‘Grit’ Shines a Hopeful, Furious Light on an Environmental Disaster

In 2006, a massive eruption of hot mud in Sidoarjo, Indonesia buried 16 villages and drove more than 60,000 people out to escape the sudden, unstoppable flow. The eruption was caused by Lapindo, a natural gas company, who had been drilling deep in the earth and struck a pocket of hot mud, resulting in the eruption. (Lapindo blames an earthquake that occurred around the same time, approximately 180 miles away.) As the families fled and relocated, the mud continued to flow, burying villages, fields, homes, and people, filling the air with fumes, breaching bamboo levies built to contain it, and threatening the local water supply. The mud is still erupting, and is expected to continue until 2030.

Within this context, directors Cynthia Wade and Sasha Friedlander present Grit, an intense, infuriating, but ultimately hopeful documentary about the aftermath of the Sidoarjo mud flow and the people it affected. The story centers on one family and their friends: Dian, who was six years old when the accident occurred, her mother, her friends, and several other survivors of the eruption. Dian’s mother and other adult survivors make their living by ferrying tourists to the site of the mud flow for selfies and photoshoots, while attempting to extract repayment from Lapindo for the property and lives lost. The company is owned by the Bakries, one of the wealthiest families in Indonesia, who claim, severally, that they are not responsible for the eruption, that they don’t have the money to pay the victims, or that those asking to be paid have no proof of land ownership. As Dian, now a teenager, grows older, she becomes more heavily involved in political and environmental activism, demanding that the government protect the people.

Grit chronicles a man-made environmental disaster that received very little play on the world stage, meticulously building the relationship between Lapindo and the complexity of Indonesian politics while simultaneously highlighting the lives of the mud flow’s victims. The early parts of the film make comprehensive use of gorgeous, terrifying imagery of the flow itself, as the earth vomits up steaming mud that’s then displaced into a nearby river, or hardens into a weird, lunar-like crust. Bakrie, an Indonesian Donald Trump, self-justifies and back-pats as he attempts to buy presidential elections and further entrench himself against the victims of his company’s environmental violence.

In the midst of this are Dian, her mother, and their friends, tirelessly working for reparations from Lapindo to ensure a future for the children displaced by the flow. A local artist constructs a protest piece in the wasteland of dried mud—a group of statues holding clothing, books, and TV sets that are slowly buried under the mud flow over the course of the film. The teenagers attend school, where they discuss the mud flow and its causes, and later campaign for a rival in the presidential election to unseat the current Indonesian president favored by Bakrie. The continued determination of the next generation, who were children when the mud flow began, forms the film’s ethical center—Dian and her friends look for hope in hopeless times and pursue justice in this moment and into the future, organizing protests, giving speeches, and using art to expose injustice and their own, specific violation at the hands of a large corporation and endemic political corruption.

Grit could very easily veer into a depressing narrative of the poor being pushed down, ignored, and broken by powerful corporations and politicians. It evades this simply by showcasing the strength of its subjects, not in any mean or exploitative sense, but through their own words and their determination to see justice done, even when the world fails them. There’s laughter and celebration as well as pain—protestors sing, dance, and play drums while throwing mud at an effigy of Bakrie, a protest as much about their continued joy as it is about their anger.

The willingness of the filmmakers to allow their subjects to speak for themselves brings the film away from even a hint of disaster porn. It is meant to infuriate the audience without casting them into hopelessness. Above all, Grit reminds us that, in the face of environmental disaster and apparent government indifference, there is a future worth fighting for.

Grit is showing on PBS, September 9, at 10:00 PM.

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