For many of us, Dec. 26, 2004, was the day after Christmas. But as thousands in the United States headed for shopping centers to return gifts, people living along the coast of Indonesia were about to experience one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.  

An undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean produced massive waves that swept into villages and communities, wiping away homes, businesses and families. When it was over, more than 280,000 people were dead and hundreds of thousands were left homeless and injured. 

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance moved into high gear, working with other international organizations to provide relief and assistance. During the multi-year recovery effort, David Barnhart, an award-winning director and filmmaker for PDA, packed his camera and headed for Indonesia for the task of documenting the devastation and developing a long-term story project with survivors. 

Barnhart spent weeks traveling from village to village, meeting and talking with survivors and developing relationships with a core group of people who wanted to document their stories. He felt compelled to make annual visits to the region to meet with survivors and document their reflections and experiences over the long-term trajectory of recovery.

“It seems like every day we hear news of another disaster, shooting or bombing. The horrific images and statistics replay over and over, and then suddenly, another disaster strikes and most of us move on,” said Barnhart. “We fail to recognize the lasting impact and ripple effects that these traumatic events have on individuals, families and communities over the years.” 

Barnhart started interviewing 26 survivors immediately after the tsunami, but over a four-year period, that number narrowed to three. 

“We didn’t begin this story project with an audience in mind,” said Barnhart. “Our hope was to use the film and the process of filmmaking as a medium for healing and recovery for survivors that participated in this initiative.”           

Among the three participants was a farmer named Yadi. The tsunami wiped out his family, home and crops. Only he and one nephew survived. 

“His family was everything. They worked together in the fields and his children greeted him when he came home. They were the foundation of his day-to-day life,” said Barnhart. “Losing his entire family uprooted and essentially destroyed that which grounded him and gave his life meaning.” 

After four years, Barnhart produce his first documentary on the aftermath of the disaster, “Kepulihan: Stories from the Tsunami.” Kepulihan is an Indonesian word meaning healing and recovery. The film captures the healing and transformation of each individual in their own words and experiences. 

“As we returned to Sumatra each year, Yadi seemed to look forward to seeing his interview and story from the previous year and would watch it several times, sharing it with others by organizing impromptu community screenings with people in the village,” said Barnhart. “His life had changed so much over the course of each year that I think it was a valuable point of reflection for him to focus on the past and make connections with the present.” 

The film was screened at The Carter Center in Atlanta and was selected by the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site as part of its D.R.E.A.M. Film Series (Developing Racial Equality through Art and Music). Kepulihan was also selected by ABC for broadcast in 2010 and screened at the Phuket Film Festival. 

Through a translator, audiences heard from Yadi as he struggled to rebuild his life and the lives of those in his village. 

“The moment that struck me the most was when there was nobody left,” said Yadi in the original film. “My family was so big and we were there for each other day in and day out, sharing the daily tasks. My hopes for the future had always been to be with my family and then I had to bury them all.” 

Yadi initially coped with the loss by helping other families seek the whereabouts of their loved ones. He recalls carrying up to 32 corpses with his own hands and ensuring that each received a proper burial. With no carpentry experience, he began the slow process of providing a new roof for him and his nephew.

As the result of a $400 seed grant from PDA, Yadi was able to return to farming. Within the first year, he yielded his first post-tsunami watermelon crop. But he didn’t stop there; he reached out to others in his community and formed a co-op. 

Yadi eventually married a widow from a nearby village. In June of 2007, she gave birth to their first son, named Yoga. 

“Looking back, my life would have had little meaning without my wife and children. After Yoga was born, my heart was full of such joy,” said Yadi. “Now the simple day-to-day activities with my son make me so happy. Even though I come home from the fields very tired, seeing the family at home heals my aches and pains.” 

Barnhart has returned to Sumatra over the years to update Yadi’s progress. The seed grant restored his crops and those of his neighbors and once again, his children meet him in the fields. 

“I can see how disasters change people, especially if they don’t care about whom or what is around them and the simple fact that life is fleeting,” said Yadi. “From that experience, we realize that we need and should think about others. I’ve gained a lot of wisdom over these past several years. I’ve learned the wisdom of living through chaos. Recovery is a term for when we’ve been through a horrible, terrifying experience. And then with healing, we are lifted out of that horror and terror.” 

Barnhart has produced a follow up video series to Kepulihan called “Resiliency.” It is being released on the 10th anniversary of the tsunami.

“Through this project, we sought to lift up the human story of the tsunami recovery,” said Barnhart. “I feel it is important because we have become numb and desensitized to the layers of disasters we see every day and there needs to be some kind of human connection and story that wakes us up to care and engage.”