At first glance, Sue Useem, a documentary filmmaker from the US and Lian Gogali, founder of the Institute Mosintuwu in Poso, Central Sulawesi, do not seem like an imposing pair.
Both stand less than 160 centimeters tall and are quick to smile. Yet, beneath their amiability is the focus and determination of two women who have dedicated their lives to education and the proliferation of peace and women’s rights.
Useem does so via her video camera. Her first documentary film, Which Way to the War?, examined the decade-long (1998-2008) religious conflict between Christians and Muslims in Poso. Gogali does so through her Institute Mosintuwu (mosintuwu means togetherness), a women’s school where post-conflict victims, former combatants and women of any religion can meet, learn about their rights and strive for positive change in their communities.
The two met in 2007 while Useem was shooting Which Way to the War?. Two years later, while attending a women’s conference in Bali, Gogali called Useem, who had recently relocated from her hometown of Washington, D.C. to Bali, to arrange a meeting.
Though neither knew it at the time, this meeting would initiate changes in both of their lives that would put in motion Useem’s second documentary, The Peace Agency, and the next phase of Institute Mosintuwu.
Lian Gogali, 33, was born in Taliwan, Sulawesi, which she declared with a bemused chuckle, “You will never find on a map. Don’t even try!” She was born into a family of Protestants (her father and older brother were ministers and her older sister is a member of the church), and Gogali followed suit by studying theology at Jakarta’s Duta Wacana Christian University. She received her degree in 2002, right in the middle of the conflict in Poso.
Gogali decided to pursue her master’s degree in humanities at Sanata Dharma, a Catholic university in Yogyakarta. It was there that she was inspired to return to Poso and found a women’s school.
“The curriculum talked about how after violence there is political remembering in society. Yet all the books about the Poso conflict had only a basic story and chronology, and we never heard the story about the women and children,” Gogali said.
Gogali eventually made the conflict her thesis topic and focused on the perspective of women and children. She spent time at refugee camps in Sulawesi talking with displaced women and children — both Christians and Muslims — about what they saw happening in Poso.
“After speaking with them and learning their stories, I discovered a hidden story of the Poso conflict. I listened to so many horror stories from women and children. I realized that they have a different story from the conflict. That’s when I decided to go back to Poso,” Gogali said.
She returned in 2007 to institute a preventative solution to potential future conflicts by creating a school for women that educates them about peaceful conflict resolution and women’s rights so they can foster change in their communities from the inside out, starting with their own families.
Useem is a 27-year-old American from Virginia who studied philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. In 2006, at the age of 21, she began teaching herself how to use a camera by watching tutorials on YouTube and practicing in the field.
“I broke my camera almost as soon as I bought it. I accidentally ripped out the sound cord, and the footage was a total disaster,” Useem said, laughing.
That same year, she embarked on a two-month trip to Indonesia to film her first documentary.
“I thought I was going to make a movie about the American image [in Indonesia], so I went to many different islands in Indonesia to get their perspective on Americans and America,” Useem said.
She chose Indonesia because she had visited it many times over the course of her life and had harbored a dream to live in the country.
“I came to Bali at 16 and realized it was the coolest place on earth and didn’t stop talking about it until I moved here,” Useem said.
After two months of filming, Useem returned to the US and her job as a producer for the Indonesian Service for the US government broadcasting agency Voice of America (VOA). Ten months later, in August 2007, Useem returned to Indonesia to continue her documentary.
This time she went to Poso and there she discovered the religious conflict and immediately dropped the American image story to document the impact of the religious war on the people of Poso.
“The day I got to Poso, I knew my life was never going to be the same,” Useem said.
Which Way to the War? premiered in Los Angeles in July 2009 and less than a year later in May 2010, Useem quit her job and returned to Bali in search of a new documentary topic.
When Useem arrived in Bali, Gogali had already established Institute Mosintuwu and was visiting Bali for a women’s conference.
“The only person I called while I was in Bali was Sue,” Gogali said. “I was interested in the way she filmed the Poso conflict,” Gogali addded.
At the onset, neither of them had a new documentary on their minds. Yet as the conversation progressed, they realized they had something in common: Both came from mixed religious families and related to the conflicting beliefs within each of their families.
“I think we made a connection because she had a complicated family background too. I used to think she was from a perfect American family. When I learned that she came from a complicated religious background, I knew I could trust her to tell the story of the women’s peace movement in Poso,” said Gogali.
By the end of their meeting, the concept for The Peace Agency was born, and Useem booked a flight to Sulawesi to visit Gogali’s school.
The Peace Agency is projected for release in North America in the summer of 2012. Once released, Useem hopes that the Indonesian public will make use of it.
“I would like it to be a tool of learning how in your own community whatever the difficulties you face there is a cost-effective, grassroots way of making changes that can affect people that otherwise are forgotten in development programs,” Useem said.
In addition, they both hope the film will spread Gogali’s teachings to a global audience and bring about a generational change that gives women a voice in the peacekeeping process.
“Then, they are not just victims,” Useem and Gogali said, almost in unison.