Aceh’s struggles capture journalist’s eye | AspenTimes.com

Aceh’s struggles capture journalist’s eye

John Colson

The Black Road Inside Aceh's Struggle for Independence" will show this week at Aspen Filmfest. (Electric Pictures)

William Nessen, a 48-year old journalist-turned-filmmaker, emphasized that the film he is showing at this week’s Aspen Filmfest is “a work in progress … it’s not completely done.”That said, Nessen went on to describe “The Black Road – Inside Aceh’s Struggle for Independence” as already having absorbed four years of his life, landed him in prison and gotten him expelled twice from Indonesia.His work on the film also has turned both him and his mother into celebrities in the archipelago nation, particularly when his mother, Hermine, visited Aceh to win her son’s release from prison and became a daily presence on international television.Aceh is a geographically small part of Indonesia, located at the tip of the island of Sumatra on the eastern reaches of the archipelago, east and south of Malaysia. But Aceh historically has been rich in petroleum and natural resources desired by other nations, first by western colonialists and later by the government of Indonesia itself. It is for this reason, among others, that Aceh has been the scene of a quarter-century of separatist struggles.Nessen, whose parents own a home in Aspen, said he has been coming to the Roaring Fork Valley for much of his adult life, a connection that undoubtedly figured in the choice of his film for Filmfest this year.But he has lived primarily outside the United States for some time, both in pursuit of his profession and because “I got tired of America … I was curious about the rest of the world.” When asked where his permanent home is, he replied, “My e-mail address is my permanent home,” and invited people to e-mail him at wanessen@yahoo.com if they want to chat.A journalist by trade, Nessen was working as a freelance writer for a variety of publications in the 1990s, traveling to hot spots such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea. In 2000, he took some time off from reporting to get a master’s degree in journalism.Although trained as a writer, Nessen began taking film footage to back up some of the stories he was covering. At some point, “I realized I had enough that I could make a film out of it,” he said by phone from his current home in western Australia.Nessen readily conceded that he has made the transition from objective news reporter to the personal perspective of a filmmaker. But it’s a change that happened inexorably, as he became more and more engrossed in his work living with guerilla bands of Acehnese.”I tried to get both sides of the story,” he said, adding that “to really understand people is to live with them, and experience what they are experiencing.” It was his way of pursuing “the elusive thing called truth.””The Black Road” recounts some of the historical background of the Aceh struggle for independence, including the partition of Indonesia by British and Dutch colonial forces in the 1800s and the ultimate Dutch takeover in 1873.From that time until World War II, when the Japanese invaded, the Acehnese fought the Dutch occupiers persistently and bloodily.According to the Web-based encyclopedia Wikipedia, it is believed that Islam first was introduced to Southeast Asia through Aceh in the eighth century. But the Acehnese form of Islam, according to Nessen, is much less strict and authoritarian than in other areas of the world. He said it is “much, much freer for women,” for instance, than is the case in some Islamic states.But the struggle for independence is “not about religion at all. It’s about people who want to have their own country,” he noted. The Indonesian government promised the Acehnese relative autonomy when Aceh became a province of the newly created Republic of Indonesia in 1949, but successive regimes interested in maintaining control of the province did not keep those promises.The imposition of martial law in 2003 sparked the current struggle, according to Wikipedia. A 2005 peace agreement, signed at talks in Helsinki, Finland, and prompted in part by the devastation from the 2004 tsunami, has quieted the regional strife somewhat.But according to Nessen, “the independence struggle is not over. The Acehnese still want independence.””The Black Road – Inside Aceh’s Struggle for Independence” will be screened at noon Friday, Sept. 30, at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen as part of Aspen Filmfest, which runs Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 and features screenings in Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs.For ticket information, visit aspenfilm.org; call the Wheeler Opera House, 920-5770; Sounds Easy video store in Carbondale, 963-1303; or Book Train in Glenwood Springs, 945-7045.John Colson’s e-mail address is jcolson@aspentimes.com