As the holiday season gets into full gear, many Americans have family, food and fun on the brain. But in addition to celebrations, this time of year also marks the anniversary of one of the most devastating natural disasters in history.
On Dec. 26, 2004, a tsunami struck Southeast Asia, killing more than 230,000 people and displacing many, many more.
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance was on the scene, working with local partners. That work — and the stories of survivors — is the subject of a documentary that will be shown on more than 130 ABC affiliates across the country beginning Nov. 21.
"Kepulihan: Stories from the Tsunami" is directed by David Barnhart, PDA videographer. He traveled to Indonesia with PDA several times over five years, meeting with survivors and listening to their stories.
Kepulihan is an Indonesian word meaning healing and recovery.
The film focuses on three Indonesians whose lives were forever changed by the tsunami. Barnhart filmed the segments over a period of four years, allowing viewers to witness the journey of each survivor featured.
Yadi is a small farmer who lost all 15 members of his family, including his wife and children. His segments show him focusing on providing proper burials for victims. He later receives a small seed grant and is able to help form a watermelon-growing cooperative in his community.
Damai is a young girl who was paralyzed by injuries sustained in an earthquake that caused the tsunami. She struggles to come to term with her condition, worrying about being a burden to her family. She later enrolls in a recovery program with the goal of being more independent. Damai ends up being promoted to be a manager of the program and becomes an advocate for disabled people, who are discriminated against in her community.
Mahmud is a painter and fisherman who lost four of his children and most of his village in the tsunami. He lives in a displacement camp and helps by painting signs and teaching art classes to children. He also discovers a sense of purpose in painting the villages severely hit by the tsunami. Mahmud appreciates reaching out to others but realizes he will always be affected by his losses.
Barnhart credited the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s longstanding partnerships with local groups and churches with helping him find contacts for the documentary. Because residents know and trust the local partners, they were more willing to open up on camera to a friend of those partners.
"The partnerships and the way we work in ministry with folks is just awesome," Barnhart said in an August interview.
And that focus on relationships plays a part in Barnhart's work as a video journalist, which he views as a ministry. He wanted the sources to have input into the way their stories were told and what part of their experiences they wanted to highlight.
He worked closely with them, showing them the videos of their past interviews before recording later ones. In this way, they could reflect and see their progress of where they had been to where they now were. The sources were very proud of their segments and shared them with their communities.
"I wanted it to be a part of recovery," Barnhart said.
The tsunami, like the recent floods in Pakistan, the January 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the most recent tsunami and volcano eruption in Indonesia make worldwide headlines because of their shocking images and stories of death and destruction. But soon the cameras move on, and the stories of disaster recovery are harder to find.
Recovering from a disaster is a long and multilayered process. Long-term recovery is about helping individuals, families and entire communities make choices about how they reclaim a portion of life as it was before. It goes far beyond food, water and medicine.
Barnhart said he's always been drawn to people who have experienced trauma. He served as a Young Adult Volunteer in Argentina, working with street kids and organizing community gardens and theater groups. He's also worked with PDA as Latin America liaison, working with communities in Mexico, Central America and Venezuela recovering from disasters.
He studied broadcast journalism in college, and it was while working with communities after Hurricane Mitch that he decided to bring his camera and have people tell their stories in their own words. He then started integrating film into recovery efforts.
"Their stories can be a part of the healing process," Barnhart said. "It's important to humanize recoveries. It's important to tell that human story in their words … because then people can have a connection. It's universal."
Barnhart directed another PDA-produced documentary, "Coming Home: Hurricane Katrina Five Years Later," which began airing on NBC affiliates in August and will continue until March 13.
"Kepulihan" begins airing on ABC affiliates Nov. 21 and runs for two months. To view a list of affiliates showing the film, click here.