Green film portrays the plight of Merbabu farmers

by Agnes Winarti on 2012-10-29

 For many people, especially those living in the most remote villages of Indonesia, climate change is unlikely be a familiar term, despite their daily struggles against the incomprehensible changes to the seasons.

An internationally acclaimed documentary made by Indonesian film director Shalahuddin Siregar entitled Negeri di Bawah Kabut (The Land Beneath the Fog), intimately captures the daily lives of two humble farming families living in Genikan village on the slopes of Mount Merbabu in Central Java. The change in seasons, no longer predictable with their traditional Javanese calendar system, makes it harder for them to cope with their day-to-day struggle to free themselves from the vicious cycle of poverty.

“The relationship between human beings and nature is never as simple as we might imagine,” Shalahuddin, or more familiarly known as Udin, told Bali Daily over the weekend, prior to his departure to attend the 55th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (Dok-Leipzig) in Germany, which runs from Oct. 29 to Nov. 4.

Environmental problems affect human lives in real ways. As Udin pointed out: “Among these environmental issues is the failing farm harvests that affect the family’s son, Arifin, who faces an uncertain future as to whether he could continue school. When we humans run out of balance with the environment, we ourselves will be at our own loss.”

When speaking of the effects of climate change, there are always discussions related to holes in the ozone layer, or the ice melt somewhere in the poles, none of which is comprehensible for farmers. Through Negeri di Bawah Kabut, the 33-year-old director presents the local point of view, that of the local farmers, about the problematic environmental changes.

At its initial screening, Negeri di Bawah Kabut won the Special Jury Prize for Muhr Asia Africa Documentary at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival; first prize went to This Is Not A Film by Jafar Panahi, a respected Iranian film director, currently behind bars and banned from filmmaking for 20 years.

The 105-minute documentary, the production and postproduction for which was funded by the Goethe-Institut and the Ford Foundation, is currently among the 84 selected documentaries competing in the Dok-Leipzig International Young Documentary Talent competition.

The film, production for which started in 2005 and lasted for five years, follows the daily lives of farmers Muryati, 30, and Sudardi, 32, a young couple with a toddler, and another heart-warming family of farmers with three sons. Their youngest and brightest son, Arifin, is the pivotal character of the film.

It was graduation time at elementary school for Arifin. Although he graduated with flying colors, it was unclear whether he could continue to junior high school following his father’s crop failures and the resulting hardship trying to make ends meet. Noting Arifin’s potential to excel at school, his father, never having had the opportunity to attend school himself, was eager but equally anxious thinking of how to cover the costs of school admission, uniforms and shoes for his youngest son. The neighboring couple, Muryati and Murdadi, agreed to lend some money for Arifin’s school despite their own financial limitations. The entire documentary is in Javanese language with English subtitles.

Udin acknowledged that ensuring good relations among the crew, the families and the surrounding communities in the village was the toughest challenge during filmmaking, which took two years research, 1.5 years of shooting and 18 months editing.

“Basically the first two years, I spent my days living in the village to gain their trust and make them comfortable, despite our presence in their personal space,” said Udin, who loves hiking and climbing mountains and has been hiking up Mount Merbabu since 1997.

Negeri di Bawah Kabut was recently screened on the closing day of the Balinale International Film Festival in Kuta. Among the audience was 18-year-old student Aisha Pagnes, who was deeply moved by the film. “I like that they stayed true with whatever was being recorded. They did not use any music for background, they did not alter anything. I think that’s what makes it more original. I like how they just focused on the family,” said Aisha.

“The strength of this documentary lies in the very fact that it captures everyday lives, something really simple, that we never really think about. This film displays the strength of human cohesion that bonds these families together. Despite their poverty, they actually are rich because of their social bonds. This is something that I think Udin did not intend to put into the film, nonetheless, he captured it strongly,” said a good friend of the director, James de Rave.

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