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Music DVD Review: Sumatran Folk Cinema

The island of Sumatra is unfortunately probably best known recently for being devastated by the tsunami of a few years back. Whole areas of the island were devastated with the Aceh province almost completely ceasing to exist as a population centre with the city of Bandah Aceh being completely obliterated.

Darwin didn't need to travel as far as the Galapagos islands to discover mutations of standard species that had evolved to be dominant. Any isolated island environment would have shown him the same phenomena. Sumatra, Australia, New Zealand, or any island of size and initial isolation has developed animal life unique to its environment. Humans are no different than the rest of the animal world when it comes to patterns of development, it's how unique cultures have grown up all over the world.

Indigenous cultures throughout the world developed based on the need for survival. The Hopi of the pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona developed their culture based on the need to be able to grow crops in an area with one of the lowest average rain falls in the world. Rituals, prayers, and life focused totally around ensuring the crops would grow and the people would survive. So although Sumatra is politically considered part of Indonesia, it's not surprising to discover that her people's culture is unique, having developed in isolation on an island.
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A newly released DVD from the audio and video collective Sublime Frequencies from Seattle, Washington brings together footage shot on three separate occasions in Sumatra prior to the disaster of the tsunami. The footage focuses primarily on the music of the people and the ways it's been changed by outside influences, while holding on to elements unique to its own culture. While the majority of the footage is taken from snippets of television shows, movies, and shots of concerts and rehearsals there are also scenes of life in the various metropolitan areas of the island.

Sumatran Folk Cinema is a collage of sounds and sights that does it's best to give you an objective view of Sumatran life. Unlike traditional documentaries that come complete with a point of view as expressed by a voice over or through interviews with people, the film makers Mark Gergis and Alan Bishop have elected to allow the imagery to tell its own story. It's a story that's at times funny, at times disturbing, and at other times awe inspiring. Underneath it all though there is a current of sadness, because of the realization that a year or so after some of these pictures were taken the houses and streets we are seeing were destined to be obliterated by the tsunami.

This was especially strong with the scenes shot in the Aceh province. The pictures of the fishermen hauling in their nets, unloading their boats and displaying their wares taken in 2003 on wharfs that no longer exist were particularly unsettling as I couldn't help but look at the people on screen and wonder about their fates. Even worse then that somehow were the shots taken of music students in the local conservatory performing an amazing drum routine.

Approximately twenty young men knelt in a row, each with a round drum with a flat head held straight up and down on their knees. They then began to play in unison, a rolling thunder of sound that would crest in wave after wave of sound. Even more amazing was they began to perform a series of orchestrated head movements. At first it was a simple side to side motion that gradually grew more complicated until finally it expanded to include their arms and torsos.

With no narration or explanation provided I was left to form my own impressions and what I saw made me think of waves coming in and out on the beach. Perhaps it was knowing they lived on an island and the huge role the sea plays in the lives of the people that generated the thoughts, but the combination of the sound and movement was reminiscent of the few times I've been to the ocean and watched the surf pound, unopposed, onto a coastline.

Of course other parts of the movie evoke totally different feelings. The very strange site of a woman gyrating in front of a band made up of older men playing a mixture of traditional and western instruments and singing pseudo psychedelic American pop music in Indonesian. What I couldn't help noticing was the band looked as embarrassed as I felt watching the performance.

Occasionally images from cheap, Japanese type, horror flicks would show up on screen, perhaps as examples of how something other than Western ideals were influencing life on Sumatra. That some of them were juxtaposed with shots of people performing on traditional instruments in accompaniment to others dancing the very formal, and highly stylized dancing that's native to the region only made them appear that much more alien.

Yet, throughout the movie no matter what was being shown on the screen, there was an overwhelming sense of poverty. The stages and palaces where traditional music and dance were being performed and taught were gradually being allowed to fall apart. The paint was faded and chipped, and the wood showed signs of weathering that could only be described as the result of neglect. You also saw the poverty as the camera travelled the streets of the cities in the ramshackle, tightly packed buildings that looked one careless cigarette away from being an unimaginable inferno.

In Sumatran Folk Cinema the film makers have tried to splice together images that gave an impression of the reality of life for the majority on the island of Sumatra. Like everybody they have their pop culture which is a mishmash of imported and local influences, but young people still go to school and learn the traditional music of the island, and still dance the traditional dances. Isolation from the world prior to colonization by first the Dutch and now the rest of the world through mass media, allowed their own traditions to grow roots strong enough that they still remain part of everyday life.

However, the image that I was left with was of an ancient culture dying from neglect. Whether it's the abject poverty the island suffers from, the influx of external forces, or a combination of the two doesn't really matter. What matters is that watching Sumatran Folk Cinema felt like observing the death of a culture. It's not a pretty picture, but it's a reality that's probably occurring all over the planet.

Isolated island environments are considered by naturalists to be some of the most fragile eco-systems on the planet because the balance of power is so delicate. The introduction of one new species of animal or plant could destroy everything. Humans are no different from any other life form, and the end of isolation has meant the death of many a unique culture. Watching it happen in front of your eyes on film is not what you'd call an uplifting experience, but closing your eyes and pretending it doesn't happen would be worse. Sumatran Folk Cinema is difficult to watch, but the truth isn't necessarily pretty.

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