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Shout from a wounded globe

Regissør: Sasha Friedland Cynthia Wade

A disturbing documentary from a disaster-prone area shows what can happen if the natural devastation is allowed to continue.


The documentary Grits tactile sensuality is passionate from the first second: Dramatic images of smoke, danger and blazing clay produce mythological resonance about the downfall of civilization. We are in Sidoarjo in East Java, the site of the disaster that hit Indonesia in 2006. The view shows an endless, eruptive poison pool. A wide range of silhouettes look towards the horizon, with heads and bodies thickly covered in clay. A toothy maiden face provides a long-awaited contrast to the smoking inferno: Dian at fourteen, who was just six when her lush world went to shreds, as it did for everyone she knows.

Pompeii of today

Dian is unusually young to give these victims a voice. She represents the innocence of the youth, but also the growing generation of the growing generation against injustice and relentless attempts to limit the clay waves that are constantly raging. Choosing the young person's perspective gives the film a fresh angle and promotes hope amid the otherwise grotesque and relentless tragedy. Equally, it is the forces of nature that play the main role in the film.

Grit talks about the widespread and life-threatening disdain for nature destruction where retreat opportunities do not exist.

The account of the mudunami that drowned everything in its path sends thoughts to Pompeii's historical fate. But where the famous ancient city was the victim of the blind forces of Vesuvius, it is greedy capitalists who are guilty this time. Reckless drilling for natural gas has awakened a clay volcano deep inside the earth's interior: The first eruption destroyed 16 villages, killing just as many people. Gone are the mosques, factories, rice fields and houses; left stands a vast, cracked desert landscape. Ten years later, the mud seas are still out of control – and the long-term effects are becoming increasingly severe.

Grit Sasha. Friedland and Cynthia Wade

Directed retraumatisation

This could have been both a bleak sci-fi and a successful propaganda film against grotesque exploitation companies – but unfortunately, Grit shows the harsh reality of the powerlessness of Indonesian society. The villain is sparkling personified through the grumpy owner and director of the Lapindo Brantas company, Aburizal Bakrie, responsible for the disaster. Bakrie plays tennis with his well-bred pondus held tight in chess with a wide belly belt. He proudly hovers over the thousands of victims who lost their homes and were not compensated for their losses, with a sadistic ingenuity worthy of a Bruegel painting or a Kafka novel: Those who could not raise proof of their home ownership – papers that the camp of course also had swallowed – could only accept the loss if they took an oath in the form of lying tied on hands and feet with clay up to their necks. Nine out of ten did not manage this obvious retraumatisation. And the few who either passed the bestial ritual or were able to show intact joints were set aside a fifth of the property's real value.

The irony of survival

The layers of suffering and burdens the film reveals are tightly packed and incomprehensible, and Grit's narrative structure also resembles a smelly, rotten onion. Justice's support for the mighty flavors was bitter: The court's experts were bribed, and the official cause of the disaster was called "earthquake." The Lapindo group is also a media owner, and the film provides a small insight into the company's cunning rewrite campaign on the causes of the tragedy. The culprit Bakrie goes free – and has since been rewarded with a ministerial post for his misdeeds.

Disaster tourism is in the wind, and ecological collapse sells like hot wheat bread.

But the film does not dwell on this – it is the victims' unity and daily resistance struggle that are the focus. The life-giving strength, their persistence and glow make an impression. The ability to adapt and survive is almost surreal when it turns out that many are now surviving by guiding tourists around their once thriving hometown.

After the apocalypse, the site has become a favorite backdrop for selfies as well as instagram and snap chat updates. Disaster tourism is in the wind at all, and ecological collapse sells like hot wheat bread, especially when the damage is as aesthetic and terrifying as here. The one's death and misery both earn much needed income and accelerate the likes of social media. The dance around the golden calf has stiffened into studied postures in a terrifying, solidified desert land.

A warning sign

Colorful sequences from the time before the disaster are played in quick reverse, followed by people fleeing for life in water and clay. It feels unreal when the film's heroine reminds us that the barren desert we witnessed a long time ago, her green village was full of laughter.

The layers of suffering and burdens are tightly packed and incomprehensible.

The trauma has been integrated into everyday life, tourists pilgrimage here and the clay disaster has become a curriculum for the children in the school. "What was the cause of the mudunami?" The teacher asks rhetorically. A forest of human sculptures is cast and sunk by the shores of the camp sea, an army that represents a silent, unshakable protest.

The court dismissed Lapindo for guilt, but Director Bakri's mother demanded that he give rest to the affected. The depiction of the struggle between one of Indonesia's most powerful men and the victims of his natural plunder also tells of the widespread and fatal contempt for nature destruction where retreat opportunities are not available.

But the grassroots movement is steadfast in its resistance – like the sunken memorial of the many dead.

GRIT appears on HUMAN International Documentary Film Festival,
25. February to 3. March 2019

Ellen Lande
Ellen Lande
Lande is a film writer and director and a regular writer for Ny Tid.

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