Rise of the Eco-Warriors

Directors’ Report by Cathy Henkel

Written: November 2013

The vision and the issues:

This is a story of youthful innocence coming into direct conflict with corruption and destruction. Rise of the Eco-Warriors follows fifteen passionate young people as they join acclaimed scientist Dr Willie Smits to spend 100 days in the jungles of Borneo. The film documents their adventures and reactions to the many challenges they face along the way. The core question of the film is this: what can a group of dedicated young people and a visionary scientist, achieve in 100 days in the jungle, and can they motivate others to take action for lasting change?

The stakes are extremely high. At a global level, we are witnessing one of the most intense conflicts in human history – the march of ‘progress’ and the pursuit by an elite few to conquer nature to ensure human comfort and short-term profit at the expense of our natural world and the future of life on this planet. In our story, it is the forests of Borneo, the Dayak communities and the orangutans who’s futures are at stake.  But so too, is the future of all life on this planet, for without the forests and its biodiversity, this planet becomes uninhabitable. 

On the island of Borneo, vast areas of pristine rainforest are slashed and burned each year to make way for palm oil plantations. The vegetable oil from the oil palm is used in many of our everyday foods, cosmetics and cleaning products. Large-scale deforestation is pushing orangutans to extinction, along with many other native species of Borneo. 

The battle lines are drawn, but this is not an even playing field. The juggernauts of destruction are driven by big business and greed, fed by technology and science, supported by politics and law enforcement, and fuelled by consumer ignorance, all in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘endless economic growth’.   On the opposing side are individuals, communities and environment groups who are less organised and resourced but passionate about defending the natural world against this onslaught. Many of these grass-roots activists and crusaders are young people, informed and aware of the suicide path their leaders and ‘the progress proponents’ are steering them, and determined to stop it. A movement is developing, largely led by the next generation, whose main organising tools are social media platforms and internet channels and their commitment to action. They are spread across the planet, and they are starting to become visible. Rise of the Eco-Warriors charts the journey of a small group of young eco-warriors from nine countries who volunteered to take on the challenge of saving the forests of Borneo and its inhabitants and showing the positive power of collective action.

They arrived with determination and innocence, in search of ways they can contribute to saving their future from those who are destroying it. They brought commitment and creativity, but lacked local knowledge, resources, management skills and awareness of the full extent of the crisis unfolding here.  In their first week, they were exposed to the extent of the problem and the damage and destruction being caused by palm oil expansion. They experienced a roller-coaster ride of emotions, from adrenalin high excitement, to awe and horror at things they have never seen, to crippling anxiety and even panic at the enormity of the expectations. They also felt the full weight of the hope and trust that the Dayak people placed on them. At the end of the first 20 days, they had more questions than answers and their innocence had begun to give way to deep anxiety coupled with fierce determination. They headed home for 5 months to prepare for the next stage of their journey, asking themselves what they can actually accomplish and will it be enough?

When they returned for the 80 days, the group was reduced to eleven as four of the original team did not come back for personal reasons or because of work or study opportunities. The eleven who did return were thrown into the deep end when they discovered the resources and management structure they had expected did not eventuate.  They had to restructure the group dynamic and redefine their goals, and they stared in horror at the prospect of not being able to achieve anything worthwhile with their limited experience and resources.  It was Shadrack, the youth leadership student from Kenya, who reminded them of the importance of maintaining hope.

They divided into four teams of action: an education group, a reforestation group, an orangutan rehabilitation group, and a mapping group. Their work was mainly centred around three locations: the town of Sintang where the schools and the fledgling orangutan rescue centre was located; the longhouse community at Ensaid Panjang and the village of Tembak which has long resisted the invasion of the palm oil companies. 

Jojo and Juvi, two orphaned baby orangutans, were entrusted to their care and their prime task was to find a way to return them to their forest home.  To do this, they had to build up the orangutan rehabilitation centre in Sintang and start work on the release site in the village of Tembak. They also had to find a way to work with local communities to protect their forest.

They started a reforestation nursery in Tembak and created a musical education show for local schools. Under the guidance of Dr Willie Smits, they introduced an innovative satellite-monitoring system called Earthwatchers and enlisted the help of school students around the world to monitor the forests. The system was put to the test when bulldozers moved in and threatened the community at Ensaid Panjang.

In the end, this is a story about what it takes it be an eco-warrior, an individual willing to step up and take action to avert a global catastrophe. The lessons learnt and the consumer awareness needed to slow the destructive march of the palm oil companies came down to one central idea: every individual matters and every action counts.

Style and Structure:

It has always been my intention that this be a film for cinema. The focus from the start has been on dramatic storylines, character development, conflict, resolution and large global themes. I set out to make a highly visual film, avoiding over reliance on dialogue and without using a voice-over narrator. I wanted a strong, dramatic music score, and high quality visual landscapes capturing the dramatic beauty and tragedy unfolding in Borneo.

Rise of the Eco-Warriors is not a nature documentary or an awareness raising film. My intention from the start has been to ensure the environmental issues would be subliminal and secondary to the narrative – they would emerge from the story.

In writing the script, I used the devices and constructs of narrative fiction including the 3 Act structure, adapting them to the constraints of reality story-telling. The eco-warriors would be in Borneo for 100 days, providing me with a pre-determined physical structure.  The film would start on Day 1 and end on Day 100, with a possible post-script some time later to see what progress had occurred. The structure was further assisted by the fact that the 100 days was divided into two blocks of 20 days and 80 days. The first 20 days delivered the objectives of Act 1, setting the scene, meeting the main characters, setting up what’s at stake and the challenges and obstacles for the main narrative. Act 2 comprised the core action scenes, charting the journey, trials and tribulations of the eco-warriors over the 80 days – what they did.   Act 3 was the post-script - what they had accomplished - and the wider implications and further actions needed from the audience.

In addition to the 3 Act structure, I developed A and B stories.  The A story of the film tracks the young eco-warriors and their adventures in the jungle as they attempt to make an impact on stopping deforestation and helping orangutans. The B story focusses on the local Dayak people, the value of the forests, the rescued orangutans and Dr.Willie Smits, the eco-warriors’ mentor and guide.  I also hoped for a C story, a love story, but this did not really eventuate except for Shadrack’s sweet and unrequited affection for Molly, one of the visiting ‘Action Agents’. All the eco-warriors did however develop a deep affection for the people of Tembak, especially the children, and for the orangutans in their care, Jojo and Juvi.


Brief story break-down

Act 1: DeforestACTION, a global movement connecting school students across the globe concerned with finding solutions to deforestation and saving orangutans, puts out an online call-out for volunteers to spend 100 days in the jungle with scientist and forest campaigner Dr. Willie Smits.  Fifteen young people from nine different countries are selected and arrive in the coastal town of Pontianak, on the island of Borneo, ready for a great adventure.

They meet Willie Smits who has been working in Indonesia for the past 32 years to stop deforestation and save orangutans. He takes them upriver and deep into the heart of Borneo to show them the extent of the environmental crisis unfolding as a result of expanding palm oil plantations.  In this Act, Willie drives the action and guides the young eco-warriors, and the audience, to a deeper appreciation of what’s at stake and what needs to be done.  By the end of Act 1, the eco-warriors are feeling overwhelmed and begin to face the enormity of what is expected of them as they head home to raise more funds and awareness in preparation for the 80 days.

Act 2 begins with their return after 5 months to spend 80 days implementing their plans and working on four major projects. They confront the reality that the fundraising and backing they had hoped for has not materialized and four of their original team are unable to return for personal or career reasons. They also find out that their guide and mentor, Willie Smits, has to return to Holland and spend time on projects in other parts of Indonesia, and they have to fend for themselves. Despite these set-backs, they revise their action plans and get to work. 

The animal rehabilitation group is comprised of Liza, a political lobbyist from Washington, Perry, a veterinary technician from Ontario, Canada and Ben, an animal science student from Sydney, Australia. They are responsible for the care and enrichment program for the two orphaned baby orangutans, Jojo and Juvi. They also begin work on the rehabilitation facility in the village of Tembak on the edge of a protected forest where the orangutans will eventually be released. 

Paul, a reforestation enthusiast from Australia, Tom, a youth activist from the UK, and Shadrack take on the reforestation challenge in Tembak. One of the village elders, Pak Nyat, had started a nursery some years earlier, but had become discouraged through lack of support. The eco-warriors resolve to bring life and hope back to Pak Nyat’s nursery, and start replanting food and fruit trees and prepare for 6,000 sugar palm seedlings offered by Willie as an alternative revenue source to the destructive monoculture of palm oil.  

The education team has been reduced to two people, Kodi, an activist/ musician from Byron Bay, Australia and Mark, a singer/performer from the Wisconsin in the USA. They take on the task of local and global education about the effects of palm oil and the crisis facing forests and orangutans. They devise a music theatre show in the local language, and despite numerous difficulties and set-backs, the show is a hit with school students and awakens them to the fight happening in their own back yard. Word spreads, and a local teacher steps in to help and they perform the play to over 2,500 students in the region.

Fahrani, an Indonesian fashion designer, Fabrice, a French mapping expert, and Chai Chin a journalist from Singapore make up the mapping team. They introduce a satellite technology monitoring system and enlist the help of school students around the world to become EarthWatchers.  Students use online software to check their patch of forest and identify disturbances and the eco-warriors gather aerial photographs and evidence on the ground. When a palm oil company begins to encroach on the forest of the Dayak community living in the longhouse at Ensaid Panjang, Fabrice produces a satellite map of the incursion that gives the village leaders the evidence they need to stop the bulldozers.

The challenges, isolation and tough conditions begin to take their toll, and conflicts break out within the group. Just as some get sick or become disheartened, a small band of outside supporters, called Action Agents, arrive to lend a hand. They have been following the progress of the eco-warriors online, and bring messages from school students, financial support and a renewed sense of hope.  

As the end of the 100 days approaches, the eco-warriors focus on ensuring their work will continue after they leave.  They make a video of their education show and forge connections with local groups to keep the Earthwatchers program going.  The Tembak nursery and orangutan facilities are fully in the hands of the people of Tembak and local authorities.  The foundations have been laid, and the eco-warriors resolve to continue fundraising for the ongoing work in Sintang and Tembak.

But most importantly, they’ve learnt that fundraising and winning individual battles is not going to solve the long-term problem of deforestation. They need to let consumers know that buying products containing palm oil contributes to the destruction of forests and orangutans.  They head to Singapore to launch an urban eco-warrior campaign and take the message online and to their social networks.

In Act 3, three of the eco-warriors return to Borneo 9 months later to join Willie Smits and witness the progress that has been made in Sintang, Tembak and Ensaid Panjang, They also participate in the first day of forest school for the orangutans – a scene that provides the emotional climax of the film.

The journey so far

It’s been a three year journey from inception to completion of this film, and a tough, exciting and challenging one for me as both director and one of three producers. The seed of the idea was planted in July 2010 when Sean Tierney from Microsoft Partners in Learning contacted me to discuss the idea of school students becoming involved in saving the forests of Borneo. This conversation led to the creation of DeforestAction, a global education project, and a call out for young people to spend 100 days in the jungles of Borneo with Dr Willie Smits. Mark White and Richard Hearman joined me soon after as producers, and we embarked on the long and arduous road of raising the funds and setting up the mechanisms to make a feature documentary about the project.

The finance for the film was sourced through private investment, the federal government’s Producer Tax Offset (40%), Screen Queensland production investment, producer and crew re-investments and equity from our post-production partners as well as philanthropy, crowd-funding and sponsorship. Raising finance in a post global financial crisis market was extremely difficult and were it not for the vision, trust and belief of our mainly Byron Bay investors, this film would never have been made. There were many exhilarating highs and shattering lows, and almost debilitating obstacles along the way, but we kept the vision and belief intact and attracted an extraordinary crew who also invested in the concept and gave their creative best.

We undertook two research trips, in March and August 2011, and the filming took place over 100 days in two stages: 20 days in September 2011 and 80 days from March – June 2012. A crew of 12 was assembled for the first 20 days and a crew of 5 filmed the 80 days. This small but intrepid team became my ‘family’, best friends, allies and support team for the almost 3 months we spent in remote locations in Borneo: Ismail Fahmi Lubish (Ezther), our valiant and brilliant cinematographer, Tony Allison, our  production and location manager and all round ‘fix-it man’, and the invaluable local team of Deny Sofian and Venie Hartinie from Canopy Indonesia. I returned in March 2013 with the 80 days crew of 5 to film the post-script. 

Director’s diaries of filming in Borneo  
PART 1  | PART 2  | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6

Editing took place from December 2012 to May 2013, with audience testing and feedback during May and June. My two major collaborators during this time were editor Scott Walton and composer Loic Valmy. I came to love and appreciate the fine work of these two artists and the film would not be what it is without their contribution. We locked off the edit at the end of June and online post-production including sound mixing, picture grade, titles, effects and credits by end of July 2013. Paul Butler was responsible for managing the animations and effects team who performed miracles in the final weeks of the edit.

Now that the film is complete and we are embarking on the marketing, distributing and outreach stage the film I have taken off the director’s hat and put on a new one. I see myself as a kind of ‘conductor’ in what I am describing as a ‘Transmedia Symphony’. This new role is a merging of the director and producer role and includes the task of keeping the global and disparate parts of the distribution and outreach components in harmony.

During the production stage of the film, Virgo Productions and the eco-warriors connected with supporters and online audiences via the project’s website, blogs, facebook and twitter. We also took part in a series of schools’ webinars from our locations in Borneo.  The eco-warriors continue to engage with their followers via facebook, twitter, blogs, photo sites (Flickr and Instagram) and fund-raising campaigns. Virgo Productions has produced and released over ten short teasers and information clips via our website and more are planned in the lead-up to Christmas 2013.  The project continues to build participation from schools, social networks and aligned organisations.

We are seeking new partners and new sources of finance to fund this stage.  The cinema release is scheduled for March 2014 with a simultaneous education release. The project already has a substantial following online with over 32,000 likes on our Facebook page and over 3,000 twitter followers.  Stage one of the website has been launched in conjunction with Hoodlum and White Crow.  The first in a series of fund-raising screenings was held in Sydney, organised by eco-warrior Ben Dessen. Over 350 people attended and saw the film on the big screen in Rouse Hill in western Sydney. Ben raised $5,500 for the ongoing work with the orangutans in Sintang and in the village of Tembak.  

Screen Queensland hosted a VIP and Brisbane International Film Festival Satellite screening of the film in late October at the Palace Barracks in Sydney. Over 200 people attended and the film was well received. Vox pop clips of audience reactions were filmed at both the Sydney and Brisbane screenings for release on the Facebook page. 

Education and outreach strategy

From the genesis of the project, we have focused on creating a platform for large-scale networks capable of taking the messages of the film to a wide global audience. These networks include Microsoft Partners in Learning, Taking It Global, Geodan, Canopy Indonesia, Rainforest Connections, Australian Teachers of Media, EduTech and ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education).

Taking It Global manages DeforestACTION and the global schools component and has already engaged over 1,900 schools and 60,000 students in multiple countries. In Australia, an information email and survey was sent out to 40,000 teachers in November 2013 through the Geography Teachers Association and Australian Teachers of Media (ATOM).

A study guide has been developed for teachers in primary and secondary schools and a major university release plan is in development. An Education Roadshow is planned for 2014, taking the film to schools and universities in regional areas and around the country.

Monitoring and measuring outcomes

Rise of the Eco-Warriors has a core objective – to inspire and motivate young people to shift from inertia and despair about the future and realise that every individual matters, every action counts. Through inspirational role modelling, the film aims to motivate young audiences to step out of their own comfort zones, seek answers to critical questions and ask themselves: what can I do? A key message is that every action, no matter how small, counts.

The film drives audiences to our website – www.ecowarriorsrise.com – and this will in turn guide them to further information and actions they can take. We can measure the extent of traffic on the website, where they go for information or what actions they take.

Key partner organisations associated with the project are:

• Canopy Foundation: providing eco-tourism and support for projects in Borneo

• Rainforest Connections – crowdfunding for the protection of rainforests.

• Say No to Palm Oil – information on palm oil and how to avoid it.

All of these organisations will have in place the capacity to measure the number of visitors coming to their site after seeing the film, and can provide information on the actions they take. 

Rise of the Eco-Warriors is a case study in a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) ARC funded three year education project on the impacts of Australian content in the education sector. We are also partnering with not-for profit organisations including Rainforest Connections and Canopy Indonesia who are running projects on the ground in Indonesia. For the political campaigns we will partner with organisations such as GetUp, Avaaz and Change.org. The producers are also working closely with the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF) to locate and forge new partnerships with philanthropy groups and individuals. Discussions continue with Microsoft, Samsung and Garuda regarding their role in the release of the film and how to measure the impact. New partners for the outreach stage are being sought and planning for the Education Roadshow is underway. 

Cathy Henkel Diaries of filming in Borneo – coming soon


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