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“People in Aceh Don’t Ever Sleep”: After the Tsunami by Larry Foley

For sure, it was a wonderful day today. It started out as a very cold, cloudy day, with the lowest temperature reaching 35 degrees Fahrenheit, and a bit drizzly. In the afternoon, however, everything turned great as I visited an unusual event in the city of Bentonville, AR. Officially, the event is called NAFSA Regional Conference III. I was at the event not as a conference participant, of course, but as a guest–along with five other Indonesian students–at the premier of a documentary written and directed by the award-winning Larry Foley: After the Tsunami.

After the Tsunami covers the stories of graduate students from Aceh who came to the United States on Fulbright Tsunami Relief, a scholarship program initiated by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The scholarship was part of a relief initiative in the wake of the tsunami that devastated many areas around the Indian Ocean on that fateful December day. Aceh, as we all know, is the most severely affected area. The earthquakes and tsunami took more than 170,000 lives from Aceh alone.

Along with many other organizations and countries, the Bush-Clinton initiative started the relief program by providing food, shelter and other basic needs. In six months time, though, the Bush-Clinton initiative came up with a special relief program aiming at “rebuilding the human capital” of Aceh by sending students to study in the United States, mainly in Texas A&M University and the University of Arkansas, the stomping grounds of the two former presidents.

By the end of the scholarship program, 75 students from Aceh completed their graduate programs and most have returned home to rebuild their beloved land. After the Tsunami presents the stories of eight of these students. Some of them are portrayed in their current workplaces in Aceh and some of them are portrayed while they are in the United States–they have finished their Master’s degrees and are now completing their Ph.D.’s, no longer under Fulbright Tsunami Relief program.

This documentary was filmed in Fayetteville, AR, College Station, TX, and Aceh, Indonesia. Prof. Larry Foley himself flew all the way to Indonesia with his cameraman, Hayot Tuychiev, who is also the editor of this documentary.

Following the screening today, Prof. Foley told stories about his stay in Aceh and things that amazed him about Aceh. As most of you who know Aceh can guess, of course the thing that amazes Prof. Foley theP most about Aceh is related to coffee. He said, “People in Aceh don’t ever sleep. They are always in the coffeehouses all the time. When I left the coffee shop at night, they were still there, talking and drinking coffee. And when we returned to the coffee shop before starting the next day, they were there again, already drinking coffee.”

For Dr. Foley, this documentary has a special place in his heart. I don’t think he said it himself today, but I heard it from somebody else. Some time ago, I heard from Dr. Todd Shields, the Dean of International Education of the University of Arkansas, who is also featured in the documentary as the academic advisor of one of the Acehnese students, that for Larry Foley this documentary is the most emotional documentary he has ever done so far.

Indeed, this documentary is an emotional one. In addition to telling their stay in the United States, their activities in rebuilding Aceh, the students interviewed for this documentary also tell their personal stories related to the tsunami. Some of them were the direct survivors of the tsunami and they can tell the moments they witnessed the muddy wave, the moments they spent in the temporary shelter, and the moments when they were seeing bodies after bodies taken into the mosque where they took shelter.

The documentary juxtaposes these distressing stories with the students’ moments of happiness when they graduated from their U.S. universities and some other once-in-a-lifetime moments, such as shaking hands and chatting with former President Clinton like buddies.

For me, who happened to have the honor to prepare the Indonesian subtitle of this documentary, the screening today was not my first time watching the documentary. Still, I felt a powerful emotion in several moments, such as when Irham tells about the day in the shelter when his daughters needed milk while he had nothing in his hands. Another of these touching moments is when Suci, after telling that her mother and siblings were lost in the tsunami, says that she feels comfortable being near the sea “knowing that [her lost family members] might be there somewhere.”

Another reason why this documentary is very emotional to me is because I know in person five of the eights students featured in it. Masrizal was my driving instructor, and a patient one at that, in addition to being our great cook on many occasions; Mahrizal is my son’s surrogate uncle, who hosted my family the first night we arrived in Fayetteville; Suci is the one who scolded me every time I spilled a cup of tea in her apartment during many of those impromptu potlucks; and Irham is a good friend with a delightful family who, despite living in Texas, used to roadtrip with us students in Arkansas. I know them as happy, hard-working students, who were eager to explore what the U.S. has got to offer. This documentary, however, reveals an aspect of their personality that they didn’t reveal very often. I know Irham, for example, as a person who always smiles; in this documentary, to my surprise, Irham tells about the moments when he couldn’t do anything to provide his daughter with milk during the first days following the tsunami. I started to know another layer of these friends, what fueled their determination to complete their programs in the face of problems.

Besides, it’s also an emotional movie in a different way. I bet you know what it feels like seeing a movie whose movie stars–I mean FIVE of the movie stars–are your close friends. 😀

All in all, it’s been a great day today for me and the other five Indonesian students who were invited to see the screening of this documentary. I do hope this documentary can instill positive energy to those who watch it. For those of us who are fortunate enough to have never experienced such a massive disaster as the 2004 tsunami, I hope this documentary can teach us to always share empathy with (and to extend our helping hands to) the survivors of any disasters. For those who graduated from Fulbright Tsunami Relief program, I’m quite positive that this documentary will eternally be a reminder to keep their faith in, to use Larry Foley’s words, “rebuilding the human capital of Aceh.”

So, kiban? 😀

Larry Foley
(left to right) Wiwit, Yours truly, Dr. Larry Foley, Suhartono after the screening.

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