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The 24-year-old environmental filmmaker Gary Bencheghib spent his teenage years organizing beach clean-ups on Bali, where he was raised since the age of 9. The Frenchman later founded Make a Change Bali after personally witnessing Bali’s beach and coastal communities drowning in plastic pollution. It was a direct call to action to educate and encourage the youth of Bali to stand up for the environment. Gary now shuttles regularly between New York and the Island of the Gods.

He and his brother Sam now spend much of their time on expeditions into the most polluted waterways around the world to document the pollution that affects a large part of these bodies of water. The two were surprised to find out that the world’s dirtiest river flows through Jakarta—the Citarum, which is the longest river in West Java. With their passion and enthusiasm, they decided to tackle this problem with no intention of bringing it into the public sphere, until it happened by chance with a movie.

“Plastic River summarises our expedition, some two years ago, of paddling down the Citarum River on kayaks that we made from plastic bottles and the unexpected impact it has made since,” Gary tells Indonesia Tatler.

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Prior to the creation of the film, Gary’s series of nine short videos about the Citarum River went viral online and were brought to the attention of the Ministry of Environment. Not long after, the government declared an emergency clean-up plan, and only four months later President Jokowi Widodo announced a project involving 7,000 military personnel. What was once supposed to be only a two-week expedition thus resulted in a seven-year clean-up project.

“We never had any expectation to have to make our expedition into a film and we had filmed it as short-form social media content,” explains Gary. “So we had to completely dig up the story, looking back at every second we had captured on our cameras and phones, plus what other people had recorded of us on the river. And because our project has been very reliant on social media, we have used multiple media forms to best recount our story.”

The brothers began their journey in Majalaya, where the river starts. From the very beginning, they were able to see plastic garbage all around them, and at times they were left with no choice but to get out of their kayak and carry it over mounds of trash. And, as they documented the trip, they also connected with the local people who lived along the river and were able explain to them the reason for their journey.

In spite of the scale of the task, the Indonesian government is now stepping up its game and the two brothers are optimistic about the future of Citarum.

“As an environmental filmmaker, I am constantly coming up with new ideas of potential films in my head,” says Gary. “Having produced more than 500 short films of 1–5 minutes in length, Plastic River is, in a way, my first official film and is far longer than what I’m used to. The film ‘language’ is completely different and has opened up my eyes to the impact of long-form films.

“With the clean-up really just starting up a year and a half ago out of the seven-year Citarum Harum programme, the Citarum story is yet to be fully finished, but I have already begun scripting and shooting a follow-up movie and will be launching a campaign very soon as an engaging interactive storytelling format,” he adds.

The brothers’ ideas don’t end there. This summer, Sam started a trek across the US from New York to Los Angeles with plastic shoes on. The 5,000km run will take him five months—but he’s already survived across five states. Five down and so many more to go. Such is his and his brother’s dedication to the cause.

This story appears in the September 2019 issue of Indonesia Tatler. For the full story, grab the copy at your nearest newsstand, or subscribe here.