‘Our Mothers’ Land’ spotlights the fight by Indonesian women against corporate greed

By Mohani Niza

Watching ‘Our Mothers’ Land’, one cannot help but feel inspired: the 55-minute documentary film, produced by Mongabay and The Gecko Project, offers an intimate glimpse into the lives of female Indonesian activists against the theft of their lands and the destruction of Mother Earth.

The documentary, set against the lush greeneries of Indonesia, focuses on various women, in groups or as individual activists, most of them farmers living in rural areas.

There are no parts in this documentary that are bereft of power, but there is one particularly striking scene, which takes place at the beginning: with their feet set in cement, a group of women farmers who call themselves the ‘Kartinis of Kendeng’ arrives at the presidential palace in Jakarta from the mountains of East Java.

The women are demanding that a company stop constructing a cement factory on their lands. The media and the public are here as well, accompanied by police personnel tasked to control the situation, and they all look with wonder, and perhaps arguably, a sense of respect and admiration as well, at these women protesting under the scorching heat.

The name ‘Kartini’ of course refers to Raden Adjeng Kartini, the Javanese aristocrat who lived under Dutch rule pushing for the education of women and girls. More than a hundred years after her death, her legacy still lives on. Coincidentally, it was just a week after Indonesia celebrated Kartini Day when I had the opportunity to interview the documentary’s filmmaker Febriana Firdaus.

Is it any wonder that Raden Kartini’s spirit ripples through generations, reaching to today’s Indonesian women, I asked Febriana.

Not at all, Febriana told The Culture Review Mag. She was speaking over Zoom from her house in Bali. Febriana wrote, produced and narrated the documentary while Leo Plunkett directed it. Febriana is an investigative journalist who mainly reports stories about eastern Indonesia, corruption, the discrimination against the LGBTQ community and the West Papuan independence. She has written for publications such as Al Jazeera English and the Guardian. ‘Our Mothers’ Land’ is her first foray into film.

Journalist Febriana Firdaus does not shy away from hard topics.

“I feel so inspired by women from indigenous communities because they are very strong,” Febriana said.

Women’s participation in activism in Indonesia has been particularly thriving: women in this Southeast Asian nation involve themselves in national debates in areas such as Gender-Based Violence (GBV), economic inequality and child marriage, among others, despite strong pushbacks, not just from corporate zealots but also religious quarters.

Despite this progress, many still say that women should solely belong in the private sphere. “In Javanese society for example, there are jokes about how a woman should belong to the kitchen, a woman should not do this or that, and not get higher education because they will end up in the kitchen,” Febriana said.

Febriana faced some hesitance at first among the women themselves to talk about their activism. “They thought it’s okay, we organised but the men will be speaking to the media,” Febriana said. “I had to make them trust me that it is okay and have their own voice to talk about this movement. I think what made it easy was because I’m a woman so it’s easier for me to approach them.”

The tales they told Febriana, not all of them highlighted in this documentary, are harrowing. The interviews with each of them were sometimes hours-long and still take an emotional toll on Febriana as she recounts it. Like her interview of Daria, for example, a young farmer who was heavily pregnant when her husband was taken away by the police. While joining a protest for his release, Daria got into an accident, and was left with no money to pay her hospital bills.

Often, Febriana and her subjects would hold hands throughout the interviews; Febriana choking back tears. “I’m trying to be strong but actually, I wanted to cry,” she said.  Whoever these women are, and from whichever part of Indonesia they come from, they all have had to pay a price for speaking up.

If the women were hesitant at first to speak, the men on the other hand, were eager wanting to participate. Febriana and Leo had to say no and the men were upset that they were not interviewed. Febriana said, “There was so much I couldn’t explain to them, like the concept of privilege and access and how women usually don’t get to talk.”

That said, Febriana and Leo believe that placing women at the forefront, in the case of the “Kartini Kendeng” protest particularly, proved to be a good strategy by land rights activists. They said the authorities were at least a bit more willing to negotiate with the women than if they were men (the “Kartinis of Kendeng” women managed to get an audience with President Jokowi). “With the women, the authorities have this emotional barrier, like a social barrier” Febriana said, explaining that this is perhaps because they feel that these women are just like their mothers, sisters and daughters.

Febriana chose a women’s rights angle for this documentary because of the lack of media coverage on the topic. She said, “If you notice, after the Black Lives movement, there is a new discussion about this intersection between environmental issues and women’s issues. We need to understand that the most affected and vulnerable communities are women and children.”

Febriana insisted however that environmental rights are not just a women’s issue, but that women’s proximity and relationship to the earth make it a worthwhile topic, saying that at the end of the day, “Everyone should have sensitivity about the issue of nature, about land.”

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‘Our Mother’s Land’ has received much international praise. In January 2021, it was screened at the 19th Wild & Scenic Film Festival where it received the Spirit of Activism Award.

It is also an official selection of the San Francisco Independent Film Liveable Planet event 2021 (click here for information about the festival highlights).

The documentary has also made into the long-list of One World Media Award 2021, competing with big names such as the Guardian, BBC, and Thomson Reuters Foundation.

You can watch the documentary here: