Getting through life with Ona

A review of Between the Devil and The Deep Blue Sea: a documentary

By Dorita Setiawan, PhD

The year of 2020 is coming, and we witness more and more Indonesian women being at the forefront of the nation’s change and having positions in the leadership ladder. Meanwhile, there are also still many women who continue to face challenges when it comes to everyday lives, socially, economically and politically. Some of these challenges are caused by increasing presence of religion and faith in public sphere combined with cultural-social-constructs leaving women nothing but to comply to these pressures and complications.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: a documentary is a must-see before 2020 ends. It is about how a next-door girl overcomes life, despite stigma and pressure that she faces daily. It unravels lives that are so unexpected, leaving us in an awe to see what one can do. The plots and the twists in the documentary are so well orchestrated, leaving us life lessons that are hard to deny. Incrementally, we are exposed to the life of Ona – the main character in this documentary – who strives along whatever life brings before her.

Prior to seeing the documentary, I read the synopsis, already, I have assumptions, expectations and preconceived ideas on how the world revolves around rape survivor. The price of coercive sexuality paid by a victim in a patriarchal society. In the beginning, we are introduced with a story of Ona, a twenty-year old girl from Kaledupa, one of the small islands in Sulawesi. Ona shares how her day – went sour. Ona was raped. The rapist is La Nua, her date. Her recollection of the day is vivid and candid. She chronologically describes the event. Ona shares her feelings, anger, frustrations. Her story in this scene sets us to predict and assume. The scene begs us to anticipate that the following scenes would be about the fights, stigma and troubles around the lives of a woman who was a rape victim. I was wrong.

It is true that throughout the film we see that Ona is a person who obeys her culture, follows through what the society prescribed of her. Still, she is estranged by her family, seeing her as deviant, expecting her: why can’t you be anyone else? For Ona, she is exactly like someone else in her family, at least she appears to be by helping around the house, getting vegetables for family’s dinner from their small farm and fishing in the beach nearby.

As I went through the documentary, questions came to my head around a woman’s autonomy: What defines you as a woman? How do you see yourself fit in with people surrounds you? Is it around being visible or invisible? Do you have to be conforming or non-conforming to the expectations of being a woman or being a member of a society? These questions are all about acceptance, resistance, being loved and preloved.

Then I realize that the documentary is about Ona, the survivor and how she lives her life. One scene after another in this documentary showcases how powerful Ona is.  We follow her every day, month after month, year after year. We see Ona’s battles and conquers, every single day. She battles life as it comes.   Ona plays life roles well although not perfect by being a daughter, a sister, a friend, a partner and a student. Most of universality of these roles is determined by patriarchy, Ona obeys and refuses all these expectation at the same time by getting through challenges gracefully, nonetheless.

Cultural imposition is something that Ona negotiates in this documentary. Ona challenges common assumptions that the survivor should not even be dealing with the rapist, and she did exactly what the society prescribed of her after the incident, being engaged to be married with the perpetrator, she follows through cultural imposition by playing the role of a fiancée really well, to the points that it cringes us who watch. Ona lovingly seems to take care of La Nua.  Yet, Ona does not let the society categorizes her into boxes. When La Nua came to live with her, Ona just carries on by taking care of the rapist, Ona takes care of La Nua. We know that Ona has problems with it but she seems to take things lightly. It makes me wonder how Ona processes her thoughts. There is a scene where she clips the rapist La Nua’s nails, drops him off at the port making sure that he is okay. As when we thought that life is going turn into Ona’s favour, La Nua betrays Ona towards the end of the documentary, she looks sad, but she changes the narratives that things happens may be for the better.

And then I start to reflect around: what do we do when women cry for help? What do we do when women survive and show the signs of strengths? When it comes to the survivor of sexual violence, we cannot only dwell around how it impacts the victim’s mental wellbeing, but it is also around the injustice that she needs to go through.  We often see that perpetrator walks freely without harsh judgement as survivors experience.

If we come to think what Ona had to go through after the incidents, she went to the perpetrator’s house, despite her trauma and her wellbeing, being ridiculed and mocked by La Nua’s mother and family, still, Ona demanded justice by asking to be engaged with La Nua. I wonder if there is anyone around her see the changes and the struggle Ona must put up with. Ona must have showcased her trauma that many people around her – maybe even we – fail to see. I can fairly assume that Ona is surrounded by the bystanders, like many of us are. Blaming her for surrendering herself to the perpetrator by thinking again and again that the rape that she had to go through happened because she was asking for it.

I am not surprised to know that the blaming of Ona as a rape victim will use sentences we often hear: “she was asking for it, she was raped because she willingly joins the cultural festivity at night, she just likes La Nua, and she makes things up.” So what does it say about us as a society? That we do not care for our fellow human. Society would easily believe in stories and news cornering woman as a victim. This is not only a story of Kadelupa but also the story anywhere. Words spread easily when it comes to rumours and gossip. We will be very apologetically responding to unfortunate events happening to women, but do we follow them up? Nope. Absolutely no. This documentary shows how Ona fights her trauma, her fear by herself. How ironic.

That leads us to the question above, I repeatedly ask myself, what do we do? How are we as a majority condemn Ona being the strong survivor? Do we help her at all? We are still trapped by the patriarchal mindset blaming the victim. It is great to see that Ona decides to be strong and getting through life as it comes. However, we shall never take any credit for it.

Then there are scenes where her parents and friends control the way she dresses and behaves. The scenes beg me to again question, are we among those who comment on how a person looks? This documentary shows how the control of woman’s body goes far from beyond the words and it reaches to the point when Ona received low grade from a class she took at the university. The only way to fix the grade for this science class is by behaving according to whatever the society requires including reading the holy text. The demand does not make any sense. Yet, that is how it works in this unfair world.

As much as we wish to believe that patriarchy is diminishing, we have to admit that it is still pretty much the reality for many of women in Indonesia, and anywhere else too. This documentary shows how men still have privilege compared to women. In Ona’s case, La Nua, despite his reputation as the rapist, the killer. Women are still seen as inferior therefore are sexual objects. The sexual violence and rape are somewhat seen as normal. As women’s issues are not that far off from the bed- the so-called domesticated space for a woman- besides the kitchen and the bathroom (dapur, sumur, Kasur).” As I mentioned earlier, the scene where La Nua sleeping on Ona’s lap cringes us yet isn’t that what the society wants? Happy ending. Once women compromise, everyone is happy.

This is exactly why we cannot minimize what Ona had to go through, the mental burdens she has to carry is unbearable. The shame and trauma are no joke. Ona could have chosen to lock herself and never steps her foot again outside the house. However, she flips the table and gets through life fearlessly. One of the scenes that this is the case is when she finally moved to different city after her parents kicked her out of the house and she worked as a cleaner in the city motel and harvester for a farm.  By moving elsewhere Ona discovers that life has so much to offer. More importantly, she discovers herself.

The story of Ona is a mirror of how things around us, how patriarchy hurts and traps us, let us be aware that violence is violence, and we must act to stand against it. We need to tell ourselves and others to love ourselves and others. We need to protect one another.

The documentary captures beautifully how Ona crosses boundaries and certain taboos despite her limited possibilities by being her true self. Ona seems to compromise to the expectation befell on her, yet still be able to get away with life as it pushes her back into different directions. Ona negotiates her relationship between power and her being a female. This is the story of one can rise no matter what challenges life brings.

The takeaways from the documentary is that education and knowledge is important for a woman, her dreams and ambitions are Ona’s haven. If I can list things that I admire from Ona: she is ambitious, resilient and persistent, she can go anywhere, and she will thrive.  She knows that education and knowledge is what she needs in life.

The documentary took 2,5 years to make and it shows how the film makers and all producers carefully assure that message the film carries across. The film is never boring as all the important episodes of Ona life are captured meticulously. In 73 minutes, the documentary manages to keep me alert, the humour, sadness, disappointment and excitements are accurately wrapped in one scene after another. I do not feel the rollercoaster of twists and turns of a film usually offers, but like other excellently made documentary, it slips through my head and I take notes of life lessons the documentary provides diligently.

The flow of the film empowers us, it is the creation of love, we sense hope and love of a list of things we need to do as a woman for ourselves and for one another. We need to be kind to one another; that we always have something to learn from one another. Ona again as I said repeatedly above, crashes all the assumptions, expectations and accusations. This documentary shows us how we need to see everything in one big picture.  There is always a story of a story of a story. The documentary shows how a person growth is always inspiring if only we wish to look deeper.

More importantly, this documentary dismisses elitist theorists in their comfortable ivory tower who tend to blanket every woman’s experience. We see how human stands strong. Ona may not have all the characters and conditions that require her to be strong, but Ona chooses to be a fighter. Otherwise she will be vanished. Shame on us who patronize and shame on us who knows what is better for others. We should listen more, we should start the conversation, letting a woman like Ona, be the star, of her own life.


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Dorita Setiawan, PhD

Dorita Setiawan, PhD

Fulbright International Scholar, with the interest in work and research around community organizing to battle violence against women. She received her PhD from Columbia University in the City of New York and her Master degree from McGIll University, Montreal, Canada. Her twitter is @doritasetiawan.

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