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The international press has repeatedly covered the precarious working conditions of sulphur miners at the Javanese Ijen volcano. Spanish director Alvaro Gurrea responds to these one-sided representations of the workers’ misery and poverty with his film MBAH JHIWO (MBAH JHIVO – ANCIENT SOUL), which gives the local protagonists a platform to represent themselves. Gurrea spent five years in conversation with his non-professional actors and developed a script based on these exchanges.

Against the backdrop of the hard physical labour of sulphur mining and its associated health risks, the film takes up two great misfortunes in the life of Yono, the main character: his wife Olive has left him – he desperately wants her back – and his mother suddenly falls seriously ill. MBAH JHIWO presents these misfortunes in three narratives, whose plot repeats but which play out in different contexts: through the lens of traditional animism, against the backdrop of the ascendancy of Islam in Indonesia and in the context of local expressions of global techno-capitalism.

The Indonesian island of Java is known for its cultural diversity and coexistence of different religions. Throughout its history, Java was exposed to a variety of influences: the religions and cultures of India, increased Islamisation, ‘Westernisation’ as well as the more recent processes of re-Javanisation and the associated return to the ‘old traditions’. In practice this means that on Java different cultural influences not only exist alongside each other in separate spheres, but that they interact with each other closely and immediately.

Animist traditions on Java

MBAH JHIWO’s first narrative focusses on Javanese animist traditions and associated rites. After his wife Olive leaves, Yono seeks out a traditional shaman. This dukun, as the magical healers are locally called, makes use of exorcist practices in order to get Yono’s wife to return to her husband.

Shamans have always been an integral part of the culture in both rural as well as urban Java and are currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Personal conversations and the media alike are full of the sometimes fantastical stories about the outstanding metaphysical and spiritual abilities of healers and shamans. This society-wide phenomenon is also reflected in the matter-of-fact way in which Indonesian presidents surround themselves with shamans as their steady advisors on the political stage. Shamans also help in everyday matters, however, protecting people from curses and harm and offering healing for all kinds of physical and mental suffering.

In MBAH JHIWO they perform magical practices in order to act upon Yono’s wife Olive from afar, and employ ritual massages, songs, dances and herbal medicine to heal his gravely ill mother. In traditional mystical rites (kebatinan), they call upon the powers of gods or ancestors in order to support healing processes. The healing powers generated in this way routinely manifest in the invocation of water used to cleanse the sick body and/or spirit (membersihkan).

Indonesia: the largest Muslim nation

The second narrative shows Yono’s turn to Islam after his wife leaves him. The majority of Indonesia’s population follows the Muslim faith, making the country the world’s largest Muslim nation. Indonesia is considered a model for a tolerant and moderate Islam. The religion is coming to be increasingly politicised, however, leading to an upsurge in religious conflicts. This has included the increased marginalization of and violence toward religious minorities, such as in Kalimantan, in Aceh on the Maluku Islands and in Poso on Sulawesi. The government under President Joko Widodo, who has been in office since 2014, has not distanced itself from radical groups, which is another factor contributing to the polarisation of Indonesian society. Nevertheless, the majority of Indonesian Muslims continue to reject religiously motivated violence.

Islam rather provides the framework for everyday activities and the surahs of the Quran are looked to for advice in difficult circumstances, as MBAH JHIWO shows in relation to Yono’s separation from Olive and his mother’s illness. After his wife leaves, Yono goes to an imam, who advises him to pray and go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He offers Yono a package deal with a trip to Mecca costing approximately 26 million rupiah (about 1,500 euros). With his daily wage of 3.70 euros, there is no way Yono can come up with this sum. He asks the imam what to do, and is advised to devoutly pray to God, who will help him come up with this large amount of money.

The temptations of techno-capitalism

Indonesia is a rich country by virtue of its abundant natural resources. This wealth is very unequally distributed, however. More than half of the population lives off of only a few euros a day. At the other end of society there is obscene wealth, which is conspicuously flaunted by the country’s elite. Many feel drawn to this unattainable affluence.

About half of Indonesia’s 270 million citizens work in the informal sector, meaning they have little or no official social security. While the government has invested a lot of resources in recent years to expand universal healthcare, the Indonesian healthcare system not only has a shortage of medical equipment, but especially of well-trained doctors and nursing staff. The film shows how caring for his diabetic mother stretches Yono’s finances to the breaking point.

The film presents the three great forces influencing the people of Indonesia in distinct chapters, while in real life they remain closely intertwined.

MBAH JHIWO also touches on the topic of cryptocurrencies, which are particularly popular in Indonesia. It is speculated that roughly eleven percent of the population own cryptocurrencies, although this seems high. Beyond dispute however is the fact that mobile payment has long been part of everyday life in Indonesia, particularly among technophilic young people who try to bypass the instabilities of the rupiah by buying cryptocurrencies. For a commission, brokers provide information on the way cryptocurrencies work and how to trade with them, promising the possibility of fast money in virtual space. In the film, Yono is encouraged by his friends and a broker to invest his money in cryptocurrencies in order to get his wife Olive back as a rich man.

In this third episode, the potential achievements of modernity in Yono’s life are put on display: his expensive motorcycle, modern home electronics and (probably fake) Prada blanket. This is contrasted with his hard, archaic working life, in which he spends twelve hours a day breaking sulphur rock out of the volcano crater with an iron bar and then carrying bamboo baskets weighing ninety kilos up steep paths out of the mine. For meagre wages, Yono breathes in highly toxic sulphur dioxide, destroying his bronchi and lungs. In this context, the desire for fast money is all too understandable.

The unity of pluralism

The film presents the three great forces influencing the people of Indonesia in distinct chapters, while in real life they remain closely intertwined. In practice, this means that people looking for healing combine modern Western medicine with animist as well as religious elements. Thus shamans visit municipal hospitals on a daily basis in order to carry out rituals and treatments for their patients. Animist rituals are also integrated into Islamic contexts and of course the techno-capitalist pressure to commodify is in effect here as well.

The lives of Javanese people are thus shaped today by traditional animist roots, the influence of Islam, as well as modern techno-capitalism. In addition, there are numerous other global and local influences that have an effect on the way people act and think. The plurality of the discussions around values and the practices associated with them are an important characteristic of Indonesia. This means that everyday life in the largest island nation of the world is always more multifaceted and dynamic than each individual norm.


Kristina Großmann is Professor for Anthropology of Southeast Asia at the University of Bonn

Nicole Weydmann is research fellow at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Bonn

Translation: Millay Hyatt


Further reading:

Nicole Weydmann: Healing is not just dealing with your body – A Reflexive Grounded Theory Study Exploring Women’s Concepts and Approaches Underlying the Use of Traditional and Complementary Medicine in Indonesia, Berlin, regiospectra Verlag, 2019.

Gunnar Stange, Rolf Jordan, Kristina Großmann: Handbuch Indonesien, Angermünde, 2015.

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