Directed by Riri Riza; Produced by Mira Lesmana; Starring Prisia Nasution, Nyunsang Bungo, Rukman Rosadi, Nadhira Suryadi; Cinematography Gunnar Nimpuno Screenplay Riri Riza; Edited by Waluyo Ichwan Diardono; Production company Miles Films; Release date 21 November 2013; Country Indonesia; Language Indonesian; Budget  (no data)

After Atambua 39° Celsius (2012), film director Riri Riza has returned to experiment with his directing abilities on digital film through Sokola Rimba. While this is nothing new for Riri, as shown in his brilliant production, Eliana Eliana (2002), digital films have become increasingly prevalent in the present time. Still, he continues to offer fresh storytelling possibilities with a unique aesthetic.  

Sokola Rimba is based on Butet Manurung’s notes (later published as a book) narrating her experiences teaching Orang Rimba, also known as the tribe of Anak Dalam, children who live upstream of the Makekal river, located within the forested hill of Duabelas, Jambi. Unsurprisingly, the film utilises Butet’s point of view as our narrator. In other words, the events in this film were viewed through Butet’s lens. Thus, in order to provide a clear explanation throughout its duration, this film unabashedly features animated segments. 

The story begins when Butet (played by Prisia Nasution) had fallen unconscious as her malaria relapsed. Fortunately, she was saved by Nyunsang Bungo (played by himself), a child who lived upstream of the Makekal river. When she regained her consciousness, Butet was bewildered at the arduous downstream travel of the Makekal river. At this point in time, Butet was also inspired to teach the children living upstream of the Makekal river. In fact, her intention to reach the Anak Dalam tribe was part of the programme by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Wanaraya, where Butet had been working. However, the director of her NGO, Bahar (played by Rukman Rosadi), refused to accommodate her wishes to expand the programme scope to include the Anak Dalam children because he still believe that learning read and write can bring calamities upon them.

An obstacle appeared as Butet began to teach the children of the Anak Dalam tribe in the form of the parents’ (including Bungo’s mother) concern with the potentially detrimental influence the outsiders’ knowledge could pose. Accordingly, Bungo’s mother believed a pencil could deliver calamity to them. Such beliefs are understandable, given that many of the Orang Rimba people were displaced at the hands of the outsiders who had brought along their pencils and papers though a manipulative concession to exploit the forest.   Although the children enjoyed Butet’s presence, she eventually left the place in order to preserve the peace and harmony within the Anak Dalam tribe. As opposed to visiting the children in the community, Butet ultimately chose to teach the Anak Dalam children in town when they needed her.

Predictably, numerous allusions and social critiques permeate the film. For instance, the film critiques the Wanaraya NGO for putting more weight towards the expansion of the national park zones, as well as flora and fauna conservation, while neglecting the livelihood of the native tribes living inside the park. Aside from this, the NGO Butet worked for appeared to be desperate for publicity in an attempt to continue reeling donors in. The film also criticises the logging practice, which forced the native tribes to flee from their own lands. Interestingly, these loggers were depicted as Javanese migrants who had arrived there as migrants seeking a better life. In spite of this, there was a glaringly absent conflict, albeit fictional, between the native tribes and the migrants. Instead, the figure of the Javanese migrants, as represented by the character of a shop owner served as a saviour for the Orang Rimba people.

It seems as if Sokola Rimba adapted a documentary film approach, especially in the ethnographic genre. By way of the camera movements and angles, the audience is treated to a view of the wilderness, accompanied by a close-up of an ant moving in a line on a tree. The audience is also introduced to the routines and traditions of the Anak Dalam community. Through this, we are reminded of a documentary television programme Riri had completed in the Anak Seribu Pulau (Children of a Thousand Islands) series. In fact, to facilitate the audience’s understanding of the film, this film presented the figure of anthropology professor Dr Astrid Hilde, who explained, with deep admiration and respect, the character of the Anak Dalam tribe. She remarked that outsiders commonly hold misconceptions regarding Orang Rimba: “They view Orang Rimba through the wrong lens. They mistake Orang Rimba as people who are less civilised and developed, yet, they are more developed than us in various aspects.” At this point in time, the film’s essence was projected through an “outsider’s” point of view towards Orang Rimba as opposed to utilising an “insider’s” perspective.  

It is worth noting that the “outsider’s” role as a saviour was increasingly stressed as Butet required financial donations from foreign donors in order to establish her own “sokola” or school. Perhaps this can be commiserated, considering that there is a lack of awareness on the part of the local government and the public towards Butet’s concerted effort to teach Orang Rimba. 

While the Orang Rimba people were cognisant of the importance of education and literacy in order to avoid being duped by outsiders, it is through Butet herself that we are aware of the importance of education according to outsiders. Towards the end of the film, Butet explained her philosophy in detail where education is akin to a weapon, and to be used as a means to adapt when navigating the forces of change present. Unfortunately, education itself had not been viewed as the “practice of freedom,” as advocated by the famed Brazillian educator and philosopher, Paulo Freire (1921-1997), or the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world. Unsurprisingly, education in this film is merely reduced to a “survival strategy” by Orang Rimba in the midst of changes. This notion is not too dissimilar from that shared by the urban middle class who view education as a ticket towards the working world and a way to make a living.

However, it is indisputable that a taste for advocacy lingers regarding the Orang Rimba, to an extent that is comparable to NGO-produced films in Indonesia. Evidently, the advocacy for Orang Rimba necessitated a passionate speech by Butet in front of Bahar and company. Although it is not immediately obvious that Butet’s figure is glorified, her figure predominated the film instead of the “sokola” itself. The portrayal of Butet in the film has caused the element of conflict within the narrative to appear unconvincing. In addition, the conversation between Butet and Dr Astrid revealed how inconsequential Butet’s reasons are to teach the children of Orang Rimba. Finally, Sokola Rimba may serve as a reminder of the persisting issue of education practices in Indonesia which tend to neglect people in the periphery and still to disempower rather than liberating them.  

Originally written in Bahasa Indonesia / Translated by Alma Delia Sukma 

Image source: Miles YouTube Channel

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