Documentary filmmaker and Santa Cruz native Sasha Friedlander shares both the beauty and struggle of life in the Indonesian sulfur mines
Santa Cruz native Sasha Friedlander’s debut feature-length film, Where Heaven Meets Hell, tells the true story of four sulfur miners who, despite working in hellish conditions—500 miners collect and haul loads of up to 200 pounds of pure sulfur up and down a volcano several times each day—are still as hopeful and cheerful as any other native of Indonesia. In anticipation of Saturday’s screening at The Rio Theatre, we sat down with Friedlander to discuss the making of the documentary, which took home the Grand Jury Prize for best feature documentary film and Outstanding Cinematography Award at the 2012 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, and what’s next for the up-and-coming filmmaker.
Good Times: How did you end up in Indonesia in the first place?
Sasha Friedlander: My parents started bringing me to Indonesia when I was 7 and we all really took to the culture and the people and kept going back. I studied dance there for many years and my parents studied other art forms. I studied Indonesian in undergraduate and then went back to live there after I finished school to try and see what it would be like to live in Indonesia for some time.
What was your goal in making this documentary?
When I went to [Kawah] Ijen [volcano] for the first time, I was so blown away that there were working conditions that still existed in the world today like this. It’s actually a real ancient form of mining—it doesn’t really exist anywhere else in the world. No one does work like this anymore. To see that and to know the world doesn’t know about this or what’s going on, I felt like, being someone who knows how to work a camera and tell a story, it was sort of my obligation to help get this out into the world.
Where did the inspiration for the title, Where Heaven Meets Hell, come from?
I was talking to the miners and they were fascinating. I was really blown away by the dignity they had in the way they held themselves, the pride they had, and the work that they did—being able to support their families even though they were breaking their bodies. So when I started formulating the film and writing the treatments, the name “Where Heaven Meets Hell” came to me because when you’re up there you feel like you’re in heaven, but in contrast what they’re doing is like hell.
Did growing up in Santa Cruz have an influence on you and your worldviews?
I don’t know if growing up in Santa Cruz had an influence on my worldviews, but I think how my parents raised me did. My parents always taught me that if there is something you could do to help, then do it. Make all the efforts that you can possibly muster to make it happen.
I went to this mine for the first time and saw the working conditions and thought, “I make documentary films. This is what I love to do. I could make a film that could possibly make a difference for their lives and expose what’s going on here, and maybe the film could help lead to some sort of change—even if it’s just a little.”
If you could describe this film in one word, what would it be?
Hope. I feel like people see the trailer or read what the film is about and say, “I don’t know if I can handle these miners’ stories because it’s so depressing.” But I think when people do actually see the film, what they will walk away with is a sense of hope.
Any future projects or similar films in the works? In the states or overseas?
I’m doing research on a new project right now that I can’t talk about, but I definitely will make more films in Indonesia. There are some ideas, [but] nothing set in.
‘Where Heaven Meets Hell’ screens at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19 at The Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $10, and available at the door. 423-8209. Photos 1 & 3: Sylvia Krzysztofek, Photo 2: Courtesy of ‘Where Heaven Meets Hell.’