers down. At many of the screenings I went to, fewer than a dozen people were in attendance, and there seemed to be limited buzz about the event around town. And, as the introduction to the official program notes, this year's event runs for about half the length of last year's and there are many names that appear in multiple roles among the credits for volunteers. Still, those that were involved - as viewers or as organisers - seemed to be having a great time.

Like the people in attendance, not all the films were "gay", but all had something worthwhile to say. The highlight of the festival was the Teddy Soeriatmadja-directed Indonesian film "Something in the Way" at a fundraising screening last weekend (sadly, I couldn't make it to). Its controversial subject matter means the film is unlikely to be screened many times in its home country, though it has a chance of success abroad. Whether it's any good, I don't know. From the trailer and the synopsis, it sure looks interesting:

Ahmad is a taxi driver in Jakarta. He is addicted to the sex on offer in magazines and videos, the sex he would buy if he could afford it, but which he can only experience alone in front of his television or when secretly masturbating in his taxi. His lonely nights are punctuated by the conversations he overhears between other taxi drivers in which they make snide remarks about prostitutes and talk disparagingly about their wives. Contrasting with his nocturnal solitude are his daily visits to the mosque, where he learns about the importance of purity, morals and the Koran. A flicker of hope appears in Ahmad’s life when he falls in love with his neighbour, a prostitute named Kinar, and begins to act as her driver. But her pimp blocks their relationship. The clash in modern Jakarta between sex as a product and the moral pressures exerted by his religion only confuse Ahmad who wants nothing more than to save Kinar and himself from this sinful life. Shots of the city by night, gloomy interiors awash with red and green, diffuse streetlights and fragments of faces caught in the taxi’s rear-view mirror attend him on his increasingly disturbed sorties across the city.

A couple of other Indonesian films at Q! Film Festival did capture by attention. "Di Balik Frekuensi" ("Behind the Frequency", trailer available here) is a fantastic documentary by Ucu Agustin about the extent to which power in the Indonesian media is concentrated in the hands of a small number of politically-connected people. While Indonesia's media is largely free from interference from the state, it does suffer from interference from many heavy-handed proprietors keen to use their outlets to advance their political and commercial interests. The film makes its point by focusing on two stories. One is the story of a man representing Sidoarjo mudflow victims who marched to Jakarta to demand compensation, only to mysteriously end up apologising on the Bakrie-owned TVOne for offence caused to the Bakrie family, whose company was suspected to be responsible for the mudflow. The other story is of a journalist at the Surya Paloh-controlled MetroTV who stands up for high-quality impartial journalism only to be ostracised by her employer. The outcomes of both are rather depressing.

Another local film that caught by eye was Tino Saroengallo's "Setelah 15 Tahun" ("After 15 Years", trailer available here), a searing indictment of the stalling of Indonesia's reformasi political project since the downfall of strongman Suharto. After some great archival footage of the blood on the streets in the final days of the Suharto regime in 1998 and the spasms of anger than followed for months afterward, the film settles into a nice rhythm demonstrating the gulf between the early hopes of the student protesters and the country's current array of problems (corruption, religious tension, poverty). The film reinforces a idea circulating among Indonesia-watchers that the downfall of Suharto marked the toppling of a man, but not the system he led. The forces of violence and privilege that were part of the New Order are very much alive in the Reform Era.

Among the shorts, BW Purba Negara's "Bermulai Dari A" ("Starting From A") was a gem. A blind girl and a speech-impaired boy befriend each other, she teaching him to speak to help him master the Koran, and he offering her companionship to guide her through the darkness. The story is simply and elegantly told, with little language but many gestures and tactile contact between the pair facilitating their communications. The ending - spoiler alert - in which the boy's gutteral utterances sound distinctly orgasmic only to be revealed as Koranically-inspired was brilliant and brave. With religion and disability at its heart, the film was funny and profoundly moving. All in 15 minutes!

There were plenty of foreign films to keep cosmopolitan cinema buffs happy, but for a festival like this one, it's the local stuff that makes it worthwhile. This time around Q! Film Festival has well and truly delivered - long may it continue to do so.