Self and Other

film 5 of 5

Wet Earth and Warm People

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 18, 2015

This is an ideal documentary, informative and impassioned, amusing and heartrending, strikingly individual while impressing you with its universality. The great Michael Rubbo gives this far away Indonesian place so much more than a cursory fly-by, which means that the not so-blameworthy exotical curiosity that, say, a North American like me might bring to an exercise like this is quickly deepened by all sorts of particularity. Different story strands—bike cabs vs. modernity, for instance—are clearly spun, then clearly woven, all suggesting how complex and multivalent and interesting this society is.

(They also create an extremely vivid, seemingly eternal picture of things that are actually decades gone. We must be sure to update and revisit, even and especially when confronted by vividnesses like this. For instance, there’s nothing here of all those famous repressive regimes. No single text can contain everything, which just goes to show that we need to consult more texts.)

By following his usual peripatetic methods Rubbo manages to take us from one thing to another, never quite forgetting or always come back to what has gone before. Evidence and perspectives are gathered, considered, commented upon. It’s reportorial, or present tense, but doesn’t he go a long way toward some pretty concrete, convincing conclusions? This is enlightenment epistemology, applied to an ethnographic project. We’re in this world, and we must make sense of it, and we can do so. I maintain: you can’t just eliminate the white guys! Especially in a case like this, where the Australian working for Canada’s State film institution is so much more than a mere strip miner. Hasn’t he, haven’t we—Australia, Canada—been colonized too? Privilege and the experience of subordination here combine to create an ideal ethical/moral position, or statement.

Rubbo never stops trying to see both, to see all sides.  This isn’t mere show: he’s demonstrably and even movingly concerned about the effect he’s having on his subjects. It’s not condescension either, or moral grandstanding. Don’t you feel it? This is a decent man. Verité like, he brings this key documentary consideration right to the surface, thus helping us to evaluate his own project at the same time that we remember how pressing and permanent this question is. Mind you, Rubbo does use his Westernness to his advantage, gaining access to mucky-mucks, trying to get beneath good behaviour for the camera’s sake. He is always searching but not confrontational, positive but not toadying. Reporter or diplomat? That and more; Rubbo the ideal Canadian!

There’s a very powerful section where the gang goes out to the country. (Notice how the crew is brought to the fore when relevant, or whether it’s quite relevant or not. These guys worked hard on this!) It leads us to a searching, searing contemplation of poverty and, more’s the sophistication, the wounding effect that poverty’s self-consciousness can have. The film screening! But this isn’t just moaning. Binaries like rural and urban, traditional and modern, technology and the sweat of your brow are placed into a dialectical relief, so that we don’t look for victors or decisions, but rather understand complexities.

The bamboo on the water footage is not only fabulously interesting, but it’s fabulously cinematic. Look at their elation, maybe because of the beauty of wood and water, the ancient genius of this manner of transport, and certainly because they are making some money. This first flush gives way to weariness and discouragement. And then they take heart again. Heart of Darkness is definitely dramatic, and it has considerable dramatic, or perspectival truth. But sometimes a trip down a southern hemispheric river can mean something else altogether. In the end the lovely, reproving, motivating things is that Rubbo’s positive skepticism always continues, which doesn’t mean that he’s a nihilist. Rather, he never makes assumptions, and he never ends the conversation. Existentialism—you and me, here and now—is right after all!