You can almost feel the tactile reality from the first powerful seconds of the documentary Grit. Dramatic footage of smoke, danger and flooded camps gives an almost mythological resonance to its end of the world narrative. The film takes us to Sidoarjo in East Java, Indonesia, the location of the catastrophic mudflow of 2006. A panorama view shows a continuously erupting flow of destruction. A long row of silhouettes gaze towards the horizon, their heads and bodies covered in a thick layer of clay. The tender face of a fourteen-year-old girl, Dian, is a welcome contrast to the smoking inferno. She was only six when her fertile world was turned to dust.
A present-day Pompeii
Dian is remarkably young to act as the voice of these victims. But her voice represents youthful innocence, as well as the younger generation’s growing dissatisfaction with, and resistance toward, the injustices and feeble attempts at limiting the mudflow continuing to plague the region. The young girl’s perspective gives the film its vibrant angle and offers a sense of hope in the midst of an otherwise grotesque and merciless tragedy. But the true protagonist of the film is nonetheless the force of nature.
The story of the mud tsunami that drowned everything on its course echoes the ancient story of Pompeii. But while Pompeii was a victim of the natural forces of the volcano Vesuvius, the real culprit in this story is the greed of capitalism. An irresponsible blowout of natural gas awoke a mud volcano deep within the earth: The first eruption obliterated 16 villages and killed almost as many people. Mosques, factories, rice fields, and houses have been replaced with a vast, cracked desert. A decade later the mudflow is still not under control, and the severity of the long-term effects is a fact.
This film could have been a bleak sci-fi and a successful piece of propaganda against evil corporations, but sadly Grit shows the brutal reality of powerless citizens in Indonesia. The villain is brilliantly personified in the slick owner and director of the Lapindo Brantas company responsible for the catastrophe, Aburizal Bakrie. Bakrie plays tennis with his ample belly held in place by a wide belt.
While Pompeii was a victim of the natural forces of the volcano Vesuvius, the real culprit in this story is the greed of capitalism
He proudly gloats of the thousands of victims who lost their homes and received no compensations for their losses, with a sadistic ingenuity reminiscent of a Bruegel painting or Kafka novel: The victims who could not provide their property deeds – documents devoured by the clay – could only have their loss acknowledged if they swore an oath with their hands and feet tied with clay to their necks. Nine out of ten victims could not bear the thought of this cruel and blatant form of re-traumatisation. And the few who agreed to perform the barbaric ritual, or were able to show intact deeds, were compensated with no more than a fifth of the value of the house.
The irony of survival
The layers of suffering and hardship disclosed in the film are dense and unfathomable, and similarly, the narrative structure may be compared to a stinking, rotten onion. The justice given to the mighty and powerful has a bitter aftertaste: The court scientists were bribed into stating an earthquake caused the disaster. The Lapindo Group also owns parts of the media, and the film shows briefly the company’s cunning petition regarding the cause of the tragedy. Bakrie went unpunished for his sins – he has even been rewarded with a ministerial post.
The ability to adapt and survive is almost surreal
But the film does not dwell on this point – it focuses rather on the unity and defiance of the victims. Their life-affirming strength, their relentless spirit is moving. The ability to adapt and survive is almost surreal: many of them now make a living from giving guiding tours of their once fertile hometown.
After the apocalypse the region has become a favoured background for selfies on Instagram and Snapchat updates. Disaster tourism is a growing trend; there is a market for ecological destruction – especially when the damages are as aesthetically pleasing and fear inducing as here. Suffering and death have been converted into a sorely needed source of income – a tragedy is now a popular receiver of «likes» on social media. The dance around the golden calf has been frozen in perfect poses in a frightful, dried up wasteland.
Colourful images from the time preceding the disaster are shown in quick reverse succession, followed by people fleeing for their lives from water and mud. It seems unreal when the heroine of the film remembers how today’s barren desert, not long ago, was a green village filled with laughter.
Disaster tourism is a growing trend; there is a market for ecological
The trauma is now an integrated part of everyday life, tourists visit in great numbers and the story of the clay catastrophe is now taught in school. «What caused the mud tsunami?»the teacher asks rhetorically. A forest of human statues has been cast and sunk beneath the ocean near the bank of the mudflow; an army buried with its silent, defiant protest.
The court cleared Lapindo of all guilt, but Bakrie’s own mother demanded that he give the victims compensation for their losses. The story of the struggle between one of the most powerful men in Indonesia and the victims of his exploitation of nature is the story of a widespread and life-threatening destruction of nature with no chance of turning back.
Yet, the resistance from local voices is adamant – just like the sunken memorial for the deceased.