When first approaching Justin LePera’s “Isolated,” it is easy to fall victim to the belief that this is going to be a run-of-the-mill surfing documentary. The set-up certainly feeds that concept: surfer Travis Potter brings together a group of like-minded souls (dubbed “ferals” for their willingness to go into unexplored areas), and they set off for a distant corner of Indonesia in pursuit of extraordinary waves that have yet to be conquered by surfboards.
However, the viewer slowly comes to realize that “Isolated” is not about the travels of laid-backed dudes (and one shapely dudette) in search of a perfect wave. The film is an astonishing and often disturbing view of a distant paradise that is being systematically destroyed with nary a peep of protest from the wider world. While Potter and company are planning to find waves to conquer, they unexpectedly find a sociopolitical tsunami that is crushing everyone in its path.
The surfers arrive in West Papua, an Indonesian territory that shares the island of New Guinea with the independent Papua New Guinea. Few people from the outside world venture to that region, and the surfers immediately stand out upon arrival – with the Indonesian military being particularly antsy over their presence.
Potter and his crew quickly learn that the Indonesian government has been using military force to crush a separatist movement in West Papua. Having a camera crew following the surfers raises suspicion from the military occupation forces; the Indonesian government has successfully kept the West Papuan conflict out of the global media, and they intended to maintain a tight lid on that story.
At many levels, West Papua is in a state of desperation. Poverty is crushing and the basic tenets of a modern infrastructure are sorely lacking. But Potter and his crew discover the West Papuans to be deeply sincere and extremely friendly, and they graciously make shelter and food available while the surfers seek out their elusive waves. The surfers repay their generosity by teaching the young people the basics of surfing, with Jenny Useldinger (the sole woman in the group) going encouraging the young girls of a West Papuan village to break down gender barriers by following the boys’ lead and hopping on a surfboard.
Will Potter and his crew find their perfect waves? Well, let’s just say they find paradise before it is too late. But whether they can preserve West Papua remains to be seen – toward the end of the film, Potter overcomes a bout with cerebral malaria and becomes a high-profile advocate for the self-determination of the West Papuan people and a fighter against plans to uproot the West Papuan villagers in favor of Western-style commercial development in their homeland.
“Isolated” achieves the extraordinary feats of subtlety. It is a political film, to be certain, but it is never strident in getting its message across. It celebrates its exotic setting, but it is never condescending to the people and the ecosystem of West Papua. And, despite its unlikely detours, it is very much a surfing moving – but it presents its wave-riding heroes as caring and concerned adults who recognize the fragile balance of the world around them.
This is an engrossing, enriching, sometimes humorous and often heartbreaking celebration of the human spirit and the power of nature. I know that we have another six months to go before the year expires, but I am willing to sail out into dangerous waters and happily proclaim that “Isolated” is the best non-fiction film of 2013.