Monday, September 25, 2023

New Documentary on Mentawai Attempts to Save Its Disappearing Culture

Dames Alexander Sinaga
September 30, 2017 | 5:52 pm
A Mentawai kid. (Photo courtesy of Indigenous Education Foundation)
A Mentawai kid. (Photo courtesy of Indigenous Education Foundation)

Jakarta. "My name is Tabilik Junen. I am from Malagasak. All my ancestors are also from here," a Mentawai shaman, or sikerei, said in a new feature documentary called "As Worlds Divide" about the Mentawai indigenous community, the native people of a string of islands of the same name off the coast of West Sumatra in Indonesia.

The documentary was filmed over the course of eight years on Mentawai Islands, and takes you on an intimate journey inside the lives of an indigenous people who are losing connection with their land and culture.

The Mentawais, who are mostly hunters and gatherers, are also famous all over the world for their hand-tapped tattoos, called titi, and their semi-nomadic way of life.

The documentary is directed and produced by an Australian independent filmmaker and cultural activist Rob Henry, who left his office job and his native country after the global financial crash of 2008.


"I traveled to Mentawai to surf initially, but found myself captivated by the local people and intrigued by their way of life, their culture," Henry told to the Jakarta Globe on Thursday (28/09).

Henry said he was initially hired to produce short videos for guests at a luxurious surf resort, but after leaving the resort to live with the local community, he got more interested in documenting his experiences with them.

"To be honest, I didn't really know what my purpose was or what I was going to do with all the footage, but I felt it was important nonetheless. It was only many years later that I decided to splice them together into As Worlds Divide," Henry said.

Rob Henry, Australian surfer and filmmaker, pictured in the jungle regions of Siberut Island in Mentawai with Sikerei Masit Dere. (Photo courtesy of Chris Hopkins)

According to the filmmaker, the indigenous culture of Mentawai is facing a serious threat of extinction because of globalization.

He said the majority of the people of Mentawai, particularly the youth, have lost connection with their culture and some of them do not even know how to speak their own language.

"This is terribly sad because their culture is all they have," Henry said.

The Mentawais have made little progress with preserving their indigenous culture, founding the nascent Mentawai Indigenous Cultural Education Foundation, or Yayasan PSM, this year.

A Mentawai child rides a traditional wooden boat in the interior of Mentawai Islands. (Photo courtesy of Indigenous Education Foundation)

Henry himself is organizing a campaign called "Watch A Film, Save A Culture" or #wafsac in October.

He said the idea is for people to buy a digital copy of the film online for $10, with every cent of the money to be donated to Yayasan PSM to pay for their cultural education program over the next ten years.

"Our aim is for 100,000 people around the world to download the film and, while learning about the Mentawais' fascinating culture and way of life, they'll also be helping to save it," Rob said.

"The action is simple but the impact enormous — watch a film, save a culture."


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