Fifty years ago, Dr Erik Jensen ventured to the remote state of Sarawak, to live and work with the indigenous Iban Dayaks – the former headhunters of Borneo – at a time when they were enduring great political change. Half a century later, Erik journeys back to meet some of his old friends and discover how they are adapting to life in a rapidly changing world. Student writer Joseph McLauchlan was joined by director Dan Childs, producer Michelle Cullen and Dr Erik Jensen himself to discuss the film.
Joseph McLauchlan: What was it that first attracted you to Erik’s story?
Dan Childs: It was quite convoluted, really. I had just made a short film in Peru, and Michelle wanted to make a film about the Iban. She contacted me for advice about shooting in the rainforest, and soon enough we decided to make the film together. We contacted Erik, hoping he would be an advisor on the project, but after a brief reconnaissance mission to Borneo we discovered how well regarded he was over there, and decided to make him the vehicle for us to tell our story instead.
Dr Erik Jensen: As Dan said, in the initial plan I was certainly not going to be in the film. Instead my role was to offer advice and create the contacts, put people in touch with one another and that sort of thing. But yes, certainly not be in it.
Michelle Cullen: I remember we were sat in a Chinese restaurant having a Tiger beer, and we both said, “Erik needs to come here and we need to convince him to come with us.”
EJ: I wasn’t keen. I remember thinking “who’s going to want to watch a doddery old man wandering around?” What they want to see is a sprightly, beautiful, attractive young woman. Or a young man. Just a different type of person, really. On the other hand, by this point I knew these people were the kind I would like to make to the film, and it became clear that if I didn’t agree to be in it then it wasn’t going to happen, so I agreed. And, if I may say so, we developed an excellent cooperation.
JM: In the documentary, Erik is reconnected with many of the same Iban he befriended during his first time in Sarawak. How did you go about tracking them all down?
EJ: I’ve always maintained long-distance contact. I was very young when I first visited Sarawak – in my twenties. I recruited a group of Iban from a slightly more progressive area who were all around seventeen, eighteen, that sort of age, and because of the conditions we were working under we became very close, very like a family. There were seven of us in total. Three have died, but fortunately we got there in time for the other four.
MC: It was very emotional bringing him back to meet everyone again.
JM: Erik, you say in the documentary you first became aware of the Iban as a schoolboy. Was there a particular moment you realised you wanted to know more?
EJ: I can still remember the book I found them in, actually. I should still have it somewhere. It was called People of the Lands, or something along those lines. There were pictures of people from around the world, Dutch people walking on wooden shoes – all that sort of stuff. There was also a section on more exotic peoples, and in this section was a picture of a headhunter which was used in the film, and beside that was an even nicer picture which we didn’t use, of a giant bell…
DC: Let’s keep it clean, Erik.
EJ: Dan has the most extraordinary ability to edit my less appropriate remarks – but yes, my eventual arrival in Sarawak was really quite fortuitous… I met, almost entirely by chance, the Anglican Missionary Bishop when he came to Oxford, and I’d been drinking a lot of sherry as we did in those days, and I started telling him how the missionary societies ought to understand much better the interaction between economic change and religious belief, and that if you change people’s religion you actually, quite often, undermine some of their fundamental economic assumptions – and vice versa. I was very sure of myself academically, despite not having much real experience or anything, but I knew the arguments. Anyway, he listened to me, and then he said, “well, if you’re so interested in this, why don’t you come out and do some research in Borneo?” One thing led to another from there, and eventually, fortuitously, I got to Sarawak, and I absolutely loved the place.
JM: ERIK AND THE IBAN was partly crowdfunded; would you say that’s the direction the documentary industry is going now?
DC: I don’t have a huge experience of crowdfunding, but certainly for what we did it was a very useful injection. It probably made about a quarter of the money that we needed.
MC: It helped massively when it came to getting us out there, paying for flights and things. It was huge.
DC: Generally speaking, for larger things it’s something that’s definitely happening more and more as well.
MC: It’s also about creative control. I work as a production manager in television, and if you pitch something and get given a lot of money to make it, then obviously you’re not given as much free rein to do whatever you want.
EJ: I went to a screening last week, whereupon I got the impression the crowd funders were very pleased with their investment.
JM: In a pre-release video you mentioned you didn’t want to make “just another boring travel documentary.” Erik’s involvement already puts you a step ahead in that regard, but what other steps did you take to separate it from the pack?
DC: That’s a very good question. I think, like Michelle said, there weren’t very many films around about the Iban at the time, and we felt it was right that a film should be made on the subject.
MC: We also really wanted to document their personal relationships and the sense of unity they have – to tell a story that way.
DC: Having Erik’s footage helped massively as well – all this stuff that hadn’t been developed since it was first captured fifty years ago. So much more evocative than photographs, and it just takes you straight back to that time. It was all great as well, fortunately.
EJ: I was rather pleasantly surprised myself!