On a one-acre farm in Riddells Creek, an hour outside of Melbourne, is the Australian headquarters of the Suku Mentawai Program. It’s an ambitious not-for-profit on a mission to preserve an ancient Indonesian tribal culture. At its helm is a striking looking Melbourne man with hand-tapped tribal tattoos covering his body and a bowl undercut clipped by Mentawai tribesmen.
The story of how Rob Henry came to help establish the organisation is a nine year journey, one shown in his new documentary, As Worlds Divide.
Henry first traveled to the Mentawai Islands, one of the world’s surfing meccas, to escape the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. After a month, he resigned from the surf company where he was working as a cameraman and moved into an Indonesian government settlement, compelled to learn more about the Mentawai culture.
Although familiar to surfers, the Mentawai islands off the west coast of Sumatra are thousands of kilometres from Indonesia’s well-trodden tourist haunts. Henry learnt how to fish, grow food and speak the local dialect. He immersed himself in Mentawai traditions such as processing sago, a staple local food, and learned about their fishing techniques. He also learnt that far from a self-sustained idyll, the indigenous islanders’ community survival has become dependent on money, brought in by farming coconuts.
Nobody knows how many islands are in Indonesia. Some surveys say it’s around 13000, others put the number at more like 18000. Needless to say, national unity throughout the nation has been a concern of the Indonesian government for decades. The push for unity has included the attempted eradication of many traditional cultures and customs including the Mentawai, known as Arat Sabulungan. Its Sikerei shamans have been disrobed and the practices of tooth sharpening, tattooing and wearing loin cloths forbidden. People were also forced to join the Muslim or Christian faith.
As he came to better understand the situation of the villagers he lived among, Henry discovered a people “torn between two worlds, where they didn’t really seem to belong to the Mentawai but were also not quite fitting into the national way of life. They seemed to be lost and … felt poor and desperate.”
The locals told Henry about a community deeper in the jungle who maintain a way of life that’s been practiced in Mentawai since people first arrived, somewhere between 2000 and 500 BC.
Taking an eight-hour canoe trip up the Sarereiket river, Henry met the remote tribespeople of the Sarereiket region. He stayed for more than a year.
“It was a real shock when I arrived to find them, just aesthetically – to look the way they did – and then interacting with them, how much of their spirit was still alive.”
The tribespeople welcomed Henry into their lives and he stayed for 18 uninterrupted months. Living with them in the jungle, he learned about subsistence farming, hunting, forest medicine and rituals. The emphasis on sharing for survival was a profound contrast from Henry’s own Western experience and Australian upbringing, but the most prominent difference was the strong sense of identity that the Arat Sabulungan culture seemed to provide.
He immersed himself in the community but as time passed, he became conflicted. “I’d be participating in the daily life or in a ritual and really in the moment of it, and then I’d suddenly snap and think, ‘I should be filming this,’” he says.
He also worried he might be taking advantage of a way of life that the tribe’s ancestors had spent thousands of years developing. He returned to Australia to figure out what he was going to do. In that time he met two Metawaiian students online, August Sikatsila and Esmat Wandra Sakulok, who were studying in Jakarta and Padang respectively.
“They were on their own campaign to reconnect and learn about their culture,” says Henry. The Sikerei – shamans – were also concerned about future Mentawai generations, so with Sikatsila and Wandra Sakulok, Henry founded the Suku Mentawai Program. Henry had also started to look over his footage of time in the islands, and decided to make a documentary. He has lived between Australia and Indonesia ever since.
Poverty through loss of culture has been a “huge motivator” he says. While the Sarereiket tribe live abundantly from what the forest provides, the people in the settlements worry constantly about money and security.
The not-for-profit’s local surveys found that 93.8 per cent of students and 89.9 per cent of the wider settlement community believes it is not learning enough about its traditions and heritage. Henry and his team developed a multifaceted program that includes a curriculum booklet, a Mentawai dictionary and forums for participating Sikerei to convene with those who want to learn more.
“Their culture is their wealth,” says Henry. “If they lose this, it’s going to be a long, slow difficult battle for them to… regain a level of control over their own environment and their own life.”
His documentary As Worlds Divide had its world premiere at Federation Square, in March, and a second Melbourne screening is taking place on Friday, July 21 at Northcote Town Hall.
He wants audiences to become “ambassadors” by screening the film and raising money. His tagline? “Watch a film, save a culture.” For the many thousands of Australian surfers who’ve visited the region and found the waves of their lives, it’s not much to ask.
Book your tickets to the 7.30pm screening on Friday at Northcote Town Hall. Or to host your own screening or become an ambassador, visit the Indigenous Education Foundation.