As the outside world increasingly encroaches on their tribal lands impacting both their natural environment and cultural traditions, the Orang Rimba (jungle folk) near Jambi in Southern Sumatra, struggle to protect their communities from the ravages of capitalists & their ‘development’.
Inspired by the book of the same name, ‘Sokola Rimba’ chronicles the early career of Butet Manurung (Prisia Nasution), a young, award-winning Indonesian anthropologist & founder of SOKOLA, an NGO dedicated to providing literacy & advocacy programmes for indigenous and marginalised communities throughout the Indonesian archipelago.
The film is directed by Riri Riza, the leading film director of post-reformist Indonesian cinema who is known for his ability to push the limits of genre conventions as well as achieve box-office success. ‘Sokola Rimba’ provides audiences with the opportunity to journey into the depths of Bukit 12 National Park, experiencing the pressures, trials & tribulations faced by Butet during the early years of her career. What stands out in the film is not her problems with the jungle folk but more with bureaucracy and an impersonal authority that is supposed to look out for marginalised communities.
In the struggle and tenacity of young people like Butet, Riri sees hope for the future of the nation. That is the background to the film during the post-Reformasi era and Gus Dur Wahid’s presidency, one that gave promise of emancipation from the old ways of thinking.
On the surface, the film is about how teaching reading and writing to the children of a (seemingly) backward tribe was going to help them safeguard their future. But what was the story really about? This is what the invited speaker (a graduate of Universiti Malaya and who had supposedly attended a few film courses there) failed to enlighten the audience upon. Obviously, he could not ‘read’ the film & its intentions.
In the hands of a director like Riri Riza, a film will, invariably, have a subtext – a background story that tells the audience as to why he really made the film. This would also echo his underlying concern as to the directions his country was heading. Riri provides the right visual signifiers through his mise-en-scene that are hidden in the film’s structure, arranged like the various multi-coloured strips of a tapestry which only when looked at from a distance, reveals its true form.
On the surface, the jungle environment that Butet faces appears to be full of dangers for her – a city dweller. At the start of the film, she wanders alone in the jungle looking for the jungle folk & their children to whom she has been assigned to teach them to read and write. Someone sinister appears to be shadowing her, and when she falls in a faint, this person is visually depicted as someone who will take advantage of her predicament. However, the editing sequence tells us this is not so.
The following shot is of a salamander (a benign reptile), and then of clear water (a visual signifier of purity). The ‘sinister’ person does not take advantage of her (as would definitely happen in a city!), but instead, carries her to her destination which is very, very far from where he resides. Later, when Butet finds out about it, she is amazed at how he had been able to do it through the rough terrain. She finds that it is Bungo (Nyungsang Bungo), a youth from a distant tribe who is eager to learn to read and write so that his people are not fooled by the one-sided written agreements by outsiders encroaching on their lands.
Butet’s first meeting with the jungle folk is a test of her patience. They appear to be aloof and are irritatingly bound to their numerous, seemingly illogical customs and animistic beliefs. It takes some time for her to connect with them. However, her training as an anthropologist makes her able to cope with it all. The fauna of the jungle is depicted as fearsome and ominous. There is the low growl of an unseen tiger. A huge python slowly makes its way along her path. She comes across Dr. Astrid, a European anthropologist, who she has been warned to be wary of by her boss as a ‘meddling foreigner’.
Butet comes down with a serious bout of malaria but recovers. Illegal loggers also appear to be a threat to the jungle folks’ way of life. This is, however, not expanded upon, and they are not shown to be unduly violent. There is a reason for this. They are not the real threat to the jungle folk & their way of life. Something else is. All the above elements are seen as primitive and predatory and as hindrances or obstacles that are preventing what Butet wants to achieve. However, they are nothing compared to the problems she faces with the so-called civilised, outside world.
Early in the film, Riri shows a solitary shot (on television – a negative signifier) of Gus Dur, who appears to be more concerned with efforts to topple him. This was the widely ridiculed ‘sleeping president’; in Malaysia we had a parallel leader, if you recall. This scene foreshadows the apathy of the people who are entrusted to serve the people (including the marginalised) but were more concerned with affairs that threatened their political standing. Numerous instances of this are also evident in Malaysia as seen in the films of the Freedom Film Festival organised by KOMAS and in books written by socio-cultural anthropologists.
Shown in other binary opposites are Butet’s boss who is more concerned over giving the right image to the press of not only his department’s efforts for the jungle folk, but also that Butet is a kind of heroine who is trying to uplift the lives of the indigenous people. Butet is disgusted by it all and finally reacts against it – in front of a group of journalists who have been called to cover the event arranged by her boss.
The journalists are taken aback at her outburst. They huddle together and just stare at her. No one sees it as something newsworthy. This scene is a subtle comment by Riri of the subservient media of the times who preferred to only paint a rosy picture of the nation. In her boss’s flustered reaction, Riri hints that he is probably on the take, profiting from those from the outside who are eyeing the jungle land with dollar signs in their eyes.
The introduction of first rubber tapping and then oil palm plantations signifies the business interests of foreigners (read: Malaysians!) who are encroaching on the jungle folks’ ancestral lands fully aided by the Indonesians authorities. According to Riri, this is the real threat. The illegal loggers are Indonesians but they are not as big a threat as the (unseen) corporate figures and government officials who decide what lands to take and how to do it using one-sided agreements on paper.
There is a telling scene early on in the film with a rubber tree in the foreground. The rubber sap drips ever so slowly into the waiting cup. This long take becomes a signifier, alluding to the lifeblood of the jungle folk and how they are slowly being bled dry on their own land.
In spite of it all, at the end of the film, Riri gives us a happy (or perhaps, hopeful) ending. Bungo squats in front of men from the city. He slowly reads the agreement that proposes encroachment on the jungle folks’ land. On behalf of the jungle folk who squat around him, Bungo rejects the terms of the agreement – much to the consternation and dismay of the outsiders. Butet has now lost her job as a teacher due to her ‘recalcitrance’. But her indomitable spirit and efforts in trying to bring education to the jungle folk has paid off. They would now be less of a prey to the capitalists and government officials who have vested interests.
The film ends with her young colleagues (from the department where she worked) rallying to her, their spirits and minds fired up by Butet’s sacrifices. They are now together with her in helping the jungle folk to head for a brighter future. For Riri, this is the generation that will make a clean break with the older group whose hearts are not in the right place. For the director, they are the hope of a progressive Indonesia, and Riri Riza, his producer Mira Lesmana and their team, are right up there with them as well as being among them.
Hassan Muthalib is not always angry. We reviewed his book ‘Malaysian Cinema in a Bottle’, which you can buy here. ‘Sokola Rimba’ was screened as a part of the Riri Riza mastertalk organised by Malaysian Society of Cinematographers (MySC) and the National Film Development Corporation (FINAS). You can listen to that talk here.
Featured image credit: Mariposa Jungle Lodge