Fifteen passionate and adventurous young people leave their ordinary lives behind to spend 100 days in the jungles of Borneo. Their mission: to rescue the rainforests and endangered orangutans from destruction.

Rise Of The Eco-Warriors is the latest project of documentary filmmaker Cathy Henkel. It’s a follow-up to her 2008 IF-award winning film, The Burning Season, which dealt with saving rainforests through the carbon trading mechanism. The venture originated from online polls completed by school children who, when asked what they would do to save the world, overwhelmingly responded with ‘stop deforestation’.

The poll creators, Microsoft Partners in Learning, contacted Henkel and asked her for ideas that students could engage with. The result was DeforestACTION, a campaign that would involve travelling to Borneo to implement deforestation solutions and allow children to monitor the action from their classrooms. An international call for the volunteers was placed, and the result was the 15 amazing young men and women who would become the arse-kicking Eco-Warriors.

Despite an abundance of knowledge on the palm oil trade in Borneo, the filmmaker admits that none of it prepared her or the Eco-Warriors for the reality of what was waiting for them. “We all went into a kind of shock faze when we saw just how rampant it is, and how much disregard there is for the law, because most of what’s happening is illegal.”

“Forests are being destroyed to plant palm oil plantation and palm oil serves the global food market and cosmetics,” Henkel told SBS last year. “So we the consumers are the prime cause of this deforestation by consuming this product ignorantly. The people on the ground who are most affected by it are the Dayak communities whose land is being taken away from them – often against their will. They fight, they resist, they are taken over and lose their land and livelihood.” Henkel explains that the villagers begged the team to help them, to speak on their behalf and tell the world.

Help them they did, as the Eco-Warriors forfeited their creature comforts for a bed consisting of floor and a mosquito net, treacherous roads, and sinking longboats. “One of our boys nearly drowned in a surging river after a big flood”, recounts the director before also describing how everyone, except for herself, became sick during their time there. But despite the team’s rollercoaster ride of emotions and physical hardships, they never gave up their fight for the rainforest.

One of the biggest achievements of the Eco-Warriors was building a rescue centre for orangutans who were victims of deforestation, including Jojo, a baby orangutan that captured the hearts and minds of the team. This rescue initiative was lead by Dr. Willie Smits, who is responsible for aiding hundreds of orangutans himself. He chose the site because there was no rescue centre in the region and the orangutans were living in horrendous conditions. Despite working with limited resources and beyond their levels of skill and expertise, the eco-warriors managed to build and set up the centre. Henkel that fifteen new orangutans now call it home and are doing well.

There’s no doubt that Rise Of The Eco-Warriors is a confronting documentary film, but with positive intentions, with a focus on educating and motivating people. Henkel has said that she hopes that audiences will exit the cinema asking what they can do to help. This message in particular rings loud and clear; “Every action counts. Every individual does matter.” Henkel says that this won’t be her last venture into the rainforest. “I don’t think I’m done with this topic. I don’t want to stop until there’s a better system in place.”

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