“Buffalo Must Die”: Making You Think

A water buffalo is bathed

In a world were billionaire Richard Branson dresses up in drag to spill a tray of drinks on Air Asia CEO Tony Fernandes over losing an F1 bet and gets more headline coverage than the lives snuffed out everyday without any due process through drone strikes authorized by a Nobel Peace Prize winning president, I believe it’s easy to see why so many people are becoming increasingly disconnected from reality. Our mass media keeps us merrily oblivious with inane distractions while behind-the-scenes corporatism and authoritarian over-reach trample our cultures, freedoms and ability to think for ourselves.

It’s the third issue that I feel most capable, as a documentary filmmaker, to do something about. I want to play my part in getting people to think independently by showing them things that challenge what they consider normal.

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Buffalo Must Die, my new direct-cinema documentary short about the ritualistic slaughter of water buffalo at funerals in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia, is my latest attempt to do this.

While Indonesia may seem a world away, and many readers may not even be sure which island Sulawesi is, I believe the film raises questions that are intimately related to our perception of reality, particularly when it comes to matters of life, death, animal cruelty and the role of the media.

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Buffalo Must Die came out of the exploratory travel, i.e., “location scouting,” that I like to do when I have itchy feet but I’m not on an organized shoot.

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In 2011 I had a chance to take a 10-day trip to Indonesia. I chose Tana Toraja and I was not disappointed. Nestled in the hills of South Sulawesi, the region has developed a culture unique from other parts of the island and Indonesia as a whole.

Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi, Indonesia

There are a number of things that set the Torajans apart, including their Christianity, language and fascination with funerals, but perhaps it is their intimate and seemingly contradictory relationship with water buffalo that is the most perplexing to outsiders.

As soon as they are born, water buffalo become the most cherished Torajan household possession (often being worth more than the family car). They are washed daily, coddled and nurtured as beloved members of the family. And with the introduction of tractors, never made to do any physical labor.

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Then they are slaughtered.

A water buffalo is bathed
A water buffalo is bathed

In Toraja, people literally live to die, and many spend their entire lives saving and preparing for their eventual departure. When the time finally comes, it is commemorated with an ornate ceremony that lasts several days and includes the bloody slaughter of as many prized water buffalo (and pigs) as their family can afford. The meat is then given away to important guests.

Is this unbridled animal cruelty – or a complex interpretation of life, death and the need for sustenance?

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In the colonial era they would surely have been called savages, in the Cold War era they were called the Third World, and now to the globalists they are simply a developing economy, who, when subject to enough UN treaties, taxation and Coca-cola factories, will surely come around to see that the joys of the iPhone and Facebook overcome the desire to split the necks of giant animals with hand-sharpened blades.

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Or is it we in the “developed” world that have become out of touch with reality?

Surely we eat meat, lots of it, and almost none of it grows up in the loving, free-range environment that Toraja’s water buffalo do. We also systematically slaughter large numbers of animals when we feel there is an (economically) justifiable need. And some of us too make the decision to take the lives of our beloved pets when we pass (google the term “convenience euthanasia” for a rude glimpse at the inner workings of some Westerner’s attitudes towards pets.)

It was this philosophical question that helped inspire Buffalo Must Die.

Poster for "Buffalo Must Die"
Poster for Buffalo Must Die

The filming process was not difficult. The Torajan’s are proud of their traditions and are generally quite happy to receive guests at their funerals. In fact, having large numbers of guests from far-flung corners of the world is seen as a form of recognition of the deceased. Bringing gifts such as cartons of Indonesia’s world-renowned clove cigarettes is all that is expected in return.

The conspicuous presence of a camera was also not a problem as most funerals are well documented on video by family, friends and even local news crews. It was clear that there were no secrets to be kept and no distrust for how the images I captured might ultimately be presented.

This is where I found my biggest challenge as a filmmaker. While at a gut level it was difficult for me to watch the deaths of these magnificent animals, I knew that there was much more to the story than a foreigner with a camera uncovering a shocking sacrifice that would have organizations like PETA literally crying bloody murder. I had to find a way to edit what I had gotten so that viewers would ask their own questions and draw their own conclusions.

I sat on the footage for over a year mulling my editing options. How could I form a thought-provoking story out of what I had filmed that didn’t feel heavy-handed? Scholarly interviews, narration and title cards all came to mind, but they didn’t feel right.

Then I had the chance to watch Sweet Grass, a beautiful, compelling direct-cinema documentary that told the story of the dying culture of sheepherders in the American west with the minimal use of dialogue and not a single line of voice-over.

Within two days of watching the film I had Buffalo Must Die laid out in a Final Cut timeline – it was the first time I had ever worked with direct-cinema and although it presented many challenges (without voice-over “show don’t tell” isn’t just a story-telling ideal, it’s an imperative), I knew it was the right way – the only way – to present what I had filmed.

I submitted the film to a number of independent film festivals around the world, and while highly competitive to begin with, I expected that the graphic death of animals as depicted in the film would make it even more of a challenge to find a home for it. For example, the website of one Indie festival in the US overtly lumps “violence against animals” in with pornography as something that will instantly disqualify a film.

Screen capture from "Buffalo Must Die:" A Torajan Funeral
Screen capture from Buffalo Must Die: A Torajan funeral

But I knew that the film stood on its own and that there would be others who understood where it was coming from. I was very pleased when the film was accepted and won an Award of Excellence from the International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture in Jakarta, Indonesia, and latter was accepted by SF DocFest (screening on June 9th, 11th and 23rd) and the Snake Alley Festival of Film (screening on June 6th).

I purposely chose the direct-cinema style for the non-commentative ambiguity it provides, but that’s not to say that as a filmmaker I don’t have a goal in mind. My goal is to provide viewers with an experience that challenges them to think about what they are seeing and place it into the greater context of their own experience and values, as well as to think about how a camera (and by extension the media) affects their perception of an event.

Is it cruel? Is it humane? Is it acceptable tradition? Or do you need more information? In the end it’s for you to decide. What I do is offer you an experiential look at an important reality through the lens of a camera and only ask that you base your decision on what you see, not what you are told.

Visit www.veverkabros.com/Shorts.html for more information.

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Trained as an aerospace engineer, writer/director Jesse Veverka was a financial analyst on Wall Street before co-founding his own media production company, Veverka Bros. Productions LLC, with his brother Jeremy. He has worked and lived throughout Asia, including Japan, Korea, Indonesia and China, where he has produced a number of award-winning films. His articles have appeared in various publications including CNN Travel, Japan’s Metropolis Magazine and China’s Global Times. He was born in Ithaca, NY. Jeremy Veverka is a media professional with specialties in documentary filmmaking, photojournalism, cinematography, sound design, and commercial work. His award-winning films, including the feature documentary China: The Rebirth of an Empire, cover a range of geopolitical issues and have been screened at dozens of film festivals worldwide. With a degree in English from Cornell University and extensive travel experience throughout Asia and the Middle East, Jeremy brings his background in storytelling and international journalism to each of his projects and strives to give a voice to historically underrepresented groups. To learn more, visit www.jeremyveverka.com or follow Jeremy on Twitter: @JeremyVeverka.