Strangers in the Forest of Taboos (2015)

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You won’t find this film at the cinema, nor in your DVD shop nor Netflix. This is a little-known, small house production by Damian McDermott that follows the (some might say misguided) adventures of four ordinary Australian men as they trek into the interior of central Ceram in the Maluku region of Indonesia.

At just under an hour long, Strangers in the Forest of Taboos is an accessible introduction to a remote region and people, giving insight into cultural morals and what unites and divides us. We follow Sainsbury, Schulzie, Damo and Paddy as they set off on an intrepid journey, revisiting a remote region of Indonesia and exploring the notion of taboo, as written by Italian anthropologist Valerio Valeri in his posthumously published book about the Huaulu people of central Ceram, The Forest of Taboos. The four plan to walk through the dense forest, starting their journey in Masohi and ending in serene and picturesque Sawai. They have a local guide, Buan, who will help them survive through seemingly impenetrable forest, torrential rain, flash floods and rancid salted deer meat.

Sainsbury (Marcus Sainsbury) is the resident grouch, never seeming to be completely happy and enduring the highs and lows of the adventure with a certain world weariness. Paddy (Pat Giltrap) is the innocent abroad, discovering on day one that his shoes are falling apart, measuring the journey in distance to the next beer and losing three members of the group when he stops for a toilet break with Buan. Schulzie (Michael Schultz) is the professor, a fluent speaker of Indonesian with a fascination for trees who provides the essential connection between the ‘bule’ (the foreigners) and the locals. Damo (Damian McDermott) is the cameraman and so rarely appears, though his narration casts him as the storyteller.

At first you admire the four men for their chutzpah. Their adventure means planning for a nine-day trek through inhospitable country where the best map they can find is printed from Wikipedia. They must carry all their food, cooking gear and essentials and ensure they reach the north coast of the island, and civilization, without illness or injury and before their food runs out. They have been there before, they know the terrain, the people, the language and the customs.

Well, maybe their planning wasn’t so thorough. The journey is not without adventure and we feel the suspense as the men are pushed to their limits. We perhaps don’t find out enough about the cultural taboos of the forest but, through observation, we get a sense of why animistic beliefs gain credence and remain unchanged over decades. The film highlights nicely the humorous larrikinism of the four and their inability, no matter how good their intentions, to match the abilities of their local guides to survive in the forest with equanimity. There are some subtle moments where Buan’s quiet composure is a counterpoint to the drama being experienced by the men, for example as Paddy tries to deal with his disintegrating shoes, the camera shifts slightly to emphasise Buan’s bare feet.

The film fails the Bechdel test, mainly because there are no female voices at all, but this doesn’t detract from its ability to engage you in what is essentially an exploration of friendship and the gulf between what we would like to be and who we are.

4 stars

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