Our Encounter with the People of the Forest

Earth Observatory Blog

Our Encounter with the People of the Forest

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Our most recent documentary short film, ‘People of the Forest: Orang Rimba,’ premiered at the Singapore Eco Film Festival in early September 2017. It was a Sunday morning just 30 minutes before the screening was about to begin and only a few people had arrived. Luckily, by show time the room was filled with an enthusiastic audience.

The ‘People of the Forest’ short offers a brief but intimate look at the lives of the Orang Rimba, a minority group of a few thousand nomadic tribespeople who live throughout the forests of Jambi province in Sumatra, Indonesia.

People of the Forest was recognized with an Award of Excellence in Documentary Film by the Accolade Global Film Competition (Source: Isaac Kerlow)

This short is part of a larger project – an upcoming feature film about the complex issues of haze and peatland-burning in Southeast Asia. My crew and I spent several weeks in the field last year filming and conducting interviews about peat haze, carbon dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and some of the social issues surrounding the conversion of the peatland forests by means of industrial logging into commercial oil palm and timber plantations.

The plight of the Orang Rimba represents such a unique aspect within the overarching story on haze that we decided to extract some of that footage to make a short film focusing on the Orang Rimba’s situation, points of view, and ideals.

We learned of the Orang Rimba during our filming trip to Jambi. They are slowly displaced from the ancient forests where they have lived for centuries. Decades ago, some of these public lands were awarded to corporations and private individuals as concessions for industrial farming of oil palm and timber. Moreover, a transmigration programme was initiated to move people away from population-dense areas. This initiative enticed migrants to move to the region by offering them several hectares of land to plant oil palm and build houses.

The Orang Rimba place high value on sending their children to schools as a way to increase their chances of success in the regional mainstream society (Source: Isaac Kerlow)

Despite the massive transformation of their environment throughout the years, the Orang Rimba have tried to continue their nomadic ways, their practices of hunting and gathering, and their beliefs about communion with nature. This has proven difficult, however, as much of the primary forest where they once lived is now gone.

The Orang Rimba that we met and filmed were camping on the outskirts of a remote oil palm plantation. We reached them after a six-hour drive on bumpy, dusty roads. While sitting inside a van can be fun, after a few hours we could not wait to arrive and start filming. It was already mid-afternoon when we arrived and we had, at most, two hours of good sunlight left.

When we finally arrived, I jumped out of the vehicle along with my crew of two: Nelson Yeo – a cameraman from Singapore, and Linh Duong – a field sound person from Vietnam.  Nelson and Linh were once my students, and we now enjoy working together when filming in remote locations.

The people of the forest survive by hunting the ever more scarce wild boars that roam through the forest and oil palm plantations (Source: Isaac Kerlow)

The small group we met comprised of three dozen people – children, young adults, older adults and group leaders. They lived together in three large open tents with their motorcycles parked haphazardly.

We were accompanied by two interpreters who speak Rimba language, and two collaborating scientists: Rini Astuti, a social scientist, and Janice Lee, an Assistant Professor at the Asian School of the Environment.

It is always challenging to interview people through interpreters. I want to ensure that the interpreter understands not only the question but also the type of information that I am interested in, so that he or she can ask the question with the accurate intention.

Despite the challenges of communication, we managed to talk to members of the Orang Rimba community about most of the issues that I was interested in, particularly issues of survival, the impacts of haze, social challenges, and cultural values. They also shared with us many words of wisdom about life.

A woman prepares a meal of mushrooms in one of the cooking corners in the Orang Rimba camp that we visited (Source: Isaac Kerlow)

I was a bit sad to leave the Orang Rimba, because I sensed an air of melancholy surrounding their existence; they would often refer to the way the forest used to be and how happy their lives once were. It is inspiring that they manage to keep a dignified and positive attitude towards the future.

I am glad that I got to talk to these people of the forest and I hope – through the short film – I can share with others some of the Orang Rimba's feelings and how they view the challenges ahead of them. Their situation seems unfair; they are marginalised and vulnerable. Many of the current pressures on their communities are disproportionate to their resources, and they need all the help they can get.

I hope that our film can help raise awareness of their situation and that good things come their way. 

People of the Forest: Orang Rimba - Trailer from Tropical Fantasy on Vimeo.

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