Diplomatic Pouch / September 19, 2014
By Larry Luxner
Fifteen years ago, an adventurous young Indonesian woman named Butet Manurung gave up her city life in Jakarta to educate indigenous children living in the dense tropical forests of Jambi, on the island of Sumatra.
One day, Butet, who worked for a nonprofit conservation group, collapsed in the middle of the jungle, suffering from malaria. She was rescued by an illiterate yet intelligent tribal boy named Bungo, who secretly yearned to read and write. Deeply inspired by his enthusiasm for learning, Butet set up a school that gradually attracted kids from remote villages up and down the Makekal River. Yet she was opposed by tribal elders who feared that education would one day destroy their traditional society.
Butet kept a diary and in 2007 published a book about her experiences. That book has now been made into a 90-minute feature, “Sokola Rimba” (Jungle School) directed by Riri Riza and produced by Mira Lesmana of Miles Films.
On Sept. 7, “Sokola Rimba” was shown at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art, as part of the 2014 ASEAN Film Festival. The screening, attended by some 300 people, was followed by a discussion with Ro King, co-editor of the book’s English translation, and Gouri Mirpuri, head of the ASEAN Women’s Circle — which also organized the Sept. 5-14 festival featuring movies from eight of the 10 countries that belong to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“When I met Butet, I told her that her story had to get out in English, so I translated the book,” Mirpuri recalled. “Just before leaving Indonesia two years ago, I gave it to these two remarkable young people, amazing filmmakers. A year later, Riri called me and said it had been done. We’re very pleased that we’ve now been able to bring this book and the film to the United States.”
Mirpuri, who spoke to the Diplomatic Pouch along with King following the screening and discussion, lived in Jakarta while her husband, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, was Singapore’s ambassador there (he’s now the Singaporean ambassador to the United States). So did King, whose husband was stationed in Indonesia as an executive for a U.S. multinational firm.
“The action in the book takes place between 1999 and 2002, when Butet was with a group working on deforestation, and the education program was one tiny offshoot of what she was doing. But then she decided her whole purpose in life was to educate indigenous people,” said King. “My role was to turn a hodge-podge translation into a book [in English] and then market that book.”
King, a native of Philadelphia, managed to learn basic Bahasa Indonesian during her nearly five years in Jakarta.
“This story isn’t about literacy for literacy’s sake. It’s about making sure these people have the tools they need to live in the modern world,” she explained. “They had a perfectly great existence — enough to eat, traditions that were fulfilling to them — but eventually the modern world encroaches upon them.”
Villains in the movie include illegal loggers — some of whom try to kill Butet and her pupils when they discover them cutting ancient trees with chainsaws — as well as shady prospectors buying up land for palm oil plantations. Sokola, the organization Butet founded, aims to educate these indigenous people so they can stay on their own land.
“Sokola is much smaller than you would imagine,” said King. “It’s run on a shoestring budget.” Even so, it operates across nine Indonesian provinces from Aceh to Papua, and its programs have benefitted more than 10,000 children and adults in isolated indigenous communities.
Actress Prisia Nasution plays Butet in the low-budget movie, which was directed by Riri Riza and was filmed on location in the forests of Jambi over a period of less than 10 days. Among its corporate sponsors: Aqua and The Body Shop.
“Some of it’s scripted, and some of it’s improvised,” said King, who also worked for the Indonesian Heritage Society in Jakarta. “They took the equipment and went into the jungle with the food, the lights and the batteries. And it all had to get carried back out. All of the Javanese in the film are actors, but the kids, the chief, the shaman, all play themselves. They did it with total sensitivity and respect.”
Other movies shown as part of the 2014 ASEAN Film Festival included “I Do Bidoo Bidoo” (Philippines); “Kayan Beauties” (Burma); “Floating Lives” (Vietnam); “The Missing Picture” (Cambodia); “Ilo Ilo” (Singapore); “Bunohan” (Malaysia) and “Monrak Transistor” (Thailand).
On Sept. 25, Indonesian culture returns to Washington when the country’s visiting president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is scheduled to inaugurate the Saraswati statue at the Embassy of Indonesia. The event will feature traditional Balinese music and dancing.
The statue, commissioned by former ambassador Dino Pati Djalal in 2012, symbolizes education, knowledge and wisdom, as well as the religious plurality embraced by Indonesia, the world’s largest predominantly Muslim country. To underscore that plurality, following the dedication Anak Agung Gde Agung — the mayor of Badung and a Hindu priest — will perform a Hindu ceremony that, according to an embassy press release, is “intended to ‘clean’ the statue and to avoid any misfortunes.”