‘Sokola Rimba’ Shows What School Can Mean in a Sumatran Jungle

By Lisa Siregar on 05:03 pm Nov 18, 2013
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A still from ‘Sokola Rimba,’ starring Prisia Nasution as Butet Manurung, a teacher who has lived with indigenous people in the Sumatran jungle for 14 years. (Photo courtesy of Miles Films)

An 11-hour drive from the city of Jambi in Sumatra brings you to the home of an indigenous community called Orang Rimba , or the people of the forest.

Living in an isolated area deep inside the jungle of Bukit Duabelas, the Orang Rimba have been largely untouched by modern values, peacefully going about their traditional way of living.

But the world has been changing, making it more difficult for them to hold on to their way of life. For the past 14 years, environmental activist Butet Manurung has been slowly transferring much-needed knowledge in literacy and advocacy to help the Orang Rimba deal with these changes, but without affecting their local wisdom. Butet’s Sokola Rimba , or Rimba school, serves nine indigenous communities around the 60,000 hectares of the forest.

Butet also wrote a book about her experiences, whose English version “Jungle School” went on sale last year.

Her unique experience with the Rimba people was the inspiration behind an upcoming film by Riri Riza, called “Sokola Rimba.” It took Riri and producer Mira Lesmana several months to prepare to produce the film. When they met at the Ubud Writer’s Festival last year, they agreed to go on with the project. Prisia Nasution (“Sang Penari,” “Laura dan Marsha”) assumes the role of Butet in the film.

Beyond the theme of deforestation, “Sokola Rimba” is a film about the daily routines of the Rimba people and about one woman’s choice about what to do with her life. Just like in real life, in the movie Butet works as a volunteer with a local conservation nonprofit organization as a teacher.

The movie, which will be released on Thursday, portrays Butet’s first four years with the NGO before she finally sets up “Sokola,” a group of people who aim to continue assisting with educational activities for indigenous and marginalized communities. The organizational conflicts portrayed in the movie are fictional, Butet said, but she gave her blessing to Riri and Mira to develop their own plot.

“The place where I worked didn’t have the same problems, but I think Riri tried to make the story easily digestible for everyone,” she said. “He interviewed me so many times, and I felt that Riri captured the essence of what I am doing.”

Like his previous works for the films “Atambua 39 Derajat” and “Laskar Pelangi,” Riri is once again using indigenous cast members to play local characters. Another protagonist in the movie is Nyungsang Bungo, who plays himself as a young Orang Rimba man who thirsts for education. Though he was restricted by the law of his local tribe from receiving a modern education, Bungo had a hunch that his people were being cheated by palm oil planation owners who force them to keep moving around.

When casting for the film, Riri said he had his eyes on six Orang Rimba children that he felt had a natural talent for acting, story telling and responding to camera movements.

“Climbing trees, walking and running around, nothing I asked them to do in the movie was difficult for them, because they are used to it,” he said.

In promoting his films, Riri said there is a common problem among urban film enthusiasts who expect his indigenous cast to act. But, just like in his previous movies, that was exactly what Riri was trying to avoid.

“I want them to play their own story,” he said. “We don’t want to change them to fit our perspective of actors.”

Bungo’s character in “Sokola Rimba” is inspired by Butet’s real student named Gentar. But since years have passed since she first worked as Genter’s teacher, he is now too old to play himself in the movie. Butet has known Bungo since he began learning to walk.

“She’s just like my own mother,” Bungo said shyly at the press conference.

Riri visited the Orang Rimba three times last year before he finally began filming in the jungle with a crew of 25.

He took time to sit down with the Rimba people, sometimes for hours, to understand their lifestyle and later incorporating everything into the screenplay.

There was no electricity where they lived, so sometimes, Riri said, he and a few Rimba people would talk to each other in the dark. Even so, he wouldn’t call the finished film a documentary. He prefers the term neorealism, which is inspired by the Italian neorealism movement, a film genre that emerged after World War II and usually portrays the stories of lower-class people using non-professional actors.

“I relied on their proximity with and honesty towards me, but working deep inside the jungle, there was only so much that I could control,” he said. “There were a lot of retakes and remakes because we had to adjust to their way of life.”

Every dialogue that involves indigenous cast members is delivered in the local language. It took Prisia one month to learn the language, while the shooting took three weeks to finish. Around 80 Orang Rimba helped during the filming.

For Riri, the movie shows the complexity of Indonesia as a nation state. The difference between urban and jungle people is very wide, but it’s not in our place to see them as “inferior,” he said.

If anything, “Sokola Rimba” fights the notion that we should feel pity for the Rimba people, who live inside the forest with no modern facilities. “We cannot apply the same pattern of education and development for every group or community in this country,” he said.

Riri’s stance in this regard is similar to Butet’s. Having been with the Orang Rimba for more than a decade, Butet said their biggest challenges are religions, politics and commercial offers from the outer world, which is confusing for them.

Orang Rimba do not use modern measurements and events, rather than numbers, mark their lives. According to Mira, Bungo and the other indigenous actors involved in the film were not paid with money. Instead, they were given things they consider valuable, such as cloths.

In the end, Butet said, the Rimba people must decide on their own whether they want to adopt a modern lifestyle.

“The education that I gave is a tool for them to deal with changes, but whether or not they want to follow our way of living, it should be their call,” she said.