I actually felt that I was supposed to die there on that day…- Q&A with Searching for hell filmmaker Gloria Kurnik

23 Posted by - May 28, 2015 - News, Press

“At some point the lung pain was so severe and the fear so immense that I actually felt that I was supposed to die there on that day…” Gloria Kurnik – director, cinematographer and filmmaker, creator of Welcome to Kawah Ijen etude talks about the dangers on film set in Indonesia and what was it like to travel alone in Muslim country.


What attracted you to Searching for Hell project?


I went to Kawah Ijen for the first time at the beginning of my adventures in Asia, before I even knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker and long before the crowds of tourists discovered the place. There were no gas masks back then and I almost suffocated caught in the sulfuric fog that out of the sudden covered the crater. The experience was other-worldly. In panic, with my lungs burning from lack of oxygen, I was trying to make a climb up the crater but was barely moving forward. I was slowly passing by the ghostly silhouettes sitting calmly in this “cloud of acid” and couldn’t comprehend how those miners can be so tranquil and immobile in the face of danger, almost like some macabre marble sculptures. At some point the lung pain was so severe and the fear so immense that I actually felt that I was supposed to die there on that day. I was one of those tourists, ignorant, unprepared, trapped in the surreal situation they never heard about. Nobody warned me about the sulfuric fog, I didn’t do any research. And there I was, in almost zero visibility, on a nearly vertical slope following an indistinct path while fighting for every breath. I was at the edge of giving up when one of those marble-like figures extended his hand towards me and poured some water on my scarf. The miner showed me how to breath through the wet rug and that’s ultimately the thing that saved me. When I finally climbed out of the crater and saw the blue sky I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe my luck neither my ignorance but I made it! I have been to hell, and I survived.

Since that very day, this little story of mine was recounted multiple times on multiple occasions but always with the same conclusion: I have found hell on earth and it indeed smelled of sulfur. As a result, this story is also crucial to understanding why I instantly jumped on board when I found out about the “Searching for Hell” film project. The thoughts of that place haunted me for years, and more importantly, I couldn’t accept my ignorance. I started researching about Kawah Ijen, wrote couple of articles and posted few photo-journals, but I still felt like a tourist oblivious to the whole reality of people stuck in this place for life. I wanted to come back, more aware, more sensitive, as I couldn’t get any more empathetic. And I was searching for a pretext to do just that when I stumbled upon “Searching for Hell”. I couldn’t wait anymore, it was time to bring to life those marble-like statues I left behind those couple of years ago.


How different was working on Searching for Hell film for you personally from your previous film projects?


To me, “Searching for Hell” project was much more personal and way more difficult than any of my previous films. For couple of years I had been waiting to go back to Kawah Ijen and look at it afresh. My first time there was ignorant, a sort of initiation into my travels. I learned a great deal since that time, and I wanted to prove it to myself as sort of a personal test. I wanted to see how much I grew as a traveler and a visual storyteller.
To me this project was about meeting the people and making a film that would bear witness to their hard work, but also where a lot still lays between the lines. I wanted to still show the place through “touristy” eyes, with the toxic sulfur smoke blocking the view, steep track prone to accidents and astonishment at the superhuman strength needed to carry out the work. All those things that tourists witness but miners don’t see anymore, that even the guides talk about without emotions. I often follow one protagonist in my movies, but I never needed as much consideration as I needed here. For the miner I was filming every stop was a huge effort, there was no time to catch up, I had to be always ahead.

Kawah Ijen was filmed hundreds of times before. There are some great films made about the place and the people, some really recent and personal ones, and they were hard to compete with. Telling a story that has been told multiple times in a fresh way is always a challenge but it’s also extremely rewarding. It forces you to think differently, and in that way my story took a turn I didn’t expect and didn’t plan for beforehand. It all became clear, as always, only in the edit and I had to go back to Java once again to fill the gaps. Working on this piece only confirmed what I’ve learn before, that while working on any documentary, despite of the amount of preparation and research you’ve done, you can never be ready for the story that “wants to be told”.


The subject of Hell is very universal. What’s your personal definition of Hell in contemporary world? How would you define it?


We all carry our hell inside, this is the way I ultimately understand this concept and that’s the way I wanted to show it in my part of the film. It’s all those inner fears and burdens that we wake up to fight and carry everyday. Hell is subjective and highly personalized. My worst fears, the things that I find to be undoable and pains I find unbearable are not necessary the same for you, the reader, and may look even less similar to someone from different culture and different reality. And as much as our reality may look hellish to an outsider, to us it may be just a day as every other. Real obstacles and fears cannot be easily seen from outside. The same can be said about our miners from Kawah Ijen. To a tourist, an Ijen miner has “the worst of jobs”, an atonement for some invisible sins, almost like Sisyphus currying rocks to the top of the mountain only to find himself back at the same place every dawn having to repeat the task from scratch. To such a miner though, his job may be even considered a blessing, he’s healthy and strong enough so that he can provide for his family in a much better way than he would do as a farmer. He doesn’t see this place as hell but rather as an opportunity, not as a Sisyphean vicious circle but as a chance for his children to break free. And watching my part of the movie we see a contrast between the hordes of tourists with their “1st World” problems, and the burdened miners going steadily uphill. They all have their personal hells, and for all of them it seems to be something different, but ultimately do their hells differe that much?

Looking through a prism of our own reality we often fail to see how we’re all similar and how our hells can overlap. We see Kawah Ijen and the hardship of mining and we immediately assume that it must be hell to work there. It’s arduous, that’s true, but in the end it’s not the real hell that the miners are facing. Lack of money, fear for our family’s well-being, fear for our own life, the hells that can take different shapes and forms and be brought upon by different situations and dangers, transcend cultures. But being busy focusing on our own problems, facing our hells, we forget to look beyond apparent, to acknowledge the Other and the hells he or she may carry within. And therefore, in this our thoughtlessness, we also partake in creating hell and obstacles for others. Even those who live in fear of some other-worldly hell mindlessly contribute to making one here, on earth.


What do you see as the most important message that your film carries? What would you like to pass on to the audience?


Ignorance largely contributes to creating hells, big and small, for others.


What was the biggest challenge in shooting Searching For Hell and what surprised you most during creation of the film?


I ventured out to work on the story from Ijen alone due to having literally no budget. And despite of having produced, shot and edited most of my shorts alone before, this film was much more challenging. Climbing for couple of hours every night before the shoot with all the equipment was draining my energy and testing my stamina. Being a solo girl with a big camera staying overnight on the peak of the volcano earned me a label of “gila” (crazy) on this Muslim island where girls who want to travel alone even to a different city are frowned upon. When I was preparing for filming, I was stalked by a series of 3am calls from an enamored fixer-to-be who clearly misunderstood my intentions, so while departing on this solo adventure I was keeping my guard up and accepted the inevitability of Murphy’s law. I was ready for all of my ideas to to go to hell, they sort of did and I had to rewrite the whole story but it turned out to work better than what I imagined. It was also first time when I had to completely trust the people I never met before, my “ground support” in Java. And indeed, my fixer/narrator Ganda, my guide/translator/sound-assistant Chunk and my “timelapse guide” Sam set me at ease with their attitude and professionalism. I was surrounded by good people without whom this film would had never happened, and for someone who works on her own way too much, such level of collaboration was a reward in itself.

What surprised me the most is that I was actually able to pull it off without a crew! Of course thanks to the help of other people, but people I never met and had no prior recommendations about, people who I had to trust blindly in advance. I never doubted that I’m gonna make a movie there, but believing something and actually making it happen, well, those are two different things!


What inspires you to create documentaries?


When I started traveling I didn’t want to just wander aimlessly around the world, with every place I went to I felt almost obliged to pass the story of its people on. I find people’s struggles and emotions quite uniform across the cultures and digging up those similarities further inspires me to travel and explore. Travel leads to a story, a story leads to a travel, it’s sort of a virtuous circle that goes on and on.