Review: Jungle School

Photo: viff.org

Photo: viff.org

Jungle School is a movie with plenty of soul. Based on the autobiographical book by Butet Manurung, the film follows a teacher with a desire to teach the Orang Rimba people native to Bukit Dua Belas National Park, a conservation area in Sumatra, Indonesia. Hiking the Makekal riverbed with the help of two local boys as guides, the optimistic teacher establishes a makeshift school for children living in the remote forest whose tribes possess a healthy suspicion of outsiders.

Adapting her methods to their needs, Butet reflects on the precarious balance between tradition and modernity, the role of education, and what meaningful engagement looks like with this community. As the Orang Rimba struggle with forces affecting their land and livelihoods like park expansion, illegal logging, and palm plantations, education reveals its value. Jungle School raises provocative questions about conservation and cultural transformation in a time mired with change for the Orang Rimba while providing a vivid snapshot of their lives.

Isolated from the hum and hiss of modern life, the scenes depicting the lives of people living close to the land captivate the viewer and are contrasted against the difficulties in obtaining food, water and fuel - things taken for granted by most of us. The film portrays the respect and reverence the Orang Rimba have for the jungle as they go about their daily lives. Life unfolds beneath the palm leaves and open sky. Family members come together to help one another with difficult tasks of building, chopping, and collecting. Children of all ages play together. The heroic and dangerous task of collecting honey is scrutinized by the entire tribe and steeped in cultural meaning.

Over the course of the film, change occurs within and throughout their society as children seek education and tension in the community rises. This civilization is on the brink of change, adapting to new circumstances as the forest evolves from a remote but inhabited home to land accessible to conservation and development. Their culture and knowledge of the jungle, passed on through generations, is potentially at stake in the process.

It is a knowledge that requires a heightening of senses and being in tune with the natural world; searching for water sources, identifying and tracking animals by their scent, scaling twenty to thirty metres up the great sialang tree to harvest honey, to craft vessels, shelter or tools from the surroundings. This wisdom has been marginalized or forgotten altogether by others who may have lost touch with their landscapes.

One message rings clear from Jungle School: lives lived in harmony with the land are under threat by the usual neoliberal forces couched as policies of state-led conservation. Underlying the film’s optimistic story of the power of education is the insidious removal of Indigenous rights and title through the expansion of park land or other land uses, usually tied to economic development. This worldview relies on a conservation model that can only occur when sustenance activities cease, the Orang Rimba are displaced and people no longer live within the ecological limits of the world around them.

This take on conservation also fails to acknowledge how humans have shaped environments for centuries in many places around the world by practicing ecological management such as the movement of salmon fry between rivers or the construction of clam gardens by Indigenous people along the Pacific Northwest. In Jungle School, the conflict of conservation policy and people come head to head.

Co-management is the modern panacea in places where land or resources come into conflict between different stakeholders. In these scenarios, the groups collaboratively manage the maintenance of and decision-making about the land or resource (e.g. fisheries, timber). A quick look at the history of forest management in Indonesia reveals a complex relationship between the state and forest-dependent people, with a trend of increasing community participation in forest management in the 1980s-90s, although not without conflict over logging, land and tenure rights and biased perceptions of the customary communities (the preferred name for these groups in the country).  Other applications of co-management of fisheries along marine coastal parks in Indonesia have had mixed success.  What is obvious as we follow the teacher Butet through the forest is how all ventures of this kind hinge on the same principles: respect, understanding and collaboration with the people who make their homes within Bukit Dua Belas National Park. And the power education wields as a tool for building that bridge towards understanding.