Documentarians will often push boundaries and take risks in searching out a subject but, for the most part, hands skilled in filmmaking hold onto the camera and eyes honed on framing a scene peer through the viewfinder.
Not so in the documentary being undertaken by Betni Kalk, a Creighton University professor in the Department of Journalism, Media and Computing. In 2012, Kalk traveled to Papua New Guinea with a set of cameras and a desire to tell the day-to-day story and provide details about the arts and crafts of the Sawiyano people living in the rainforests near the border of West Papua, Indonesia.
Rather than relying on her own lens on this isolated culture, Kalk gave cameras to the Sawiyano with precious few instructions, simply encouraging them to record the seemingly mundane, everyday details of life, along with the steps taken to create various crafts, make homes and gather food. The film, Kalk said, is meant for future generations of Sawiyano as a means of imparting knowledge such as where specific plant materials are found in the rainforest and how to create items like traditional drums.
“The elders really took to it,” said Kalk, who, as the child of missionaries, lived among the Sawiyano from the time she was 3 until she was 13. “They’d never done anything like this before. Many of them have not seen a proper movie. So I was almost entirely relying on them to take video of what is, to them, just normal life. Most filmmakers know what they’ve got when they’re done shooting. Not the case here. I had no idea of what much of the footage was until I got back.”
While some of the novice Sawiyano filmmakers initially found the idea of recording their daily lives strange, most developed an appreciation of Kalk’s motives in making the film. As more Sawiyano are exposed to mass culture, Kalk explained, and as more outside influences — such as foreign logging companies seeking to capitalize on the rainforest’s abundant timber reserves — encroach on the Sawiyano’s native territory, the group’s own culture and language could be in danger of a speedy disappearance.
“The changes are coming so rapidly in our world that it only takes a generation sometimes for these things to get lost,” she said. “I’ve known this culture since my formative years and I’ve always wanted to record as much of it as possible. To them, it’s just normal life. It doesn’t seem like all that big of a deal, but as we went along, they understood this had the potential to be interesting not only to an outsider, but to themselves.”
Kalk published a book of photographs and written observations based on her 2012 trip to Papua New Guinea. “Sawiyano: Daily Life Amidst Cultural Change” incorporated Kalk’s own photography and that of the Sawiyano, and is serving as something of a preview for the film.
Poring over more than 100 hours of video taken by the Sawiyano filmmakers, Kalk has begun the initial editing of the film. But in keeping with the spirit of the project, she wants to seek the input of the people who held the cameras and who are the ultimate subjects of the documentary. To that end, Kalk earned a Creighton Summer Faculty Research Fellowship to return to Papua New Guinea and complete the film with the help of the Sawiyano.
Kalk said she’d like the Sawiyano-shot footage to comprise at least 80 percent of the film’s final cut. And while the elders and men of the Sawiyano shot the bulk of the footage in Kalk’s first trip, this time around she’d like to put the cameras in the hands of more women and young people.
“We have a lot done, but I feel there are still parts that are missing,” she said. “This trip, I want to show them what we’ve got, ask them what they think is missing. It’s important to me that I don’t tell the whole story. I want them to have ownership.”
One of the central conversations Kalk will be having with the Sawiyano this summer is how they feel about not only the film itself and how they are portrayed in it, but about distributing the documentary and what that could mean for their future.
While it is an academic film, it’s also not meant to be a simple artifact, Kalk said. The project has drawn some interest from museums in Germany and France and, even with a limited release, it could draw attention to the Sawiyano.
“Where they live, it’s remote enough that it wouldn’t bring a ton of tourists, but it could bring some,” Kalk said. “We need to talk about how they feel about having more people know where they are and who they are.”
But distribution of the film could mean at least a little income for the Sawiyano, whose economy is largely concentrated on the harvesting and production of resin and bark from trees.
Kalk said whatever the film earns is going straight to the Sawiyano, who are in desperate need of basic access to modern medicine and education. She said deaths from easily treatable conditions there are “more common that they need to be” and, in the last decade, the most consistently operated school in the area stayed open for just six months.
“The economy can sustain itself, but the lack of education, the lack of medicine is becoming more and more of an issue,” Kalk said.
Following her own project, Kalk is hopeful she might inspire other young filmmakers to attempt similar enterprises. Ultimately, she’d like to create a nonprofit that can fund documentarians who would be interested in working with indigenous cultures in the way Kalk has: handing them cameras and encouraging them to tell their own stories.
“I don’t like the loss of culture,” she said. “I don’t like seeing the disappearance of something that has been around for thousands of years. It seems rather a small thing to record the day-to-day life of people, but it could have a big impact on future generations.”
While in Papua New Guinea this summer, Kalk will also be doing basic medical work and teaching literacy classes. She is accepting monetary donations or donations of basic medical supplies and pens and notebooks. For more information on the Sawiyano and Kalk’s film, visit tumbuna.org.