Sasha Friedlander visited East Java, Indonesia for the first time while she was studying at an arts university with a one-year student visa.
Within the rainforests of East Java is the volcano Kawah Ijen, where miners work to extract sulfur for products used everyday — like sugar and cosmetics. After seeing the volcano and the mining process, Friedlander decided to make the film “Where Heaven Meets Hell.”
“[The volcano] was spectacular, but I was really shocked to see the contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the mining operation that was going on there,” Friedlander said. “Because of my language skills, I was able to start a dialogue with some of the miners we encountered
there and their stories are really interesting to me. So then I spent the next two years trying to get back to make the film.”
“Where Heaven Meets Hell” screens at the Rio Theatre on Jan. 19. The screening’s proceeds benefit the sulfur miners in East Java through Ikawangi, a group committed to helping alleviate the problems facing the miners. Ikawangi accepts donations, but Friedlander said this is not the only way people can help improve the miners’ situation.
“Before I made this film, I had no idea that sulfur was used for bleaching sugar, for lotion, cosmetics products and matches,” Friedlander said. “I hope that people will be more aware and just pause before they consume certain products or use certain cosmetics. Maybe they will think ‘there’s actually sulfur in this and in certain parts of the world this is how sulfur is being extracted.’”
The film held its world premiere in March 2012 and was directed, produced and edited by Friedlander, who spent time in the same unsafe conditions as the miners.
“I had an idea of what I was getting myself into when I decided to take on the project, in terms of the danger of climbing the volcano and being exposed to the toxic gases,” she said. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted to sort of just assimilate and live in similar ways to the miners’ lifestyle.”
Although Friedlander planned the trip with the purpose of making the film, she was not sure if the miners would be open to letting her into their daily lives. She did not discover she would be welcomed until she met them again.
“They immediately invited me to come and live with them and their families,” she said. “They were always so concerned about my well-being. They were so kind to me.”
“Where Heaven Meets Hell” follows four out of 500 miners who risk their lives as they work to support their family. The film displays the suffering of their families as they make ends meet for food and shelter, but not enough to cover schooling costs. Often, families are stuck in an endless cycle as generation after generation must put themselves in danger to make a living.
“I first started making the film to somehow start a foundation for the miners,” she said. “It wasn’t just a film, it was something where people could actually get involved if they were moved to do so.”
The film has motivated many people to get involved by donating money. The Women’s Empowerment Network (WEN) has joined with Ikawangi by accepting donations to improve the lives of the miners.
Julie Aguiar, who is on the board of directors for WEN, said Ikawangi has started creating a school assistance program and training for women in homestyle industry projects. These new projects help with educating the children of sulfur miners and assist the women in supporting their families financially.
“The film is so moving,” Aguiar said. “And after you see it, you really want to help empower the miners so that they can change their lives. It’s inspiring.”
“Where Heaven Meets Hell” screens on Jan. 19 at the Rio Theatre. The film starts at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $10 at the door.