Where Heaven Meets Hell

Simpons dvd

Year: 2012

Type: Documentary film (80 minutes, Indonesian with English subtitles) and website

Producer: Sasha Friedlander

Production company: Sasha Films LLC & Independent Television Service

Availability: full film on DVD (US$25.00 via and via video on demand services (on HBO Now & Netflix); online teaser (on Vimeo) and trailer (on Vimeo embedded below).

Page reference: Cook et al, I. (2016) Where Heaven Meets Hell. ( last accessed <insert date here>)



The simple act of striking a match, adding a generous spoonful of sugar to a morning cup of coffee, riding a bike or getting into a car, is everyday fare in much of the world. But if asked if sulfur mining had any bearing on their lives, few citizens of the world would know how integral it is (Source: Friedlander 2010 np link).

A vast archipelago of 17,000 islands, and Southeast Asia's largest economy, Indonesia is seen as a rising regional power. But many of its people are living below the poverty line, unable to finish school or seek higher education. At the lowest end are the sulphur miners of Kawah Ijen, a stunningly beautiful East Java volcano that belches toxic smoke as workers struggle up and down the steep slopes carrying huge loads slung across their scarred shoulders (Source: Ward 2012 np).

The place that … filmmaker Sasha Friedlander calls ‘Where Heaven Meets Hell’ is a volcano on the extreme eastern edge of the island of Java in Indonesia, a half-hour ferry ride from the neighboring island of Bali. It's called Kawah Ijen and, from a distance, the ‘heaven’ part is obvious. ‘It's more beautiful than the pictures,’ said Friedlander of Ijen, the setting for her … documentary film …  ‘The vistas, the clouds, the teal of the lake. You feel like you're in heaven.’ But look closer and the hell soon becomes apparent. One part of Ijen's astounding color palette is a buttery yellow. That yellow is volcanic sulfur, and that sulfur is mined as a valuable mineral used in everything from gunpowder to cosmetics to sugar (Source: Baine 2013 np link).

Every day, hundreds of tourists climb Kawah Ijen, an active volcano in the south of the Indonesian island of Java. They admire the turquoise lake in the volcano’s crater and the breathtaking beauty of the yellowish acrid smoke surrounding it. Many also stop to have their photos taken with some of the miners carting 90kg baskets of sulphur on their backs to the village below. These miners work without any safety equipment, barely making enough from their toil-filled days to feed their families (Source: Anon 2013a np link).

Kawah Ijen Volcano in Indonesia is the last sulfur mine in the world that uses human labor. The miners must trek 4 kilometers up an active volcano, engulfed in billowing clouds of sulfur dioxide gas. Is this the most dangerous job in the world? (Source: Aperri 2013 np link).

Kawah Ijen is an active 8530 feet tall volcano in East Java, Indonesia. Inside the crater of the volcano lies the largest lake of sulfuric acid in the world (650 ft deep). Exquisitely beautiful visually, it is the site of a gruelingly labor-intensive sulfur mining operation. Here 200 miners collect and carry huge loads of pure sulfur as they trek up along a rocky 4 km path out of the crater, amidst clouds of noxious sulfur dioxide gas. They then climb down to the village at the base of the volcano unload, only to repeat the round trip journey again before the day ends. The miners will then sell the sulfur to the government for a small fee, equivalent to about five dollars a day. The government exports the sulfur, which is then used for bleaching sugar, producing fertilizers, black gunpowder, matches, insecticides, and fungicides and for vulcanizing rubber (Source: Friedlander 2010 np link).

The miners sell the sulfur to the government … for a small fee equivalent to eight dollars a day, a pittance but still more than they would make working as farmers. The subsistence wages are barely enough for food and basic needs, but insufficient to cover schooling costs for their children. Unfortunately this lack of education perpetuates the cycle of poverty, which prevents future generations from breaking away from the mine. Without their high school diplomas, no job opportunities await these miners within their communities. Making slightly more money than they would be making if they were to stay in their villages to farm, they continue mining in hopes of building financial security for their families, and ensuring that their sons will not become miners at Kawah Ijen.  Even with unprecedented international attention to worker safety and mining practices, life-threatening accidents are common at Kawah Ijen and exposure to the noxious gases leads to chronic lung disease and shortened life expectancy (Source: Anon 2012a np link).

Often obscured by beaten up t-shirts and rags used in place of proper masks, the miners struggle to protect their lungs from the toxic clouds of sulphur smoke which have been especially bad in the last year (Source: Bastaldo 2012 np link).

Using picks and their bare hands, the men dig sulphur out of the steaming crater, breathing in smoke and the noxious fumes of sulphuric gas. It’s dangerous, back-breaking work that lessens their life expectancy and offers subsistence wages that barely cover food and basic needs (let alone the cost of sending their children to school). Friedlander’s film is the story of abject poverty told from the perspective of these proud, uneducated villagers who are desperate to break the cycle of exploitation that has kept generations trapped on the steaming mountaintop in East Java, earning a pittance (Source: MacDonald 2012 np link).

Through this they mine sulfur and collect it in two baskets attached by a bamboo pole. Once full the baskets weigh anywhere from 170 to 200 pounds. The miners hoist them on their shoulders and carry the baskets out of the crater and down the volcano, a trip that can take up to 4 hours (Source: Anon 2013b np link).

A procession of men walk in the faint dawn carrying empty baskets and lit torches. They return much more slowly, shouldering heavy baskets full of sulfur, coughing as they trudge though clouds of noxious smoke (Source: Magick 2012 np link).

If hell has a smell, it’s probably rotten egs (Source: Claxton 2012 np link).

Sulfur is referred to in the Bible as brimstone; hell is said to smell of it. The substance is corrosive to the respiratory tract, causes severe burns and eye damage and is suspected of triggering genetic defects (Source: Reichers 2013 np link).

The miners backs are muscled and covered in calluses from carrying the loads. Their families are left alone for 15 day intervals while they work. The men worry if their family has enough food while they are gone. They worry about not fasting during Ramadan as they need the nourishment to keep working. Yet the people involved remain spiritual, resolved to their fate in life, making do with what they got and hanging on to the last bit of hope (Source: reesa 2012 np link).

Sadly, the average sulfur miner at Kawah Ijen only lives till the age of 40, usually forcing their sons into their jobs, and thus creating a cyclical pattern that passes from one generation to the next (Source: Friedlander 2010 np link).

Where Heaven Meets Hell is about miners working in volcanic sulfur mines in Indonesia and trying to preserve their health and sanity (Source: Brown 2012 np link).

[It] is a study of endurance and the sustaining power of faith, love and family through desperate times; a portrait of endemic poverty and the costs of modernity on unprotected laborers (Source: Anon nda np link).

The film is replete with stunning visuals of a landscape that has rarely been captured on film, and never to the extent seen here. The spectacular setting only provides brief visual respites from the film’s heartbreaking subject matter (Source: Anon ndb np link).

The doc boasts gorgeous visuals, and Friedlander provides a more humanistic approach than the BBC mondo-series Human Planet [M] (2010), which filmed the miners for exotica rather than social commentary (Source: Hasan 2012a np link).

Contrasting the sulphur's bright, toxic yellows against the mine's harsh, grey backdrops, the director composes Edward Burtynsky-worthy visuals. … The miners break their backs and risk their lives for an income that doesn't even pay for a basic education for their children. Friedlander allows them to speak for themselves about their lives and dreams, but never develops a greater narrative or argument. She's satisfied to simply observe a social injustice without mining its greater impact (Source: Simonpillai 2012 np link).

The film effectively portrays the grim labors the miners face every day, in vivid detail, such as the sound of the bamboo groaning under the weight of the sulfur as the miners trudge on (Source: Baine 2013 np link).

‘Friedlander thoughtfully contrasts the miner’s village as a place of peace, spirituality and hope with the treacherous yet breathtaking beauty of the volcanic landscape as a place of pain and struggle’ (Source: Crocker in Anon 2012b np link).

‘Friedlander captures [the trudging mining crews] in visuals that are often paradoxically beautiful. One segment in which European tourists visit the mines and blithely snap photos speaks volumes about first-world privilege and obliviousness, and is more powerful for Friedlander letting it unfold sans commentary’ (Source: Hardy 2012 no link).

What is a unique tourist attraction for the strangers from the rich world becomes the condition for survival for the film characters (Source: Anon ndb np link).

Where Heaven Meets Hell follows four of the nearly 500 sulphur miners working at Kawak Ijen, an active volcano in Indonesia. This intimate portrait chronicles their attempts to escape the endemic poverty and lack of education that haunts their community. Drawing strength from their familiies and their Muslim faith, the miners search for meaning in their daily struggles and triumphs (Source: Anon ndc np link).

Achieving that most difficult mix of empathy for her subjects with confident narrative skills, Friedlander fuses her compassion with her talent. The effect is hauntingly beautiful. … The sight of these slender men groaning under staggering loads of brilliant yellow ore is wrenching. It is also frankly sobering to those of us who grew up in worlds of comfort, fair wages, and good dentistry. … As director, she smartly interweaves the compelling stories of each subject with the gradual revelation of the sulfur extraction process, from digging, to hauling, to meager pay day. We meet the wives and small children, who live in villages away from the volcano, in arduous poverty deep within lush emerald forests. The men gradually tell their dreams—dreams of being able to get jobs that won’t destroy their lungs. Dreams of buying clothes for their wives, and most of all the dream of an education, for themselves and for their children (Source: Waters 2012a np link).

Each character weaves their own unique story, as [the film] draws us into their world and paints a moving portrait of the hardships they face. It highlights the humanity, humor, and commonalities shared by people and workers everywhere, while shedding a light on a little known corner of the globe (Source: Anon ndd np link).

Anto Wijaya is 24 years old with a new wife and child, and has been working at Kawah Ijen for 3 years. Anto has perhaps the best shot at a better life. Having taught himself English and now French, he has the intelligence one might need to make a better life for his family. He dropped out of junior high school to help his father, a lifelong miner, and now lacks the diploma required to get a decent job in nearby cities. This fact, however, doesn’t stymie his drive to escape his predicament. His family has to compete with his French textbooks for attention, while his fascination with  tourists who visit Kawah Ijen enthralls him to the point of obsession. Throughout the film, we watch Anto stumble as he attempts to escape from the harsh realities of his life (Source: Anon nde np link).

As soon as he learns to speak English or French, [Anto will] be able to work in the tourist industry, and at night he practices using a grubby dictionary. But until he's ready, the mighty Kawah Ijen is the only way to a better life - if not for Anto, then for his son (Source: Anon ndf np link).

‘Everybody who comes here says ‘oh it looks like hell!’, and I think to myself ‘but, this is my life’, says … Anto (Source: Bastaldo 2012 np link).

[Anto] has ambitions to be a guide, practicing his language skills on the tourists that often visit the crater. When he is injured in a motorcycle accident, he had to stop working to recover. His co-workers hoped that he wasn't in the mines because he found his dream job. One of the miners keeps goats like a back up plan just in case of injury, or if his kids get sick. Selling his goats is like money stashed in the mattress (Source: reesa 2012 np link).

Purnomo is 27 years old, and has been working at Kawah Ijen for 7 years. He is Anto’s best friend and is struggling with early onset lung disease. Purnomo has come to accept and appreciate the simple gifts of his life, and at the same time, understands the limitations of his circumstances. His infectious sense of humor, natural people skills, and congruent choices endear him to us. As we see his story contrasted with Anto’s struggles and frustrations, we, as an audience, begin to wonder how should we really measure “success”? (Source: Anon ndg np link).

Sukarman is one of the oldest miners at forty-nine, and has been working there for 35 years. He adamantly refuses to let his children pursue the same path as Anto, Purnomo or himself. The film follows him as he makes every possible effort to create a better life for his children. His story culminates as he invests the entirety of his life savings to open a small shop for his daughter to manage. He’s thankful that within his lifetime he has been able to provide a glimmer of hope for his family. Nevertheless, we watch him continue to climb Kawah Ijen with trembling knees, knowing that his years as a sulfur miner are approaching an end (Source: anon ndh np link).

Hadis is 26 years old and has been working at the mine for 7 years. Hadis and his daughter Tuti represent the future uncertainty of the Kawah Ijen community. Tuti is a bright and promising young student, unable to attend school because her father can’t afford it. Meanwhile, as we watch an illiterate Hadis work overtime to enable her to get back into class and continue her education, we’re filled with foreboding, that it simply may not be enough (Source: Anon ndi np link).

What emerges is a series of sympathetic portraits of people working hard to eke out a living in Java, such as the young woman from a comfortable middle-class family in Bali who married a miner in Java and took on a subsistence lifestyle out of love. Without narration, the film shows the miners as family men, working to provide a better life for their children, and often failing to do so (Source: Baine 2013 np link).

Without professional opportunity, these families are shackled in a cycle of harrowing poverty, and yet, most of them share the hope that maybe, just maybe, the next generation will somehow be better off.  It is with this hope that Friedlander molds a heartrending (yet ultimately slight) portrait of steadfast fatherhood and familiar devotion in the face of endless hard work and physical debilitation at the hands of a poisonous yellow earth (Source: Smith 2013 np link).

The miners sell the sulfur for subsistence wages equivalent to eight dollars a day, barely enough for food and basic needs, but insufficient to cover schooling costs for their children. Unfortunately this lack of education perpetuates the cycle of poverty, which prevents future generations from breaking away from the mine. Without their high school diplomas, no job opportunities await these miners within their communities. Making slightly more money than they would be making if they were to stay in their villages to farm, they continue mining in hopes of building financial security for their families, and ensuring that their sons will not become miners at Kawah Ijen. However, it’s not enough – the added income will never pull their families out of poverty, their children will continue to work in the mines, and generation after generation will follow the same path (Source: Anon nda np link).

The film is not without its moments of comedy such as when the sulfur mine's owner is broken English claims that sulfur is not toxic and to prove it, he makes one of his lieutenants eat a piece of sulfur for Friedlander's camera (Source: Baine 2013 np link).

Few mining sites … are also major tourism meccas. Hundreds of tourists flock to Kawah Ijen daily to trek with guides and view the dramatic vistas. As we watch Anto and Purnomo interact with these western eco-tourists on a daily basis, it’s clear that the splendor of the scenery obscures for them the suffering and poverty of the miners (Anon ndj np link). 

Where Heaven Meets Hell isn’t a drama about the environment; it’s a plea for better working conditions and the kind of basic human needs already mandatory in Europe and North America (Source: Hasan 2012b np link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

Where Heaven Meets Hell … simply observes and allows the story of Indonesian sulfur miners to evolve on it's own. [It] is … cinematic … and had me fooled into thinking it was a narrative feature for the first 10 minute or so because micro budget docs never look that good (Source: Hurtado 2012 np link).

Sasha Friedlander is a filmmaker based in both Brooklyn, NY and Berkeley, CA. Sasha completed her BA from UCLA in 2007, and received her MFA in Social Documentary Film from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2011. After UCLA, Sasha received a Darmasiswa Fellowship to study at the Indonesian Art Institute in Bali. While in Indonesia, Sasha began an internship at Bali TV, and because of her fluency in the Indonesian language, was asked to join a team of journalists from the BBC and the Bali Post to launch the first edition of the International Bali Post. Inspired by a brief trip she took to Kawah Ijen crater in East Java in 2009, she returned to Indonesia a year later, to produce Where Heaven Meets Hell, her first feature documentary film, which was selected for funding and co-production by ITVS (Source: Anon ndk np link).

My name is Sasha Friedlander. I have just finished my first of two years in the graduate program for Social Documentary Film Making at the School of Visual Arts in New York. I will be shooting my thesis film on location in Java, Indonesia where I plan to make a documentary on the sulfur miners, who work under great duress extracting sulfur from one of the most beautiful volcanoes in the world. … My goal is to raise $6000 dollars by June 22nd. I’ll have all the usual expenses of traveling and film making, but living very simply in the village with the miners themselves. In addition, one of my classmates, Bao Nguyen … will join me as a cinematographer. I'll be leaving on July 7th and returning on September 1st and I so appreciate Kickstarter for offering me my first experience of online fundraising. Many thanks for taking the time to consider my proposal (Source: Friedlander 2010 np link).

Friedlander was inspired to make the film after taking a weekend trip to Kawah Ijen. ‘I was completely stunned by the contrast between the beauty of the landscape and the working conditions of the miners and immediately started thinking it would be an incredible film and a story that hasn’t really been told,’ she says. … She subsequently returned to New York to study, but the landscape and people she had seen at Kawah Ijen stayed with her, and she decided to pursue the story after raising funds through the Kickstarter crowd-sourcing website (Source: Magick 2012 np link).

Social Documentary Film student Sasha Friedlander recruited backers through Kickstarter to fund her thesis (Source: @SVA-News 2010 np link).

90 backers pledged $7,320 to help bring this project to life (Source: Friedlander 2010 np link).

Despite being set in a distant land and immersed in such a specific culture, the film was actually directed by an American[:] Sasha Friedlander… [Mandinach:] ‘What sparked your interest in Indonesian culture?’ [Friedlander:] When I was seven years old, my parents decided that we would go on a trip to Indonesia. They’d done a lot of travelling before I was born and had been to Indonesia twice before and had really fallen in love with the people and culture. We all went over there together and we would all go off on our own and study our own specific sects of the culture and different art forms. I was really interested in Balinese dancing, my mom was interested in painting, and my dad loved the music. After that first trip, we would go back almost every year until I went off to college, where I studied Indonesian language for four years. After I graduated from UCLA, I moved there for two years and it was during that time that I came across Kawah Ijen and that’s when the idea sparked for the film. [Mandinach:] How did your first encounter with Kawah Ijen come about? [Friedlander:] I was working for an Indonesian newspaper when one of my friends from America took a trip across Java. When they came back and showed me their photographs, I was struck by how beautiful it looked. So, I took the trip myself and immediately I was fascinated by the miners who were there and struck up conversations with them and found their stories so fascinating, the contrast between the beauty of the land and the laboring of the miners. I thought it would be so incredible to spend some time there, make a film, and follow several miners over the course of a year or several months. It took about two years to get back to do that (Source: Mandinach 2012 np link).

…when I arrived I was blown away by the beauty and the landscape there but horrified by the conditions of the sulphur miners that no one had told me existed there. And I spoke with a bunch of the workers there. We started some dialogue and I was really moved by their stories. Instantly I though it could make a really incredible film. I thought it was something important, to honour their lives and give them a voice to share with the world. And I spend the next two years working to get back to shoot the film … [T]he way that they carry themselves in what they do and with their families and the people that they interact with there at the mine – tourists, everything – just blew me away. The people in Indonesia are so open, in general. They love talking and meeting new people, especially because I can speak the language. It was really great to be able to start dialogue with them. I just couldn’t believe what they did on a daily basis to support their families … just to put food on the table. They can hardly afford to send their kids to school. It broke my heart and I thought they were really honourable people (Source: Friedlander in VCFILMFEST 2012 np link).

When I set out to make the film I had it in my mind that I wanted to honor these people and their families. Very early on I noticed how they went through their lives with such dignity despite such horrific labor that leaves their bodies broken and tired. They still keep their heads up and have this sense of pride. I made a point to shoot this film that looked up to them (Source: Friedlander in Mandinach 2012 np link).

… what was most important to me was getting these people to tell their story and honor them. I didn’t want title cards or anything like that. This film is about these men and we wanted to shoot it in a way that puts them up on a pedestal, in a way (Source: Friedlander in Mandinach 2012 np link).

I had an idea of what I was getting myself into when I decided to take on the project, in terms of the danger of climbing the volcano and being exposed to the toxic gases,’ [Friedlander] said. ‘I knew from the beginning that I wanted to sort of just assimilate and live in similar ways to the miners’ lifestyle.’ Although Friedlander planned the trip with the purpose of making the film, she was not sure if the miners would be open to letting her into their daily lives. She did not discover she would be welcomed until she met them again. ‘They immediately invited me to come and live with them and their families,’ she said. ‘They were always so concerned about my well-being. They were so kind to me (Source: Anon 2013c np link).

Friedlander and her bare-bones crew lived with many of the miners, documenting their daily lives as they worked in the mines to provide for their families (Source: Baine 2013 np link).

I didn’t have the luxury of having a scout trip and meeting people without the camera. We were really crunched on time and I was nervous about spending too much time finding the right people and missing everything else. Fortunately, we were really lucky and met everyone within the first few days of being there. Also, I had an idea in my mind the types of characters that I thought I would need to tell the story the way I wanted. So I just began communicating with people and it became pretty obvious who fit and was best for telling this story (Source: Friedlander in Mandinach 2012 np link).

… the cameras were rolling on the second day at Kawah Ijen, and continued to do so for about six months (Source: Magick 2012 np link).

One of the defining characteristics of the film is the way it draws the viewer into the lives of the miners’ families. Friedlander says this was her aim from the outset. ‘In Indonesia, family is such a strong part of the culture and at the end of it, that is what the men are working for, to support their families. So I was hoping from the beginning that I would sort of get let in’ (Source: Magick 2012 np link).

My knowledge of Indonesia and my past experiences helped these people open up to me but I think my fluency in the language was what really allowed them to feel comfortable with me. Most of the miners didn’t know about my past experiences. It was more my skill with the language that in their minds equated with the fact that I had been there for a while (Source: Friedlander in Mandinach 2012 np link).

International tourists to the volcano also feature in the film, providing some uncomfortable and confronting scenes. ‘On my first trip I was one of those tourists,’ Friedlander says. ‘At first I didn’t want to include [them], the tourists were just frustrating me, getting in my shots, but then it became clear after a few weeks was that this was part of the story. That side of tourism, and particularly in that location, [I wondered] what are they really looking at there? What is interesting to them about this particular volcano? Is it the landscape or is it the landscape in combination with the fact that there is this age-old mining operation going on? It became clear that I had to add them to the story’ (Source: Magick 2012 np link).

There is beauty to be found in even the most horrific parts of nature and that the film’s cinematography can capture this without feeling artificial is one of its greatest strengths; as are the dreams and determination of the sulfur miners (Source: Claxton 2012 np link).

[Anto] actually approached me and started talking to me in English. Instantly, I was interested in his story. He has such big dreams for himself and he really feels that he will separate himself from that work and that lifestyle through his intellect and determintation. From the beginning of the film we wanted to tap into that side of him and see where it would go (Source: Friedlander in Mandinach 2012 np link).

First-time director Sasha Friedlander chose a discretionary approach to film four separate miners with shared backgrounds, eschewing narration and external interviews which leave a few gaping factual holes (such as sulfur's biological repercussions on the miners' bodies), but the doc makes its impact through a careful arrangement of stunning visuals and emotionally intimate moments with the miners and their families (Source: Hasan 2012b np link).

The filmmaker wisely allows her subjects to tell their own stories, and as cinematographer Friedlander carries her camera low enough for an intimate examination of everyday life. Sulfur swirling through the fumes of the mines coats the men’s eyelashes with a grotesque yellow “mascara.” Bare feet move across dirt floors, as kitchen fires are stoked and rice is stirred. Her editing unerringly interweaves, delicately dissects and then re-knits the pace of days spent in toxic heat, weekends enjoyed in verdant villages, and job quests undertaken in the harsh neon glare of contemporary Indonesian cities. Friedlander, fluent in Indonesian languages, is firmly yet not cloyingly engaged with her subjects. They emerge gradually and compellingly as her film unfolds, as a likeable and earnest group. The subtext of education as a cruel and defining lack, emerges more subtly. No need to be aggressively didactic, ala Michael Moore, this filmmaker seems to be saying. Here the astonishing images say more than any script or agenda could do (Source: Waters 2012a np link).

Friedlander effectively captures her subjects’ lives, balancing interviews in the relative tranquility of their village home with verite footage of the treacherous yet breathtaking beauty of Kawah Ijen (Source: Anon 2012c np link).

Friedlander … films the sulphur mines of Kawah Ijen with … striking beauty, both in composition and color. Some of this may reflect the developments of digital cameras and color correcting software, as well as filmmaker / audience expectations of how either can lend production values to documentary (Source: Cagle 2015 np link).

What the film cannot portray, however, is the smell of a smoke-spewing volcanic sulfur deposit. ‘It really is the worst rotting eggs smell you can imagine, times 100,’ said Friedlander. ‘But the smell isn't as bad as the pain you experience when you inhale this sulfur dioxide gas’ (Source: Baine 2013 np link).

[Mandinach:] In the scenes at Kawah Ijen, coughing is basically an ambient sound due to these encasing clouds of sulfur dioxide. How hard was it to shoot in such conditions? [Friedlander:] It was very difficult. When the crew and I came to Kawah Ijen we were sure to order gas masks. But in the beginning, we didn’t want to use them, if possible, so we could sink in with the environment and get the respect of the workers. Of course, the first day we were hit with this huge cloud of sulfur dioxide gases and it’s just unbearable to breathe. After that, I knew I needed to protect my crew so we wore the masks. But even with the gas masks, it’s still difficult. When these billowing clouds of smoke come towards you, you don’t want to breathe. It seeps into your nostrils and gets into your eyes. Throughout the day you can’t get rid of it. For the miners it’s worse, obviously. They’re there every day (Source: Mandinach 2012 np link).

I wanted this story to get out in the world and I wanted people to see what’s going here and [this] hadn’t really been shown in this sort of way before, from a really human standpoint (Source: Friedlander in VCFILMFEST 2012 np link).

‘A lot of the themes and storylines [in the film] are very universal,’ Friedlander said. ‘Even though [the miners] … have completely different life circumstances, there are things that you and I would experience here.’ These miners, Friedlander said, worry about money and feeding their families while still maintaining good relationships with the ones they love. Friedlander said she hopes that the audience will walk away with an understanding of the miners’ working conditions and the struggles they face every day (Source: Anon 2012d np link).

… what I would like for audiences to take away after watching the film is just to have sort of a new, you know, walk away with some knowledge on how products that they use on a daily basis, how they’re made and what goes into that, you know. … Everyone’s shocked when they find that, in order to have white sugar, sulphur is, you know, needed to, first, bleach it and, second, to crystalise it. … This form of sulphur mining is, you know, quite rare at this point, but it still exists and it will exist in Indonesia. There’s nothing stopping the mine owner and the government doesn’t care. It’s completely legal (Source: Friedlander in VCFILMFEST 2012 np link).

[Krzysztofek:] If you could describe this film in one word, what would it be? [Friedlander:] Hope. I feel like people see the trailer or read what the film is about and say, ‘I don’t know if I can handle these miners’ stories because it’s so depressing.’ But I think when people do actually see the film, what they will walk away with is a sense of hope (Source: Krzysztofek 2013 np link).

By giving [the miners and their families] a voice, I hope to bring their story to a broader audience, which can perhaps lend them some real assistance (Source: Friedlander in alexdeforc 2012 np link).

Beautifully lensed by Bao Nguyen, with haunting music by David Osit, the film really connected with [Hong Kong] audiences (Source: Anderson 2012 np link).

Discussion / Responses

This hits quite hard on a monday afternoon. … this hits hard on any given afternoon (Source: alexdeforc 2012 np link).

I saw this for the first time yesterday. Watching that young man continue to look for work and the constant rejection was heartbreaking, but he could take comfort in his family even through all that pain, while some of us can't be grateful for the little things that keep us going (Source: LeClair 2013 np link).

I am so touched and impressed by this work I hope you meet all your goals in producing your film, its so deserving, it is so remarkable (Source: Wendy 2012 np link).

Thank you for making this film. My wife an i visited Ijen now a little more than a year ago. It was thrilling to see it again, refreshing the memory. I myself filmed the miners at the weigh station, and heard the weight of the load called out tujuh puluh. This load was kotor. Moreover the intimacy of your film revealed the poignant details of the miners' lives and their families. Thank you so much (Source: Wilson 2013 np link).

Thank you for creating this documentary. I went to this place twice. First time with my brother, and I also rode the sulfur truck to go back to the small neighbor town, then continue to Malang. I felt so touch to see these Miner . The second trip I made ,I took my friends with me. It was a very memorable visit. I learn a lot from these Miners How to be more grateful. How hard their job is but they are still grateful for having family, job etc . That really made me stop complaining (Source: Amalia 2013 np link).

You have caught the people well. I was there one month ago, talking to the people also. The numbers can change from person to person. The agony is the same (Source: Otterson 2013 np link).

Through these scenes wander an occasional tourist, and I felt a surge of anger thinking that the watch one of them was wearing was enough to feed all of the families of the workers and put their children in school. Yet he’s quite happy to exist in his oblivious state. He almost serves as a reflection of the modern world, passing through, briefly acknowledging and then returning to his first world problems (Source: Rideout 2012 np link).

If the film is somewhat quiet and understated, it nevertheless speaks volumes through the image of these four determined men, carrying loads of yellow rocks down a volcano as they breathe in noxious fumes – for the future of their families (Source: Anon 2012c np link).

As awful as the situations may be, the miners are still able to see the beauty beyond Kawah Ijen. In the film, Anto said, ‘There are so many people who have a harder life than we do.’ He is so grateful for his wife, his health and for each day. Coming from a man who works more than two weeks straight through conditions we cannot even fathom is truly inspiring. All of the men are motivated to give their children a better life than they had. Seeing these men work and knowing why, pulls on your heartstrings. By the end of the film it feels as if these characters are your friends. In the 80 minutes, you learn the intimate details of these miner’s lives: their struggles, who they are, where they’ve come from, their hell and their heaven (Source: Anon 2013b np link).

The best I can say is the cinematography is delightful. …The problem is there is no story line! Does Anton escape the excruciating physical labour and pursue higher education? Or, is this his destiny? We never do find out! The culprit, or so it seems, is the mine owner (whom we meet) who employs these young independent miners performing perilous work. But Friedlander's film steers clear of dramatic tension by focusing on their prayers and unmet aspirations.  Indonesia is a populous, complex country with abundant natural resources waiting to be exploited. Where Heaven Meets Hell introduces audiences to its beauty, but fails to deliver on the resolution of its many contradictions (Source: tonyw-21 2012 np link).

Another well-off “artiste” playing anthropologist with a camera. Did she mention the names of the bond holders and international bankers who financed the mining operations, and their ‘skim’ which keeps livings so sparse for the miners? Or was this just another video expiation of liberal guilt over being a beneficiary of this exploitation? Those miners wanted an ‘education’ you say? Yes, so their positions would be filled by others, not them. ‘Education’ is merely training that changes the names of the exploited. The real problem is not addressed, or even mentioned by ‘education’ (Source: Roger 2012a np link).

The film explores the duplicity of the mine owners, but spend most of its time allowing the miners to voice their personal dreams and ambitions. You bring up an excellent point however, re: ‘education’ being all too often a revolving door in which the newly educated move up in the hierarchy, only to find the lowest rungs immediately filled up again with the nouveau exploited. It is the system of exploitation itself that needs dismantling. Marx pointed the way. But between his theory and the opportunistic ‘practice’ a huge chasm has formed that no one seems capable of eradicating. Hobbes was right – the only thing that moves people to action is enlightened self-interest, i.e. what’s in it for me? (Source: Waters 2012b np link).

Sorry Christina [Waters], but the only ‘way’ that Marx showed was the way to hell. His interpretation of the ‘problem’ and its ‘solution’ was a creature of a materialistic worldview which emanated from so-called ‘enlightenment’ thinking, enslaved to a worldview addicted to ‘progress’. A universalist worldview based on abstract concepts of ‘classes’ in conflict, was and still is profoundly destructive of any organic traditions of A People, and how people really live as they are ‘thrown into’ the world of a particular people in a particular place and time. Being is always Dasein, rather than an academic abstraction. The Marxian heresy against real Peoples pervades currently fashionable academic discourses, and that’s not benefitted real peoples one bit. Freeing up real peoples to be themselves unto and for themselves would utterly destroy supremacist materialist discourses which are the daily bread and butter of so-called ‘higher education’ … an enterprise which is itself a bigger part of the problem than any solution (Source: Roger 2012b np link).

… as tough as the battle is for the sulfur miners, Sasha [Friedlander] pointed out that they’re still paid 4 times as much as other local jobs on the coffee plantations. How much more difficult is it for them? (Source: Bragg 2012 np link).
The film was told as a character profile ... But it didn’t really focus on the specifics of the hardships [the men] suffered at the mine. There was a lot of footage of them struggling to breathe while the wind blew the sulfur into their lungs, as well as their long journey down the mountain with their overloaded baskets. But during the Q & A session after the screening, the people in the audience seemed eager to know more details about the effects of sulfur smoke on the human body. They also wanted to understand the corporate structure at the mine, why the technology used was so antiquated, and whether the government was trying to improve conditions. For anyone who is interested, Sasha explained that the mine is privately owned by a rich business man who contracts the volcano from a National Park. He only hires 30 employees all of the others miners are contract workers who aren’t offered any protection at all. Each miner is given a gas mask when they begin working, but the filter should technically be changed every 24 hours. The miners are NEVER given any filter replacements and many of them have been working there for decades. As a result they struggle to cover their noses and mouths with fabric when working on the mountain. The Q & A session was great, but it would have been nice if some of those details were included in the film. If the filmmakers were attempting to explain the injustices then I don’t think they succeeded (Source: Bragg 2012 np link).

People are really curious as to what is happening with the characters now. How can they get involved? Is there any way they can help by, you know, some money for education for the kids? Which is really great because I was really moved by the audience’s reaction and their … enthusiasm and … desire to get involved in some way was really exciting. So we’re hoping with a few more screenings we’ll be able to develop some sort of organization, some fund that can, you know, help the situation over there through gasmasks or money for the kids to go to school would be ideal and really great (Source: Friedlander in VCFILMFEST 2012 np link).

The mine is currently closed down due to seismic activity at the volcano and they’re just all anxiously waiting to get back there. They really can’t make money doing much else considering most of them don’t have education past elementary school (Source: Friedlander in VCFILMFEST 2012 np link).

Great job Sasha, thank you for making the movie to show us the struggles of the miners and their families. I also appreciate your and others activism to improve their lives (Source: Swindell 2012 np link).

Just saw the film and we are blown away! So impressive and well done. We are touched by the miners and how hard they work. Thank you, Sasha, for telling this important story. How can we help? (Source: Narita 2013 np link).

Thank you Nadine [Narita]! I'm so glad you guys got to see the film! If you are interested in ways to help, check out the 'Get Involved' section on our website: (Source: Anon 2013d np link).

Impacts / Outcomes

Here is a little window into how important films impact society, I was accompanied by a friend to the screening, and the next day she told her 10 year old daughter about where she went and the film she saw, as she was walking her daughter to the bus stop this morning, her 10 yr-old daughter is telling her 10 yr-old friend about sulfur miners somewhere in Java … as insignificant that moment may seem, it is a vapor trail from this little rocket ship of a film maker! (Source: Marshall 2012 np link).

The response from viewers has generally been one of shock, and a desire to do something to help, Friedlander says. “At the end of the story people are always asking me, ‘How can we get involved? Can we help, is there any organization on the ground?’ ... People shouldn’t be living like this and working like this in 2012.’ She has shown the film to the miners featured and their communities. Some Bali-based businessmen originally from the area have also seen it, and have funded a small village library, which is scheduled to open this Friday. They are also looking at further possible support including gas masks and safety equipment for the workers, educational support for the miners’ children, and income-generating schemes for women in the communities. In the meantime, Friedlander is working hard to promote the film (Source: Magick 2012 np link).

[Mandinach:] Have you shown the film in Indonesia? [Friedlander:] When we premiered in Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Film Festival, we took a flight from there to Indonesia. We brought a projector, a big white sheet, some bamboo poles, and screened the film for about 500 villagers. It was very powerful, one of our best screenings (Source: Friedlander in Mandinach 2012 np link).

Check out this 5-minute 'Character Follow-Up' for Where Heaven Meets Hell that I Directed / Produced for ITVS - Independent Television Service (Source: Friedlander 2013 np link).

Where Heaven Meets Hell has received a Special Mention Award from the Václav Havel Jury for a documentary that has made an exceptional contribution to the defense of human rights at the One World International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival. … juror.. ...  Karen Davies … stated: ‘Not only we were impressed by the imagery in the film but also by the dignity and positive attitudes of the miners despite working in the most appalling conditions. The jury hopes by giving a special mention to this film we can draw attention to labor conditions that contravene human rights worldwide’ (Source: Anon ndl np link).
If you weren't able to attend the first Santa Cruz screening of Where Heaven Meets Hell, we've organized a benefit screening on Saturday, January 19th at 2:00 pm at the Rio Theatre. This is a particularly special event because it's a fundraiser for the sulfur miners and their community! Tickets will be $10 at the door, and all proceeds will go to the Kawah Ijen sulfur miners and their community in East Java, Indonesia (Source: Friedlander 2012 np link).

[Friedlander:] 'I first started making the film to somehow start a foundation for the miners,’ she said. ‘It wasn’t just a film, it was something where people could actually get involved if they were moved to do so.’ The film has motivated many people to get involved by donating money (Source: Anon 2013c np link).

The Women’s Empowerment Network (WEN) has joined with Ikawangi by accepting donations to improve the lives of the miners. Julie Aguiar, who is on the board of directors for WEN, said Ikawangi has started creating a school assistance program and training for women in homestyle industry projects. These new projects help with educating the children of sulfur miners and assist the women in supporting their families financially. ‘The film is so moving,’ Aguiar said. ‘And after you see it, you really want to help empower the miners so that they can change their lives. It’s inspiring’ (Source: Anon 2013c np link).

WEN is working with the established Community Service Organization (CSO) in Indonesia, IKAWANGI, who, inspired by the film, took on this project and has spent time assessing the community and family needs in the Banuwangi area. They have already completed building the first library in one of the most remote villages in the region. On a recent visit, Sasha and her family were thrilled to help deliver the first load of books to the library (Source: Anon ndm np link).

Now, anyone interested can make a tax-deductible contribution to help the mining community at Kawah Ijen. … The funds will go to IKAWANGI, an established CSO in Indonesia, who, inspired by the film, have already begun by building a library in Hadis‘s village. They are organizing a school fee assistance program, trainings for women in home industry-style empowerment projects, as well as addressing the miners’ health and safety needs (Source: Anon ndn np link).

Friedlander said this is not the only way people can help improve the miners’ situation. ‘Before I made this film, I had no idea that sulfur was used for bleaching sugar, for lotion, cosmetics products and matches,’ Friedlander said. ‘I hope that people will be more aware and just pause before they consume certain products or use certain cosmetics. Maybe they will think ‘there’s actually sulfur in this and in certain parts of the world this is how sulfur is being extracted’ (Source: Anon 2013c np link).

The story of the Ijen Crater sulfur miners … [has] been featured on BBC television and in the mainstream press. A new documentary, Where Heaven meets Hell … has already won several international awards. Consequently, thousands of tourists, mainly from Europe (though a few from Australia and Indonesia) come to wonder at the magnificent scenery – and be shocked by the men’s lot.  Some give money to the miners, or buy sulfur souvenirs (Source: Graham 2013 np link).

‘Where Heaven Meets Hell' is the title of a documentary I have seen about the Kawah Ijen before visiting it … and its title describes the feelings I had here perfectly. It's not easy to reach but you will never forget if you managed up there (Source: alidaszabo 2015 np link).

Can anyone tell me what happen to this cause, I was at Ijen crater last week and nothing has changed, workers still wear no masks or proper foot wear and I can’t see why they still have to carry it all the way down, there are so many other options, someone please enlighten my ignorance … I walked with a worker as he carried his load out, the pain on his face has scared me forever, now I want to know why humans need to do this to live … this situation is easily fixable (Source: Brewty 2015 np link).

Before I made this film, there was no health care support for the miners provided by the company or the government. After making the film and partnering with IKAWANGI I am pleased to share these updates: 1. They have established a union for the miners.  2. The mine owner was obliged to pay twice as much for the sulfur as he had been paying and with new bargaining power, they expect the price will rise again. 3. The miners' transportation, back and forth from the volcano, is now being provided by the governor of Banyuwangi. 4. The governor of Banyuwangi has also assisted with putting all of the miners’ on a medical health plan!!! All huge advances and proof of the power of documentary films and dedicated people working together (Source: Friedlander 2016 np).

References / Further Reading

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alexdeforc (2012) Where Heaven Meets Hell. On-Point 27 February ( last accessed 24 February 2016)

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Anderson (2012) Film festival dispatch: HKIFF film highlights. YouOffendMeYouOfendMyFamily 7 April ( last accessed 24 February 2016)

Anon (nda) About. ( last accessed 7 February 2016)

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Anon (ndf) Where Heaven Meets Hell.  International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam ( last accessed 24 February 2016)

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Compiled by Ian Cook et al (last updated February 2016).  Films embedded with the kind permission of Sasha Friedlander.