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Together We Rule

A new TV series aims to highlight Indonesia’s powerful grassroots spirit of community.

Here’s an interesting game: list the first three things that come to mind when you think of Indonesia’s representation on television. What have you got? News reports on natural disasters and extremism? Weird wildlife? Saccharine Sinetron episodes?

Funny how in this incredibly diverse nation of over 260 million people, inspiring stories about human ingenuity and spirit rarely make the list. Now, at a time when Indonesia is rapidly evolving, two passionate visual communicators want to change that with a groundbreaking new television series that aims to show a different side of Indonesia and her people.

Swadaya is the brainchild of renowned Indonesian journalist and photographer Rio Helmi and Joe Yaggi, an award-winning producer, director and the driving force behind Indonesia’s Jungle Run Productions. Together they have spent over 50 years documenting Indonesia, and although their career paths have often run parallel courses, this is the first time they have collaborated on a project.

The cultural adventure series will feature Rio’s journey by motorbike across Indonesia to uncover exceptional grassroots stories of people creating long-term projects that benefit their communities in life-changing ways. Swadaya means ‘empowered’ in Bahasa Indonesia, and the goal of the series is to inspire and empower people everywhere to have confidence in their own ability to effect positive change.

Rio says, “The idea was sparked when I started thinking about what happens when a village is abandoned either by the vagaries of bureaucracy or corruption. When I was younger there was this spirit in Indonesia of working together and solving problems as a community, but this seems to have evaporated with the modern lifestyle.

“Over time I’ve seen things change as local cultures get broken down and sucked into the consumer stream. Their sense of pride, self-reliance and self-worth starts to get watered down. Values have shifted to meaningless things, so people get frustrated when they feel they are cheated out of what their rights as citizens are.

“But then I started noticing situations where people were taking things into their own hands. When people have their own sense of worth and control over their lives they become stronger, and the power that comes out of that is wonderful.”

As Rio pondered more about the cultural and political crossroads that Indonesia faces and the people he had met who were forging their own path to better themselves and their communities, the idea of putting something on film began to form. He got in touch with Joe and the concept expanded.

Joe says, “It was interesting for me because Jungle Run has been doing production here for 24 years and we’ve worked on a wide variety of projects, but I realised with this that the last thing I wanted to do was make an NGO film. I thought what we need to do is figure out a way to make this into a broadcast entertainment program. Once we went down that road, it all started making sense.”

Joe and Rio decided on a television series of 13 episodes, each one clocking in at 30 minutes and covering a different community project in a different part of Indonesia. Coming up with a list of people and projects to cover was easy considering the storytellers have been travelling the archipelago for decades meeting dynamic characters doing inspiring work.

Episodes in the works include the story of a motorcycle gang in Flores that has rallied together to provide transport for midwives in remote areas and teach low-tech solutions to villagers in the mountains. Another episode will explore a village on a remote coast of West Papua where the kepala desa is a whale shark whisperer who convinced his community to build fish and aquaculture farms to support the village.

Although the main goal of Swadaya is to showcase these amazing stories and give Indonesians the opportunity to explore and experience the best of their country, there are many broader reaching aspects to the project.

Joes says, “If you look at what is going on in Indonesia right now, there is a major consciousness shift happening. The younger generation, who are going to move the country forward, are looking for meaning. So the more people feel connected to other people, the easier it will be to move these transitions forward in a positive way. It’s about connectivity, and local TV is one of the links that is going to move this project forward.

“We also realise that for the international market it’s going to be an interesting travelogue because you’ll be seeing Indonesia in a new way and interacting with people in a way that you typically don’t. One of my conditions for moving forward was that we produce it at the level of National Geographic and Discovery. There is so much talent in the industry here, so hopefully Swadaya will also serve as an example of what can be done on the television front in Indonesia.”

The response to Swadaya has been overwhelmingly positive. Through crowdfunding campaigns and professional networks, Rio and Joe have already raised roughly US$50,000 of the approximate $860,000 it will take to complete the project. If all goes to plan, the series will be released in mid-2018 on up to 100 television stations across Indonesia, as well as international platforms.

Rio says, “It’s exciting that there is this possibility of producing something that can go through layers of audiences. Hopefully people at the grassroots level can respond to it, as well as people on the national and international levels. We like to think of Swadaya as starting a movement, so we’ll see what happens.” S.M.