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Stories of our connected and rapidly changing region.

Exchange Program Brings Indonesia Closer To New England

It takes over a day to fly from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts to Indonesia.

 With than 250-million inhabitants, Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s most populous nation; it’s also the world’s largest Muslim country. Its nearly 20-thousand tropical islands are home to beaches, mountains, rainforests, and bustling metropolises like Jakarta. 

Indonesia’s islands may be half a world away from the Berkshire hills. But an Indonesian-born filmmaker living in Berkshire County is finding ways to bring her native home and her adopted home closer together.

I’in Purwanti was born on the island of Java, in Solo, a working-class community where neighbors helped neighbors erect one-room houses with dirt floors and bamboo walls.

In fifth grade, I’in Purwanti’s family left Solo for Jakarta, Indonesia’s massive, traffic-choked capital. And when Purwanti became the first in her family to attend college, her neighbors scraped together her first-semester tuition.

Purwanti got an English Literature degree from the University of Indonesia, and what happened next is like a Cinderella story. While working as a fixer for foreign journalists, Purwanti befriended an American photographer who brought her to New York City, to help finish a documentary.

That same photographer inspired Purwanti to stay in New York and get an M-F-A in documentary making; she even chipped in funds.

After that, Purwanti married fellow filmmaker George Cox, and while the couple was collaborating on a documentary in Vermont, they got a hankering for country living. But when they moved to the Berkshires to start a production company, Purwanti had some reservations, “Am I gonna be the only brown people in the area? Like, am I gonna meet friends? Like, how am I supposed to know people?”

She also worried that her New England community wouldn’t know much about her Southeast Asian one. So she organized a night of Indonesian films, dance and food at a café in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

The event was so successful, Purwanti followed it up with an Indonesian Country Fair, then another.

Her newest venture is a cultural-exchange program inviting young women from Indonesia and the Berkshires to visit each other’s countries, and produce a documentary to screen back home.

Genevieve Naylor is the program’s first participant. She and I’in Purwanti are still jet-lagged as they click through footage they filmed at an elementary school in Java.

Nineteen-year-old Naylor grew up in the Berkshires. Before her trip, she says she viewed Indonesia like many outsiders do, “They think ‘earthquake,’ they think ‘tsunami,’ they think ‘terrorism.”

But then she spent three weeks there, visiting mosques during Ramadan, cavorting with fans at a soccer game, and sampling the country’s famous street food.

“I was actually a vegetarian before I went there,” said Naylor. “And then on my first day I had soto which is like a beef soup, and it’s like so good!”

Naylor’s favorite thing was meeting new people – from the cabbie who taught her Indonesian words and phrases in exchange for English ones… to the stranger who offered her a place to stay. Naylor described, “And that proves how friendly and welcoming they are, really, even to a bule like me! Which means “foreigner”! One of the first words I learned!”

I’in Purwanti calls her exchange program “Cinta Hutan;” that’s Indonesian for “Love the Woods.” The logo is a blazing, heart-shaped campfire.

“We as humans, since the beginning of time, you always get together around the fire,” Purwanti explains. And where the fire is, where the love is, there’s connection.”

 There’s also life. Just think about I’in Purwanti’s neighbors stoking the fires of that makeshift incubator on that dirt floor.

“The community comes together and just making sure you’re alive, and that’s love,” says Purwanti.

Purwanti says they’ll screen Genevive Naylor’s documentary in the Berkshires, New York and Washington, D-C, later this year. Then, in 2020, Purwanti will bring an Indonesian woman to the U-S, so that she can experience the culture, meet the people, and feel the ‘love,’ too.