BOOK REVIEW – The Komedi Bioscoop: early cinema in colonial Indonesia, by Dafna Ruppin


My review of Dafna Ruppin’s thoroughly detailed history of early cinema in colonial Indonesia has now been published by the journal Early Popular Visual Culture.

Here’s an excerpt:

There are obvious reasons, perhaps, why early cinema scholarship has typically possessed a Transatlantic focus and why it has largely coalesced around key figures, and key sites of innovation, in the United States, France, and Britain. One of the virtues of the recent flourishing of ‘new cinema history’, however, has been to open up previously overlooked terrain and help recalibrate the gaze of older audience-centred approaches away from the global north. A recent entry in this endeavour is Dafna Ruppin’s The Komedi Bioscoop: Early Cinema in Colonial Indonesia, which offers a comprehensive outline of ‘the emergence of the popular practice of movie-going in turn-of-the-century colonial Indonesia, from 1896 to the outbreak of the First World War’ (317).

From the outset, Ruppin asserts that Indonesia in this period was no backward colony. Setting out to detail a key facet of the cultural life of a thoroughly modern state, she notes contemporary reports about films shown in colonial Indonesia that had not yet reached audiences in provincial Dutch towns (1). This modernity is further reinforced by Ruppin’s situating of the introduction and exploitation of moving pictures in Indonesia as a distinctly international affair, whereby cinema was quickly popularised in a crowded market, ‘thanks to the efforts of other entrepreneurs of myriad nationalities and ethnicities, almost in parallel with these processes in the west’ (1). In framing her book in such a way, Ruppin takes an opportunity to overturn well-worn clichés about the Dutch Indies, whether as a dumping ground for ‘old, degraded film copies from the Netherlands’ (2) or, indeed, as a place where the history of film has largely been seen as beginning in the 1920s, when local Indonesians first became involved in filmmaking. In aiming for a comprehensive account of early cinema culture in colonial Indonesia – from the earliest commercial screenings of moving images in 1896, right up to the outbreak of the First World War – Ruppin draws on a vast array of primary sources to cover the work of various exhibition companies, the markets within which they operated, and the local authorities with which they had to deal, as well as colonial efforts to control consumption and distribution.

The full review can be read on the Early Popular Visual Culture (Taylor & Francis) website.

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