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I’m not really sure what made me want to do this, but one day I just decided I was going to make a documentary, I didn’t even have an idea for a topic. But in my mind, it was made up, I was going to make one and I wouldn’t quit until it was done. I do well managing myself and working alone, and I realized that films are some of the most powerful mediums of communication we have right now, and I wanted a piece of that pie. It also just sounded pretty cool to me, to go to some far away place and film. It’s what most people dream of doing.
I first went to Indonesia when I was 16 with my sister, Andrea, who is a journalist and was doing a story in Jakarta, the capital. I was a little overwhelmed by Jakarta, but enjoyed our time in Yogyakarta, which has a fascinating history. We were there in 2000, there were barely any tourists, and I liked that. I also very much enjoyed Indonesian personalities. After college, by chance I got a job at the Indonesian Service at the Voice of America as a contractor. The people I worked with were so welcoming and friendly, the language is relatively easy, and I was interested by island culture, so I decided I would go back to Indonesia. Once I got there, I was hooked by the place. Never a dull moment! The food is also fantastic, and I enjoy the hot, muggy equatorial heat.
I can’t remember exactly when I first heard about the Poso conflict, as the media about Indonesia had been dominated by the conflict and tsunami in Aceh, East Timor’s independence, and silly things like bird flu. On one of my first rounds of filming in Indonesia, where I barely even had a topic for the documentary, I was staying at a school run by the family of one of my coworkers. It was in rural east Indonesia, in a town called Ruteng, Flores. While we were there, a protest took place on the streets about a guy called Tibo and something about Poso, Sulawesi. I had no idea who this Tibo was, but I was keen to learn and everyone was eager to tell me. Riots took place on another part of the island and I realized this was a pretty big issue. After coming back to the states a few months later, I started researching the Poso conflict, and just became fascinated by it. So I convinced my intrepid friend Megan to come along with me. I thought we could just do a segment about it in the documentary I was planning on making about American image, but on the first day in Poso, I knew I had found a much more important story, and one that no one else was doing. And I’ve never looked back!
There have been many conflicts in Indonesia in the past decade, why did you choose the Poso conflict to film and study?
I chose Poso because I had good access to the area, no one else was filming there, and I was really taken by the issues it faced. The problems of communal conflict, religious intolerance, corruption, terrorism, and expanding military-industrial complexes are a global problem that seem so big that they are insurmountable. In Poso these issues are all thrown together in an area with just 200,000 people. You can see all of these issues playing out and see the direct effects on individuals lives in a way that makes it understandable and graspable. And in the end, Poso residents have made remarkable strides at healing and reconciliation with no outside help. Their courage is inspiring to me. Also, the Poso area is shockingly beautiful, like nowhere else on earth, and the people are delightful and friendly.
Everything was hard in the making of this movie. The second I would solve one thing, another would come up. I get very intimidated by people, and I would spend hours preparing what I was going to say when I would call someone and ask for an interview, but I was always so nervous I would mess up my words and sound like an idiot. And of course there were days I just didn’t want to get up and film and wanted to be a regular person that goes to the beach in Indonesia. But I just kept pushing. Getting over your own mental demons really can be the worst part. The other problem that was quite a challenge was that I don’t have a studio to edit in, I created the whole thing on my laptop in my bedroom. Editing day and night for over two years will tire your fingers and eyes out!
The media makes Indonesia sound like a big den of terrorists waiting to kidnap Americans. That could not be further from the truth. They are a teeny minority and 99.99 percent of Indonesians wish those people were gone. So my worries about terrorism were very, very small once I got to Poso. The scariest thing about Indonesia is certainly being on the back of a motorbike with no helmet on, that is quite dangerous! Also crossing the street in Jakarta is no small feat. There are risks you take when you travel, but I’ve accepted them.
Americans often feel the need to hide their identity abroad, even in places that are very friendly to the US. I think this does our country a great disservice. As we all know, Americans are fantastically friendly and open minded, and most people around the world are all too eager to meet us. The entire time in Indonesia, I hid my citizenship only once, while I was filming in a market in Poso. Otherwise being an American opened a lot of doors for me, and in some ways, probably kept me safe. People know that around the world, messing with an American can be bad news. Americans have gotten the idea in their head that we are hated abroad, and especially by Muslims. This is true in only a tiny percentage of people around the world. Of course, you can’t be reckless, don’t run around with a big US flag or something silly. But take pride in your identity.
The best advice I got the whole time was that if you want to become a filmmaker, save up, buy a camera, and then point it at something interesting. Of course, there is not one formula to make a successful documentary, but if you are up for a big challenge, just do it! I have a degree in philosophy, I never went to school for this. I know the industry is intimidating, but don’t let those people discourage you. Seriously, just get a camera, tripod, and decent microphone, go somewhere interesting, and the story will eventually find you. It’s not going to be easy, but it is entirely satisfying. And whatever you do, don’t give up (or get pregnant). I contacted a bunch of filmmakers that started with nothing, who have gone on to be quite successful, with a million questions – they will take sympathy on you and will help you out. Then it becomes a grand experiment of trial and error, don’t beat yourself up if your first shots aren’t perfect or the interview didn’t go well. It takes time to get used to these things. If you are going to film in a foreign country, I really recommend networking as much as you can. Find a country that you know someone in (maybe you went to college together, maybe you have a neighbor from abroad) and ask if you can stay with their family. It would have been truly impossible to do this film without the incredible help that came from Indonesians themselves, and the families I stayed with. I would never have gotten the story otherwise if I was staying in a tourist district just talking to other travelers, you have to be ready to put yourself into awkward and sometimes confusing situations.
There are many. The first is that religious identity is a great source of unnecessary division in our world. Many people are further exploiting this for their own gains. Second, most conflicts like these are entirely avoidable if the appropriate steps are taken by the local government and religious authorities. Third, modern day terrorist groups are thriving in and hiding behind weak and unfair law enforcement and corruption. Fourth, many people who become part of jihadist movements do so for very secular reasons, and religious zealotry comes along later. Some men interviewed by the International Crisis Group (ICG) that were jihadis said that when they raided Christian liquor stores, they would drink it afterwards, and it was only when radical preachers came from outside Poso did they become indoctrinated into radical Islam. Fifth, it is important for countries to address “terrorists” as criminals and not go beyond the rule of law to capture and interrogate them. Indonesia has done a good job of this, especially compared to Thailand and the Philippines, who also face jihadi movements. And sixth, that the media should not exploit violent situations for their own profit and distribution expansion.
I have too many ideas and wish I could be all over the world at once. Of course, I would like to film in Indonesia again, and do it on something very positive. Probably one of the most remarkable things about Indonesians is their ability to survive, through natural disasters, wars, and poverty. So I would love to do a documentary about the human spirit at work there. Another idea is about Islam in Aceh, where I filmed and researched for a month. They are some of the most unique Muslims in the world and I am fascinated by them. I would also like to do some small productions to help raise money for orphanages and other programs that help Indonesians. And then there are all of the topics in East Timor….this list could go on forever!