With the drumbeat of STEM growing louder on college campuses, the SEA x SEA Film Festival is a reminder that without the arts we miss the most important element in understanding and connecting with the world around us: the human. Last fall’s talk by Jennifer Gaynor about a massive land reclamation project that would create a string of artificial islands in Jakarta Bay “behind the protective span of a giant seawall shaped like the outstretched wings of the mythical bird Garuda,” revealed in colossal detail the dissociation between humans’ technological impulse and the apprehension of our real needs and limitations, a gap which can cloud moral judgment. Her talk raised the perennial post-Enlightenment question: just because we’ve figured out how to do it, should we really? Gaynor concluded her talk by showing photographs of the fishermen whose livelihoods are threatened by the depletion of fishing stocks and who had organized to “occupy” Islet G, one of the project’s early prototypes. They succeeded—at least temporarily—in halting further dredging and filling.
Many of the submissions in the SEAxSEA Film Festival reveal to us the human dimensions of contemporary concerns in Southeast Asia. Amarta, an audience-favorite from Indonesia, featured costumed actors on a set that seemed out of a surrealistic children’s book. The set design gave the impression of an ancient folk tale, but the topic—water rights and the commodification of water resources—is all too modern. Other filmmakers used humor to tackle the issue of ethnic tensions, as exemplified by Umbilical, which spotlighted discrimination against ethnic Chinese in Singapore. Violence confronting those who have migrated to neighboring countries to seek out work, the inherent dangers of the jobs that are open to them, and the complicity of government in fomenting ethnic conflict was portrayed more dramatically in Menuju Batas and So-Khin. The escalation of intra-national tensions between ethnic groups, and consequent reinforcement of stereotypes, was powerfully depicted in Kitorang Basudara which combined astounding acting and a cinema verite-esque style. Following two college-age brothers from Papua as one looked unsuccessfully for a room in a boarding house and the other made ends meet working as a repo man while writing his thesis, the film immersed the viewer in the daily frustrations experienced by minority groups. Kitorang Basudara ended with a radical suggestion in its low-key way: we can take the initiative to break the cycle by treating each other with decency.
Where these problems are not created by human nature, they are at least exacerbated by it. Engineering a solution without reference to cultural norms, values, and needs is therefore an exercise in futility. In The Peace Agency, a documentary about one grassroots effort toward interfaith reconciliation following the deadly religious conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi, an activist explained that shortly after the violence ended a number of national and international aid organizations rushed in. Three different aid groups built houses, all based on different plans emanating from their own organizational missions. The differences between them—some were perceived as more desirable than others—became the source of jealousy and renewed distrust in an area still reeling from conflict between neighbors. Another aid group imported a pediculicide intended to treat the minor and common problem of children’s head lice, but traumatized adults found it a highly effective means of committing suicide. The activist explained the community decided to find its own solutions rather than rely on strategies not informed by its true needs. The mathematical mind can design housing developments and artificial islands, but without an understanding of the needs of the people in whose name they are constructed, innovation cannot deliver on its promise to improve our lives.