Interview: Sasha Friedlander, “Where Heaven Meets Hell”

Where Heaven Meets Hellthe latest documentary in our ongoing Art of the Real series, tells the story of sulfur miners in Indonesia. Despite being set in a distant land and immersed in such a specific culture, the film was actually directed by an American. Sasha Friedlander's commitment to her subjects and the telling of their stories makes for a moving portrait of the miners lives. Speaking via phone, Friedlander talked about how her deep personal investment and interest in Indonesian culture moved her to make the film, the difficulties of filming at the sulfur-filled mining location, and much more.  

What sparked your interest in Indonesian culture?

When I was seven years old, my parents decided that we would go on a trip to Indonesia. They’d done a lot of travelling before I was born and had been to Indonesia twice before and had really fallen in love with the people and culture. We all went over there together and we would all go off on our own and study our own specific sects of the culture and different art forms. I was really interested in Balinese dancing, my mom was interested in painting, and my dad loved the music.

After that first trip, we would go back almost every year until I went off to college, where I studied Indonesian language for four years. After I graduated from UCLA, I moved there for two years and it was during that time that I came across Kawah Ijen and that’s when the idea sparked for the film.

How did your first encounter with Kawah Ijen come about?

I was working for an Indonesian newspaper when one of my friends from America took a trip across Java. When they came back and showed me their photographs, I was struck by how beautiful it looked. So, I took the trip myself and immediately I was fascinated by the miners who were there and struck up conversations with them and found their stories so fascinating, the contrast between the beauty of the land and the laboring of the miners. I thought it would be so incredible to spend some time there, make a film, and follow several miners over the course of a year or several months. It took about two years to get back to do that.

In the scenes at Kawah Ijen, coughing is basically an ambient sound due to these encasing clouds of sulfur dioxide. How hard was it to shoot in such conditions?

It was very difficult. When the crew and I came to Kawah Ijen we were sure to order gas masks. But in the beginning, we didn’t want to use them, if possible, so we could sink in with the environment and get the respect of the workers. Of course, the first day we were hit with this huge cloud of sulfur dioxide gases and it’s just unbearable to breathe. After that, I knew I needed to protect my crew so we wore the masks. But even with the gas masks, it’s still difficult. When these billowing clouds of smoke come towards you, you don’t want to breathe. It seeps into your nostrils and gets into your eyes. Throughout the day you can’t get rid of it. For the miners it’s worse, obviously. They’re there every day.

That depth of knowledge and interest must have helped in gaining the trust of the miners and their families.

Definitely. My knowledge of Indonesia and my past experiences helped these people open up to me but I think my fluency in the language was what really allowed them to feel comfortable with me. Most of the miners didn’t know about my past experiences. It was more my skill with the language that in their minds equated with the fact that I had been there for a while.

Despite working in such close quarters, the miners you follow are certainly different and unique characters. How did you come to choose the miners you followed?

I didn’t have the luxury of having a scout trip and meeting people without the camera. We were really crunched on time and I was nervous about spending too much time finding the right people and missing everything else. Fortunately, we were really lucky and met everyone within the first few days of being there.

Also, I had an idea in my mind the types of characters that I thought I would need to tell the story the way I wanted. So I just began communicating with people and it became pretty obvious who fit and was best for telling this story.

They miners themselves, and their familes, quite literally tell the story with the voiceover used throughout the film. Did you know you were going to use the interviews in this way beforehand or was that a decision you made during post-production?

After my first of two trips, I was editing for three months and started to realize what I needed to tell the story. Most of those soundbites you’re referring to happened on the second trip but none of the interviews were done with a tripod. They were all handheld. They were meant to be very informal.

Of the interviews you see, most if not all of them are conducted while the subject is washing clothes or cooking food or going about some ordinary, mundane chore in their life. There aren’t any talking heads in the film.

Exactly and that’s how I wanted it. I wanted these people to just go about their lives. If I asked them while they were washing the laundry, then they answered while doing so and to me, that was the best way to get the story across.

You’re understanding of these people goes many years back and is clearly a deep interest of yours. How does your film correspond to that personal investment?

When I set out to make the film I had it in my mind that I wanted to honor these people and their families. Very early on I noticed how they went through their lives with such dignity despite such horrific labor that leaves their bodies broken and tired. They still keep their heads up and have this sense of pride. I made a point to shoot this film that looked up to them.

That outlook you mentioned seems centralized in Anto, one of the minors your film closely follows. Can you talk about Anto’s positivity and persistence, and how it affected your film?

From day one that was Anto’s outlook and it was definitely unique to me. He actually approached me and started talking to me in English. Instantly, I was interested in his story. He has such big dreams for himself and he really feels that he will separate himself from that work and that lifestyle through his intellect and determintation. From the beginning of the film we wanted to tap into that side of him and see where it would go.

Some scenes in the film are more obviously hand-held camerawork, some are even in slow-motion, and in some moments the camera is locked-off in a more portraiture manner. But, there remains a unified sense of the life in these scenes. Could you speak about the film’s style?

I was very inspired by films such as Yung Chang’s Up the Yangzte and Leonard Retel Hemrich’s Position Among the Stars, films that feel like narrative films in the way that they’re shot. Since the landscape of our film is so picturesque, to capture that in the best way we felt we needed to frame things. But as you said it’s a combination of styles.. At times, it’s more vérité but really, what was most important to me was getting these people to tell their story and honor them. I didn’t want title cards or anything like that. This film is about these men and we wanted to shoot it in a way that puts them up on a pedestal, in a way.

Have you shown the film in Indonesia?

When we premiered in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Film Festival, we took a flight from there to Indonesia. We brought a projector, a big white sheet, some bamboo poles, and screened the film for about 500 villagers. It was very powerful, one of our best screenings.s

Where Heaven Meets Hell screens Tuesday, October 16 at 6:30pm as part of our ongoing documentary film series Art of the Real. Sasha Friedlander will be in person for a Q&A.

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