« Around the volcano »
Documentary movie (52 or 90 minutes) and Web documentary project
Direction: Pierre Quiqueré
Story: Pierre Quiqueré & Emmanuelle Polge
with pleasant collaboration of Benjamin Morin
Target: All ages
Main themes: Human adventure, discovery, portrait, ethnology, volcanism, natural disasters, earth sciences and geography.
Original version: Indonesian / ready to show multilingual dubbed version and ready to show subtitled version
Sumatra, at dusk, local authorities as well as the 25,000 worried inhabitants of the island, mainly peasants who took refuge in temporary shelters, turn and watch Sinabung volcano. After sleeping for about 400 years, it loudly awoke almost 6 months ago. In a region widely dependant on farming, the human and economic impact of such a crisis are considerable. How much more time will the eruption last? How to protect the population and save what can still be saved? Worse, what if people had to leave the area for good?
Facing the questions of all these disturbed people, the former volcanologist said: « I don’t forecast and I don’t predict ». He was appointed by the Minister to go at the heart of the catastrophe because of his great wisdom and know-how. Through a panorama of characters whose daily life is now dependent on nature’s wrath, it is the singular portrait of a population living, with its history, culture and traditions, in the direct neighborhood of volcanoes which can still kill people in the 21st century.
Sumatra, the largest island of the Indonesian archipelago, February 2014. Since September 15, 2013, the eruption of Sinabung volcano, 2480m high, situated 50 km from the economic capital city of Medan, has been gaining in strength. The number of villagers evacuated keeps increasing while the eruption is gaining ground. 25000 men, women and children are crammed in the 37 temporary shelters provided by the Civil protection. There have been no known historical eruptions reported though traces show evidence to the contrary. Day and night, every 20 minutes, surges, a mix of hot gases and molten rocks sweep down the flanks of the volcano and turn this area, which was Sumatra’s garden, into a desolate landscape. The many impacts on population and local economy, essentially agricultural, added to the responsible authorities’ concern, have reached their climax.
The disaster management, in this agricultural and fragile province, is a puzzling problem for the authorities. How much time will the eruption last? What to do to provide safety? What will happen to livestock, land, and harvest? How can the administration help the population to protect from the volcano but also ensure their livelihood and with what means? How to organise solidarity? How can a social life organise around the erupting volcano? What if, in the end, there is no other choice but to leave for good?
Facing all these difficulties, resulting from the persistent eruption but also local people’s disarray, the Minister in charge of natural disaster management has decided to appoint a mediator. The fate of Karo district inhabitants now rests with one man. Dr. Surono, a volcanologist of great experience, though now retired from the head of the national institute of natural risks prevention, was called again by the Ministry to deal with this new eruptive crisis in a country that counts around 130 active volcanoes. He must assist the civil protection responsible, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, who was sent to the scene at the beginning of the crisis. Indeed and Hendra Gunawan from the VSI intitute, based on his scientific interpretation of the last eruption of Merapi volcano in 2010 in Java, with the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia team, the authorities evacuated the population and within hours, tens of thousands people’s lives were saved. The few hundred deaths to mourn were people who didn’t follow the injunctions to evacuate, looters and unfortunately some unlucky first-aid workers and policemen. Dr. Surono has become a celebrity in his country, someone who cannot be ignored when a volcano coughs a bit loud! Close to people, he checks information every three hours concerning the fire giant behaviour and publishes understandable data on all social networks. Far from the pomp of his official responsibilities, as he was appointed an expert for the government, he has enjoyed a special aura and appears to be the only scientist that people can trust. When referring to him, they tend to add Mbah (grand-father) to his name, like the traditional witch keepers of the country’s volcanoes.
During his whole career at the National Institute of volcanism, Dr Surono had to deal with this kind of situation many times, a very difficult task in a country where the influence of local traditions and the vital need to maintain sustenance activities leave little space to the logic of sciences, which are the only useful tools to understand volcanoes.
In this film, we witness the crisis management with Dr Surono, monitoring Sinabung volcano, very close to the 5 seismologists appointed for the occasion, with the VSI and civil protection teams. We discover how, thanks to his expertise as a geophysicist, he is involved in decision making according to the common sense of his previous experiences.
In parallel, we follow a panel of characters who are representative of the society living in the little town of Berastagi, situated around ten kilometres from the volcano and in the surrounding villages: a family of peasants, a religious leader, a local administrative head and a civil protection officer in their daily life, largely disturbed by the events. The critical moment is at nightfall because, if incandescent block avalanches make a characteristic sound and leave light traces when bursting into pieces, surges emit no sound and in darkness, it is absolutely impossible to guess their direction or their size. These events, very frequent, lead to panic every night, even in the security zone, for those who do not sleep in one of the 37 evacuation centres set up by the authorities. At dawn, life returns to « normality » and peasants go back to their fields to see the damage resulting from ash deposits and save what can still be saved of cabbage, tomato or chilli cultures. The volcano’s discharges mixed with rain drops make up a kind of cement heavy enough to make the least resistant roofs collapse. If ultimately ash is a real fertilizer enhancing productivity of arable lands, it is still a major health problem because it contains numerous harmful elements such as phosphorus and fluoride. It can also cause severe irritations leading to respiratory infections. So, in every daily life activity, people protect themselves as well as they can and every idea is welcome, even the most ludicrous. It is also time to manage water and food supply for cattle. Children go back to school with their uniforms, coloured according to their level and age, colourful traces along the roads and in the landscape covered with dark grey volcanic ash. Then comes the time when people have to feed their family, and local solidarity plays a very important part in supplying water and food. It’s also an opportunity for the country’s biggest companies to support the victims. Then, it’s time for prayers and everyone, Muslims or Christians, join their own place of worship. Mosques and churches are often built on the same plot of land and harmoniously, everybody fervently praying for the eruption to stop. Regularly, authorities organise public meetings to report about the situation, inform and justify their latest decisions. Finally, walking along dazed pets at the corner of village streets, in the twilight, never losing sight of Sinabung volcano which majestically dominates the valley, Karo district inhabitants go back home for the luckiest or to the temporary shelters for the others.
With these events, the daily life in Indonesia, their lifestyle, cultural differences, the perception of environment and the part played by beliefs are captured, as well as the difficulties encountered by volcanologists and authorities who must smoothly manage an intricate situation in a country where, unfortunately, volcanoes can still kill people, even in the 21st century.
Sinabung volcano (Credit : Oom Endro Lewa)
life in centres! (Credit : Oom Endro Lewa)
Confronting ash invasion, people protect as well as they can. (Credit : Getty image)
Culture are under ashes (Credit : Oom Endro Lewa)
Doctor Surono (AP Photo) :
Dr Surono was born on July 8th, 1956 and is the father of two children. It was just after volcano Galunggung’s major eruption, not far from Bandung where he lived in 1982, that he decided to become a volcanologist. He thus went to Bandung Technological Institute in 1982 in order to study physics. He finished his studies in 1993 with a doctorate in geophysics at the University of Grenoble, in France; the subject of his PhD was Mount Kelut volcano, very symbolic as it was one of the major natural disasters of the 20th century with more than 5,000 casualties. And indeed, following this eruption, the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia, a national institute to supervise volcanoes, was created in Java by the Dutch. After graduating with honours, he went back to Java and naturally joined the VSI team, and became Head of its Physical parameters analysis Department. He became Director of the VSI in 2001. In 2005, he was appointed Director of the PVMBG (Center for Volcanology and Geological hazard Mitigation).
But to introduce Dr Surono without mentioning his field work would be meaningless, as he himself acknowledges: « I was meant to live among ashes ». Indonesia has many active volcanoes, there have been many major crises which helped him gain a good experience of volcanic hazard. « I don’t forecast and I don’t predict », he declared not long ago to the journalists with whom he has always had friendly relationships. He hit the peak of his career when Merapi volcano erupted, during its last eruptive cycle between 2006 and 2010. This can seem late but “only a very good experience of all that concerns volcanoes”, as Haroun Tazieff would say, can lead to this level of efficiency. He then earned people’s consideration, though they used to only trust witches and disapproved of scientists in charge of surveying volcanoes. He definitely won his reputation when Merapi volcano had its centennial eruption in 2010. Indeed, he needed some self-assurance to have the authorities rightly evacuate several thousands of people before the disaster just on the basis of « warning signs of a major supposedly violent manifestation », the volcanologist’s holy Grail. «Yes, there is a part of intuition» he admits, but only data must lead volcanologists to make recommendations to protect men». He was bestowed the honorary title of Mbah (grand-father), usually given to shamans who communicate with volcanoes and keep them, because of his great wisdom and undeniable proximity with people. But above all, his qualities and scientific expertise allowed the number of casualties due to volcanic eruptions to drastically drop during his career.
He offered his resignation a first time after 30 years of good and loyal service, but his supervisory minister refused it. «I need to step back, others must conduct prevention of natural hazard, the institution must keep on working without me» he said while organising his succession at the head of the Institute. He finally retired in the summer of 2013. For this second life, Dr Surono imagined he would have cows, but as he was appointed an expert to the Ministry of energy, he keeps on surveying the cattle and land of his fellow citizens.
Letter of intent from the authors:
Why this film? Among all the films mentioning volcanoes, unfortunately, none really deals with crisis management of a volcano eruption. Media usually focus on the spectacular side of volcanic disasters and turn a blind eye to the disturbance of the human ecosystem. Of course, the economical aspect is addressed and quickly becomes one of the favourite subjects, but what do we know, in the end, about the feelings of stakeholders of the crisis when it happens? Who let them speak? Who listens to them? Who shows their daily life? Who can help them face it? And finally, who, among us, knows that all volcanoes are considered to some extent as deities who can take lives but also offer prosperity and that they often play an important part in the surrounding human social organisation?
Is it not a lack of respect for those people to hide their problems and only publish pictures of the disaster, most of the time without any word of empathy towards them for all the misfortunes it causes? Isn’t it just fair to shoot this film?
A very interesting aspect lies in the singularity of events: as it had not erupted for centuries, Sinabung volcano’s risk potential was underestimated. Thus, there are, in the close vicinity, the district capital city, Kabanjahe in the South and the little town of Berastagi in the East, situated half way between Medan and the very touristic area of Lake Toba. This little town was beginning to hold its own as a tourist destination for the wealthy inhabitants of the neighbouring capital city in proposing baths linked with Sibayak volcano which shows clear signs of activity and luxurious landscapes. Hence, authorities have adopted a “step by step evacuation” policy, which means that, instead of a large-scale evacuation of the area following the worst-case scenario, they have evacuated little by little, according to the progression of the volcano, avoiding unnecessary losses. This policy may seem obvious but it is extremely innovative and perfectly adapted to reality on the field. This is not an easier task, of course, and it is also risk-taking, but in the end, this method limits the impacts. If people are moved away, farther than they should be, and nothing happens in the end, how to maintain confidence between the parties? As Mr Surono points with due seriousness: “Karo district inhabitants must get used to the new Sinabung now”, so we also want to show these shifts and how balance is restored.
Finally, beyond the emergency of the situation and even if it seems tragic, around volcanoes, two symbols are called upon: that of time immemorial nature and that of Pandora’s Box, features that every eruption increases tenfold by waking up every local belief. The shamble of free wandering animals, as there is no place for them in shelters, people reassuring others outside, while keeping an eye on the monster and then children in their happy time, they all already indicate the prelude to rebirth because such is history.
Why focus on Dr Surono? He is the only volcanologist in the world whose computations led to evacuating tens of thousands of people. In 2010, around Merapi volcano on Java Island, up to 270,000 people were moved away 24 hours before a major eruption. Of course, he relies on the work of a team to collect data that help him take this kind of decisions, but he has to weigh the personal position he must stand in order to be accountable for the actions undertaken; one has to realise what it means in terms of responsibility for a scientist. People could also consider him as arbitrary and cold; it is far from truth. If he is rigorous with his team, and this is what makes him so peculiar, Pr Surono is as close to people as one can be. This may be where he draws his strength. Very popular in his country and rather visible in the media when there is a volcano crisis, which happens quite often unfortunately, no one has looked into this character and this is what we want to do now. However, drawing the portrait of Dr Surono alone, out of his natural environment would have been meaningless, and the unique opportunity of the Sinabung eruption was the most appropriate time to do so. Though retired, his retirement has never been effective and he still feels very concerned by the situation. “I miss volcanoes, here in my Jakarta departmental office” he confessed during the preparation of this project. Maybe he has fully accepted his role as a “keeper of volcanoes” of Indonesia!
To conclude with a very personal point of view, we hope that this documentary film will help the press stop writing that Sumatra volcanoes are part of the famous “Pacific Ring of fire”, once and for all, Sumatra borders the Indian Ocean!!!
Note of intent of the director:
Two camera crews, one with Dr Surono, one for daily life shooting and interviews of local protagonists.
Concerning daily life sequences, three options are considered and shot for the film and web-documentary. Each character is followed, as much as possible, during a whole day. A standard interview is written for people with no particular job for the community and specific interviews for those who have one.
1/ A cast of characters chosen according to their role: a peasant man, a peasant woman, a child or two, a priest or a pastor, an imam, a political leader, a member of the civil security, a shopkeeper, the manager of a luxury hotel in Berastagi, a tourist or an amateur photographer coming from elsewhere in the country or from a foreign country. For the sake of editing and its originality, one or two animals …
2/ A nuclear family: grand-parents, parents, children and pets.
3/ Another nuclear family, with another religion or social condition for instance.
Concerning the two families, if possible, one in a shelter and the other at home, living in the affected area.
Concerning the volcano and its environment, if possible images with a nice weather and a rainy weather.
Shooting in the native language, Indonesian.
A driver and an interpreter Indonesian / French.
Shooting (2 or 3 weeks) in Sumatra, near Sinabung volcano.
Pierre Quiqueré in front of Merapi volcano (Credit : Benjamin Morin)
Production: Overdub interactive / Paris
Scenario: Pierre Quiqueré & Emmanuelle Polge
with pleasant collaboration of Benjamin Morin
Direction: Pierre Quiqueré (Last production « Robin des volcans » in 2011)