The Eyes of the Papuans: A video advocacy process

23 Apr 2015
Picture of Wensi with his film equipment
Wensi Fatubun

Thirty years later, I have still not forgotten. It happened in the south of the Indonesian province of West Papua, a journey of two days from the “big city” of Merauke. Life in the small village of Yodom centered around trips to and from the ubiquitous, generous forest, provider of every need. The arrival of a South Korean lumber company brutally intruded on the traditional way of life. Workers started to fell trees. Word had it that a plantation of palm oil trees was to take their place.

While the helpless population watched the destruction of part of their source of food, the children in the village had eyes only for the bulldozers. But what fascinated my 12-year-old self the most was the strange object a Korean regularly held up to his eye as if he were aiming at something. “No one had ever seen a camera,” I remember. “When I saw the joyful reactions of the people who saw their pictures from the camera, I said to myself that me, too, I wanted to do that.”

My dream came true some years later when, after studying philosophy at the School of Philosophy, on the island of Sulawesi, I started work at the Office for Justice and Peace in the archdiocese of Merauke. “I began to write reports and use a camera to speak out on the rights of native peoples and environmental issues. This is how the project Papuan Voices started. [..] I wanted this to be an advocacy and cultural project to permit the people of Papua to tell their own stories in films. So other people could learn about them together with them.” Individuals and communities have memory, so the most important thing in advocacy videos is how to build a collective memory. I believe, when we have the same collective memory, the advocacy process that we build will continue to proceed and will not die. This is where video has a very important role.

The process of building video-based advocacy and memory is an intersubjective experience and dialogue on history and culture. This is the first process. I visited the villages, explained what a camera was and what purpose it served and convinced the villagers of its usefulness as a tool. This is what I made. Once a plan for the sequence was established to everyone’s satisfaction, we could film. The result: short fifteen-minute films posted on the Internet in order to reach a maximum audience. [These films can be viewed on and on YouTube: Papua Storyteller.] “One of our films tells the story of a young Papuan woman who became pregnant after a relation with an Indonesian soldier. This happens to a good number of Papuan women who find themselves alone to raise their child, cast off by Indonesians and their own community alike,” says the producer-film maker. “Another film shows how Papuans are losing their culture and their identity.”

My interest is not just in making films: “Each sequence is an opportunity to talk with the villagers about human rights, the rights of indigenous peoples and their socio-economic rights. Making a film is an occasion for us to settle on a strategy with the villagers for them to claim their rights. Not only by addressing representatives of the government in meetings organized by the Justice and Peace office but also more globally using our network.” That is the process of making the video part of our advocacy strategy. We introduce the process of making a video and train the community in the early stages of building a network, we strengthen and assist the community to be able tell their stories, especially their stories about human rights. We are human beings, we take note of the experience, history and relate to others so that we have a story about human rights.

From my experience, video is able to connect people. It is not only communication, but more of an emotional connection. People who are at different places can have an emotional connection to each other because they watch the video. Our challenge is how to produce a video about human rights that is able to connect the emotions of people and unite them to fight together. The principle instrument we have to tell the story of life is the video. I think a lot of video advocacy activists fail to use video as an advocacy tool because they are simply telling the issue, and not a life story.

I have been talking about the pre-production and filming, now I want to talk about the distribution.

In Papua, Papuans people continue to fight to protect their rights. They continue to protest to the Government and the State of Indonesia. There are indeed reasons to protest. Their land is being taken from them, they are being colonized by new settlers, they are being forced into assimilation and being marginalized … This is not to forget the smoldering war that has been going on since 1963, when West Papua was de facto declared a part of the Republic of Indonesia. To this day, Papuan armed groups have been calling for greater autonomy and even independence.

I denounce “a creeping genocide,” given the extra judiciary executions, arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture to which the Papuan population is exposed. Amnesty International has regularly recorded abuses and violations of human rights by Indonesian authorities in a region off-limits to international non-governmental organizations and journalists. [Two French journalists were arrested on 6 August 2014 and imprisoned for having travelled with tourist visas and contacted members of an “armed gang of criminals”. They were threatened with a prison sentence of 5 years as well as fines of $42,000.]

My challenge in Papua is how to convey the story of a difficult message, violent and even bloody, to the audience? I would like to answer this question with a story from personal experience. On December 8, 2014, the Indonesian military shot dead four students in the District Enarotani, Paniai - Papua, Indonesia. At that time, there was a lot of media publicity about this case. We got some footage of the community. We think that this footage should be part of ongoing advocacy process. We edited and made a video for which the primary audience was the participants of the side event about Papua in Room XXIII, the UN Human Rights Council. We did not make the main audience the Government of Indonesia, because we see that the Government of Indonesia has received a lot of information. The National Human Rights Commission is conducting an investigation and the people's movement Papua ItuKita are supporting the advocacy process in Jakarta. The video we made should strengthen the advocacy process in the UN Human Rights Council. The video was screened during the side event, there were a lot of responses and the video was able to evoke emotion in the courtroom. It has been distributed to other audiences and most importantly, the video is able to strengthen the argument of activists and become part of advocacy through a mechanism that is available on the UN Human Rights Board.