Paradise War – The Story of Bruno Manser: An Environmental Disaster

October 3, 2019
The Swedish/Austrian production, based on the true story of a Swiss environmental activist in Malaysia, premiered at the Zurich Film Festival.

An early environmental activist, Bruno Manser brought the devastation of the Malaysian rainforests to the attention of the UN and ultimately the world, although the disappearance of the Swiss activist in 2000 remains a mystery to this day.

From 1984 – 1990, Manser lived with the indigenous Penan tribe in Sarawak, Malaysia, organising blockades against logging companies. When he finally emerged from the forests, he became an active campaigner for rainforest preservation and for the human rights of indigenous people.

Just 45 years old when he vanished in Sarawak, he would have been 65 years old today.

Bruno Manser

Making its world premiere at Zurich Film Festival, Paradise War – The Story of Bruno Manser remains as relevant today as ever.

Directed by Niklaus Hilber on a US$6 million budget, the film has been ten years in the making as he, in turn, fought obstruction from authorities, filming on location in Borneo after Malaysia obstructed their permits.

“We were unable to film in Malaysia for political reasons which is where we had cast our 14 Penan actors, so we had to convince them to trust us and travel outside Malaysia with us. In order to do that we had to obtain birth certificates and passports and visas. It was a huge operation to have the Penan travel with us,” he says.

“Then we built our camp in the middle of the rainforest with a European and Indonesian crew. No internet. No phone. We also needed the support of the logging companies, even though they are not shown in a good light in the film.

“The logistics were far more difficult than the leeches, mosquitos or spiders the size of plates. There was a lot of improvisation.”

Manser drew many enemies during his campaign against loggers who systematically devastated the Sarawak rainforests, re-settling the Penan and stealing their land.

Because the Penan were nomads, the timber companies claimed it wasn’t their land and Manser devised a genius plan for the Penan elders to actually map this hitherto uncharted region, thereby staking a claim.

“There’s so many documentaries about environmentalism but I really wanted to tell this story of Bruno Manser as a feature film because Bruno was a man who sacrificed his personal life to a higher cause,” says the Swiss director whose previous films include Chaos and Cadavers, Cannabis and Amateur Teens. 

While the timing of Paradise War’s release could not have come at a better time with the burning Amazon rainforest a daily headline, Hilber laments the bittersweet bonus. “Our story is suddenly so contemporary even though it took place in the ‘80s and ‘90s. It’s an unfortunate coincidence.”

Starring Sven Schelker as Manser, Hilber visited various Penan settlements before casting Elizabeth Ballang as Manser’s native girlfriend.

Given that Manser was an accomplished rock climber and survivalist, it was essential Schelker be up to the task. “Thankfully I’ve always been athletic,” says the actor when we meet at Zurich’s Hotel Florhof. “Three weeks before we began shooting, I travelled through the Penan villages and learned how they live. Then we had a further two weeks where we rehearsed with all the Penan.”

Director Niklaus Hilber, with his stars, Sven Schelker and Elizabeth Ballang at the opening of the Zurich Film Festival

Ballang, who speaks through a Penan interpreter tell us that “it was interesting for me to learn more about my culture. I am second generation of re-settled Penan, so many of our traditions have died. My grandparents were nomad, roaming the forest. But now, since the logging companies came, nobody lives like that anymore. My parents were re-settled so this is all I have ever known.”

During filming, everyone became obsessed with the Manser mystery. “For quite a long time I thought he was found and killed or imprisoned for life because there was a big price on his head and many people knew his location. But then I learned about the actual place he vanished and spoke with a man who was the last person to see him two days before he vanished,” says Schelker.

“The part of the jungle where Bruno was visiting was so remote – even by jungle standards – that the possibility he could even be found by military or loggers is quite slim. I tend to think he had an accident. There is no way he took his own life.”

Likewise, Hilber rules out suicide. “We have correspondence which indicates Bruno had really important meetings upon his return and he  was also newly in love and wanted to start a family. He was carrying a nylon rucksack – which wouldn’t have decomposed – and the Swiss and Penan carried out many searches without finding it. We also know that the Malaysian army were conducting maneuvers in that area at the time so it’s possible they crossed paths accidentally and they made him disappear. But we try not to dwell on that in our movie.”

“I think nobody knows the truth which is also the sad beauty of this story. The story of Bruno Manser has become mythical,” says Schelker who spent time with Manser’s sister.

Schelker’s wish for Paradise War’s audiences is this: “I think the film has an exceptional opportunity to impact people on an emotional level; that it’s not just consuming facts. That it’s a way to follow a personal journey and to get an idea of what the consequences are of our way of consuming. If people remain in ignorance about this, we cannot change. I want everyone to leave the cinema and say to themselves ‘Now I need to do something, and I start with myself first’,” Ballang adds. “I hope people will become aware of the value of the rainforests and the animals who live there. I’m frightened for future generations who might never get to see a real living rainforest. Even though the Penan have been forced to re-settle, they still rely on the forest for their food, for hunting. Every single day, more and more of our forest is stripped away.”

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