Papuan Cinema in a Time of Oppression

While Papuan cinema takes its place on the world stage, it is still viewed with distrust in Indonesia. Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu traces how and why Papua’s people continue to be excluded from the national narrative.

Earlier this year, Papuan voices earned a place in one of the world’s most celebrated film festivals. On 31 January 2023, Mayday! May Day! Mayday!, a feature-length documentary by Yonri Revolt, premiered for an international audience at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in the Netherlands. 

The film follows local miners who had been furloughed in early 2017 by mining corporation, Freeport Indonesia. Not given any financial compensation, the workers began protesting en masse a few months later, on 1 May, to be exact. To this day, the protest is still ongoing, making it one of the longest strikes of the 21st century.

“This film is made by the workers and for the workers,” said Yonri, when presenting his film in Rotterdam. 

“This strike and many other stories from Papua are rarely covered in the media. On behalf of the production team, we are grateful to be able to present the aspirations of our friends in Papua to the wider public.”

Screened four times at Rotterdam, Mayday ignited deep Q&A sessions throughout the festival. Most of the discussions revolved around the current situation in Papua and the response from the Indonesian state. The film was also invited for screenings in Amsterdam and The Hague. Meanwhile, each screening at Rotterdam was attended by various families of the Papuan diaspora in the Netherlands. Far from home, they appreciated the film for telling grassroot stories from their homeland.

Mayday’s achievement comes amidst a growing distance between Papua and the Indonesian state. In geographic terms, Jayapura — the capital of the Papua province — is located 3,780 kilometres to the east of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital. Yet, in terms of human costs, both places are separated by ever-growing trails of blood. Indonesian human rights group Kontras (The Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence) noted that in 2022, there had been 732 deaths and 60,642 displaced people in Papua due to military aggression. There had been hundreds more deaths, both recorded and unrecorded, in the years before. To this day, the violence still simmers – just in February 2023, Indonesian military representatives publicised their plan to build more command centers in Papua, making the area one of the most-guarded in the archipelago.

This history of violence is often watered down in the national media. Reports about military aggression in Papua are often articulated in simplistic good-versus-evil narratives, framing the Papuans as “unruly” or “separatists” and the Indonesian state as some sort of misunderstood parental figure. The complex geopolitical struggle that got Papua forcefully annexed by Indonesia in 1969 is hardly ever mentioned, let alone explored.

Over time, such portrayals colour public perception toward the Papuans. In various parts of the country, their mere presence often provokes suspicion. Papuan students in Yogyakarta in Central Java know this all too well. There have been times when they struggle to find a place to live in this city that is famed for its tolerance and egalitarian education. Boarding houses often reject Papuans, assuming them to be violent, disorderly, and prone to alcoholism.

Due to this stigma, any Papuan gathering – even in the most private of spaces – is usually treated warily. This extends to arts and education activities as well. On 1 July 2018, an angry mob disrupted a casual gathering in a Papuan student dormitory in Malang, East Java. At the time, the students were watching Papua Merdeka (Free Papua), a documentary produced by fPcN interCultural (a European human rights organisation that works in the field of indigenous rights) in 2009. The film had been publicly available online for a number of years without any issues. However, the mob accused the students of planning a guerilla campaign for Papuan independence. Based on media reports, the mob specifically used the term “OPM”, which refers to the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (Free Papua Movement), which is deemed to be a separatist movement by the state.

Chaos ensued. Several students emerged from the dormitory to confront the mob, trying to explain that they were just casually watching a film. The mob refused to believe the students, and then a fight broke out between the two sides. The situation became more intense as both sides began throwing rocks at each other. Having received reports of the incident, the Malang city police deployed around 40 officers to take control of the situation. Tensions were defused before midnight; several people, mainly Papuan students, were arrested by the police. To the media, the police claimed the video bore no relation to the Free Papua Movement. After a two-day detention, the Papuan students were released.

Four months before, on 28 March, a similar incident occurred in the neighboring city of Surabaya. The Aliansi Mahasiswa Papua (Papuan Student Alliance) planned a screening of Justin Chadwick’s The First Grader for one of their education programmes. The 2010 film is a dramatised biography of Kimani Maruge, a Kenyan farmer who enrolled in elementary school at the age of 84 following the Kenyan government’s announcement of free universal primary education in 2003. The event was open to the public, but the alliance primarily invited fellow Papuan students in the city. 

The police, however, had different ideas. Despite the film not having anything to do with Papua or Indonesia’s political situation, the mere idea of Papuan students gathering to watch and discuss a movie about “black people” was apparently enough of a justification for the Surabaya city police to send 40 officers to “secure” the event. When contacted by the media, the local police chief said, “The film is contrary to our nation’s culture.” He added that police presence was necessary to “anticipate the ideology of the Papuan people”. Despite the intimidation, the film screening and discussion took place as planned, since the police had no evidence to prove their suspicion.

Yonri is aware of these incidents. The societal disconnect signals a rocky road for future public screenings of Mayday in Indonesia. 

“So far, the film has been screened for the striking workers in Papua. It was also screened for the Indonesian premiere in ARKIPEL [International Experimental & Documentary Film Festival] in Jakarta,” he said. 

“For the future, we’ll see. We need to consider many things before we make any decision. At the same time, we are also working on other films as well, other stories from Papua.”

Papuan cinema is gathering momentum – Yonri is not the only emerging filmmaker from the province. Last year, Orpa, Theo Rumansara’s debut feature, premiered and won an award at the Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival. This March, the film was selected for screenings at the Cinemasia Film Festival in Amsterdam. There’s also Festival Film Papua, an annual event organised by a civil group called Papuan Voices; since 2017, the festival has showcased short      films and documentaries by Papuans about their lives and communities. Year by year, there are more and more stories emerging from Papua.

But for this momentum to truly grow, there need to be wider changes in the social and political landscapes. Till then, the Papuans and their cinema largely live amidst, at best, suspicion, and at worst, persecution.

This content is produced as part of a project to research and document arts and culture censorship in Southeast Asia, organised by ArtsEquator. For other articles in this project, click here.


This article was originally published on April 5, 2003.

About the author(s)

Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu is the chief editor and co-founder of Cinema Poetica—a collective of film critics, activists, and researchers in Indonesia. In 2013, Adrian participated in Berlinale Talent Campus as a film critic, and since then regularly organized or mentored film criticism workshops in Indonesia. He has also curated several film festivals, including Festival Film Dokumenter, Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival, and Singapore International Film Festival. In 2020, as part of Cinema Poetica, Adrian contributed several writings for Antarkota Antarlayar: Potret Komunitas Film di Indonesia (Between Cities and Screens: Film Communities in Indonesia), a book published by Jakarta Arts Council.

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