BIFF 2018 Interview: Cynthia Wade & Sasha Friedlander – Grit

In 2006, Lapindo, an Indonesian multinational corporation drilling for natural gasses hit a pocket of mud deep underground. This caused a tsunami of hot mud to erupt from the ground which buried 16 villages and displaced more than 60.000 people. The mudflow is still active and isn’t expected to stop until sometime in the 2030s. In Grit, documentary filmmakers Cynthia Wade and Sasha Friedlander aim to shine a spotlight on this tragic incident, which seems to have been mostly ignored by the international press. Wade and Friedlander spent five years together on this documentary, going back and forth from the United States to East Java, Indonesia before it premiered earlier this year at Hot Docs. The film is an enlightening and personal portrait of the people who are affected by the Lapindo-incident, and it marks the first time this story has been told from the villagers perspective.

The film had its European premiere at BIFF (Bergen International Film Festival) late last month, and we were lucky enough to sit down and have a talk with Wade and Friedlander before their first screening.

NOPRESS: Can you tell us how you both came to this project?

Cynthia Wade: In 2012 I was working on a commercial project, and one of the shoots that I had was in Indonesia. One day somebody I was working with came to me and said “you know, if you wanna think about a new documentary, you should really look into the Lapindo mudflow,” which I had never heard of before then. So at the end of that shoot, I stayed an extra three days with my crew and we went to the area of the mudflow. My first reaction was that I could not believe that I had never heard of this. It was vast, and it was exploding. We went up to the mud site where the tours take place, and took some photos and video, and did a few interviews. When I got back to the states I made a three-minute trailer, which I sat on for about a year because I thought that this would be huge and it would take years. I also didn’t know the language. I didn’t know how I would tell this story, so I talked to some people in Indonesia to see if I could partner with them, but since it was a film without funding it would require somebody who would essentially take on a marriage with the project. I thought that it might not be do-able, that it was unrealistic, but then I saw this film in 2013: A beautiful feature-length documentary called Where Heaven Meets Hell that is based in Indonesia. It was in the language, it was really cinematic, and it was by this filmmaker I had never heard of, Sasha Friedlander. I reached out to Sasha and said: “I think I can raise the money for this over the long term, but I don’t know the language.” Sasha grew up partially in Indonesia and speaks Indonesian fluently. She was also a journalist in the country for a while and I asked if she wanted to do this with me. So we put together a deal memo, a contract, with our respective lawyers and then met in person for the first time in New York at a film market where we raised our first funds. And then it was five years of shooting on and off. But the film could not have been made without Sasha.


Sasha Friedlander: When I was living in Indonesia in 2008 the mudflow was a story we covered a lot, but when I left in 2010 I didn’t hear any more of what had come of it. Turns out people had started protesting, and there was this activist community in the area that had been rising up which was really interesting to see. So when Cynthia approached me, it was the perfect opportunity to go back and dive in. An opportunity to see it from their perspective and bring their story outside of Indonesia, because most of the news channels within Indonesia are censored by the company that owns the drilling company [The Bakrie Group]

NP: The film feels very cinematic and poetic. How did you find this language to tell this story?

CW: We are very aware that the documentary marketplace is extremely competitive and glutted with so many films. And you know, if you say to someone “we want you to sit down for 90-120 minutes to watch a film about mud in a different language with lots of subtitles” that’s a hard thing to have an audience commit to, especially when there are so many options and choices. We made a decision very early on that all the money we raised would go into the cinematography and aimed to use better cameras and lenses whenever we could. So we withheld any directors fee for ourselves and put it all into the cinematography. We were both working on different projects at the time, which allowed us to do that. We also hired local gib operators in Indonesia who could handle the drone shots and the special lenses we wanted to use. With traditional lenses, where you can zoom in and zoom out, often the glass isn’t as beautiful and pristine, so we decided to rent special prime lenses that would give us the expression we wanted. These are very expensive and very heavy, and we carried these around with us everywhere. Each lens was probably around $20-25.000, and we hired local cinematographers who really knew how to shoot verité; shoot action but with these prime lenses. We thought that could tell the story in a different way.

SF: When Cynthia approached me I was familiar with her work, and our style and vision was very much aligned from the start, so that was an easy meld of vision and style.

Grit, Dian

NP: I also think the cinematography feels very empathetic towards the subjects you follow. How did you come to meet Harwati and Dian? 

SF: When Cynthia and I decided to go work on the project, I reached out to different contacts I had made over the years living in Indonesia. And I was connected with an NGO who had been on the ground and working directly with the activist community in Sidoarjo. I think it was the first night that I arrived for our first shoot that I was brought to this meeting where they were talking about how they were going to build some statues for this big protest. This is where I met Harwati, Dian’s mother. My friend, who is one of the heads of this NGO, told me immediately that this woman is fantastic; “I think you’re gonna like her, she’s open to it” they told me. She invited us to her home, and we started filming with her almost immediately. I think we only had four days to prep before one of the big protests took place, so we committed to her early on as the main character. We had no idea though that it was gonna be her daughter who really rose up and became the lead figure in the documentary. Following Dian over the course of five years, we really got to see her grow up and come into her own, and she took the torch and carried it on.

CW: It made a huge difference that Sasha spoke the language and had lived for years on and off in Indonesia. This allowed us to get closer to the community in the area. The other thing, however, is that we followed three families equally in the production, but decided to focus on one of them in the editing process. There is all this footage that we ended up not using because we felt we needed to focus the story, as it was already very complex. It was an extremely production heavy shoot.

NP: I think you can feel that in the film, that you kind of became a part of the community. How long did you spend in Indonesia with these people working on this project?

CW: We had nine trips which each lasted around three weeks, sometimes a bit less, sometimes a bit more. But when we were there every day felt like a year, because you wake up when it is still dark and you hear the call to prayer. It is very hot, and you can feel the heat rising throughout the day, and you go all day till very, very late at night. Our shoot days were easily 18 hours, sometimes even more.

SF: It was also very difficult being so far away, and not knowing when we should go back. The thought that we might miss a beat in the story if we didn’t go back at a certain time really concerned us. We were lucky enough to build some strong connections with local crews there that we were able to send over in certain instances when we couldn’t hop on the 30-hour flight ourselves. It was hard to be so far away, but it also meant that when we were there it was all in, all the time.

CW: Yes, because when we only had a few thousand dollars we had to ask ourselves the questions: “do we go now, do we save it, what if we run out of money, what if we miss a scene?” a lot. But like Sasha said, there were a few times where we would call up some local crews and they would capture some footage for us, which was invaluable.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 15.30.46

NP: In terms of the community, I thought one particular scene was really beautiful: When Dian reads a piece of poetry at a protest. Is that something she worked with a lot? In many ways, it felt like she was leading and inspiring parts of her community.

SF: She really gets that from her mother. Harwati encouraged her over the years and wrote a lot of poetry. And as you can see in the film, she’s sort of the leader of that community and group. Dian grew up with that, and it’s something she has held on to. She is actually on her second year of law school right now, and she continues to be very active and involved in her new community.

NP: I feel like the film ends with a lot of hope in that regard. Just seeing Dian and the community keep their spirits up, even in these difficult times. But there is also the scene with the manager of Lapindo on TV, singing «Love My Way». How does that work? 

CW: Well, there is a lot of corruption in the country, and Lapindo has actually just gotten permission to drill in the area for the next 20 years.

SF: Yeah, it’s really scary… Scientists from all over the world have come in and said: “please do not do this, this is a very dangerous area as you can see from what happened.” But as you can see in the film the vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, talks about this when he asks how the company is supposed to pay back the government what they owe them. “They have to continue drilling” he says, and just this past August they got the 20-year contract renewed to continue in the area. So they’ll continue, for the next 20 years, and I mean, who knows what will happen. The whole area is actually sinking now because the mud is so heavy.

The local community is still continuing their protest work, however. Harwati is now one of the leaders in an anti-mining network in East Java, so they are still protesting and figuring out ways to prevent things like this from happening again. But it’s difficult in such a corrupt environment when it’s just small groups of non-profit organizations and activists against the government.

CW: One of the big issues in Indonesia is that Bakrie owns four of the six major networks, which means that most of the news that the locals see there are very much from their perspective. One thing the community in Sidoarjo was really excited about when we came in and kept showing up year after year after year, was that for once the story would be told from their perspective. Up until this point it hasn’t ever been told in that way. A lot of people from Indonesia, even people we hired to work on our crew, were shocked when they arrived in Sidoarjo and saw what it was actually like. They thought that the locals had been paid years ago and that it was over, so there were a lot of people who were stunned when they realized it was all lies.

Screen Shot 2018-10-08 at 15.44.15

NP: There is a lot about this that feels eerily reminiscent of things happening elsewhere in the world at the moment; the lies, the corruption, the way things are pushed under the rug.

CW: Yes! One of the things for us is that I discovered this film before Obama was elected for his second term. And now, when we have finished the film, I won’t even mention his name, but the man who has been installed as the president of the United States is so involved in corporate interest influencing and being entrenched in democracy: like Rex Tillerson, who was our secretary of state. Just the way it has gotten even more muddied and corrupt, and the way in which the corporate interest and the interest of what is supposed to be democracy have gotten intertwined. There was no way that we could’ve anticipated this when we started the film back in 2012. That by the time we released the film in 2018 we would be here, not only for our country, which is such a mess right now but with everything that’s happening around the world. It feels more relevant and more dangerous right now.

NP: Is this new presidency something that has had a noticeable effect in your field of work as well? 

CW: For sure. For instance, there are certain grants that we got for this film that are no longer available to apply for. It’s really scary to see where things are moving.

NP: I can imagine the current climate in the United States also has an impact on you as women filmmakers, is that something you care to talk about?

SF: Yes, that is definitely difficult, and I think for the first time this past year, people have finally come out to talk about what that’s like.

CW: Yes, absolutely, and I would love to… You know what I would love to do, Sasha. [Sasha gives permission]. So just as an example, not using any names: there were a bunch of filmmakers that arrived here last night. I wasn’t here yet, but Sasha relayed this story to me. Some of the filmmakers were gathering, and Sasha was in this very small group, and this guy said to another guy in the group, “oh, so you make films” and completely didn’t look at Sasha, completely didn’t recognize her as a filmmaker.  And the other guy wasn’t even a filmmaker! But it was immediately like “oh, you look like me, you make films right?” and it was like Sasha was invisible, so still even in our community, this is happening. Dude… she was in the mud in such dangerous situations sometimes. It was not always safe being where we were and doing what we were doing. She was so badass; this is a badass film, and he treated her like she didn’t even exist. And that was here, in our community, yesterday. But it’s sadly not an uncommon occurrence.

I do think that Dian and Harwati are the main characters of this film because we are women filmmakers, and we did feel like it was important to show strong and fierce activist mother-daughter teams. Especially in Indonesia, which has the largest Muslim population in the world. I think sometimes Westerners, particularly Americans maybe, have a preconceived notion of what that might be, and Dian and Harwati are so strong and resolute and have such strong voices. That was a very important and deliberate choice, that they would be our storytellers in this film.

(Interview continues under the trailer) 

NP: There is a quote in the film, where Harwati talks about the incident in a way that really struck me. She talks about how this isn’t just about losing their houses, but also their history and legacy. Is this something you talked about with them? 

SF: Indonesian culture is different in a way from western culture in this regard. In Indonesia, when you get married you actually take over your family’s home, generation after generation after generation. Whereas in the states, and I’m sure here [Norway], when you get married or graduate you move out and move on to your own life. But there, particularly in the villages, it is very much about maintaining that family compound. Also, for the Muslim culture the grave is a very important place, so when that is covered by mud, something that’s so dirty, that’s the absolute worst scenario. So for them, this was completely wiping out all of their culture, their history, their legacy, from generations that have been in that exact village.

NP: How have the responses been to this film?

CW: We had our world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto earlier this year, and those were great screenings and got a really wonderful response. But we’ve held back a bit, so this is our European premiere. Our U.S. premiere is at the Hamptons International Film Festival and then a West Coast premiere in California, so we are only at the beginning. But the premiere in Toronto was great, and the audiences were really wonderful. The Q&As and discussions afterward were really deep and thoughtful, and they really were wonderful because they were so focused. I think with this film, you kind of have to be willing to almost literally sink into the mud; just become part of the environment and let the images take you.

NP: Are you working on any new projects right now? 

SF: I am working on a documentary project I can’t really talk about yet, but we are both doing freelancing and other things as well.

CW: Yes, I also do some commercial work. I just finished a series of films about people living with rare blood cancer, which was really interesting. And I’m co-writing a screenplay right now because I would like to move into fiction. It’s interesting when you finish a film you sort of feel like “Woah that was six years” and you feel like you scaled a mountain. I thought this would take us three years, but it’s always the case that it takes much longer. So to think about the next mountain to scale is exhausting, but it’s also exciting.


Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.