Though rarely showcased in the media due to foreign access restrictions in the region, the fact that genocide exists in the Indonesian province of West Papua has been known for decades. The people of this place, which covers the western peninsula of the island of New Guinea in the western edge of the Pacific Ocean, have been fighting for independence from Indonesian rule since 1969.
More recently, it’s been a somewhat unorthodox group of explorers that has unearthed the realities here and brought the topic to the surface: big wave surfers.
World-class big wave surfers Travis Potter, Jenny Useldinger, Andrew Mooney, Josh Fuller and Jimmy Rotherham set out to find the last remaining unspoiled waves, which they believed would be in West Papua. With their boards under their arms and a small film crew trailing them, the group set out to find paradise. The paradise they found had an underbelly that entirely changed the direction of the project.
The juxtaposition of an ancient people entirely independent of the modern world, pushed towards a “progress” defined by dependence upon it, is showcased in the crew’s resulting documentary: Isolated.
Isolated started as a project between old college roommates: Geoffrey Clark, the executive producer, and Justin LePera, the director of the film, both of whom have a history of making surf movies (The Essence of Surfing and The Forgotten Coast, respectively.) The hope was to search for the last perfect wave on the planet without getting entangled in the happenings in West Papua. This hope proved to be impossible once they arrived.
“We knew where we were going, we knew it was dangerous, we knew there was genocide, and we wanted to stay away from everything - every culture, all the people - and just stay with the waves. That plan backfired. You couldn’t not absorb the culture - we counted on them to survive,” Clark says.
“To them, with our reliance on flashlights and all of our equipment, we looked helpless,” LePera adds.
The tribal communities that drive the film’s story paint a terrifying picture of the current situation.
Constantly threatened by an Indonesian military regime pressuring them to progress with the same pace and style as the Western world, the Papuans are being displaced from the coastal regions they’ve called home for thousands of years, forced to leave behind a self-sustainable fishing culture for an environment in the highlands that is entirely foreign to them.
The next generation, standing alongside their traditionally-clad parents in jeans and T-shirts, flees to the cities for education and opportunities, only to be instilled with shame for their Papuan heritage. And the message is being communicated loud and clear: the story of family members kidnapped and then killed, their bodies sent back to the community as a symbol of government controls, is, sadly, a familiar one.
The project brought the crew more than just a perfect wave. They encountered a whole new way of life, rich with tradition and cultural practice.
“We met with a tribe that had elders who had eaten people,” LePera says. “The cannibalism they practiced was during wartime where they actually ate the people that they killed. They did it because it was believed it would make them stronger to consume another soldier. They said they would get really bad nightmares, like their spirit was fighting the spirit of the person they consumed.”
One of the most powerful moments in the film is when the tribal leader of one of the featured communities hands Potter a note that reads: “We the people of Papua declare our desire for freedom to the international government. To the world and the international community and the red flag of [presumptively neutral] Switzerland, please help our aspirations for freedom.”
The cause has compelled the likes of Ryan Philippe, who narrates the film, and thousands of others, to become “Isolated Ambassadors for Peace” in an effort at spreading the knowledge and inspiring action.
To learn more about the cause, sign the petition, or upload your own Isolated Ambassador for Peace video, check out isolated.tv for more info.