The Dutch East Indies, in all respects except actual fighting, are definitely at war. Troops, both native and Dutch, are everywhere. Bomb shelters are being thrown up in streets and public squares of Batavia, Surabaya, and Cherebon. Blackouts have been practiced. The airports are strewn with barbed wire entanglements.
Refugees are arriving from Holland—just a few who managed to escape the German conquest. Most of them, once rich, are now penniless and without proper clothing. Many of my Dutch friends in the East Indies have their families in Holland and do not know whether they are dead or alive.
Censorship is strict. In Java I was searched four different times. Technically the country is under military rule. Instructions have been issued to all police to immediately arrest anyone seen taking pictures. In all my time in Java, I never once saw a camera being used by natives, Dutch, or foreigners, except my own. Under such conditions, as I started out to make a motion picture film of the land, I soon became entangled in almost as much red tape as had snarled my efforts in Japan. From the office of the commander in chief I was eventually able to wrangle a limited permit but one of its provisions was that, in every city or locale where I wished to film, I would be required to report to headquarters and obtain a local permit, or a police escort. In Batavia I did this and all went well. So, too, at Buitenzorg.
But at Bandoeng, center of what I felt was the most marvelous area in all Java, trouble developed at once.
I arrived here on a Saturday, which was also a holiday. The police officials (I contacted the chiefs of four different departments) would not take the responsibility of giving me a permit. And the Resident and the high army officers were all at parties and banquets, celebrating the birthday of Prince Bernhardt, husband of Queen Juliana. They could not be reached.
At 10:00 P.M. Saturday night I fmally contacted the colonel of the local forces who told me it would be necessary to go to Commander Spoor. And he could not be reached.
I had hired a car and driver for next day, at a cost of twenty dollars. I was working on a close schedule and couldn’t be delayed. This was the most interesting part of Java. If I could not get the permit at once it would be disastrous to my film.
My native driver arrived early next morning. I routed out the landlady and told her she must help me telephone Commander Spoor.
What a grand time to be doing it! On Sunday morning at 7:15 A.M. after a huge holiday. I knew for certain that Spoor had been out most of the night for I had not been able to get him by telephone. But it had to be done.
The landlady swore he would be away in the mountains. Or if he wasn’t, he would be jumping mad to be called at this hour. But she gritted her teeth and rang the number. There was what seemed like endless delay. During that moment I offered up a fervent prayer. Actually the success of filming this vital part of Java hung on Officer Spoor being home and upon my getting his permission for pictures.
Suspense. A voice responded. It was the commander’s servant. There was another eon of waiting. Then my landlady began to talk. She was reading my permit from the office of the commander in chief Her face did not look too good.
“Give me the phone,” I said. I felt if I could plead my own case, I might be successful.
It was Commander Spoor on the line. He spoke perfect English. Every officer in the Dutch colonial service goes through stringent schooling and must be fluent in several languages.
I gave him everything I had—relating the interest of America in the Dutch East Indies and of the fervent necessity of my mission. I told him several hundred thousand persons would see my finished film and emphasized what it would mean. He pondered. Then:
“Yes,” he said. “I will arrange the permit.”
The morning was perfect. There had been a tropical cloudburst the day before. It was to storm next day. But this perfect Sunday was mine for success.
And what a day! My native barefooted driver gave excellent cooperation. If I asked him to stop the car once, I know I asked him a hundred times. Our goal was the great Panandajan Crater, 7600 feet high, fifty miles to the south in the very center of the wild Preangor Mountains. But there was so much of interest en route I scarcely would have noticed if we ever reached our goal or not.
First the rice. The fields in the flats were interesting but when we started into the hills and could see the terraces step-on-step up the mountainsides—that was the material of which great motion pictures are made. The natives were out early, working the fields with their huge ponderous water buffaloes, which would sometimes be buried up to the stomach in the mud of the rice lands. Doggedly the workers clung to their plows as they plodded along in the seas of mud behind their animals. I obtained pictures of the rice planting, of the matured crop, of the harvest and of the stacked grain—all in one area and in a single day. The fact that there are virtually no seasons in Java makes it possible to keep crops maturing almost every month of the year.
Next the tapioca—both the slender cassava stalks or plants growing in great fields, and also the shallow trays or baskets in which it was being dried in front of the tapioca factories.
Then the quinine trees (more properly the cinchona trees, from the bark of which the quinine is extracted). Ninety-seven percent of the world’s supply comes from Java, and most of that comes from the region of Bandoeng.
The tree is not native to this region but came originally from South America. Countess Chinchon, wife of the viceroy of Lima, was the first person to be cured of malaria by the strange drug from the trees which the natives called “quina, quina.” Seeds were brought to Java after infinite trouble and its cultivation started here. I saw trees varying in size from the “plantation quinine,” the young sprouts which had just been planted, up to mature trees fifteen feet tall. All were slender, and they were planted as close together as commuters packed in a subway. There are sometimes a thousand trees to the acre.
We stopped to try the bark of the cinnamon trees—their green leaves being beautifully intermingled with soft red leaves and flowers. The bark had perfect cinnamon taste. These trees grew along the roadsides, adding to the beauty of the way, and did not seem to be cultivated. Parts of Indonesia, of course, were the original “Spice Islands. “
There were sweet potatoes, ordinary potatoes, bananas by the millions, sago palms, maize, coconuts, and my driver only knows what else, but I had all I could do to film the unusual, let alone the commonplace. Then we came to the tea.
This Was Java Supreme
I have never dreamed of estates of such vastness. The bushes are about three or four feet high, and the shiny green leaves glisten in the sun—glisten for miles, for the estates extended as far as the eye could see. We were in the highlands—on a mountainside. These were not drab flat fields, but rolling hills of tea, steep inclines of tea, tea in every contour which a rough mountainside could offer. Acacia and cinchona trees were sometimes planted along with the tea bushes to provide partial shade. They added to the grandeur.
We came to the women and children picking the leaves. Of course I had to have pictures—lots of them. But I nearly forgot about the tea. For these women were beautiful.
And how happy! They sang as they worked, with their heads barely peeping above the tea bushes, which made it difficult for me to frselm their work. But I made them stand for close-ups and they would laugh, twitter, and talk to me constantly in their native tongue. When we left they all called good-bye. When we would pass groups of them they would invariably wave and call a greeting to us. A proper simile would be: “As happy as a Papandajan tea picker.” These mirth-loving lighthearted workers on the great Pengalengan tea estates near Papandajan—I shall never forget them.
This trip was one of the few I made in Java on which I was not accompanied by a police escort. Once, while filming a group of the tea workers, I was approached by a Dutch planter and questioned severely. A few minutes later I was taking shots of one of the tea factories out in the center of a great estate. I had made a long shot and was working for a closeup. We were miles from any town or settlement but from somewhere appeared a Dutch official.
“Stop,” he shouted. “That is prohibited. This is wartime.”
And so I was put under arrest and led off to headquarters. There was nothing serious they could do to me personally, but I was quaking for the safety of my camera and especially all my film. A Dutch officer had already warned me that if I was caught taking military objectives of any kind, including railroads, stations, bridges, views from bridges, soldiers, etc., all my equipment would be confrsescated and never returned. I wondered—was a tea factory out in the mountains a military objective? Perhaps so.
It was lucky I had gone to all the trouble of obtaining the permit from Commander Spoor. That was the thing which saved me and the film. I was released. But the incident was upsetting and I felt uneasy for half an hour, missing a number of other shots in that vicinity that would have made excellent pictures.
Up, up, up. Our road was a narrow lane winding through the seas of tea. Finally we left the estates behind and plunged into virgin untouched forest—virtual jungle.
Up, up, up. The road became narrow and when we met a solitary car there was trouble in passing. The road became rougher, petering out to a trail of stone through the wilds. Then a rise near the top. A brief descent.
“There,” said my driver, and I looked far across the valley to see the crater of the Papandajan.
The film I am making, Circle of Fire, brings out the fact that the Pacific area is not only a center of economic and political unrest, but also a literal circle of volcanic activity. Java is a focal point of the future strife which may engulf the Pacific; it is also the center of volcanic fire. Few other areas in the world are so thickly studded with active volcanoes.
And the Papandajan is one of the greatest. The last time it erupted, forty villages were buried and three thousand people killed. It is still active. Even as I stopped to look, great clouds of steam rose up from the crater floor.
We started to descend. Down, down, down, along a torturous road, right to the crater’s edge. But that was not enough.
A steep path led on down into the very bed of fire. My driver made arrangements for a native to guide me. We passed through sulphur beds. The odors were vile, so bad I was thrown into violent frsets of coughing. Steam, enormous white clouds of it, came out of the ground and fogged the lens of my camera. I was worried that the instrument would be ruined. But I could see, still farther on, something which would not let me stop. For there ahead was color—intriguing masses and blobs of color.
The whole area was a bed of churned-up sulphur, and the bubbling and steaming caldron was encased in a mass of encrusted yellow and orange hues. They were brilliant beyond belief It is unusual to catch the Papandajan on a clear day. This day was not
only clear but the sun actually came out, with a blue sky overhead. Cutting down my lens to the smallest stop, I let it drink in the whole scene. Here was a steaming rainbow of almost frightening beauty.
There were small rivers of hot water, bubbling springs of steaming water, sputtering and popping mud pots, and the weird yellow and orange formations of sulphur emitting their blasts of smoke. Above it all hung a plume of white clouds formed by the volcano’s steam. Circle of Fire! It was terrible, yet it was grand.
I hadn’t realized it before but I suddenly saw that my native guide was barefooted! I now took a close look at the bottom of his feet. They were almost as hard as shoe leather. Without any apparent pain, he had been walking over hot boulders and jagged rocks.
All the way back up the steam-shrouded colorful trail, then all the way back to the lookout station high above, I kept my camera busy. When at last I reached the car and my driver and I started down over a different road until the steaming crater passed from view, I felt a loss. This was Java supreme.