The International Steam Pages
Sweet Spot DVD
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The sugar mills of Java are unique in the world for two reasons. Firstly, many have a huge amount of working traditional steam powered machinery; the greatest and most varied concentration in the world today. Secondly, some still operate steam locomotives not only within the mill areas but also in a few cases into the surrounding cane fields. Olean mill is just north of Situbondo in East Java has both features and still operates in a manner which would be instantly familiar to anyone who worked there 50 or more years ago.
It is the smallest working mill on Java, and this DVD sets out to tell its story and record a way of life that will soon change for ever. Special features include:
Click here for Keith Chester's review.
The material for this DVD was filmed by independent film producers Rob and Yuehong Dickinson who have made many visits to Olean and the surrounding area between 2004 and 2006 - Rob, of course, has been visiting Olean annually for nearly 20 years. It was recorded in DV-AVI format and the result is a 55 minute broadcast quality film. Like 'Logging Off', 'Shibanxi Heaven' and 'Battlefield Heroes' this is not just another steam video, it is a total record of a way of life that has hardly changed in the last 80 years or so.
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Sweet Spot is another DVD from Rob & Yuehong Dickinson with their wonderful blend of narrow gauge steam railway and the environment in which it operates – in this case the classic plantation railway and a traditional rural way of life under threat.
Its subject matter is Olean sugar factory in East Java. This has the distinction of being not only the smallest working mill on that island of sugar but also the very last to send its narrow gauge locomotives out into the fields to haul the hand-cut cane back to the mill for processing. This was once an operation that was replicated in one way or another all over the world (we only have to look down the long lists of narrow gauge engines supplied by the locomotive manufacturers of Europe and America to realise its extent) but to the best of my knowledge now happens nowhere else but Olean (plus Sumberharjo and Asembagus on the same island).
So we must be grateful that this accomplished husband and wife team have filmed it for us before it too disappears. And they have done it in a very rounded way. If you want to see nothing but trains of cane being moved through the fields, then this is not the film for you. For integral to this DVD are views of men cutting cane in the fields under the searing sun, of bullocks pulling loris over temporary Jubilee track to the more permanent “main line” where the steam loco patiently waits; we see the people and children who live along the line; we are taken inside the mosques which are central to the rural traditions of East Java; and above all we are shown the working machinery of Olean mill. It is an overworked cliché of our time but in the case of Olean it is entirely appropriate to say the mill is a living museum. First opened in 1860, the mill has never been substantially modernised – it was too small for that – and has thus kept much of its original appearance. Virtually all its machinery and technology dates from the first three decades of the twentieth century and is universally steam powered. This we are shown in great loving detail and is again a fascinating insight into an almost vanished industrial world. And let us not romanticise this: this is hard physical work for little reward for the workers inside the mill. It is a great shame that no film can ever convey the overwhelming heat and dust of a sugar factory. My one gripe about this DVD is that it lacks a commentary and it is at times a little difficult to follow what all the whirling machines are doing. But this in no way detracts from Sweet Spot, which will delight anybody who has visited Java or is interested in industrial archaeology – or in just damn good films of steam engines at work. Once again Rob & Yuehong Dickinson are to be congratulated on producing an excellent film. We can only regret that they embarked so late on their venture and that they will soon have no more subjects for their cameras.