Breaking the Chains review

This article was originally published at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia.

Breaking the Chains

By Maya Borom

Breaking the Chains is an ethnographic documentary by Dr Erminia Colucci, from the Centre for International Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, that looks at the seemingly common practice in rural Indonesia of using chains and shackles (called pasung) on people with mental illnesses.

The film lays witness to the practice of pasung and the socio-emotional effects that it has, not only on the person being shackled but also in the wider community. Colucci travelled to Indonesia to meet a group of activists from the Komunitas Sehat Jiwa (Community for People with Mental Illness), who dedicate their time trying to educate families about mental illness and care and free those caught up in the pasung ‘system’. It’s a confronting film because essentially it documents society’s most vulnerable people in a situation that they are helpless to fight against. Long held local traditions about mental illness and societal treatment mean that pasung is seen as a normal pathway to rehabilitation.

… one of the more confronting stories in the documentary is of a male whose family half buried him up to his neck and tied his arms to tree trunks for 10 years in a bid to rid him of his mental illness.

One such story is that of Yayah, chained for 17 years in a room because her family thought she was possessed by a Jin and believed that she would create havoc in the wider community. Asep on the other hand speaks to deceased people and burned down his family home. The common thread is the inability of the community to deal adequately with mental illness. This partly stems from the fact that, in the small villages, the cause of mental illness is often viewed as mystical one, rather than a neurological or environmental issue, and thus people are believed to be able to bewitch others or be bewitched by Jins, and expertise is sought from spiritual advisors more willingly than health practitioners.

Pasung is used in a variety of ways – one of the more confronting stories in the documentary is of a male whose family half buried him up to his neck and tied his arms to tree trunks for 10 years in a bid to rid him of his mental illness. With an estimated 20,000 people in pasang in Indonesia it’s an issue that needs careful attention.

Thankfully, along with the activists, the Indonesian government is trying to tackle the problem by providing access to subsidised medication and specialist programs such as Indonesia Bebas Pasung (Free from Pasung). Access to medication and programs form an integral part of the rehabilitation from pasung, for without such support the families would seek to return to pasung as a way of looking after those with mental illnesses.

Breaking the Chains is conversely a sad and uplifting story – it illustrates the power of education and grassroots activism in overcoming long held traditional beliefs that impinge on current human rights and mental health standards, but also highlights the fact that the efforts of the activists are miniscule compared to the sheer number of people caught up in the pasung system.

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