Interview: Rob Henry – As Worlds Divide
Big Sky Wire
Interview by Michele Lockwood
In the current age of self-obsessed navel-gazers meet Rob Henry, a self-taught documentary filmmaker who is also part anthropologist, philanthropist and humanitarian. His multi-faceted project, “BUI MAREUREU BAAP As Worlds Divide,” which includes a community cultural and environmental education program, is focussed toward helping improve future prospects for indigenous Mentawai people. After living closely with several different communities in Mentawai, Rob observed the severe contrast in the quality of life between the majority population of people who had stepped away from their traditional customs and the few remaining families of tribes-people who continue to live deep in the rainforests of Siberut. Along with this education program, Rob has created a film under the same title, ‘As Worlds Divide’, where he not only gives us a rare insight into the lifestyle of these indigenous people but also provides a realistic view into the stark reality of the consequences caused by the introduction of foreign change to a tribal life. An insight perhaps poignant to a historic issue continuing to haunt countries all around the world even today.
You’re a surfer, was that what first brought you to the Mentawais?
Yeah, the initial attraction was definitely surfing. This also combined with a newly found passion for cinematography and an opportunity to go over to Mentawai to explore this. My role there was to make short films of surfers surfing. ‘Wow, how good is this?’ I thought.
Most people that go to the Islands on a surf trip don’t leave their boat except to get barrelled. What was it that led you into the jungle and to become so immersed in the lives of these native people?
A friend was setting up a resort at Pitstop Hill and this opportunity to film his guests came up so, at the end of 2008, I moved there from Melbourne. I only stayed for a couple of months though. It was great but I wasn’t really learning enough about the local people or the culture whilst living in this western-style resort, which troubled me. There was however one chap there named Andi who I was told had only recently been plucked from the jungle and given a job as boat driver. I was really fascinated by his attitude and always-amiable nature and became overly intrigued to want to learn more about his cultural upbringing and the lifestyle that raised him to be this way. In many ways Andi was my inspiration to leave the resort and go and live in a village with the local community. And it basically all evolved from there.
How long were you there for?
It was approximately a year on this occasion. I moved to a small coconut-farming village around the back of the same Island initially. I knew virtually nothing about the people, the culture or the language, so it was a bit naïve and ignorant really… arriving there unannounced. The first few months were fairly confronting. I slowly came to realize that they were very welcoming though.
How did you communicate?
Just by using a dictionary - an English/Indonesian dictionary. The community there spoke both Indonesian and Mentawai so it enabled me to learn both languages. Plus gave me an avenue to connect through and to build relationships. The core group of villagers were absolutely incredible in helping me learn the languages and in teaching me how to survive and whatnot. I became quite close with a few of them. Whilst there I also learned of another community living deep within the rainforests of Siberut – which is the largest of the four main islands – that have withstood the pressure from early government programs to integrate these tribal communities into the social and cultural mainstream of the country and who still maintained a traditional cultural lifestyle. Which I was rather excited to learn about. I had been living with this resettled community for quite a while now and, whilst I felt I was getting closer to grasping a sense of what Mentawai culture was about, it was difficult because for most of the people, including my close friends, their true nature was heavily diluted by the challenges I guess I’d come to expect from developing countries.
Well, for example, quite a large portion of the people’s conversation was focused on the topic of how difficult it is to find money and on their struggle to survive here. There were incidents of theft and violence - not so often in this small village, but they did occur. I didn’t think much of it at the time as, as I said, this type of behaviour in 3rd world developing communities is not a surprising discovery, so I was doing my best to just ignore it and focus on what I thought was a true reflection of their cultural identity. It wasn’t until I moved deeper into the jungle and gained an insight into a traditional Mentawai lifestyle though that I actually realized something was amiss. The contrast was profound, and quite confronting. Here’s one community, who’ve been resettled and provided facilities and opportunities introduced to help improve their lifestyle, who are desperately struggling to survive; whilst the other, who have chosen to maintain their own cultural beliefs, values and practices, who want nothing more than to give this opportunity of Mentawai culture and lifestyle to their children. How could this be? Why had so many chosen to give up a rich cultural lifestyle for the struggle of an impoverished one? A question that troubled me for a long while, and which I guess lead my research in this direction.
Had you been filming all of this up to that point or were you simply just observing?
I was filming the whole journey. I was still very much discovering what it was about cinematography that I was so drawn to, so at the time I had no idea what I was doing yet in terms of direction. I would just film whenever I could without being too forward or intruding – which I was particularly wary of in the early stages prior to gaining their trust. To be honest it actually took a long time for me to realise the direction and role of the film. As I said, whilst living with the resettled community I was looking beyond those desperate behaviours conducive to a struggle for survival; where, in hindsight, with the film actually being about the contrast between the lifestyles of these two communities and what is at stake for future generations if this traditional knowledge were lost, I really should have been capturing all of these moments on film.
How many people, would you say, are still living in the traditional way in comparison to the ones who have left that behind for the government support? Do they want to integrate?
Basically the entire Mentawai population has been resettled barring this tiny community of shaman and their families that are living in the south of Siberut. So its perhaps 2 or 3% of the entire 65,000+ population. Yes, most do want better education and communication facilities, better housing and infrastructure, and other modern developments. This project though is certainly not trying to say they shouldn’t learn to read or write or live this or that way. It’s more that through the research conducted I found that, alongside these desires, they also want their children to learn about their cultural and environmental heritage. In fact a majority feel this is more important for their children’s future survival than learning to read or write. The problem discovered though is that there is no opportunity for them to learn this within the current resettlement village system. So it’s more so about making sure they have the opportunity to learn both the National education as well as the Mentawai education, which, long-term, will provide them with more choices, better opportunities and, subsequently, a richer lifestyle.
Is this the goal of your film, to raise awareness for the need for programs like this that cover both academic based studies along with learning about traditional Mentawai culture?
Sorry, I guess I should’ve explained a little better. The project is actually focussed on helping improve their future prospects through the establishment of a not-for-profit organization, which is to facilitate the implementation of a program designed to provide them this Mentawai cultural and environmental education alongside the National. A program, developed upon findings of the research conducted over these past years, which included a comprehensive community survey, co-designed with Matt Hannon in collaboration with the local community. Therefore the goal of the film is to raise awareness for this particular program, yes, but also for whom the indigenous Mentawai are and why the program is so vitally important for the protection of their future.
So how does your program offer solutions?
The program isn’t introducing anything new; it’s merely facilitating structure to a practice that has existed here for thousands of years, so it’s sustainable. The fortune for Mentawai is that this tribal community still exists; that there are Sikerei, shaman, who still practice cultural traditions and possess this ancient knowledge that has been passed down through generations for thousands of years; and whose belief in Arat Sabulungan, Mentawai culture, remains in tact. The role of Sikerei is to teach and protect the people, always has been, but over the past century this responsibility has been shifted to foreign authorities, systems and hierarchies. The program then is merely to provide Sikerei with an opportunity to teach children in a school-type environment – which they’re now accustomed to; a role which almost all Sikerei surveyed have stated they want to do. This providing children with an opportunity to learn about the songs, dances, medicine, stories, language, about the plants and animals, the weaving of mats and baskets and so forth, alongside learning the National education. It’s important because, currently, they’re learning to read and write in replacement of their Mentawai education, as oppose to in addition. Which, for a people living in an environment where there is very little opportunity for employment to take advantage of these skills, the loss of this knowledge and ability to hunt, gather, prepare medicines, preserve resources, and so on, is what’s found to be the primary cause of the significant decline in their overall health and wellbeing. So, in many ways, currently they’re being educated into poverty.
You are doing the brunt of the work, I assume as well as making the film? How are you funding this?
I haven’t received any funding yet, no. But I’ve just had time, I suppose. I live fairly minimally with my folks out in the country and I’m happy doing that. There’s no budget but I do have the passion to make sure this project is given every possible chance to reach its goals, so I’m happy to keep developing it until hopefully others who are able help take it to that next level join in too.
Is this an environmental issue as well as a social one? Do tourists and surfers visiting the islands impact the future of the islands
Tourism definitely has an impact on Mentawai as a whole, some positive some negative. It is difficult to manage though without having sustainable community-based structures in place, which, to my knowledge, has actually been the focus of recent planning by the Mentawai Tourism department. Yes, it is an environmental issue too, for sure. Indigenous Mentawai, as with almost all indigenous cultures, depend upon the plants and animals for their survival and therefore, naturally, the culture is structured to nurture the relationship between its people and their natural surrounding. In most cases the plants and animals are revered. So, by preserving the culture, you preserve the environment. The native people manage the forest better than anyone and if their cultural beliefs are still strong then they’re going to protect their habitat. And vice-versa, if the culture no longer exists then there is far greater risk that the environment will be destroyed.
Who would be the key audience for this film?
I guess anyone with interest in the current state of living and who feels they’d somewhat benefit from an insight into what life is like for a people living free from the debilitating reliance on money. Everybody is key though really. With the film’s goal being to raise awareness for who the indigenous Mentawai people are, what’s at stake, and for the program and foundation as a means to a preventable solution, widespread reach is vital. As part of the release strategy I also plan to show the film for free on the foundations website, so there will be a direct avenue to give support to the community in focus through, but, who knows, it’s perhaps just that international awareness that could make the difference so I’d hope that viewers, if they feel it to be something worth protecting, can later give support simply by sharing the film with others.
Big Sky is the property on which Andrew Kidman and Michele Lockwood live with their two children in Northern New South Wales. Once a week they speak to writers, photographers, surfers, artists and musicians for Coastalwatch's Big Sky Wire. To follow Andrew Kidman's film celebrating 40 years of Morning of The Earth, head to the Spirit of Akasha blog and to check out Michele Lockwood's blog click through here.
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