In her newest film, documentary filmmaker Cathy Henkel confronts the issue of deforestation.
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3 Jun 2013 - 10:35 AM  UPDATED 3 Jun 2013 - 10:35 AM

Cathy Henkel's latest project follows a group of youths who spend 100 days in the jungles of Borneo to battle against the palm oil companies in a bid to confront deforestation and save the endangered orangutans. Rise of the Eco-Warriors is a sequel of sorts to The Burning Season, her 2008 IF-award winning film.

Forests are being destroyed to plant palm oil plantation and palm oil serves the global food market and cosmetics

The Burning Season was about saving forests using the carbon trading mechanism,” says Henkel. “That film played particularly well at high schools. The global school network 'Microsoft Partners In Learning' had an online poll that asked school kids 'If you could do one thing to save the world what would that be?' There were ten choices to choose from and their number one choice was to stop deforestation.”

This set off a chain of events where the head of the Microsoft network contacted the filmmaker with the results and asked whether she had any ideas. Henkel spoke to leading scientist Dr. Willie Smits who specialised in saving forests and had a solution based around sugar palm. Henkel then put a call out for 15 young people to come to Borneo to work with Dr. Smits to take action and explore these solutions.

“Forests are being destroyed to plant palm oil plantation and palm oil serves the global food market and cosmetics,” Henkel explains. “So we the consumers are the prime cause of this deforestation by consuming this product ignorantly. The people on the ground who are most affected by it are the Dayak communities whose land is being taken away from them – often against their will. They fight, they resist, they are taken over and lose their land and livelihood.”

Filming events in the treacherous jungles naturally posed its own particular challenges for Henkel and her crew. “One of our boys nearly drowned in a raging river and we were always at risk at loosing life and limb and equipment. It was tough… you're sleeping on the ground and you're in really basic circumstances.”

However, the filmmaker came to embrace and ultimately appreciate the living conditions in Borneo. “The main village we stayed in was what I call a model village of sustainability, where they had their own hydro power system. All the food was excellent and locally grown and the people were so happy – they live in absolute balance with their natural world and I find that really inspiring.”

The biggest eye-opener for Henkel was the achievement of her esteemed team of Eco Warriors. “I was blown away by those people,” she reflects. “Watching the resilience and determination and what they went through and how hard it was for them to achieve something in these remote places with limited resources, knowledge and facilities and yet they kept powering on!”

Ultimately, the message behind Rise of the Eco-Warriors is clear: it's better to do one thing than nothing at all.

“What I'm after is action,” says Henkel. “My hope is that at least one person will come out of the film and take action because I truly believe in the ripple effect and every action has a huge ripple effect – even if that's people who start looking at what they buy and say 'I'm not going to purchase that product anymore because it contains palm oil.'”


Rise of the Eco-Warriors will be distributed via Titan View and released theatrically in October. A cinematic pre-release is also being planned specifically for school groups. For more information visit the
offical website.