Director’s Statement -DVD Launch 2011

Posted · Add Comment

Oz-tak-lihat (Australia doesn’t see)

Strange Birds in Paradise: A West Papuan Story (Charlie Hill Smith, 75 minutes Australia, 2009) has recently been released on DVD, with useful and entertaining extras. There are now a number of films available that help in challenging the silence that has characterised Australian politicians public dissimulation in relation to the suffering of the Papuans to our north. Youtube and other video sources on the net provide occasional stories from Mark Davis and others at SBS, and Al Jazerra has the recent Pride of Warriors (Jono van Hest, Jeni McMahon, David Batty, 22 minutes, Australia, 2009).

This intriguing short film, narrated by Hein Arumisore, overcame censorship out of West Papua by smuggling in half a dozen digital cameras and gathering four personal stories of persecution and resistance. The particular feature of Pride of Warriors is the first person address of its protagonists. This is ‘citizen journalism’ in which we meet Eddie Waromi, now President of the West Papuan Authority, part of an alliance of West Papuan resistance groups, who had been imprisoned for 12 years for raising the flag, and his 19 year old daughter Yane, who tells of being drugged and kidnapped on her way home from university. It is said her ten persecutors included Indonesians and Papuans, who tortured and terrorised her, taunting her about her father’s activism. Matias Bunai of the highlander country reports on the violence experienced by the tribes, and the determination of local people to maintain cultural tradition. Tadius Yogi, a veteran of the guerrilla war is now advocating against armed resistance in favour of peaceful methods and seeking international support. We meet Lovina Bisay, a dancer interrogated following her performance in a play in the West Papuan capital Jarapura. The Sampari dance group performance recalled the Biak Island massacre that occurred in 1998, when the local community raised the Morning Star flag. As a result dozens were killed, including children, in reprisals by Indonesian forces. We see excerpts from the dance performance, with the women dancers dressed in the Morning Star, and the climax when the Morning Star flag is taken from beneath the figure of a ‘lost’ father and displayed to Papuans and Indonesian officials at the conference. We see the tears and pride of West Papuans present. It is a very moving scene. Controversy was generated when the dance performance was reported widely in the Indonesian press as it evidenced continuing resistance to Indonesian occupation.

One of the distinctions of this film is that it does not shy away from the violence of the separatist movement in its period of armed resistance, while, like the other films, joining the West Papuans in advocating non-violence as a preferred long term strategy: “Non-violence is the weapon of the strong”. No Australian broadcaster would touch Pride of Warriors, but Al Jazzera did, financing its completion. The film was scheduled to go to air on Al Jazeera English in mid 2009, but following publicity about the forthcoming film in the Jakarta Post, it was pulled, until much later, after the Indonesian elections, it went to air with little promotion. (‘West Papua Off the Air’, New Matilda, July 15, 2009)

Another new half-hour film West Papua: A Journey to Freedom (Erin Morris, 30 minutes, Australia, 2011), is narrated by Herman Wainggai, one of the 43 West Papuan refugees who managed to escape to Australia in January 2006. He had spent two and a half years in prison for his involvement in organising peaceful demonstrations. This film follows Herman Wainggai to Wewak, PNG where he meets with a number of student activists who have travelled by boat from the west through waters patrolled by Indonesians for a week-long workshop in non-violent resistance. Refugees from the occupation of West Papua feel their exile deeply. In this case Herman’s father is among the smuggled-in visitors and we witness their emotional reunion. There are now at least 15,000 West Papuan refugees in camps in PNG along the border with West Papua. They are not necessarily welcomed by PNG landowners. In this film we see encouraging scenes with PNG human rights NGOs meeting with the workshop and expressing their solidarity with the refugees plight.

Many of the student activists provide testimony to the camera: “Even though we only organise peaceful demonstrations, people get arrested and tortured by Indonesian authorities like the police and the army. Terror still continues. Family members of activists experience terror by Indonesian intelligence.” There are a number of testimonials reporting savage oppression of West Papuan citizens at the hands of Indonesian police and military. Marthen Manggaprouw is critical of the so-called Special Autonomy (2001) status of West Papua. He says the budget for Special Autonomy actually goes to police actions, not for the benefit of West Papua. There is footage showing Indonesian military man-handling demonstrators in Manokwari in 2010, and shocking ‘Indonesian paramilitary police video’ from 2009 documenting Indonesian atrocities.

Late last year when I met with Charlie Hill Smith to talk about his film on West Papua, Tom Allard was reporting from Indonesia in the Age on the controversy around leaked footage proving human rights atrocities committed by Indonesian forces in the cause of terrorising West Papuans. These terror tactics are effective in discouraging those who might wish to say something about their long suffering resistance to the fraudulent incorporation of their land with the infamous ‘Act of Free Choice’ of 1969 and subsequent invasion. Allard’s stories too often conclude with words to the effect that the Prime Minster’s office and the Department of Foreign Affairs decline to comment (‘The Age’ November 8, 2010 ‘Papuan torture trial ‘red herring’). The ‘Lombok agreement’ (2006) between Australia and Indonesia appears to constrain critical public comment by Australian governments on Indonesian ‘internal affairs’, such as the contested future of West Papua. Perhaps this is convenient to both countries, but certainly not for the West Papuans.

This is nothing new in our relations with Indonesia. Australian governments and media were complicit with the silence that attended the events of 1965-6 when Indonesia’s President Sukarno was deposed, and some 800,000 “communists” were murdered while the dictator Suharto established the 30 years of his despotic rule. (In an interview included with the Strange Birds… DVD Damien Kingsbury says “anywhere up to two million” may have been murdered between 1965-7). The relations between Indonesia and Australia have been turbulent and complex throughout. The attempted, armed destabilisation of the Indonesian archipelago supported by US and Australian covert action in the years preceding the 1965 coup remain a shameful betrayal of Australia’s early collaboration with Indonesia’s birth. Australian covert action collaborated with Dutch intelligence in destabilisation programs in West Papua (Irian Jaya) in the late 1950s and again in the mid 1960s, according to Toohey and Pinwill in their book on ASIS, Oyster (1989). Indeed, they say ASIS supported the West Papuan independence organisation the OPM with training and finance in the early 1960s for the purpose of destabilising Sukarno’s claims on the island’s western region, formally part of the Dutch colonies. It is not surprising therefore when suspicions of ulterior motives are raised when Australia is seen to be protecting West Papuan refuges fleeing persecution.

The other companion film to Strange Birds in Paradise for those interested in West Papua is Mark Worth’s Land of the Morning Star (Mark Worth, Janet Bell, Anna Grieve, 55 minutes, Australia 2003), with its subtly nuanced narration by Rachel Griffiths. This is a formally conventional Film Australia film, and the fact that the filmmakers could not get into West Papua led them to gather the most extraordinary archive footage, much of it from Holland. The film spells out the political history as a series of careless betrayals. It chronicles the fate of West Papua through its colonial eras, noting the role of the Kennedy administration in persuading the Dutch to give the country up to the Indonesians in 1962 (the New York Agreement), and Suharto’s role as the Commander of ‘Operation Mandala’ occupying the country in 1963.

Land of the Morning Star opens with the raising of the Morning Star flag in 1999. We see the speech by the remarkable West Papuan activist Theys Eluay: “The truth is we have never been part of Indonesia…” The film concludes with Eluay’s strangling murder at the hands of the Indonesian Special Forces, the Kapassus, in 2001.

The film includes an number of important interviews including
Gordon Jockel, who by way of apologia (or is it irony) says the Indonesians manipulated the Act of Free Choice (1969) by methods “traditional in their own country…” The film describes the suppression of demonstrations following the “vote” and Wim Zonggonau and Clemens Runaweri describe how they fled across the border to PNG with the intention of travelling to New York and speaking before the United Nations. They recount in the film how Australian officials prevented them from leaving PNG. Sadly these Australian actions repressing West Papuan voices against Indonesian militarism might also be described as a practice “traditional in their own country…”.

Land of the Morning Star was made within the constraints of Film Australia and the ABC, but nonetheless makes an essential contribution. Sadly the filmmaker Mark Worth died before the film went to air; in many ways it was his life’s work. It remains one of Film Australia’s most worthwhile achievements.

The events of January 2006, when asylum seekers were intercepted, interned at Christmas Island and later grated asylum, despite Indonesian demands that they be repatriated to Indonesian custody, form one strand of Charlie Hill Smith’s film, as they do in the other films. In Strange Birds it is refugee exile Donny Roem who provides the harrowing boat persons’ tale. The effective work of these young people recalls to mind that other contingent repatriated to Australia from camps in West Papua during the rise of Japanese expansion in the Pacific War, when the archipelago was a Dutch colony. From the 1920s the Dutch kept Indonesian independence activists and their families concentrated as exiles in camps in Boven Digul West Papua until they were transported to Cowra in mid 1943. The Dutch wanted them moved to Australia because they feared these independence activists and intellectuals might align themselves with the Japanese. The Australian government was misled by the Dutch about the ‘crimes‘ of these prisoners. When Evatt finally realised these families were political prisoners they were released and became the very effective cadre organising support in Australia for post war Indonesian independence.

Among the informative ‘extras’ is a lovely short ‘tourist guide’ on trekking in West Papua (‘Penis Gourd’ 1999). The film follows Charlie and his friends as he crosses through the ‘back door’, the “tradesman’s entrance” to Indonesia from Papua New Guinea in the manner of a television entertainment travel show. Shortly after arriving beyond the Baliem Valley in the West Papuan highlands Charlie and his fellow trekkers are welcomed by the Jani people with generosity and high ceremony. Fascinated by the culture of the penis gourd Charlie finds declares “curiosity may have killed the cat but it had me standing naked in a highland village… half highlander and half Sydney Mardi Gras”. Charlie ends up looking lovely in his feathered headdress, neckband, breast-plate and penis gourd. The film is pitched at the widest possible audience with its naïve trekker narrator gradually realizing he is “not holidaying in a stone-age paradise but blundering around in an undeclared war zone”. The film overcomes vulnerability to the uncomfortable charge of paternalism – the white hero/ journalist appropriating the suffering of the natives – by leaping literally naked into comic complicity with the knowing Jani, and its ironic self-mockery.

Charlie finds the West Papuan capital Jarapura entirely reminiscent of Java. It is with this kind of detail that the project goes well beyond the factual entertainment genre that it at first deploys. Our trekkers visit one particular village on the Papuan border that has become a refuge for families who had to flee the highlands since the early 1960s. Around sixty families of refugees from the highlands have relocated there since Papua achieved its independence in 1975. In interviews they tell us why, “Indonesians are in every village. There is no law… we raised the new Papuan flag and had to flee.”

Other extras provide informative compilations of interviews with a number of commentators – these are extensions of arguments introduced in summary form in the film proper. George Aditjondro (Gajah Mada University) says there is a psychological dimension at work in which the military having ‘lost’ East Timor and to some extent Aceh now hang on to West Papua with “trigger happy” anxiety. He explains how the TNI finances around two thirds or three quarters of its budget from business in West Papua, legal and illegal. Damien Kingsbury says the Indonesian government is today trying to separate the military from its business activities, noting progress on this front is “very, very slow”. Illegal militias are a well-established feature of the TNI’s practice, and they also support themselves with through ‘business’. Kingsbury says many of the military leaders who ran East Timor as a personal fiefdom have been relocated to West Papua where they conduct the same kind of operations. Then there are the Islamic militias like Laska Jihad, infamous for its assaults on the civilian population in Ambon some years ago. This group trained in West Java by Indonesian military officers was formally disbanded after the Bali bombings, but has established subsidiary organisations that continue. More recently Laska Tabligh, brings together into what Kingsbury ironically calls ‘home defence units’, militant Moslems who have arrived in transmigration or as business migrants to West Papua. While these militant groups are less immediately under the control of the TNI, they are supported by Indonesian military leaders to counter the local Melanesian independence movement.

Arief Budiman: “The world does not scream about the 100,000 people killed in West Papua because there is no exposure about that and the West Papuan people are not clever in dealing with the media.” Others make the point that journalists are not permitted to come to West Papua. Jacob Rumbiak cites the evaluation of Protestant and Catholic Church organisations in Papua who estimate four times this number killed since the infamous ‘Act of Free Choice’. (West Papua; Journey to Freedom affirms this 400,000 figure citing a study from Yale.) George Aditjondro suggests West Papuans should align themselves with other Indonesians seeking to establish a federal structure of Indonesian provinces (like the former Soviet Union) and in this way move gradually toward independence. West Papua can be seen as the “last frontier” of Indonesian militarism as more democratic processes are pursued in other parts of the Indonesian archipelago and if Indonesia is to develop in this way it needs to deal with the its military behaviours in West Papua. Anglican priest Peter Woods, who witnessed and bravely recorded an Indonesian assault on demonstrators in 2000, thinks there has been collusion of the Australian Government with Indonesia because West Papua is “an embarrassment on our doorstep” and conscripts the Good Samaritan to remind us of our neighbourly responsibilities.

At the time of writing, despite its festival invitations and other accolades Strange Birds in Paradise has not yet found a broadcaster in Australia. This bringsnew meaning to Charlie observation in the film that today there is a saying among Melanesians ‘Oz-tak-lihat’ (Australia doesn’t see). The film was rejected at several stages of development and production by both Australian public broadcasters. This cannot be because the film is not important, well made, imaginative or accurate, as it is all of these and more. Exquisite animation sequences by Juan Serrano and Joanne Fong create a wonderful imaginative space for both hope and despair. The film builds its narrative around West Papuan exiles preparing and performing a ‘sing sing’ concert in collaboration with David Bridie, a long time supporter of West Papua. The music becomes another vehicle for an emotional connection with the people and their aspirations.

Strange Birds… was invited into competition at the world’s most prestigious documentary film festival in Amsterdam in 2009, where it was received with enthusiasm by packed houses at several screenings. It won the IF Award for Best Documentary 2010. It was invited into competition at the Sydney Film Festival in 2010, where it was a finalist along with The Snowman, another startlingly impressive Australian documentary, also so far shamefully denied to Australian broadcast audiences by both the ABC and SBS. This continuing retreat from documentary in favour of factual entertainments and specialist factual formats has increasingly characterised public broadcasting’s timidity, conformism and complacency in its response to independent Australian documentary. When I spoke with Charlie Hill-Smith late last year about his experience in looking to the ABC for a presale on the film he told me the response was unequivocal: “Not interested, just not interested”.

Like the independent Australian film on everyday life on the West Bank, Hope in a Slingshot (Inka Stafrace, 61 minutes, Australia, 2008), Strange Birds in Paradise was rejected without any good reasons. In the case of Hope in a Slingshot the film was at first acquired and then the decision reversed; the ‘reason’ given for its rejection was that the ABC would require another film to ‘balance’ its point of view. (see Sylvia Lawson < HYPERLINK "http://inside.org.au/arguing-for-peace/" http://inside.org.au/arguing-for-peace/> and Ronin press release 24 May 2010 ) Other recent instances of important local documentary denied to Australian broadcast audiences by our public broadcasters include Steve Thomas’ very moving first person essay film Hope, on the SivX case and Australia’s asylum practices. And remember Jeff Daniel’s 10 Conditions of Love – finally purchased as an acquisition after its extraordinarily controversial release at the Melbourne Film Festival.

These works are not hard to find on DVD, but they should be on Australian television. It won’t be long before more and more new work will be available as downloads, and the long promised ‘convergence’ might finally overturn the long hegemony of ‘heritage’ broadcasters. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate that Australian public broadcasters – whose legitimacy rests with their integrity in providing a venue for minority voices, and Australian independent creative work – seem increasingly afraid to step outside the diminishing square of their own creation.

JH 11.4.11