Strange Birds in Paradise: A West Papuan Story (2009), directed by Charlie Hill-Smith, has recently been released on DVD. It is part of a growing number of films that confront Australian politicians’ public dissimulation regarding the suffering of the West Papuans to our north. YouTube and other video sources on the net occasionally provide occasional stories from Mark Davis and others at SBS, while the Al Jazeera site hosts the intriguing short film Pride of Warriors (2009).
No Australian station would touch Pride of Warriors; the film’s completion was instead financed by Al Jazeera English. Scheduled to go to air in mid 2009, the film was pulled following publicity in the Jakarta Post. Later, after the Indonesian elections, it was broadcast with little promotion. Jono van Hest, Jeni McMahon and David Batty, the directors of Pride of Warriors, overcame West Papuan censorship by smuggling in half a dozen digital cameras and compiling four personal accounts by witnesses of persecution and resistance.
The film’s particular feature is the first-person address of its protagonists. In this example of ‘citizen journalism’ we meet Eddie Waromi, now President of the West Papuan Authority, part of an alliance of West Papuan resistance groups, who was imprisoned for twelve years for raising the flag. His nineteen-year-old daughter Yane tells of being drugged and kidnapped on her way home from university. Her ten persecutors apparently 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 traditions. Tadius Yogi, a veteran of the guerrilla war, now advocates against armed resistance in favour of non-violence and seeking international support. Finally, dancer Lovina Bisay was interrogated following her part in a performance by the Sampari Dance Group in the capital Jarapura. The performance referenced the Biak Island massacre of 1998, when the local community raised the Morning Star flag and as a result dozens, including children, were killed by Indonesian forces.
A more recent short film, West Papua: A Journey to Freedom (Erin Morris, 2011), is narrated by Herman Wainggai, one of the forty-three West Papuan refugees who escaped to Australia in January 2006. He had spent two and a half years in prison for his involvement in organising peaceful demonstrations. The film follows Wainggai toWewak, Papua New Guinea, where he meets with a number of student activists who have travelled by boat from the west, through waters patrolled by Indonesian forces, for a week-long workshop in non-violent resistance. Herman’s father is among the smuggled-in visitors, and we witness their emotional reunion.
Refugees from the occupation of West Papua feel their exile deeply. There are now at least 15,000 West Papuan refugees in camps in along the PNG–West Papuan border, and PNG landowners do not necessarily welcome them, yet in this film we see encouraging scenes with PNG human rights NGOs meeting with the group 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’. Student Marthen Manggaprouw is critical of the so-called Special Autonomy (2001) status of West Papua, claiming the budget for Special Autonomy actually goes to police actions, not for the benefit of West Papua. There are a number of testimonials reporting savage oppression of West Papuan citizens at the hands of Indonesian police and military, along with footage showing the Indonesian military man-handling demonstrators in Manokwari in 2010, and atrocities committed in an ‘Indonesian paramilitary police video’ from 2009.
Late last year, as I met with director Charlie Hill-Smith to talk about Strange Birds in Paradise, Tom Allard from The Age was reporting from Indonesia on the controversy surrounding leaked footage that proved human rights atrocities were being committed against West Papuans by Indonesian forces. The story concluded, as Allard’s so often do on this subject, with the fact that the Prime Minster’s office and the Department of Foreign Affairs had decline to comment. 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.
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 thirty years of his despotic rule. 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. Australia 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 Oyster, their 1989 book on ASIS. Indeed, they claim ASIS supported 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.
Mark Worth, Janet Bell and Anna Grieve, the creators of Land of the Morning Star (2003), were unable to get into West Papua, but they were able to gather the most
extraordinary archive footage, much of it from Holland. The film spells out West Papuan 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, 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, and a speech by the remarkable West Papuan activist Theys Eluay: ‘The truth is we have never been part of Indonesia …’ It concludes with Eluay’s strangling murder at the hands of the Indonesian Special Forces, Kapassus, in 2001. The film includes a number of important interviews including with former Australian diplomat 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’. Also interviewed are former West Papuan politicians Wim Zonggonau and Clemens Runaweri, who describe how they fled across the border to PNG with the intention of travelling to New York and exposing the 1969 electoral fraud before the United Nations. They recount 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 eight years ago and within the constraints of Film Australia and the ABC. 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.
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The events of January 2006, when asylum seekers were intercepted, interned at Christmas Island and later granted asylum, despite Indonesian demands that they be repatriated to Indonesian custody, form one strand of several of the films mentioned. In Charlie Hill-Smith’s Strange Birds it is refugee exile Donny Roem who provides the harrowing tale. The story of these young people recalls that of the 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 1920 the Dutch kept Indonesian intellectuals and independence activists and their families concentrated as exiles in camps in Boven Digul, West Papua. They were transported to Cowra in mid 1943, because the Dutch feared the prisoners might align themselves with the Japanese. The Australian government was misled by the Dutch about the ‘crimes’ of these prisoners. When H.V. 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.
The Strange Birds DVD contains a number of informative and entertaining ‘extras’; among them ‘Penis Gourd’ (1999), a ‘tourist guide’ on trekking in West Papua. The short 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 declares, ‘Curiosity may have killed the cat but it had me standing naked in a highland village … half highlander and half Sydney Mardi Gras’: he ends up bedecked in feathered headdress, neckband, breastplate and penis gourd. The film overcomes vulnerability to the uncomfortable charge of paternalism―the white hero/journalist appropriating the suffering of the natives―by its ironic self-mockery, the creator leaping literally naked into comic complicity with the knowing Jani.
Charlie finds the West Papuan capital Jarapura entirely reminiscent of Java, with this kind of detail taking the project 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 have had to flee the highlands since the early 1960s. Around sixty families of refugees from the highlands have relocated in this village alone 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 compilations of interviews with a number of commentators―extensions of arguments introduced in summary form in the film proper. George Aditjondro, from 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 three-quarters of its budget from business in West Papua, legal and illegal. Damien Kingsbury claims 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; they also support themselves 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 Muslims 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.
According to 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’. Other interviewees note that journalists are not permitted to come to West Papua. Jacob Rumbiak, a former child soldier in the West Papuan resistance movement, 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. (Citing a study from Yale, West Papua: Journey to Freedom affirms this
figure of 400,000.) 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 objecting to the ruinous exploitation of the Freeport gold mine in 2006, 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.
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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 brings new meaning to Charlie’s 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―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, for example in the depiction of the invasion of 1963, and the incarceration and escape of Jacob Rumbiak. 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, and at the Sydney Film Festival in 2010 it was a finalist along with The Snowman, another startlingly impressive Australian documentary, also so far inexplicably denied to Australian broadcast audiences by both the ABC and SBS. 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’. Over the course of the film’s production and release, it was rejected on six occasions.
Like Hope in a Slingshot (Inka Stafrace, 2008), an independent Australian film on the West Bank, Strange Birds in Paradise was rejected without any good reasons. In the case of Hope in a Slingshot, the film was 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. 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 Siev X case and Australia’s asylum seeker practices. And remember Jeff Daniels’ 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, once you know about them, but they should also 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 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.
By John Hughes
John Hughes is an independent filmmaker based in Melbourne. His most recent film, Indonesia Calling: Joris Ivens in Australia (broadcast on ABC TV in December 2010), won the Australian Writer’s Guild award for best broadcast documentary in 2010.