Screening of West Papua film spotlights Indonesian crackdown

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Documentary-maker Charlie Hill-Smith in West Papua with his hosts. Photo:
Friday, October 21, 2011
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REVIEW: (Pacific Media Watch):

As the Libyan revolution hit its peak last night with news of the death of tyrant Muammar Gaddafi, it was no wonder that events in West Papua couldn’t make it into the papers – even Gaddafi’s death lost out to endless pages of rugby mania.

But another event occurred in downtown Auckland last night that attempted to draw Kiwis’ attention back to what really is news – tyrannical violence on our doorstep.

In the Academy cinema in the basement of Auckland City Library, Charlie Hill-Smith’s film Strange Birds in Paradise was screened at an event co-hosted by Amnesty International, the Indonesia Human Rights Committee and the Pacific Media Centre.

In the film, writer, director and documentary-maker Hill-Smith starts narrating with breathtaking shots of the unspoilt parts of West Papua, or as the Indonesians call it, Irian Jaya.

“In 1999 with a small band of hiking companions, I blithely stumbled into West Papua from New Guinea the old Australian colony just to our north. I had traveled the islands of Indonesia for over 15 years and yet strangely had never heard traveler’s tales, media news stories, nor any accounts from this giant, forested province.”

His adventures with friends while on holiday quickly became a cultural and political denouement for the Australian, who had grown up on Indonesia’s main island of Java and speaks fluent Bahasa Indonesia.

“By the time my friends and I shipped out of West Papua the penny had finally dropped and we realised we had not been hiking in a Neolithic cultural paradise but an undeclared war zone.”
On his journey into the province, he explains that when word passed around the villages that they could confidently speak to him, they “opened up with stories”.

“Guarded whispers of missing sons, murdered husbands and villages burnt to the ground.”

Hill-Smith’s personal journey into West Papua and his historical account of Indonesia’s stranglehold on the province is aided by the poignant story of three brothers, led by Donny, who set sail for the Australian coast in 2006 and caused a political maelstrom between Indonesia and Australia.

Those who can remember the cartoon war at the time are pleasantly entertained by the back-story to the event, and of course, Hill-Smith’s own artistic cartoons that help tell the story throughout the documentary.

Donny and former child soldier of the West Papuan Resistance Movement, Jacob, gained refugee status and tell their story through song.

Hill-Smith says early in the film that the West Papua story is “a wonderful musical tradition, an ancient culture and a nightmare in the modern world.”

Towards the end of the film, accounts of the brutal killing of Arnold Ap are told. The man was a musician and a poet, the writer of inspirational songs that are still played and form part of the repertoire of the Australian-based group.

Australian rock musicologist David Bridie, who teamed up with the Donny, Jacob and others to record and promote their music, says it is telling that a peaceful man who writes songs was arrested and taken to the forest and told to walk away before he was shot in the back.

“You are not going to suppress a popular resistance movement by banning singing,” he says.

But Hill-Smith offers some hope that the aspirations of the people of West Papua are being communicated to the outside world.
“We are reaching back in time to one of West Papua’s most important cultural practitioners and reintroducing him to a new generation of Papuans and the world,” he says of Ap.

“His beautiful and gentle Melanesian songs are steeped in the imagery of nature, culture and resistance.”
Maire Leadbeater of the Indonesian Human Rights Committee spoke before the film and mentioned the timeliness of the event, with reports yesterday that people had been killed by the Indonesian military’s violent reaction to the Third Papuan Peoples’ Congress.
Today’s Pacific Scoop report has the body count at six.

Hundreds of people were reportedly arrested from among the 5000-strong gathering in Padang Bulan, Abepura.

Dr David Robie, director of the Pacific Media Centre, which co-hosted the film screening said about the crisis in West Papua that the public “is not very well served by the media” on international affairs in NZ.

 He added that while the crisis was news in leading Australian media it did not rate a mention in the local press.
Dr Robie also launched the latest edition of Pacific Journalism Review, which includes an in-depth report on Pacific media freedom, and West Papua features as the worst situation in the Pacific.
Margaret Taylor from Amnesty International said prisoners of conscience, such as Filep Karma, were still held after previous peaceful rallies and Amnesty is making a concerted push to have him released.

She said Karma was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment in 2005 for rebellion and expressing hostility and hated towards the state under the Indonesia Criminal Code.

In July 2010 Karma was offered a remission of his sentence, but he rejected it, maintaining that he should never have been imprisoned in the first place.