Local film director Matt shares his amazing journey in a bid to save rare orangutans

The Now or Never film crew at their graduation screening
The Now or Never film crew at their graduation screening

Last year film director Matt Senior produced a documentary called Now Or Never in a bid to save the newly identified Tapanuli Orangutans in Indonesia.

The film was made as part of a new MA course, Directing and Producing Science and Natural History, at Beconsfield's National Film and Television School.

The newly identified Tapanuli Orangutans in Indonesia

The newly identified Tapanuli Orangutans in Indonesia

Now Or Never tells the story of the Batang Toru Forest, which lies in the heart of North Sumatra, Indonesia. It is a forest like no other, and remains largely unexplored.

In June 2018, filmmaker Matt Senior embarked on a journey into Batang Toru, a forest in the heart of North Sumatra which is one of the most bio-diverse spots in Indonesia, home to rare species such as the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and the Sunda pangolin.

He was going in search of the rarest great ape on the planet – the newly identified Tapanuli Orangutans, found only in Batang Toru.

This is the first great ape to be discovered since the Bonobo, nearly 100 years ago.

On a mission to be the first person in the world to produce a documentary on this new species, Matt shadowed the conservationists from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) as they carried out their vital work to study and protect this critically endangered species and its unique forest home.

He was part of a passionate team of filmmakers consisting of Editor: Mirjam Jegorov, Sound Designer: Kevin Langhamer, Composer: Adam Price, Marketing Executive: Alex Chronopoulos, English Narrator: Patrick Aryee and Indonesian Narrator: Cindy Thefannie.

The film centers around a conflict with local campaigners protesting against the Indonesian Government’s decision to allow planning permission for a hydro-electric dam in the area, which is also one of the most earthquake affected places in Indonesia.

Indonesia's largest environmental group, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, filed suit to stop the dam, providing evidence that the environmental impact behind the project was deeply flawed.

There have also been reports of other irregularities in the process; one scientist involved in the assessment said that his signature was forged to obtain a key permit.

But on March 4, the three-judge panel ruled against the motion, arguing that the environmental organisation’s complaints were irrelevant.

Matt said: "Considering these orangutans are found in only one forest on the planet, and being the rarest of all great apes, it's incredible to think that this hydro-electric dam is being built where it could have such a huge ecological impact. It’s also frightening to think that just two years after they were announced as a new species, these orangutans could soon be extinct.

"I've always been an ambitious person, but never before had I taken on a challenge such as this - to go and film orangutans in the wild for the first time, and through the tremendous support of my tutor, Paul Reddish, the project was eventually green lit.

After acquiring an Indonesian filming permit, something that is extremely hard to get, Matt took off to the Batang Toru Forest in North Sumatra.

"It was only when I got there and the conservationists were explaining to me how rare sightings are of these animals, that I started to worry and think to myself ‘with no orangutans, there’s no film’.

Matt had only 21 days inside the forest to bring the project to life, and to find the elusive Tapanuli Orangutans.

Matt continued: "When we arrived, the camp manager told me that there were other conservationists out exploring and looking for orangutans.

If they got back in the afternoon, they had been unsuccessful. If they got back at night time, chances are they had found orangutans.

"I was really anxious all day, and eventually they returned in the evening with good news ."

The next morning, they woke up at 4am and trekked to the orangutans’ nest, and Matt was ready for his first sighting of a Tapanuli Orangutan.

Matt continued: "Honestly, we couldn't believe our luck. We saw a family of two orangutans on the first day, 7-year-old Cakra and his mother Cemara.

"The young male was really interested in us, he was just a small baby when the conservationists last saw him. We got some great footage, including the first shot of the day when Cakra first woke up and stared straight down the camera lens. It was a very moving moment.

"There was also a special moment, when Cakra came over to me and was hanging 2m directly above me. that I let the camera down and decided to just take it in with my own eyes.

This was followed by another sighting on day two and three, where they saw a female and her 3-year-old baby girl.

SOCP allowed Matt name the baby, which was a huge honour for him.

He named the baby Cynthi after one of his closest friends who helped him during production.

The filming wasn't all smooth sailing however, as Matt was struck with illness from drinking water from the camp's stream.

Luckily he recovered to finish off the filming.

Since completion in November 2018, Now Or Never has been selected for several film festivals across 5 continents, including: British Documentary Film Festival in Leicester Square, The Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York, Santa Cruz International Film Festival in Argentina, International Nature Film Festival Gödöllo in Budapest, NaturVision Film Festival in Germany, Calcutta International Film Festival in India, and Scinema International Science Film Festival in Australia, with hopefully more to follow.

Matt had always been interested in nature, and loves David Attenborough, but working in that field also seemed 'a far off dream'.

For Matt and his team, the dream has become reality.

Matt added: "The main purpose of the film is to raise awareness for these animals and their home.

"The film was realised through the incredible work of the crew and SOCP, but until now, the story had never been told on film before, so I feel it is very important for us to show the film wherever possible and hopefully we can do some good with Now Or Never.”