The broad horizons of the beach look like they’re at one with the skies, dwarfing the two youths wading in the lapping waves of the shallows. The two make the most of what nature provides, scouring deftly in the sand for shellfish to eat and sell at the fish market.
At first glance, this tropical idyll might seem like a commercial for the Maldives, Phuket or some other beach resort. However, this larger-than-life scene is a day in the life of villagers from Papua, a part of Indonesia daunting for most Indonesians due to its isolation and reputation for instability and violence.
The scene is part of “Lukas’s Moment: A Journey Between Hope and Desperation,” a documentary by independent filmmaker Aryo Danusiri. Released in 2005 as a dissertation for his graduate studies at the University of Tromso, Norway, the film garnered critical acclaim at film festivals in Indonesia and around the world, such as the Jakarta International Film Festival, the Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival for Ethnographic Film in Britain, the Margaret Mead Film Festival in the United States, as well as other similar events in Singapore, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
The documentary marked a milestone in Aryo’s filmmaking career, a path which he set out on following the completion of his undergraduate studies in anthropology at the University of Indonesia in 1999.
“I got my start with some short films in 1998, before I went to work at a production house to work on ‘Zoom In,’ a program of Indonesian music. But things started to pick up when human rights group ELSAM asked me to edit footage from Aceh,” said Aryo, whose work covers traditional cultures and communities in post-1998 Indonesia. “But the turning point came after ELSAM took things a step further and asked me to get the locals to tell their side of the story.”
The result was “Kambing Kampung Yang Kena Pukul” (“Village Goat Takes the Beating”). Released in 1999, the film is the first of a trilogy of documentaries on Aceh during the long-running insurgency headed by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in the province.
The documentary — which was followed up by “Penyair Negeri Linge” (“The Poet of Linge Land”) a year later and “Abracadabra!” in 2003 — sought to give the Acehnese victims of the insurgency their full say.
“[‘Village Goat’] touches on the testimonies of victims of human rights violations in Tiro village [in Aceh’s Pidie district], while ‘The Poet of Linge’ chronicles Aceh’s traditional oral poetry, and how the conflict in the province affected the art form,” Aryo said.
“The third documentary, ‘Abracadabra!,’ touched on the situation in Aceh before the Indonesian government launched its last counter-offensive against GAM in 2003. All the documentaries served as a slice of life for the subjects, as it featured their testimonies without resorting to a narrator.”
Aryo’s Aceh trilogy served as a stepping stone for him in 2003, as it drew the attention of the University of Tromso, which granted him an all-expenses-paid scholarship to research in Indonesia.
“The idea to make ‘Lukas’s Moment’ came after I wanted to make the most of the scholarship by going to a far-flung part of Indonesia. The movie was made during a three-month trip to Merauke in Papua. The movie opened my eyes to Papua’s social structure, which is divided between a Papuan political identity tying the more than 250 tribes there, and their tribal loyalties,” said Aryo of the documentary, which chronicles the efforts of fisherman Lukas Gebze to sell his catch of shrimp and other seafood in Jayapura, Papua’s provincial capital.
“The pace of the film is somewhat different from most documentaries, as it is slower and more introverted. The thinking behind this is that the filmmaker has to be more like a ‘fisherman’ who will wait on the subject until a major moment comes, instead of forcing their hand to make the moment come.”
Aryo’s work in Aceh and Papua changed public perceptions of both regions, which have earned a notorious reputation among the Indonesian public due to separatist conflicts.
“Many viewers of ‘Lukas’s Moment’ have come up to me remarking about how much they have in common with him, after they saw a scene in which he was binge-eating after he was stressed out,” he said, referring to a part in which Lukas binged on a barbecue after he failed to sell his catch to Jayapura.
“Apparently the part also made a difference for Lukas. A civil servant at the Papua provincial administration helped him out after seeing his plight. Sure, one can be cynical and say the man was convinced to help Lukas after he saw my camera work, but then again it can be interpreted that the film was a catalyst for change. The film featured a scene in which the two men talked about entrepreneurship and the monetary economy, which is a major step forward from the pre-modern, barter-based economy that Lukas was used to.”
Aryo followed up the success of “Lukas’s Moment” with the release of “Diantara Gajah-Gajah” (“Between Elephants”) in 2007. The movie, which took its title from an Indonesian fable of a mousedeer stuck between two elephants, the documentary touches on life in Aceh a few years after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami ravaged the province and killed more than 300,000 people.
“Between Elephants” traces the efforts of Pak Kecik, the headman of a village in Aceh’s Geunteng Timur area, to settle his people on new housing built by the UN for them in the province. Like the title, “Between Elephants” shows the Acehnese people as mousedeer who had to deal with the trauma from the tsunami and the influx of the outside world coming in to offer aid.
The film, like “Lukas’s Moment,” touches on people coping with a changing world in which they have to reassess their relations with others, particularly outsiders.
“I also follow the subjects in their daily life, so as to offer a glimpse of Aceh and Papua as the people would see it, instead of the news or NGO reports,” Aryo said.
“But the movie is different from ‘Lukas’s Moment’ because the Acehnese people are more expressive in airing their grievances.
“On the other hand, ‘Lukas’s Moment’ is more introverted because people in Papua are more isolated and less open to outside influences.”
Aryo added that the differences between the two provinces marked his work. “Between Elephants” was dubbed and included music, in contrast to the introverted, sparse tone of “Lukas’s Moment.”
Going to Harvard
Like “Lukas’s Moment,” “Between Elephants” received wide acclaim upon its release, after which Aryo was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard University to study for a PhD in social anthropology and film and visual studies.
“Going to Harvard did wonders, as it enabled me to depart from the observational narrative that I’ve been doing to make more experimental films. The experiment is in line with the concept of sensory ethnography, which is using films instead of textbooks for anthropological purposes,” he said.
The result was his latest film, “On Broadway,” which was released in 2010.
“The film touches on an underground mosque in New York. The subjects, many of whom are second-generation Americans, sought to retrace their cultural and religious roots through Islam,” he said.
“The question arose as they started to feel marginalized in the wake of 9/11. They also felt under more scrutiny, as the New York municipal authorities started to install more CCTV cameras.”
Aryo is set to explore this theme further, as he is currently doing his dissertation on a documentary about Muslim youth in Indonesia. How this work will turn out remains to be seen.
But if his previous work is any measure, then it’s not too much to guess that the documentary will be something to look forward to.