The Earth is Getting Hotter: Urban Inferno and Outsider Women’s Collectives in Bumi Makin Panas
Ali Shahab’s controversial 1973 film Bumi Makin Panas (The Earth is Getting Hotter) paints a scalding portrait of rapid urbanization and capitalization during Indonesia’s early New Order years. Jakarta, the capital city, if not quite hell, is closer to a Marxian state of truth in which ideology – for Marx a pervasive, camera obscura-like “inversion” of the actual state of affairs under capitalism – appears to have suddenly capsized; set in a seething urban reality of open hypocrisy, exploitation, and violence, the film functions as material nightmare to the vapid moralist-humanist dreams produced and sold by the state and its agents. Yet while Marx sought to ground his critique in “real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process” (1947: 47), Shahab, who also wrote Bumi Makin Panas, perceived a different locus of truth: the brothel and its female laborers. As a magnet for those perhaps most thoroughly (and quickly) dispossessed by Indonesia’s rapid shift to the right following the rise of Suharto seven years earlier – poor, formally uneducated women – Shahab sees in the brothel a central node of the morally bankrupt urban economy. Yet therein lies its ostensibly utopian potential as a collective space in which women simultaneously cater to, and learn to understand, exploit and shield themselves from, the unbridled “male” desire (pervading both men and women in positions of power) that is burning through city and nation.
This paper will focus on Shahab’s fascinating, if at times problematic, formulation of the brothel as an ideology-canceling lens of populist political critique. Also a “pulp” novelist of some renown, Shahab brought an obtuse, cult film-esque bricolage of sights, sounds and styles to the screen. Despite the uneven, and occasionally substandard, aesthetic veneer this produced, Shahab and his collaborators succeeded in imbuing the space of the urban bordello with a sharp, absurdist-realist edge. The effect is to shred the veil of prurient romanticism otherwise produced by images of besotted, powerful men surrounded with willing, scantily-clad young women. In many ways, Bumi Makin Panas traffics in what Laura Mulvey famously termed women’s “to-be-looked-at-ness” on-screen. Yet it simultaneously attacks and revokes the visual pleasure it sells. My analysis will focus in particular on the connections made by the film between the spheres of prostitution, bohemian artists seeking authenticity in pleasurable proximity to “the masses,” and the wealthy aristocrats and business elites whose patronage of both produces the always already compromised economic ground on which they meet. In this sense, the film reflects on the strong historical connections between the birth of Indonesian national cinema and the post-independence gathering of artists, writers, filmmakers and affluent patrons in Senen, an area of Jakarta featuring a famous movie house, a traditional theater, cheap food and coffee, and rows of quasi-legal brothels.