Islands of Faith (Semesta)

Dept. of Gods and Greenery


With the world currently in the grips of a pandemic, it’s easy to forget the problems we were facing prior to 2020. The environment has taken a back seat to the coronavirus pandemic, but with temperatures breaking records, Netflix’s Islands of Faith may be a good reminder that Covidiots aren’t humanity’s only problem right now.

Islands of Faith (or to use its original title, Semesta) is an Indonesian production from 2019 that looks at the intersection of faith and conservation in the Southeast Asian archipelago. Over the course of 90 minutes, the documentary takes the viewer to seven different islands, and features the faith of the local people, and how they view conservation within the confines of their religion. From the Balinese Hindu faith ceremony of Nyepi, to the Muslims and Christians of more than 267 million Indonesians, Islands of Faith touches each of these communities, their livelihoods, and how that is interwoven with their differing faiths, and the unifying theme of conservation and the environment.

Islands of Faith is a slow burn. But in a good way. It’s contemplative, almost meditative. This isn’t a harbinger of doom documentary in the way An Inconvenient Truth was. This isn’t a finger pointing, “all humans are terrible for killing mother earth”, documentary. Islands of Faith is about religion and faith and how to be a conservationist is to be closer to God, regardless of your belief system. Islands of Faith puts forth the argument that if you believe in a higher power, then you should look to protect the planet, because that is what is asked of you. 

Islands of Faith isn’t preachy. The documentary merely shows you the ways these people of faith see themselves as guardians of the planet. In the 12 to 15 minutes that the documentary spends on each of these seven provinces, telling each of these seven stories, the audience is shown just enough of what these characters are doing and facing, all without blaming big city folk for polluting, or for logging. Without blaming the government for not doing enough. (The fact that the documentary was funded by the European Union in collaboration with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, probably had something to do with that second part.)

This is a documentary about faith as much as it is about the environment. It’s about believing as much as it is about doing. Like how the Christians of West Papua enact the traditional resource management of sasi, where an area of ocean is made off limits to fishing by the church for months at a time. Or the Christians in the Bea Muring village of east Nusa Tenggara who, through their local church, built and maintained a hydroelectric dam to provide electricity instead of continuing to use petrol generators. Or how during Nyepi, the Balinese Hindu ceremony, the daily carbon emissions of the island of Bali is reduced by 30,000 tons, cutting the island’s daily emissions by a third.

Like how when Muhammad from Aceh has his farmland trampled on by wild elephants, a fellow villager mentions that there are only two ways to stop it from happening again. Poison, or the spear. The brazenness at how it’s said is shocking. But that is the reality for these farmers, who already have so very little, that to lose even more at the feet of the elephants is the final straw. The village imam disagrees, and points out that killing is not the way. Later the imam reminds a group of children that this jungle belonged to the elephants first and that to live in harmony is the way of God.

The final story in Islands of Faith is the story of a young couple who started an urban farm in the centre of the urban jungle that is Jakarta. Although not stated, their faith is less in the belief of a higher power, but more in the faith of what is right for the planet. They want to bring back a piece of humanity’s forgotten past. They want to be closer to the land. 

Islands of Faith doesn’t set out to shame or scare. It doesn’t set out to show or prove that one faith is better, or worse, for the environment than any other. It isn’t a competition. Islands of Faith is a reminder to all who have forgotten it, that to protect the planet is the (insert faith of choice here) thing to do. And in these fractious times, that is as timely a reminder as any.

Islands of Faith (Semesta)
Director: Chairun Nissa
Producers: Amanda Marahimin and Nicholas Saputra
Cast: Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa, Agustinus Pius Inam, Romo Marselus Hasan, Almina Kacili, Muhammad Yusuf, Iskandar Waworuntu, and Soraya Cassandra

Islands of Faith (Semesta) is an EU funded documentary that was released on Netflix to coincide with Indonesia’s 75th Independence Day.

Bahir likes to review movies because he can watch them at special screenings and not have to interact with large groups of people who may not agree with his idea of what a movie going experience is. Bahir likes jazz, documentaries, Ken Burns, and summer blockbuster movies. He really hopes that the HBO MAX Green Lantern series will help the character be cool again. Also don’t get him started on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (#NotMyArthurCurry).

Father and daughter on the farm.
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