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‘Ring of Fire’ video series

31 May 2011

In the early 1970s, two British brothers started out on a years-long exploration of Indonesia. They made it their business to visit locations where very few Western people had ever set foot, and they documented their adventures with 16mm film. Lorne Blair had experience as a filmographer, and his brother Lawrence had completed a Ph.D. in psycho-anthropology.

In the late 1980s the films were transformed into a four-part series that aired on U.S. public television. Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey, should not be confused with an IMAX film and DVD about volcanoes that is also titled Ring of Fire. I was hesitant to order it after reading the reviews at Netflix — while a lot of people liked the series, some of the negative reviews raised a red flag for me. I am not so interested in watching old, grainy film footage or listening to old-style narration by some Western man talking about the quaint native customs.

I am glad I did not heed those negative reviews, because I enjoyed all four parts of the original series immensely. (I could have done without the fifth part — an hour made in the 1990s in which Lawrence takes a group of Western tourists to Papua.) They are:

  1. Spice Island Saga
  2. Dance of the Warriors
  3. East of Krakatoa
  4. Dream Wanderers of Borneo

I’m not sure that all the information conveyed in the narration is 100 percent accurate, and I know that today, more than 30 years later, most of these places do not look the same, and most of the people are living at least somewhat differently. That doesn’t change the vicarious thrill of seeing the two brothers sailing along with a dozen men and boys in a Bugis prahu on the open sea or hanging out with so-called Punan people in Kalimantan (some of the men in that part of the video have traditional Iban tattoos, but many other people have Tree of Life tattoos that look like the designs of the Kayan and those on beaded Kenyah baby carriers).

What I enjoyed most was seeing people doing their day-to-day tasks, or playing with their children, or sitting outside their houses. The atmosphere and tone of these videos is not so much like a traditional documentary as it is like someone telling you a story — a rare and unusual story, and one you envy him for having lived.

I also like the way Lawrence Blair spoke of wayang kulit, with respect to its being interwoven throughout Indonesian culture. Which side of the screen is the shadow, and which side is the reality?

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