CYNTHIA: I was in Indonesia in 2012 and someone there said to me, “If you want to consider a new topic for a documentary, you should look into the mudflow.” I thought, what? I’d never heard of the disaster before. I visited the mud site for three days and conducted initial interviews on film and gathered enough material to make a three-minute film teaser.
It took a year to put the crew in place and to find my co-director, Sasha Friedlander, who grew up partially in Indonesia, worked as a journalist there, and is fluent in Bahasa. Then it was another five years of fundraising and production. We worked with both an Indonesian and a U.S. crew.
SASHA: I lived in Indonesia between 2007 and 2009, working for the Bali Post as a journalist and translator. During that time I’d covered the devastating story of the Lapindo mudflow in East Java, and I remember feeling moved and inspired by the protests mounting against the gas drilling company. Because the owner of that company was a key political figure in Indonesia, the government heavily censored the stories that were coming out in the news, so the coverage never left the archipelago.
When I received an email from Cynthia in May 2013 about the possibility of collaborating on a film about the mudflow, it was the first time I’d heard the story mentioned since I left Indonesia in 2009. I knew that there was a presidential election coming up in 2014. That offered a glimmer of hope for the mudflow victims, who were still waiting for their reparations from the drilling company. I was excited to get back to Indonesia and learn more about the situation through the lens of the activists. Cynthia and I hoped to make a film that would resonate with a Western audience. During the six years that we were filming Grit, we could never have imagined how many parallels would emerge between this story in East Java and the issues here in the United States.
Our hope is that audiences will leave the theater with a better understanding of the world’s largest Muslim country. We want people to think about the urgency for political engagement, the importance of women in leadership roles, and the power of art and perseverance in social and environmental struggles. It’s hopeful that we’re seeing young people stepping up and demanding change worldwide. After watching this story unfold, we hope audiences are inspired to cultivate their own determination, their own grit.
—Cynthia Wade and Sasha Friedlander, Directors, Grit