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Film review: Tanah Mama

Published: Feb 23, 2015

A new documentary about a Papuan woman’s daily struggle to survive opens debate on the grave issues affecting her society


Sandeep Ray 

How common is it for the minister for culture and education, as busy as he is, to attend a press screening of a documentary by a first-time filmmaker? Quite unlikely, you might say. Yet the new minister, Anies Baswedan was among those watching Asrida Elisabeth’s Tanah Mama, an exploration of family life in the highlands of Papua, and, as were many in the audience, was palpably moved by what he saw.

Filmed over the course of ten days, the documentary is emblematic of the best in ethnographic film practice. It unravels a complex social story without being obtrusive or didactic. Fluid cinematography by Vera Lestafa shuttles viewers between two spaces—the lush, misty mountain slopes that carry our line of vision for miles—and the cramped spaces inside the thatched huts where much of the families’ intimate moments are recorded. With delicate attention to breathtaking scenery and candid portraitures of lives that are constantly on the move, Tanah Mama is a complex emotional experience—on the one hand the majestic beauty of the Papuan landscape transports us to an aesthetically heightened experience—and yet the material bleakness of some of its residents cannot but create a well of sympathy. Their lives, even by marginal ‘fourth’ world expectations, are fragile.  

Mama Halosina, a thirty-something woman and the films central character, has a problem. She owes her sister-in-law either Rp.500,000 (A$48.27) or a pig. Her misdemeanour: stealing a handful of yams. She attempts to remedy the situation by moving to another village with her children and collecting as many yams as she can to sell at the local market. Not quite an outsider (she moves in with her own sister) and yet not part of the local community, she roves around with her children on long foraging trips in the outer recesses of the areas where the wild yam grow. While there is some evidence of husbandry, it would appear that the community’s main diet is yam, or vegetables for which the popular tuber can be exchanged.

The film upholds what anthropologists have suspected for a long time – in primarily hunter-gatherer societies, it is the nutrition derived from the foods foraged by women that provide basic, daily sustenance for the population. And with the men now leaving their villages for larger townships and cities more frequently, this situation has become exacerbated. 

In between taking care of her children and collecting yam, Halosina keeps her appointments to see the village head in his one room office. She is gently yet firmly reminded of her fine. Her estranged husband Hosea has a peripheral presence; he does not accompany her to these hearings. In a scene that is startlingly personal, she berates Hosea for failing to rise to his responsibilities. Halosina reminds Hosea that she stole the yam from his sister’s garden only because their children were starving. The irony of being accused of a crime bewilders her. Hosea mumbles his apologies, unable to counter her allegation. He has taken up with another woman and has fathered four more children, giving away the best tracts of his land to his second wife and leaving Halosina to fend for herself. While the film centres on this single plot—Halosina’s quest to repay the fine—it builds around it an immersive experience for the viewer, we see the everyday aspects of a family struggling in rural Papua.

With production assistance from the Kalyana Shira Foundation and tutelage from experienced filmmakers like Nia Dinata and Ucu Agustin, who are credited as supervisors, Asrida Elisabet has both broken and revived classic ethnographic traditions. In an era of issue-based documentaries where overarching social ills are explored in a journalistic style akin to Michael Moore, she has made a film about an unknown person with a relatively small problem. And yet, the intimacy and veracity of that small window into Halosina’s life has raised issues that spill far beyond her immediate concerns.

Filming Papua 

Papuans have been on film before of course. As early as 1925, Dutch filmmaker Isidor Ochse filmed compelling images for the popular colonial Maha­ series, a filmic overview of ‘cultures’ in the Dutch East Indies. Decades later, in 1961, American visual anthropologist Robert Gardner filmed the well-regarded documentary Dead Birds among the Dani people. Australians Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson followed with Joe Leahy’s Neighbors (1988), an exploration of the interaction between white miners and locals. Chris Owen’s Man Without Pigs (1990) observed the problems faced by a Papua New Guinean man, John Waiko, who returns home after receiving a doctorate in Australia.  

Ochse, Gardner, Connolly-Anderson and Owen, however, collectively missed a key sensibility of Papuan society – it is the women who essentially both feed the community (in terms of calorific nutrition) and who are the basic fulcrum of peace and negotiation. By over-emphasising male dominated, violent socio-political manoeuvrings, these earlier films may have contributed to the exotic yet reviled image of the spear-wielding, fiercely tribal Papuan man, addicted to warfare. 

Elisabeth’s film goes a long way to overturning these ideas and gives us a fresh and contemporary perspective on what it is to be Papuan. Her female-centred approach is not a feminist ruse, it is an undeniably valid pathway to delve into the texture of contemporary rural Papuan family life. Through its intimate, non-sensational portrayal of the local society and its issues, Tanah Mama dismantles stereotypes and with a wide viewing, might help overturn the long-standing social and political ostracisation that Papuans have faced.  

In a long Q&A session after the press viewing in Jakarta, on 22 December 2014, journalist Andreas Harsono raised the major issues still repressing the Papuan population: the deep and inherent racism towards a darker skin tone, and a protracted militaristic intervention against their basic human rights. Members of the audience unanimously agreed with Harsono’s observations. They then turned to the Minister of Culture and Education  Anies Baswedan, with some difficult questions about President Joko Widodo’s government’s Papua policies. Baswedan acknowledged large, systemic errors in the Papuan situation. He detailed his vision for restructuring the state’s basic education system by keeping it more in line with the varying conditions and needs for education across the archipelago. A lively discussion among the filmmakers and the public ensued. 

If an hour-long film about a woman trying to pay off her fine for stealing yams can create such intensity among viewers, we can perhaps come to two conclusions. 

First, the film struck a deep chord among viewers. Second, audiences are starved for an open, transparent debate on Papua. Indonesians and global audiences would do well to experience this cinematic window onto a world that is a lot more familiar to them than they might realise.

Sandeep Ray (ray.sandeep@gmail.com) is a doctoral candidate in history and writes about non-fiction cinema.

Tanah Mama had a limited theatrical release on 8 January 2015 in Jakarta, Yogyakarta and Bandung. 

For information about screenings or for requesting copies for educational and outreach purposes, please contact the Kalyana Shira Foundation:  info@kalyanashira.com.

This article is also available to read in French in AlterAsia.

Inside Indonesia 119: Jan-Mar 2015{jcomments on}

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