Poverty, land rights feature at film festival in Indonesia's Papua

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua hosted its first independent film festival this week, showing documentaries on social issues such as land rights and grinding poverty, but steering clear of the highly sensitive subject of separatism.

The festival, hosted by a local filmmakers’ community, screened 10 amateur documentaries in the town of Merauke on Aug. 7-9. The organizer said the festival attracted 600 people.

The organizers, Papuan Voices, said the festival aimed to show “a new perspective that places Papua as a subject in seeing and determining its own future and contributing to ending the injustice in the land of Papua”.

Papua is one of the poorest regions in Indonesia despite being rich in resources like natural gas, copper and gold.

It has suffered an often violent separatist conflict since it was incorporated into Indonesia after a widely criticized U.N.-backed referendum in 1969. Dutch colonial rule ended in 1963.

Organizer Urbanus Kiaf said by telephone that all the films were passed by Indonesia’s censorship board without being cut or censored, but plain-clothed police attended some screenings.

“They asked for explanations of what the story was for each of the films and they asked for a list of names of the organizing committee, but otherwise they just watched,” he said.

Kiaf said the poverty shown in the films was a symbol of “economic and intellectual oppression” and how Papuans often lacked land rights, after selling to investors cheaply.

One example was the film that won third place.

Director Elisabet Apyaka said her film, “For Novalinda and Andreas”, showed how a single mother had raised her two children by selling taro, banana and betel on a small patch of rented land.

“This shows that Papuan women are the head of families here, they get up early to do house chores, work in their garden and feed their kids,” Apyaka said.

The fact that the festival went ahead was a sign of progress in Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s efforts to open up Papua, said Human Rights Watch’s researcher Andreas Harsono, adding that it would have been banned in the past.

Widodo has given clemency to a number of political prisoners in Papua who were unfairly prosecuted and imprisoned for exercising their rights of freedom of expression, Harsono said.

However, a report by the International Coalition for Papua said there was a significant aggravation of Papua’s human rights in 2015 and 2016.

Rights groups also recently accused police of lethal force on people protesting against a construction company, by shooting dead one person and wounding 16.

Additional reporting and writing by Gayatri Suroyo; Editing by Ed Davies and Nick Macfie