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Filming the Korowai in West Papua, Indonesia

Written on March 15, 2018


The Korowai are a tribe of hunter-gatherers in southeastern West Papua, Indonesia, living in the vast lowland jungles of the Brazza River basin at the foothills of the Jayawijaya mountain range. Although most Korowai have moved to government sponsored villages such as Mabul or Muara, a small few still live in the treehouses for which the tribe are famous. Some treehouses rise to over 30 metres in height. Only about 3,000 Korowai remain.

Human Planet and NatGeo, among others have produced documentaries about the Korowai people and their unique way of life.

Permits & Getting There

There are several settlements of note should you wish to film or photograph the Korowai:

Gwali and Hayanof are accessed via Mabul. Dayo is accessed via Yaniruma. Dumbol requires a direct charter flight.

Korowai locations are very remote so be sure to allow for plenty of travel time to get to basecamp.

Take for instance a shoot in Gwali… The first step is to apply for a National Film Permit and journalism visa at your closest Indonesian embassy. Once approved, you fly to Indonesia and onward to Sentani. Your local fixer will then take your passports and passport photos to Jayapura (1 hour drive away) where the police will issue each of your team with official travel permits. Next you will fly from Sentani to Dekai. On landing in Dekai your travel permit needs to be stamped at the local Dekai police office. Drive to Lokbon (30mins). From there you take a boat down river to Pepera (around 6 hours). The following day you take boat from Pepera to the Korowai village of Mabul (around 4 hours). Finally, from Mabul to the treehouses in Gwali you need to travel by foot (3 hours). A return trip typically takes at least 10 days.

* Note, the Lokbon to Mabul boat trip can also be done by speedboat in a single day, providing conditions are right and the crew and equipment size is small enough.

Consider This

Filming in this remote corner of West Papua is very unpredictable so travel times and shooting schedules may change suddenly, regardless of how well you plan the trip. Expect the unexpected. For larger shoots, a separate recce trip is essential.

The area has a very limited number of flights and connections often don’t line up. Flights are often cancelled without notifying travellers so having a fixer who stays on it is crucial. Charter flights are expensive.

Travel by river can also be problematic. Sufficient fuel supplies need to be ordered in well ahead of time. Not enough rain may mean the rivers are too low to safely travel. Too much rain means the river may be full of dangerous debris, which may slow travel significantly. Larger crews with more equipment may require several boats for transport.

Accommodation is meagre.

All crew and equipment needs to be brought in. Only a film / photography fixer and porters are available locally.

Bring in everything you need including the basics such as food and potable water. Note, the rivers are rich with barramundi, so some food can be caught, at least on the river travel portion of the shoot.

Electricity for recharging batteries is available in villages such as Mabul, but you’re better off bringing in spares and small generators.

Prepare your crew and gear for tropical wet weather filming. As well as appropriate clothing and camera protection, this also includes essential preventative medications. Taking pepto before meals can help prevent stomach aches. Before you fly make sure to get your travel vaccinations including shots for Japanese Encepphilitis. The Korowai area is also a malaria zone so bring your Malarone. If you have pale skin it’s best to avoid taking Doxycycline as it can cause horrible blisters if skin is exposed to the sun.

Be patient with communication. Local fixers only speak bahasa Indonesia, which needs to be translated into Korowai, and then back again. The chance of miscommunication is high so triple-check everything.

Although drone filming is technically illegal, you ought to get away with filming in very remote areas providing it is not near any official areas.

When to Shoot?

July to September is the dry, sunny season with little to no rain and the best light for filming. August also sees bird and insect migrations which attract photographers from around the world.

A sago grub feast requires a two month preparation period for grubs to grow and for the hosts to ready the long house for guests. Feasts involve guests from many tribes, the eating the grubs, and a war shield dance. Arranging a sago grub feast costs visiting productions around USD1000.

Film Fixer West Papua

If you are looking for a reliable film fixer for your shoot with the Korowai in West Papua, please contact us for referrals and additional advice. We are also able to recommend photographers, directors, DoPs, videographers, cameramen, and other film industry professionals who have had experience working in this part of the world.