Stones, Schoolbuses and the Speculative: Ecofuturist narratives in Natasha Tontey’s ‘Wa’anak Witu Watu’

By Jamie Lee

Chapter 0.1

A nude, computer-animated woman emerges out of a seashell. “This is a seismograph,” narrates Wanda Li, of The Magic School Bus fame, “It records earthquakes which can happen under a volcano!”

In Wa’anak Witu Watu, Natasha Tontey’s affinity with pastiche, fragmentation, and textual discord reaches its zenith. Easily one of the standout competitors at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival, the film reimagines a post-colonial, post-capitalist future based on the cosmology of the Minahasan people, an ethnic group native to North Sulawesi, Indonesia.

Wa’anak Witu Watu centres around a Minahasan creation myth, in which the goddess Karema gives birth through a mossy stone to Lumimuut, and Lumimuut gives birth to Toar. These were the first humans according to the Minahasan belief system. Some find creation myths alienating, as they inhabit a time and place so distant to the point of seeming incompatible with modern logic. The opening scene alone depicts Minahasans paying tribute to a sacred stone, Watu Pinawetengan; unnarrated and uncontextualised, one’s mind might start drifting towards labels like “documentary”, or “ethnographic”.

Fortunately, there isn’t much time for viewers to entertain such thoughts, as the film quickly spirals into genre-defying chaos. Tontey renders this myth in all its monstrous glory, working in the style of early-Internet 3D computer graphics, an aesthetic which is easy to recognise, but difficult to describe. It’s uncanny, deliberately clumsy, and unflinchingly digital. No stranger to intertextuality, Tontey also draws from unconventional sources like the 1996 PC game, The Magic School Bus Explores Inside the Earth, and screen recordings from Google Earth.

This assemblage of curiously dissonant material is not without reason. Wa’anak Witu Watu appropriates early web aesthetics in order to overturn how these images are currently used today. In recent years, early web aesthetics have found their home in the realm of communication fondly known as “shitposting”, where they are used to express ironic, existential, or nihilistic sentiments with cool, detached superiority.

But there is no nihilism in Tontey’s work – the multiple layers of irony and self-awareness veil profound and deeply personal messages. The film powerfully unravels Minahasan cosmology, in which stones symbolise the elemental connection between all objects, animate and inanimate. This works to disparage centuries of extractive and exploitative practices under capitalism, and the delegitimisation of indigenous beliefs, which are deemed irreconcilable with modernity.

Wa’anak Witu Watu is closely linked with Tontey’s broader project The Epoch of Mapalucene, a speculative geological epoch inspired by the Minahasan gift economy known as mapalus, in whichall transactions are based on trust, reciprocity, and kinship with nature. The film wholeheartedly embodies this ethos as Tontey acknowledges a multitude of voices – her ancestors, her contemporaries, and her own, as a member of the Minahasan diaspora. Her work is a collage in which no voice is sacrificed in favour of another, rejecting the zero-sum nature of life in capitalist economies, and creating a hypnotic visual spectacle which offers a glimpse into a Mapalucene future.