The focal points in religion are iqra and ijtihad. To put simply, iqra means to read, including all necessary actions related to it such as to analyse, to scrutinise, to further comprehend, and even to experiment on the found phenomena and perspectives. Meanwhile, ijtihad can be explained as an action of interpreting based on thorough understanding of relevant knowledge, as well as spiritual maturity, to comprehend the phenomena in question and to do so with proper work ethics.
Iqra and ijtihad provide an oasis that allows the growth of aesthetics, sciences, technologies, as well as ethics that are based on humanism. When we consider how often religious values are pitted against political values in its relation with democracy, iqra and ijtihad become more fundamental in their service as an oasis in arts, especially in films.
High quality films often call for its audience’s capacity to ‘read’ and to ‘interpret’. These films don’t only paint pictures of realities or of ideals, but also make a space for questions and/or its creator’s personal vision in a complex portrait that requires the ability to iqra and ijtihad to comprehend. In these films, the democracy in creation and appreciation are prominent.
One conclusion can be drawn from this: films have the capacity to become a tool of education that encourages iqra and ijtihad in democratic understandings, and therefore nurture a civil society that is critical, democratic, and productive.
History has shown a long struggle faced by religious films in their role to convey religious values. In Indonesia, 80% of religious films concern itself largely with religious symbols and sins and virtues, as well as moralistic tales and religious sacrifices. This stereotype is further encouraged by the frequently-abused law on blasphemy that discourages filmmakers from straying from it. Considering the cost of film production, and adding to it the traumatic history of censorships especially in relation with religious contents, filmmakers often refuse to consider the risk of defying these stereotypes. Therefore, they would often “play it safe” and create stories of morality in religion to both draw the audience and to avoid the banning of their film’s distribution.
This shows the unfortunate tendency of prioritising financial benefits and draconian teachings above civic education. Due to this, religious films become merely a medium of ‘radical’ teachings that supply uncompromising values where the rooms to read and to interpret are squashed in its black-and-whiteness.
The history of films also records the interesting patterns in religious films and how closely they are related to the political stances of the party in power. In Soeharto Era, religious films did not supply communist ideas and radical Islamism, and instead flourished were the films that show liberal religious ideas, such as Titian Serambut Dibelah Tujuh, etc. This pattern continues post-1998 where freedom in religion is encouraged, be the ideas liberal or radical.
Madani IFF 2023 aims to facilitate iqra and ijtihad in films in hope that we can enjoy more works of art that encourage civic education.