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A Distant Thud in the Jungle

A Distant Thud in the Jungle

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“We fell for these promises and gave away our land… You can’t destroy everything and get away with it. You too will be destroyed.” — Homai Lambiawi

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, a group of families perform traditional dances and songs. But they are not celebrating a local festival. Instead, these dancers are paid to perform for tourists, who point cameras in their faces and marvel at people who they romanticize as pre-modern and simple, with few cares in the world.

Life in the highlands, though, is far from care-free. In the village of Hides 4 (named for a colonial explorer and a petroleum lease), an ExxonMobil gas plant flares through the night, its fenced-in compound off-limits for locals. Seduced by promises of nice houses, free food and riches from gas royalties, some families, like the Lambawis, gave up their land for the LNG plant. Tony Lambawi made an agreement with ExxonMobil, thinking it was for the best. Now, Tony is dead and his relatives live in poverty and misery. His brother Homai is continually rebuffed whenever he tries to approach the company for the money the family is owed.

Meanwhile, at an Independence Day celebration, local leaders berate the people of Hides 4 for wanting compensation, exhorting them to give up more land free to the state in the name of development and future benefits.

A DISTANT THUD IN THE JUNGLE captures how one project—in a place idealized by westerners as “unspoiled”—has damaged the local environment, plunged residents into poverty, and eroded social norms.

Director Céline Rouzet first visited the highlands at 20. Like the tourists who open her film, she had an idealized vision of life there. But she has returned repeatedly, spent much time with the Lambiawi family, learned the language, and knew Tony. Shot over two visits, five years apart, a DISTANT THUD IN THE JUNGLE firmly centers the experiences of the highlanders, as they try to grapple with the consequences of broken promises.

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