Korduory connected with filmmaker and surfer Rob Henry to learn more about his new film “As Worlds Divide”, and his experience trading a life in Melbourne for one in the Indonesian jungle.
KTV: What caused you to leave Melbourne and move to the Mentawais in 2008?
RH: I was feeling fed up with all the greed invoked by our capitalist driven system – culminated by the collapse of the global economy and the impact this was having on our society. I wanted to be a help to the planet, not a pawn in its destruction. So I decided to leave Melbourne and go in search of a more meaningful and sustainable way to live.
KTV: Why Mentawai?
RH: A few months after resigning from my job, an opportunity arose to travel to Mentawai to help out at a surf resort – making films of the guests in exchange for lodging and daily meals. An incredible and very privileged opportunity, however I found my attention was instead captured by the Mentawai people – the way they lived and their connection to the land. So much so that I left the resort after just 8 weeks and began living with the local community.
KTV: What was the transition like- going from a very “modern” city like Melbourne to a small village on an island?
RH: Moving to a small Islander village was really exciting for me. I immediately felt closer to where I wanted to be – learning about the outdoors, relying on the land and its resources to survive. At the same time, it was extremely challenging because I knew next to nothing about the language or culture and had just stepped out of a city lifestyle. Adapting to a much slower pace of life was surprisingly challenging. Even the most simple of tasks would take days to complete and I remember feeling frustrated by this – as though it made a world of difference whether it happened immediately or not. I quickly came to realise that in that environment it generally did not.
KTV: Did you find what you expected to find there or did you discover something different altogether?
RH: I really didn’t have any expectations at all when I left Melbourne… everything felt like a discovery. Living with the Mentawai, their culture, the issue of displacement, cultural education program, IEF, the documentary film – it all eventuated through intrigue, empathy, connection and subsequent need. The past 10-year journey has provided much more than I could ever have imagined.
KTV: Is there a single most impactful thing that comes to mind when you think about what you’ve learnt during your time living in the village?
RH: With regards to learnings, I’d say the most impactful would be just how integral the connection to culture and land is in sustaining good health and wellbeing for an Indigenous people, or any group of people for that matter. Beyond the practicalities – where the land provides food, water, medicines, building resources and so forth – the sense of belonging to a community and of having purpose and belief is such a critical ingredient in the makeup of one’s physical and mental health. For the Mentawai, maintaining a strong connection to their indigenous culture is what shields them from destitution.
KTV: Have you personally noticed much change in your surroundings since you moved to Mentawai?
RH: I’ve noticed quite a significant amount of change since arriving to Mentawai. There has been a lot of development throughout the Islands – clearing of land and forest for roads, increase in the number of surf resorts / surfers, increase in pressure from mainstream religions and in transmigration of people and businesses from other parts of Indonesia. All of which seems to be accelerating year on year, severely threatening the preservation of their Indigenous culture and forests.
KTV: What was it like being a filmmaker in the middle of a jungle? How did you keep your gear charged, and was it odd to have that type of technology in your hands when surrounded by so much nature?
RH: Indeed, it felt bizarre. I struggled with this on and off throughout and still do. Toward the end of my first few years I had stopped using the equipment. I was so immersed in the lifestyle and enjoying being so present that my awareness to snap out of a moment to go and set up a camera to capture it was virtually non-existent. However, the times it did break through were generally quite intense because it would also bring with it a flood of self-accusation and guilt pertaining to what the actual purpose of me being there was if I was no longer documenting. This of course heightened by the fact I was also realizing that this incredible culture was being threatened and on the verge of disappearing forever.
In the coconut-farming village I had access to a generator to charge my camera batteries. It was more of a challenge living deep in the forest, but I had enough batteries to generally last me 2 or 3 weeks and after which I’d wander back to a resettlement village where they often had a generator running for a few hours per day. Banana leaves kept my equipment dry on more than one occasion too.
KTV: What is the biggest threat to the people’s’ way of life in Mentawai?
RH: The Mentawai are one of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes-people. Their knowledge of the plants, animals and their local ecosystems, developed over thousands of years and intricately woven into a cultural and subsistence way of life, is now under threat and facing extinction. The impact of globalization and deforestation is destroying their way of life at a very alarming rate. The Indonesian government’s assimilation programs were introduced to the Islands as recently as 1954, yet today almost 99% of indigenous Mentawai have been resettled into government villages – displaced from their culture and land. The impact on the health and wellbeing of these people is devastating. In my opinion the Mentawai story is important, not just for the future of their indigenous community, but for that of displaced communities all over the world fighting for their right for cultural recognition.
KTV: Are there actions that people in the Western world can take to minimize their impact on places like Mentawai?
RH: If you’re planning a trip to Mentawai or similar, remember to ask your tourism operator ‘what actions are you taking to support the sustainable future of the local community and environment?’ For example, is the business run by locals or otherwise employing local staff; are they purchasing local produce; investing in sustainable, community-driven initiatives; how are they disposing of their garbage and waste; are they using environmentally-friendly machinery; have they even considered what their social and environmental responsibility might be? Check out the Mentawai community’s Ecotourism initiative for those wanting to visit / trek Siberut Island. Support by making ethical and sustainable-based choices.
KTV: What’s next for you?
RH: I’m currently back in Australia rallying support so that Mentawai can prevent the loss of their precious culture through implementation of their Indigenous education program. As part of this, we’ve developed a ‘watch a film, save a culture’ campaign whereby we’re inviting people all around the world to pay AUS $10 to watch / download a feature documentary film called As Worlds Divide, which I filmed whilst living with the community over the past 10 years. It is really quite simple. Go to www.watchafilmsaveaculture.com and purchase using paypal, credit card, bank transfer or even bitcoin (film also available in multiple languages). All funds raised will then be used by the Suku Mentawai Education Foundation to implement their community’s program over the next 10 years. Watch a film, save a culture. #wafsac
In the years ahead my focus will be on the ensuring the Mentawai community have the support they require to successfully implement their program and achieve their goals. In addition, I hope to grow the Indigenous Education Foundation and help empower other displaced Indigenous communities to develop their own cultural-based solutions to prevent long-term poverty. Let’s see. One step at a time…