"A more meaningful and sustainable way to live": Interview with Rob Henry

From escaping an office job in Melbourne, to living with the Indigenous Mentawai people of Indonesia, Rob Henry's story is heart-warming and inspirational, intriguing and tumultuous. We chat to Rob ahead of our Q&A and the screening of his film, As Worlds Divide, at EFFA 2018.

What prompted you to 'escape the rat race'?

I was feeling fed up with all the greed invoked by our capitalist driven systems – culminated by the collapse of the global economy in 2007/8 and the impact this was having on our society. Reflecting on my own situation, I felt that I had become a part of this ‘rat race’ – as you put it, and was therefore contributing to the devastation affecting the globe. I felt awful and wanted to make a change, so I decided to leave Melbourne and go in search of a more meaningful and sustainable way to live where my contribution to society and the planet would be a positive one.

How did the Indigenous Arat Sabulungun community live in symbiosis with the environment?

Arat Sabulungan refers to the culture that Indigenous Mentawai people have survived by for thousands of years. Their intricate knowledge of the plants, animals and their surrounding ecosystems, encompassed by an animistic belief that all aspects of nature carry the spirit of their ancestors, results in a wonderfully symbiotic and subsistent cultural way of life. As an example of how in tune the Mentawai tribespeople are with their rainforest environment, gathering and preparing food to accommodate between 20-60 people per day appears virtually effortless; and instead, most of their time is devoted to socializing with each other and caring for their families.

What can we learn from the Arat Sabulungun community?

There is so much to learn. Not just from the Mentawai, but from the Indigenous knowledge, systems and practices of communities across the globe. Sustainable development is arguably the single greatest challenge of today’s society and what people fail to recognize is that Indigenous peoples are the founders of such. Their survival for tens of thousands of years, across a vastly diverse range of climate changes and ecosystems, should be evidence enough for this to be acknowledged. We place so much faith and reliance on the advancements of technologies as our modern savior that we overlook the fundamental value in caring for the environment, each other, sharing, community and strengthening culture. Seeing the importance Indigenous Mentawai place on protecting these fundamentals, and the influence these have on sustaining good health and wellbeing for their people, has been incredibly impacting. I’d go as far as to say that it is this has shielded Indigenous Mentawai from destitution.

How did your perception of the environment change living in this society?

It changed significantly. When I first moved into the forests of Mentawai I had no knowledge of their ecosystems and how they utilized them to sustain human survival. I felt like a toddler, clinging to whatever I could for guidance. Over time, with support of those around me, I learnt to stand on my own two feet and to find safety and comfort in the local forest resources / environment for my survival and good health. This type of relationship fosters a connection not too different to that of a child and its parent. I see the natural world in a completely different light, and in my humble opinion I’d suggest we ought to focus more attention on nurturing it for ultimate prosperity.

There's a moment in the film where the police enquire about your wellbeing. What was going through your mind at that time, and how did you straddle these two very different worlds?

At times, I do wonder about my mental disposition in those earlier years and wish I could recapture how I’d felt – an incredible freedom, having lost that sense of awareness for if or how others were judging me; feeling that everyone would naturally come together as a community to support a better world, and would understand the genuine intent behind my actions. However, during times I spent back in Australia I would often encounter incidents such as this with the police, which – whilst amusing – would also lead me to questioning my behaviours and why others perceived that I had spoken or acted inappropriately. Soon enough, these confusions start to revert the mind back to westernized thinking patterns, which often involves critically analyzing the things you say and do, fearing you may have offended or stepped outside the boundaries of society’s expectations. Bloody tiring stuff. Perhaps I was partially deluded at the time, but in the same breath it was the most alive and free I’ve ever felt – so how does that reflect on the constraints of our western world?

What was your favourite moment in the film?

There are many, but perhaps the most memorable was when I first arrived to the tribal community deep in the Siberut hinterlands. I could never have imagined just how different this Mentawai community would be from the coconut-farming village. I was shocked, and mesmerized at the same time. The pride, confidence, aesthetic, joviality, and most notably the spirit of these people, was such a sight to behold. This moment had a profound impact on me and, essentially, redirected the course of my life. I hope others can get a sense of this, and the stark contrast between the two, when meeting the Mentawai tribespeople in the film.

What are you doing now, are you back living in Melbourne?

I’m currently back in Australia rallying support so that Mentawai can prevent the loss of their precious culture and forest through a community-driven, Cultural and Environmental Education Program (CEEP). The As Worlds Divide film is an important component in helping raise awareness and funding for them to get their initiative off the ground. To help facilitate this, we have also established the Indigenous Education Foundation (IEF), which aims to empower displaced Indigenous communities to reconnect with culture and land as a prevention to poverty. Our focus is very much on the Mentawai program at the moment, but we hope to grow IEF to empower other displaced Indigenous communities here in Australia and around the world. I’m currently living with my family in the Otways forest. The prospect of living in Melbourne again was a little too daunting. We return to Mentawai again at the end of the year.

Why should people see this film?

As Worlds Divide provides opportunity to learn about – and from – a very unique (and rather humorous) Indigenous community and culture. Whilst doing so, you’ll also actively be lending your support to further empower their cultural and environmental education initiative. The Mentawai story is important, not just for the future of their indigenous culture and habitat, but for that of displaced communities all over the world who are fighting for their right for cultural recognition and the preservation of their lands.

Join us for a Q&A with Rob following a screening of As Worlds Divide, 8pm Sunday 14 October at ACMI, Federation Square. Book now via the ACMI website.