Editor’s note: This film is no longer available online.
A Time to Swim follows Mutang as he returns home for the first time since his exile in 1992.
The remote forest village, however, is not as he remembers it.
Contrary to the will of the elders, cousins who once stood by him at the blockades are now welcoming the timber companies.
Despite the threat of a lingering arrest warrant, Mutang can’t resist taking up his old cause.
A Time to Swim explores the effects of environmental destruction on the fabric of a community through the personal story of Mutang’s search for belonging in a place where the very ideas of home and heritage are slipping away.
By Ashley Duong
Cross-country skiing through rural Quebec, Canada, was not where I expected to meet Mutang Urud, someone I had read described as a Malaysian fugitive, an exiled environmental warrior and a United Nations spokesperson for indigenous peoples.
Soon I found myself travelling down the Meri’it River in a traditional boat with Mutang, his family and elders from the village of Long Napir. Mutang was returning home for the first time in 25 years.
My two crew members and I had naively chosen the most challenging conditions for filming our first feature documentary. We were on the other side of the world, in a very wet rainforest, off the electrical grid, away from mobile phone coverage and running water, and filming in a language we didn’t understand.
In an oral tradition like the Kelabit, it's like a bomb is dropped each time an elder dies.
So that we’d fit in, Mutang asked that we camp as the locals do. We ditched our tents and slept on the forest floor in shelters made of hastily tied together saplings.
While the logistical challenges of making this film were many, what was most challenging for me were the ethical questions.
The most important lessons I learned was that filmmaking, especially documentary filmmaking, is a big responsibility. Mutang took risks by being filmed, as he had an outstanding arrest warrant. The community took risks as well by talking to me about politically sensitive subjects.
This is why after the first – and what I thought would be the only – summer of filming, I returned to the same village many times and ended up working on the film for more than five years. Increasingly, I felt the weight of the responsibility I held and worked to live up to the community’s trust in me.
In retrospect, I see now that we were filming at a crucial time. Many of the elders have since died.
I think the idea of losing your culture is hard for many to grasp. For example, it’s difficult to imagine the erasure of Western culture in which the museums, libraries and archives are all destroyed. In an oral tradition like the Kelabit, it’s like a bomb is dropped each time an elder dies.
The radical and irreversible transformation of the last remaining subsistence cultures as they integrate into the modern capitalistic world is one of the unique and regrettable legacies of our time.
In this increasingly homogeneous world, this film and other work that bears witness to a different way of life are more important than ever before. This is not because the film can hope to halt the modernisation of the Kelabit, or even that it makes the case that the traditional trumps the modern. Instead, the film allows us to think about what community means in times of extreme transition.
While A Time to Swim is a requiem to a disappearing way of life, at the same time it’s a celebration of Mutang’s love for his land and culture. The community in Long Napir is at a crossroads and must react quickly to survive. However, at least for now, there is still time to swim in the river.