Sun, 14 Oct 2001

Filmmaker Dea still captured by her beloved Irian Jaya

Bruce Emond, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Like many enduring romances that survive the test of time, Dea Sudarman came upon the love of her life by chance.

Only 23 and working for The New York Times in 1977, she answered a newspaper ad for a position on the crew of Our Wonderful World, a long-running prime-time documentary series in Japan.

She got the job, and so began her grand adventure leading to a career in documentary filmmaking. For the next 15 years it took her to pockets of Indonesia, working for six months on research in the field for hours of footage which would be edited down to 24-minute films in a Tokyo studio.

And it was then that she was smitten by Irian Jaya.

A high school graduate, Dea said she "chose to learn in the field". Her fluent English is a legacy of growing up in New York, where her father was a military attache at the United Nations, and she believes the different approach to teaching in the U.S. -- "there is a dialog, it's two-way, not one-way like in Indonesia" -- served her and her five elder sisters well for the future. All have made careers in the arts.

"Of course, I didn't know how to make a film at first," Dea said on Tuesday at a Central Jakarta hotel. "I was what we call the waterboy, the gopher, preparing the tea, making the coffee. I did that job for about two years, and then I got the chance to be a soundperson. And after two years I became a director."

In editing her films, she learned the importance of capturing the most important moments, comprehending them and then putting them together to keep viewers from changing the channel.

"In documentary, the success of the film is when the people trust you, and when you can communicate to them, and they can communicate to the camera. It's that process that can make the film successful."

Dea recalls that her thoughts about going to Irian Jaya the first time were about its distance, but there were other people, particularly her parents, who were uneasy about the trip.

"The image of Irian Jaya was that you will never come back -- they eat you. But on that first trip, I stayed for 13 months, I had such a good time. I fell in love with it -- the nature, the people."

Dea hates the "p" word, taken from English to become primitif in Indonesian, with all its connotations of a god-forsaken people who have lost their way and need to be brought back to the path of enlightenment.

Meaning "civilization".

"I came to Irian and found it was not like all the horrid stories you hear before you go. And I thought that I should show Irian as it is, with its kindness, with its beauty ... it became like a mission to understand why other people have this perception about Irian and then giving information about the reality of Irian."

She loved the adventure of it all, from roughing it in the jungle, feeling leeches covering her body, or eating the menagerie of animal life to be found in Irian's various areas.

There were also more perilous moments, such as hearing the "mayday" message of the plane she was supposed to be on before it crashed, killing all aboard, or spending four days on a crippled boat in the Arafura Sea, with one pot of water to be shared by the five people aboard, as sharks circled the craft.

Of course, moving around in the interior of the province, Dea was not able to learn the dialects of the 260-odd tribes. Although there were always village residents who spoke textbook- perfect Indonesian, she said language was not a problem to communication.

"Most of the time, you don't need any language. You just speak with your heart and your eyes. In documentary films you don't direct the people, right? I just followed them and the camera is just on. There's no language."

She took early retirement from the Japanese TV station in 1992 and established Savitri, a cultural foundation. She now shuttles between Jakarta and Timika, and in recent years she has also worked as a mediator between the government, giant copper and gold mining company Freeport and local people.

Dea acknowledged that she got flak for working with Freeport, long criticized for its environmental record and its sometimes thorny relations with locals. To her, however, it's all about being practical in finding a solution to a problem.

"What I do is try to create an understanding, tell the government, 'Look, these people are under your area, OK? You have to treat them as part of your society.' With Freeport, I say the same; 'Look, these people are your neighbors, and good neighbors are your best security' ... We ask questions, and create dialog ... At the end of the day, what I intend to do is let the people benefit from what Freeport can do, and also that Freeport understands what the people are thinking."

Over the years, she has built up an extensive collection of art from the tribes she encountered, including the Dani, Komoro and Asmat. Dea is set to donate about 1,000 of her art pieces, as well as thousands of slides, photos and many of her videos, to Gedung Dua8, a cultural and community center due to open in Kemang, South Jakarta, in late October.

But life has changed in Irian Jaya. A trip from Timika to a remote village, which was an eight-hour trek only a few years ago, now takes 15 minutes on a new road.

Dea is one who has little time for romantic musings on how things used to be.

"There will be change, whether from one aspect or another. You cannot put them in an aquarium and watch them from afar, like they're really exotic. They will have to change, they will have to adapt ... Maybe they want to change, maybe they want to eat Supermi. Who are we to say, 'it's not good, stick to eating sweet potatoes'".

Although her videos have not found any takers among local TV stations -- "they want things like Discovery and National Geographic, with a name" -- they will have a new home where the public will be able to watch how Irian Jaya used to be. They are also a token of a love that continues to grow.