I recently attended a screening of the documentary Isolated. Isolated is about surfers who visit West Papua in search of the perfect wave only to learn about the abuses of the West Papua people by the Indonesian government.
There is no question that the filmmakers’ experience in West Papua changed them in ways they could not have expected, and that the film is well intentioned. And indeed the movie does overall get stronger as it continues. But there are some serious problems with the beginning that it never quite recovers from.
Stylistically the movie borrows a fair bit from reality television, showing people engaged in some activity intercut with talking heads discussing the situation, plus a frequent voiceover. There’s less of the activity intercut with talking heads near the end but it never entirely goes away. Unlike actually reality shows there are no “coming up” bits nor do I think anything was staged for dramatic effect. Even so there is enough of a reality television aspect to it that it feels like things are being dumbed down a bit.
The most notable example is the sole female surfer in the group. It is unfortunate that there are no other women in the surfing group because she comes across as the least intelligent of the group and more than once I nearly walked out when she did one of her talking heads bits. In the early part of the movie there is considerable gratuitous footage of her in a bikini doing stuff. Being a straight male this experience was not entirely unpleasant but more than once I found myself thinking that I’m supposed to be thinking of the plight of the West Papua people but am instead consuming a large dosage of eye candy. It is telling that later in the movie, when things get a bit more serious she is largely absent despite the amount of screen time devoted to her in the first half (in fairness she does take an injury and this may have contributed to her reduced role as well).
Which brings me to another problem: too much time with the surfers, not enough time with the West Papuan people. I learned a lot more about each of the surfers than I did for any one of the natives. This is particularly a shame because some of the early footage is supposed to pay off later on and to a degree it does, but the effect is more muted than it should have because the earlier focus was more on the surfers than the villagers. The movie may have originally been intended to be your typical surf movie, but once the director, Justin Le Pera realized that the topic had changed, a lot of the surfing scenes, particularly ones without the natives should have been left on the cutting room floor or included as deleted scenes on the DVD/blu-ray. The apartheid movie Cry Freedom (which I liked a lot more) got criticism for focussing more on the white man than the black man. I think a similar criticism could be made for Isolated. In terms of shifting gears, I point to the documentary 9/11, which was supposed to be a documentary on a rookie fireman, but which was able to make the transition once the more interesting movie unexpectedly dropped in the filmmakers’ laps. I don’t think Le Para was entirely able to give up his original vision and the movie suffers as a result.
At around the one hour fifteen minute mark the movie does become a lot more interesting. I won’t spoil the specifics for people who are interested but suffice it to say the movie gets the “perfect wave” subplot out of the way and the participants are compelled to try to learn more. At that point the movie finally starts to fire on most cylinders and for most of the rest of the movie things are a lot more engaging. There are a few snags here and there but overall things are more concrete and the movie finally starts to paint a real picture of things. It’s just a shame it took seventy-five minutes to reach that point.
Le Para was present for a Q&A at the screening and someone asked about the process by which something was done to the villagers (I’m being vague for the benefit of people who may want to see this). Le Para explained he decided not to include that part in the movie and then described how that aspect was done, and wow, that really should have been in the movie. Had the movie focussed more on the villagers seen early on, downplayed the surfing bits (except where they relate to the villagers), shown that the villagers had been screwed over (this aspect was in fact done in the movvie), and then gone into detail on exactly how the villagers got screwed over, you would have had something really profound. Instead the movie is a tug-of-war between its surfing and political aspects which never quite gell together. I was more interested in the political aspects but I can also see a lot of other people being really engaged by the surfing aspects and wanting the political parts excised. Some movies can get away with shifting tones. From Dusk Till Dawn does this brilliantly. This felt more like two movies mashed together.
I think a lot of my problem with the movie is one of editing. In some ways this movie is more frustrating than a completely bad movie because I can see the stronger documentary underneath. Had there not been something I would not have been inspired to write this review. And again, if you make it to the one hour fifteen minute mark, things do pick up. But while I can forgive a slow start, the real meat should have been apparent even before the half hour mark. Therefore, while respecting its intentions and its efforts to raise awareness of West Papua issues, I cannot in good conscience recommend this movie. At the same time the situation in West Papua does deserve attention. Therefore my recommendation instead is to go to YouTube and delve into some of the West Papua related videos posted there.