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Strange Birds in Paradise: A West Papuan Story

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Documentary - Music, Politics

DVD: Available Now
Consumer Advice:

Mature themes and violence

Run Time:
75 minutes

English subtitles


Charlie Hill-Smith

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Now available to watch on beamafilm

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While the Indonesian army continues to dominate the indigenous inhabitants of West Papua, three friends gather in Melbourne to record outlawed folk songs with renowned Australian rock musicologist David Bridie.

Donny Roem is a recent exile.  With his two young brothers and 42 other refugees, he crossed the Arafura Sea to Australia in a homemade canoe.

Jacob Rumbiak was a child soldier in the West Papuan resistance movement.  His moving story is one of oppression, torture and escape. Charlie Hill-Smith, an Australian writer, cartoonist and comedian, is their friend. His passion for contact across cultures has led him to forge close friendships with the Melanesians and the Javanese families he met as a teenage exchange student.

Afloat in an extraordinary musical tradition from the West Papuan highlands, hearing stories of escape, oppression and exile from Jacob and Donny, listening to the defiant songs of murdered musician and independence hero Arnold Ap, Charlie confronts a basic question: how could these two vibrant cultures be at war and how can the rest of the world seemingly not care?

This film is his search for an answer. With his friends as guides, he searches through the archival footage of recent Indonesian history. He seeks out experts and revisits his own innocent tourist footage shot many years ago in West Papua. He returns to Java to discover a local political resistance.  Melbourne animators help him re-imagine stories of flight and battle, while artists in Java help him create iconic characters from Indonesian mythology as shadow puppets.

Charlie travels again to West Papua and visits the places Donny and Jacob still call home.  He records the fate of West Papuans trying to maintain village life while adapting to the Indonesian economy. He visits the battered, pitiful resistance and the refugee camps along the Papua New Guinean border.

In the end, Charlie is inspired to blend his own journey of discovery with scenes of the studio recording to create an extended musical meditation. He documents an inspiring concert at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, which brings together the exile community in Australia in a moment of defiant celebration.

An extraordinary story of an imaginative, adaptable culture confronting tyranny with the joyful power of art, music and self-expression.

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