witness: green - death of the forests
This visual essay explores the impact of deforestation and the exploitation of natural resources in Indonesia

Green: Death of the Forests

A visual essay about the impact of deforestation in Indonesia as seen through the eyes of a dying orangutan.

Filmmaker: Patrick Rouxel

Stunning images of the natural world and its biodiversity are counterpointed with scenes of their destruction and the resulting cruelty to animals.This extraordinary visual essay, told with no human commentary at all, explores the impact of deforestation and the exploitation of natural resources in Indonesia from the point of view of a dying orangutan called Green.

The film takes viewers on an emotional journey, following Green’s final days and revealing the devastating impact of logging, land-clearing and palm oil plantations.

NOTE: This film, which can be viewed through the link to the film’s website below, contains upsetting scenes including cruelty to animals.


By Patrick Rouxel

In 1991, after dropping out of medical school in Paris, I read Comparative Literature at the Sorbonne. Later I found a poorly paid job in a production company for television commercials where I discovered digital special effects and went on to become a freelance post-production supervisor for feature films. In 2002, I was leading a comfortable life in Paris where I was never out of work, but I felt that something was wrong.

My mid-life crisis awoke a boyish desire to be out in the wild observing wildlife. I bought myself a camera (Sony PD 100) and left for Indonesia for three months for my first filmmaking experience. I was startled by the extent of the forest destruction I saw around me and decided to make films on conservation.


Filmmaker’s Q&A

In pictures: Deforestation

Once I returned home, I learnt how to use Final Cut Pro and edited my first film, Tears of Wood, a 26-minute film on the Indonesian forest and its destruction from the perspective of a big, male orangutan. I continued working as a part-time freelance digital special effects supervisor and returned to Indonesia to make a 52-minute version of that film and called it Losing Tomorrow.

The problem, however, is that my personal films do not reach a wide audience because broadcasters showed no interest. So for my third production, Green, I decided to make it available for free downloads on the internet and make it copyright-free for public screening. Green went on to win awards; aired on about 10 television channels, downloaded daily, it is being used as an educational tool in schools and universities. Green is proof that a low-budget home-made conservation film can reach a relatively wide audience. But of course, this doesn’t always work out well.

I finance my own films by selling raw footage to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or production companies, selling Green to TV stations, inviting online donations, working as a cameraman and by giving talks in schools and workshops. When shooting, I travel alone or with a friend for sound recording. I carry a small camera (now a Canon HXA1) and a tripod. I then do the editing on my laptop and get friends to help me with the post-production. Luckily, the fact that I make films “for a good cause” with no commercial interests draws free professional help.

The story behind Green

When I set off to make Green, I knew I wanted to do another film on deforestation in Indonesia and the plight of the orangutans, but I had no specific story in mind. I had no script. In Indonesia, my friend (a guitar teacher who composes the music for my films) and I spent three weeks in national parks in Sumatra. I filmed everything I found beautiful in the forest, while he did the sound recordings.

After he went back home I continued alone to an orangutan refuge in central Kalimantan. There, in the clinic, I came across an orangutan lying on her back, in a bed with a towel as a blanket, a “Hello Kitty” pillow under her head and intravenous tubing taped to her left leg. The sight startled me, she looked so human.

I was told she had come from the wild (as opposed to captivity), and that she had been rescued a few days earlier from an oil palm plantation where workers had captured her on site. The vet said the orangutan had suffered an intracerebral haemorrhage, which had left her partially paralysed on her left side. That was the reason why she was lying on her back, unable to get up. The clinic staff called her Sandra.

I spent the next three weeks by Sandra’s bedside, with my camera. As the days went by, I began thinking that she could become the central character of my new film, but unfortunately nothing much happened in her room. Her condition was stable and she hardly ever moved. There wasn’t much of a story to be told. However, she had all these incredible expressions and it occurred to me that the story could be that of what was going on in her mind. Of course, I had no way of knowing what she could be feeling and thinking, but I could imagine it, I could make it up.

Sometimes she looked relaxed as if thinking of something peaceful (like the forest), sometimes she was stressed, like when she heard the gardener mowing the lawn. Perhaps the sound of the machine reminded her of chainsaws. I quickly saw how, through her expressions and her point of view, I could tell the story of the three main industries destroying the Indonesian rainforest.

When I felt I had enough footage of Sandra, I set off to film what was missing. I went back to Paris a few months later and began editing. With the footage I had, I could come up with a simple story around Sandra: lying on her hospital bed, she would remember how it was in the forest with her baby, how the chainsaws and fire destroyed her home, how she ended up on the last tree still standing and how she was taken to a hospital where she allowed herself to die of sorrow because she had lost everything.

Death of an orangutan

Also while in Indonesia, I helped rescue a weak and dehydrated young female orangutan from an oil palm plantation who died in my arms on the way to the clinic. She stopped breathing when I was alone with her. The vet and the driver had gone for a quick dinner, but I stayed in the car holding her like a baby in my arms and whispering to her softly that she had to be strong, that everything was going to be fine, that no one would harm her any more. Inside the car, all was quiet and peaceful. I could feel her breathing on my stomach. An angel passed and the breathing stopped. She was gone with one last soft heartbeat. I cried and felt so sorry for her. The poor little thing had probably seen her mother shot before her own eyes, had been locked up in a wooden box on the plantation where we found her, and had been left there alone, scared, cold, hungry and thirsty for days or weeks.

And she was just one of an estimated 5,000 orangutans that die each year owing to deforestation. The extinction of the orangutans was happening right here in my arms! With Green, I wanted to make people feel what I had felt. Feel the pain and the sense of guilt. I wanted every viewer to appreciate his or her own part of the responsibility and choose to act accordingly: to stop consuming products made from forest destruction. That is why I decided to have Sandra die at the end of the film. I couldn’t afford to take the risk of having people think “Oh, she lives on, it’s not that bad after all, she’ll just have to get better and adapt to her new environment. I can continue consuming stuff the way I like to.”

While editing Green, my biggest fear was that people wouldn’t “buy” the story I had made up around Sandra. Anyone working closely with orangutans would be able to see that the orangutan in the opening shot and all those in the wild, in the degraded forests or in the oil palm plantations, are all different from one another, and from Sandra. Fortunately, the average viewer doesn’t really pick up on this and goes along with the story. And those who share my sensitivity actually do feel the pain and guilt.

Significant impact

I know that the impact of the film is insignificant regarding the global picture. I know that human greed and indifference will eventually destroy all of Indonesia’s forests, but I still prefer to fight and resist rather than do nothing. I didn’t put any shots of local Dayak people in the nature sequences of the film because these sequences refer to today’s forests, the ones where orangutans and many other species are presently being wiped out to make room for oil palm plantations.

Today in Kalimantan, there is hardly any forest left with both Dayaks and orangutans still living in them. Usually, where there are Dayaks all the orangutans would have long been shot and eaten. It is mostly in the patches of forest where there are no Dayak hunters that one can still find orangutans.

As for the ending credits, I didn’t put the name of big environmental NGOs because at the time of making the film, I didn’t realise how political, deceitful and counterproductive many of them were. I only recently became aware of this with Fabrice Nicolino’s book Qui a tué l’écologie? (Who killed ecology?). I was also hoping these NGOs would use the film as a campaign tool, but I don’t think many did.

I don’t consider Green or any of my other films as documentaries. I see them as poetical films or something equivalent to poetry in literature. Documentaries demand a rigour that I don’t follow. My only rigour is to never have any “mise en scene” nor use special effects other than cleaning or stabilising shots. But I allow myself the odd “cheat” like when the vet in the film says “Green”.

Of course in my rushes, the vet actually says Sandra. I allow myself this, because having the vet say Green seemed to me as the subtlest way of making the viewer understand that the orangutan’s name is Green. And I’m sure that had I called the film Sandra, it wouldn’t have got half the awards it did. Green seemed to me the best possible name for the dying orangutan, as well as the title of the film.

PS: Last I heard of Sandra, she was still alive but remained half-paralysed in a small cage in the refuge. The managers have requested official permission to euthanise her. It was rejected. I’m told that the Indonesian authorities never allow any euthanasia of orangutans. I suppose this is because the statistics are bad enough as it is.

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Click here to visit the film’s website.