Rob Henry was born on April 25, 1981.
But he stopped celebrating the day about 10 years ago, when he moved into the forest to live among the indigenous people on the Mentawai Islands, about 150 kilometres off the coast of West Sumatra, Indonesia.
A former magazine advertising salesman in Melbourne, he moved to the Mentawai Islands in search of a more meaningful life. At first, he took a job filming surfing guests at Pit Stop Hill, the closest thing to a resort for westerners in Mentawai.
Despite the sensational waves that have made the isolated region a drawcard for the international surfing community, Henry was not drawn to the sea. Rather, he was curious about the native culture, and soon left the resort to live among the locals.
“I’d go around and start living with the community, try to get an understanding of this sense of freedom, this happiness, this glow,” Henry says in a telephone interview from his caravan near Bendigo, Victoria, where he is currently living.
“It made me wonder, what do they know that we don’t know . . .”
Henry’s pursuit of an answer to that question led him to move deeper into the forest to live with traditional Mentawai tribes people for eight years. As he assimilated in just about every way – resisting their tradition to take brides when girls reached puberty – he eventually realised how much their culture was at risk.
He learned the language, adapted to the diet and the pace of life. He immersed himself in the Mentawai’s old tattoo culture (“I pretty well have a suit now,” he says.)
Henry had kept his camera equipment when he went native, and filmed hundreds of hours of the basic tribe life in his earliest days. As he became more native, he filmed less, feeling it was intrusive.
“I wasn’t filming at all near the end [of time spent there],” Henry says. “That was to do with me feeling such a part of the community and the life, it would be hard to disconnect from that moment, to have to snap out of that moment.”
The difference between the dependence the native people living in the village had on western society and the independence of the declining number of native people in the forest made an impact on Henry, and formed the seed of his documentary film, As Worlds Divide.
The film explores the Mentawai culture and what is at risk. It also provides a platform for discussion about preserving the nature culture.
When Henry returned to Australia, he found himself connecting to online conversations with young Mentawai people who had attended university and were keen to help protect the Mentawai culture.
Henry became a key player in Indigenous Education Foundation, an organisation he helped create with Mentawai people to help them find solutions to saving their culture.
The goal is to raise $1million to kickstart an action plan for the Mentawai. The strategy includes building a cultural centre, publishing a Mentawai dictionary and developing an eco-tourism model.
“To be honest, we’re just scratching the surface, there’s a long way to go," Henry says.
The project could help more indigenous populations than just the Mentawai, he says.
The world surfing community has embraced the project, with 39 showings across seven countries already, drawn by the tagline Watch a film, save a culture (#wafsac).