Two Striking Documentaries That Will Blow Your Mind And Make You Think


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Forest of the Dancing Spirits

The Aka people are the oldest culture on earth, and they live in the centre of the oldest forest in the world. In many ways their society is un-touched by the industrialised culture of the west, and film-maker Linda Vastrik tells their story with sensitivity and respect. She lived with one of the Aka tribes for a full year before beginning to film them, and her affiliation and genuine identification with the people in the film is clear from the get go. This is not some kind of western fetishisation of indigenous cultures,  in fact, story telling is central to the Aka culture and at times they were pulling her and her camera into the centre of the story so the world could hear what they had to say.

I actually don’t want to tell you too much about the narrative thrust of this film, because for me, it was just so beautifully doled out, just such great story-telling. Just as I was getting used to one set of facts about their lives, something else surprising and disruptive would happen that would bring even more depth and understanding to this story about this world and these people. There is a really nice rhythm to this film, and it never feels preachy or melodramatic despite the fact that some very intense and dramatic things happen.

It is a universal story, about tragedy, and conflict, and hope, and family. It’s not some perfect forest world, there is darkness and cruelty and sadness, and everything that the human experience encompasses. But it is also a profile of a way of life that is very in touch with the world around it. The characters are often silent, listening to the forest, it is their means of survival so they have to know it intimately.The Aka people live off honey and animals they catch, they have a belief system around their God Kumba, and the Dancing Spirits that live in the forest, and they tell many stories about the origins of the Aka people and their ancestors.

However this film is also a documentation of a way of life that is rapidly fading. In the director’s interview after the film she talked about the fact that since the film has been shot (in 2012), the logging companies have built a road even further into the forest and the young people of the tribe have all got jobs with the logging company cutting down their own trees. The Aka people have no economic rights to the forest at all, despite the fact that they have lived their for 75,000 years.

What will industrialization bring the Aka people? Maybe washing machines and supermarkets and houses made of bricks and mortar. Maybe technologies that will make hunting in the forest easier. Or maybe it will bring disillusionment, loss of language, and poverty to a people already marginalized in their own country.  It remains to be seen.

Where Heaven Meets Hell

If ‘Forest of the Dancing Spirits’ is about a culture that is starting to be encroached by western industry, consider Where Heaven Meets Hell to be the tail end of that industrial journey.

The Javanese sulfur miners of Mount Kawah Ijen are disenfranchised, desperately poor and stuck in a cycle of poverty that starts with leaving school early to support your family by working in the mines, and ends with getting injured and being unable to find work without a high school diploma. The sulfur mines of Kawah Ijen are one of the last sets of sulfur mines where humans do the heavy lifting, and when I say heavy lifting, I mean extremely heavy. These men (and they are all men) carry loads of between 80 and 100 kilograms up steep narrow paths with no hand rails, no pulleys, just themselves, and two baskets of rocks slung over their backs as if they are donkeys. All the while sharing the rocky mountain path with blithe tourists eager to see the views from the mountain and the deceptively serene sulfur lakes where the miners work.

When they get to the top, they get paid around $7-10 a load. They dump the rocks, and go back into the pit to do it all again. A fast miner can do three loads a day. That’s about $30 for 10 hours work. They work 15 day stretches and then make the long journey home to see their families and give them the money.

This is not an easy life. However director Sasha Frielander has a light touch and draws some refreshingly frank and honest confessions out of her subjects as she follows several miners and their families closely. Some of them are philosophical about how hard their life is, some of them have ambitions to get work outside the mine, some of them just cannot imagine how they would support their families any other way, there is just no work and farming does not bring in enough money. All of them are adamant that one day, their children or maybe their children’s children, will have a better life than they did.

Both of these films were shown as part of the Human Rights Arts And Film Festival which has just finished in Melbourne but is about to go to several other cities in Australia including Canberra, Perth and Sydney so if any of you reside in those cities I would absolutely recommend getting along to see some of the films and events, there are a plethora of films directed by women or just about awesome subjects that are worth checking out in general.

I am also well aware of the irony of going to watch films about Human Rights issues in other countries while Australia is in the middle of several Human Rights crises of its own with regards to Indigenous Rights and the rights of Asylum Seekers, not to mention a budget that has just announced severe cuts to welfare services for the poorest amongst us. Expect some blog musings on those issues at some point soon too.

Peace Out. Go watch good movies that inspire you to change the world 🙂



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