Kepulihan documents tsunami recovery

A haiku-like simplicity defines the most powerful eyewitness testimony of Kepulihan: Stories from the Tsunami. Screening Sat., June 13, as part of the D.R.E.A.M. series at the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site, the film chronicles the first-hand experience of four Indonesian survivors of the 2004 tsunami. The natural disaster claimed more than 230,000 lives in eight Asian countries. One survivor describes the destruction of his home: “The ocean water was black and had already entered the house … For days, this area was covered with corpses.”

Kepulihan’s early scenes make an enormous impact through footage of the floodwaters and wrecked villages. Primarily, filmmaker David Barnhart of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance devotes the film to the recovery effort of four Indonesians trying to reconstruct their lives: Mahmud, a painter; Damai, a young woman injured by a collapsing wall; Rahman, a pedicab driver; and Yadi, a young farmer. From 2005-2008, the camera crew checked in with each survivor once a year to track their progress. Over the course of the film, Yadi marries, has a child and participates in a farming cooperative that grows from two to 43 families. Damai, rendered paraplegic by a collapsed wall, goes from complete dependence on her mother to working an assistant manager job at a rehabilitation center.

Inspiring as it may be to see these people rebuild their lives after the worst devastation imaginable, Kepulihan seldom conveys the drama of the situation. Where the documentary Trouble the Water captured the first-hand experience of two Hurricane Katrina survivors with harrowing immediacy, Kepulihan generally maintains the perspective of outsiders looking in. The vignettes with the four survivors tend to be too cursory to engross the audience, and the voiceover English translations (featuring local stage actors Widdi Turner and Steve Coulter) inevitably create more emotional distance.

Perhaps it's unfair to hold the documentary to the standards of the nonfiction films that usually tour the art-house circuit, since Kepulihan seems to be designed as a learning tool for people already involved in disaster relief and other aid organizations. Such groups play significant roles for each of the four subjects, and it may have been interesting to follow an aid worker’s challenges in trying to implement a program.

The incessant narration consists almost entirely of academic-sounding verbiage about how the recovery process involves “putting in place the building blocks to move the family to next level.” But though such platitudes don’t make for a compelling movie, one can see how Kepulihan would have enormous value with everyone involved in the reconstruction.