at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

“Reel” Religion

Do we get a religious education when we go to the movies? Can we think about films as “texts” that can tell us something about religious beliefs, practices and politics of religion in the Southeast Asian context? This past fall, in a collaborative effort between the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Hawai’i Manoa and the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, a group of graduate students got “reel” with their approach to religious studies in a new class called “Religion and Film in Southeast Asia”.

Co-taught by lecturers Kelli Swazey and Syamsul Ma’arif, the course used films on loan from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies Southeast Asian film archive to look at how religion is characterized and displayed through the medium of film in contemporary Southeast Asia. The seven films shown in class were used to illuminate some of the dominant narratives about religion (and responses to them), as well as to compare cultural and political contexts in the region. Students were introduced to the theory of “national cinema” and explored the role government plays in national film industries, focusing on the influence of political context on the portrayal of religion through various forms of media.

“One of our goals in this class was to promote the critical analysis of media as a force that helps to create the context through which religious life unfolds” Swazey explains. “In recent years, there has been a surge of religiously-themed films produced for Indonesian audiences, reflecting contemporary concerns with role of religion and religious identity in public life. We hope that this course introduced students to methods of analysis they can incorporate into their work as scholars, journalists and religious practitioners who are engaged in reflection on the role of religion in Indonesia today.”

The three accompanying film reviews were written by students in the Master’s program at the Center for Religious and Cross Cultural Studies (CRCS) at Gadjah Mada University, the only academic study center focusing on religious studies at a non-religiously affiliated university in Indonesia.

Read the reviews here.