Beyond Romanticizing the ‘Jungle’: Filming Indigenous Communities in 360º
“I see the forests being cut down with such greed,” says Dendi, an indigenous activist from Malaysia. “It’s actually a reminder to myself and all of humanity. We should be responsible for nature because nature will repay what we have done.”
Our latest virtual reality documentary, “The Curse of Palm Oil, focuses on deforestation through the eyes of the Orang Asli, indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia. They have a powerful relationship with nature, which we had the opportunity to witness while producing this documentary. It was as fascinating as it was crucial for us to quickly learn about Orang Asli culture to be able to work with them in their environment. Respecting the way of life of the people who we document is always essential, but it becomes even more complex working with communities that are usually closed to outsiders, such as the Orang Asli, who live deep in the forests of Kelantan province.
Gaining access to the community is always the first and often biggest challenge of this type of production. For this documentary, we partnered with producers, Drew Ambrose and Sarah Yeo, from 101 East, Al Jazeera’s current affairs documentary programme, based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The team has produced a linear documentary about the Orang Asli in 2016 (see link below), which explores when, due to government neglect, a number of Orang Asli children ran away from a state school in Kelantan province, after which a few of them died in a river. Having worked on the 101 East documentary, Sarah Yeo was able to bring all the necessary contacts and specific experience of working with Orang Asli into the VR production. From her previous work, she had gotten to know the communities really well.
360 documentary production usually involves a lot of explanation about the process, particularly for the main characters. We wanted to make sure we had a confident person that could talk in front of the camera, explain the purpose of the project to the community in their local language, and how filming would work. This is how Dendi, an Orang Asli and an activist, used to being in the public eye, became our main character. After a day, everybody was at ease with us running and hiding behind trees while the camera was rolling.
Going into the tropical forest with Dendi and other Orang Asli felt like entering a sacred place. The chief of the village asked us to wear ‘crowns’ made out of leaves, and beads made out of seeds at all times in the forest because this was the sign that we were coming with good intentions and, thus, nature would not hurt us. Even if it was extremely hot, slippery and we were carrying a lot of equipment, we made sure we would not lose the crowns and beads while running around.
Another important rule was not to laugh at animals. The Orang Asli believe that it could bring heavy rain, thunderstorm and other bad things. They keep monkeys as pets in their villages, so it was very important to respect them as well. The rules also had to be observed in the forest. “When we see animal droppings, for example, elephant droppings, we cannot laugh because an elephant has a very good hearing, it can hear from far away,” explained Dendi. “When they hear it, they will come and attack us.” There are many other rules in the Orang Asli culture regarding animals. “For example, we don’t eat mahseer fish,” said Dendi. “If a woman eats it, she will get possessed. She will become skinny. Only men can eat pork, women and children cannot.”
Every day the villagers would perform the Sewang ceremony. Guided by the sounds of bamboo, they sang songs and danced. It could take up to a couple hours, and we were asked not to do anything while the ceremony was being performed. “Nature gives us power. It gives us dream songs,” said Dendi. “We sing dream songs to praise nature. We ask nature to protect us from misfortune and disasters.” When we were not filming the ceremony, we would have to shut down the generators and listen silently. I would stitch footage after the ceremony ended and everybody went to sleep.
We spent a lot of time with children and other members of the community. As we stayed in tents in the village, everybody got used to having us around and felt comfortable. We accompanied Orang Asli performing their daily tasks. One trip to the forest to forage took us around two hours each way. Before the oil palm plantations, the journey would take Orang Asli only 10 minutes. Even though we needed just a few shots and ended up using only two of them, we embarked on the hike through oil palm plantations together. During the time, we not only learned a lot about their struggle and the landscape, but continued building a stronger relationship with the community.
During the post-production process, I continued learning about indigenous communities and how to represent them as accurately as possible. For Example, while talking to different experts, including an Orang Asli rights protector and a biologist, I learned that we should not use the word “jungle” in this specific context as this word carries little scientific meaning talking about Malaysia, and has been rather romanticized throughout history.
Dr. Colin Nicholas, an expert from the Center for Orang Asli Concerns, told me:
“The word ‘jungle’ is most commonly found in Tarzan movies and comics, in Disney cartoons and films, and in tales told by armchair adventurers. Anybody who wants to romanticize our forests as teeming with snakes and leaping tigers will use ‘jungle’. The area the Orang Asli are talking about (regarding the logging), and where they live, is classified as ‘Hutan Simpanan’ which translates as ‘Forest Reserves’, not ‘jungle reserves.’”
Rainforest biologist and writer Dr. Mike Shanahan also notes that the word ‘jungle’ derives from a Sanskrit word that refers more to scrubby, dry land than to forest, and entered English during the time of British colonial rule in India.
Filming indigenous communities gives us the opportunity to enter a different world and share the stories of those communities with a wider audience. When documenting the Orang Asli, we wanted to be as respectful as possible to their culture and traditions. Rather than romanticizing indigenous people, the process of making The Curse of the Palm Oil was an effort to create a narrative with the community. The crux of the story necessarily centers on the impact of deforestation and how it has impacted their livelihood — and tells the story through the words of the community at the center of it all.