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June 05, 2011

Indonesian Documentary Highlights Tribes Fighting Developers and Conservationists

by Brian Padden

A new documentary about a school in a remote rainforest in Indonesia highlights how education is helping indigenous people to stand up for their rights. In addition to learning to read and write, the students also learn how to organize themselves against outsiders. The students are confronting both the developers who want to cut down their tribe’s forests and the conservationists opposed to tribal foraging, hunting and fishing practices.

The documentary Guru Rimba, which means jungle teacher, is a profile of the teacher and students in a unique school located in the rainforests on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  

The film starts off showing the new teacher’s difficult journey to reach the remote classroom and it then shifts to focus on the lives of the children living in the school. From there it pivots again to show how the students are leading the efforts of the 3,000 Orang Rimba or jungle people in the Anak Dalam tribe to protect their land.

While the film struggles to maintain a coherent narrative, it features rarely seen footage of the children who attend the jungle school. It also provides a unique insight into how the modern world is threatening the indigenous people's traditional way of life.

Filmmaker Vivian Idris lived for weeks at a time in the mosquito-infested jungle and was given rare permission to film the students at the school.

“The most rewarding part, of course, also to be able to be part of their society," said Idris. "I mean, to sit with them, to sleep with them, to eat with them, you know.”

Idris says she was restricted for the most part from filming women. Girls are also not permitted to attend school which is located away from the villages. The boys who attend live at the school and study for weeks at a time.

The school was founded by anthropologist Butet Manurung over a decade ago. She says it took a year to overcome the suspicions of the indigenous people who saw no benefit to education and even believed pencils and pens to be taboo.

“They cannot even hold the pencil," she said. "They think it is an evil. Because every time they went to the market and selling their stuff, people in the market always have their pens, and then counting, and then always come up with the numbers they don't like.”

The indigenous people live in a designated national park area called Bukit 12. Manurung's educational outreach program was originally funded by Warsi, an environmental organization. Manurung eventually left Warsi because she did not agree with its conservationist curriculum advocating against any farming or even small land use projects in the park.

“I come with a different opinion,"she said. "I thought they need to know about life skills. They need to know what their right is and I want them to go for it by themselves.”

The Orang Rimba are caught between environmentalists and developers that are destroying Indonesian forests at the rate of 100 million hectares per year to make way mostly for lucrative palm oil farming.

Pengendum, a 20-year-old former student of the school, is now helping to organize the tribes to protect their way of life. He says the national park was made by the forest ministry without involving the jungle people and jungle people could be scattered because the rules do not involve us at all.

He says the school has given the Orang Rimba the academic skills and the confidence to stand up for their rights. And he hopes the documentary will tell their story to the world.