Untold Story

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by Anthony Bell | June 16, 2010 14:35 | Edited June 16, 2010 14:37

FILMINK sat down for an interesting chat with Australian director Charlie Hill-Smith about his documentary which recently screened at Sydney Film Festival…

Director Charlie Hill-Smith’s Strange Birds of Paradise: A West Papuan Story recently screened in the documentary competition at the Sydney Film Festival, providing audiences with insight into the Indonesian military’s oppression of the native inhabitants of West Papua. The poignant and often challenging documentary blends the story of three Papuan exiles, their stories and culture, with Hill-Smith’s quest for greater worldwide acknowledgement of this troubled area.
I had no idea these issues were going on. Does the rest of the world know?
You’re not alone there. Even when I was living in Indonesia, on and off, for nearly 25 years – there were no traveller’s stories about West Papua; there were no news stories about West Papua. It was completely off the map.
East Timor was the window that opened and allowed people to glimpse inside that region. The similarities between East Timor and West Papua are very strong – in as far as the Indonesia military are there in force, running the land as their own private fiefdom; you have a small native population that’s being outmanned and outgunned by this massive colonial power, you have mass transmigration of hundreds of thousands of Javanese and Indonesia settlers, the complete domination of the economy by the Indonesians, local languages are banned from being taught in school, and mass resource extraction.
It’s the vein that no one’s tapped into yet?
West Papua had everything – gold, gas, timber, oil. Papua is the third largest island in the world, which is a big ass island. It’s a very young island too, so the dirt is young. Papua has 900 human languages, which is one sixth of all human languages. That’s an example of the biodiversity of the place. And we haven’t even gotten into the new animals and plants. It is a Garden of Eden.
That richness is the key factor. All the western mining companies have been up there for 30/40 years now. The wealth of the place has secured the silence and the international collusion between the Indonesia military and these western resource companies to keep things nicely tied down and quiet.
I assume that it’s the case of the few holding the most, and the many barely having anything?
Exactly. And here we are in Australia, a modern country – although we still have our demons we need to deal with – and we have neighbours who have saved our arses in World War II…
The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels?
Yes, and we’ve just forgotten them! I think that Australians need to be aware that there are 50,000 Indonesian troops in West Papua, who are not there for peace keeping. They need to know that nearly 400,000 people have died there since 1967.
With such a political and military stronghold over the land, how did you go about filming?
As soon as we reached the capital in the highlands, we were immediately taken to the office of the Chief of Police. I had to sit with him, and he basically interrogated me for an hour and a half, in Indonesian, about my true reasons for being there.
He kept asking me, ‘Was I interested in politics?’ ‘Was I a journalist?’ ‘Was I there to do politics?’ He asked again and again, ‘Was I filming? Was I filming?’ And again and again I just said: ‘Look I’ve heard great things about the hiking up here, and about the quaint fascinating cultures.’
They’re very protective of it – a French journalist was arrested there last week – and it’s an ongoing thing. If you wanted to set out and make a film about West Papua, in West Papua – you couldn’t do it. My attitude is: These stories need to be told. And so I guess I had to bend the law a little bit in terms of doing it.
Did you have a specific audience in mind?
Our specific audience is people who know nothing about West Papua – so the majority of planet Earth. We wanted to make a film that was universal, which could speak to not just Australians but to everybody. That’s one reason we used music as one of the strongest features in the film, because it’s a universal language.
You use animation for certain section – why choose this medium?
The great thing with animation is that not only are you allowed to tell the difficult stuff, because it’s so iconic you can layer it with all these subtle meanings.
There is other interesting footage from the film, concerning the asylum seekers – how to you get a hold of this?
All that footage was shot by them when they were escaping to Australia years ago. It’s the same footage shot directly from their cameras whilst they were on their voyage. It’s absolutely unheard of. They made their own 42 foot catamaran canoe out of a tree and sailed it nearly 3000 km, at night, whilst being chased by Indonesian authorities – until they got to Queensland. It’s such intimate footage, and where else could you get it?
Did it find it intimidating talking to the Guerrilla fighters?
I was way out of my depth! These guys are the real deal, real killers. But they were lovely chaps, as long as you were on the right side of the bayonet.
So how can people get involved in helping the situation in West Papua?
There are two major groups in Australia. The Australian West Papuan Action Network and the West Papuan Association. You can get in contact with them via the net. It can’t go on forever, and I feel so positive about helping make some changes. After the festivals we plan to do a limited cinema release, and then the DVD comes out. We’re excited!
For more information on Strange Birds of Paradise: A West Papuan Story, visit the film’s website.