Gawai Antu – an Iban heritage treasure

Shamans preparing implements for the gawai rituals.

KUCHING: The Gawai Antu festival is an important and significant celebration observed by the Iban community. It is said that the festival is only revealed to a member of the community once in a lifetime.

Gawai Antu or literally translated as the Festival of Ghosts, is celebrated in honour of the spirits of those who have passed away.

It is celebrated by this major tribe in Sarawak, but the way of celebrating it differs in each particular longhouse or locality.

For the Iban community in Betong and Saratok, the most recent Gawai Antu celebration was held 25 years after the previous festival.

A warrior’s dance is performed during the festival.

In the present modern world, not many people, especially the younger generation, get to experience the celebration.

But thanks to technology, the uniqueness of the celebration is being recorded, documented and preserved on a high quality digital format – ensuring Iban Adat, Custom and Tradition in remembering deceased relatives are not lost with the dead.

Also, thanks to the efforts of former deputy chief minister Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Alfred Jabu Numpang and his family in ensuring that Gawai Antu celebration at Ensurai Layar longhouse in Betong on Sept 22, 2018 was documented.

Hence, a special documentary film on Gawai Antu was produced and launched by none other than Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg at Borneo Cultures Musuem (BCM) on Tuesday (Sept 20).

Barbara Dubah Jabu explains the significance of the various implements used during Gawai Antu.

The documentary’s producer and director of Image Farm Sdn Bhd is Loo Shun Ming from Penang and its executive producer is Barbara Dubah, who is the youngest daughter of Jabu.

Loo said she and her team were very excited and delighted to film the document which shows the unique culture and tradition of the Iban community in Sarawak, and indeed was an eye-opening experience for them.

“It took an immense amount of effort to work on this cultural documentary because of the magnitude of Gawai Antu.

“We spent 14 days shooting in Betong and Gensurai longhouse and another ten days filming some secondary footage (b-rolls). In post-production, we sifted through hundreds of hours of footage, hundreds of pages of transcripts, and an abundance of information,” she said.

She added it took about nine to 12 months to complete the documentary.

From shooting, scriptwriting, editing, and even music and color grading, she said her team felt like they were straddling two worlds – the spirit world and the human world.

She added Iban leaders, religious leaders as well as experts were also consulted before the shooting of the documentary.

“We introduce ‘Indai Billai’ which is the Queen of Spirit character, which is actually a big taboo for older generations.

“We are glad that we could include the character of Indai Billai in the documentary so that the younger generation can learn and understand the meaning of Gawai Antu,” she said.

When asked whether her team had encountered mysterious incidents during the shooting, Loo said that they didn’t.

“Actually, we are blessed we did not,” she said.

Barbara Dubah Jabu (second left) explains the significance of the various implements used during Gawai Antu.

She added that her team members were glad they had not gone through it and it was also because ‘miring’ ceremonies to seek blessings were held before the shooting of the documentary.

“It is a story about the pride of the living Ibans, who are the guardians of their rich cultures and identity – a story about the mythical world in the jungles of Borneo.

“And ultimately, a story about respect and unity between the living and the dead,” he said.

Meanwhile, for Barbara and her family, preparation for the Gawai Antu celebration in 2017 at their longhouse took about one year.

“Prior to the preparation, we have to make sure that every family agrees and come together to celebrate the Gawai Antu,” she said.

Jabu said that the screening of the more than one-hour documentary at Borneo Cultures Museum (BCM), is the most appropriate venue.

“This is because as the name implies this museum caters to display the materials and artefacts of many diversities concerning cultures of many races in Borneo, where Sarawak is prominently pioneering such initiatives,” he said.

For those who wish to know more about the documentary, the public can visit

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