Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, April 2004)

No one loves Bali like the French.
During the 1938 Paris première of the Marquis de la Falaise’s ‘Legong: the Island of Virgins’, half the audience swooned and had to be taken away in ambulances after Putu, the romantic lead, bared her breasts over a bunch of bananas.
No one appreciates Balinese dance like the French.
One thinks here of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1941 book ‘Dancers of Bali’, and the late Jean Rouch’s films of the Peliatan Dance Troupe at the Théâtre Marigny in 1953. The heroic work of the French woman, Kati Basset, bringing Balinese dance troupes to Paris, almost yearly since 1980, also comes to mind. Last month, the world’s oldest cinémathèque honoured Bali with a full weekend of pre-war celluloid marvels, presented by Patrick Bensard and Agnes Montenay and a host of experts, expats and old farts.
C’était magnifique!!!
In the same month, I am also invited to the world première of ‘Bali: Hope in Paradise’ by Jane Walters and Padi Films at the spacious and stylish Biasa Gallery in Seminyak.
Now read on ......

Paris, Saturday, 7th February 2004: Jean Rouch and Henri Cartier-Bresson turn out for Bali

Jamie James wrote in the recently launched book ‘Ubud is a Mood’ on Artistic Bali:
"What would eventually become one of the most influential art colonies in the world, began with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician, who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed until the Second World War. Soon after Spies settled in Ubud, he was joined by other foreign artists, notably the Dutch pastelist Rudolf Bonnet, his compatriot and friend Willem Hofker, the Mexican painter Miguel Covarrubias (whose book Island of Bali remains a standard introductory work on Balinese culture), and others.
In addition to the fine artists who went there to live and work, Bali also attracted glamorous globe-trotters such as Rolf de Maré, Margaret Mead (newly married to Gregory Bateson), Charlie Chaplin, and Noel Coward, who came to Bali on holiday, attracted by the island’s growing reputation as a tropical paradise, propagated by highly romanticized films such as ‘Goona-Goona’ by the American André Roosevelt, Baron Victor von Plessen’s ‘Island of Demons’ and others. The mythical Bali was an enchanted place of peaceful harmony with nature, where all cares were banished and where everyone was an artist or musician of one sort or another."
This used to be true and still is, to a certain extent; it is still ‘Bali, the island of offerings and dance’.

The weekend at the cinémathèque opened with a supreme offering to the gods of Balinese dance, Jean Rouch’s ‘Ballet de Bali’, 1953, (with a new score by Kati Basset); a documentary on a Balinese dance troupe performing at the glamorous Théâtre Marigny in 1953.
The great ethno-cinématographer Jean Rouch*, inventor of the term and the style cinéma vérité, was also one of the ‘bright young things’ attracted to the fabled island by Spies and Mead. It was Jean Rouch who invented ‘dogma-style’ shooting in his legendary films on West Africa between the great wars.
For this screening I sat next to Jean Rouch, with tears streaming down my cheeks, so beautiful was the footage of my old buddies from my dance academy days: Baris Dance ‘great’, Ida Bagus Raka of Bongkasa; the ‘ultimate millennium Oleg’, Gusti Ayu Raka of Peliatan and troupe leader/conductor/drummer, Anak Agung Gede Kaleran (‘Gongka’ to the fashionable), whose sons, Anak Agung Bagus and Anak Agung Oka Dalem, have taken up the legacy of ‘Gung Kak’ (correct spelling). Ida Bagus Raka’s son and grandsons are also stars in today’s classical Balinese dance world.

I was crying, as one does watching the Academy Awards when the obituary section comes on, and for the beauty of Bali, at its best in Paris and at the sight of these Balinese stars; absolutely shining on one of the world’s great stages.
The rest of the morning’s films showed the great Mario, dancing on the beach in Sanur in 1938 (in a film by Ballet Suédois founder Rolf de Maré); a cheeky Margaret Mead interviewed by Jean Rouch (who referred to Mead as a ‘sacred fairy’ in an animated discourse between films) and, the pièce de résistance, Baron von Plessen and Walter Spies’ ‘Island of Demons’ (1933), showing a ravishingly beautiful people and island; also quite a bit of cleavage and crack (anthropologists were a hot-blooded bunch in those days).

I then made a speech to introduce John Darling’s film ‘The Healing of Bali’, printed below (the speech was delivered standing; boldly defying Jean Rouch’s pseudo-Trotskyite edict that all speeches were to be delivered from a sitting position).

People all over the world are very concerned about Bali.
"What are the Balinese doing now?" they ask.
"They are busy being Balinese." I often reply.
The Balinese themselves don’t really get concerned: they get even, by balancing their worlds, the nether world and the visible world, through ritual and dance.
They were not overly touched by the world’s concern for them after the bomb; they expected it. They also have their own incredible way of dealing with grief and with reincarnation, which is all well-documented in John Darling’s films.
We, the Bali-loving community, academic and otherwise, were very moved by the outpouring of international sympathy after the Kuta bomb. Even poet-filmmaker and Bali-lover extraordinaire John Darling was moved to get out of his sick bed, where he had been pretty much for ten years, and make a film of the aftermath.
His earlier films ‘Lempad of Bali’ and ‘From the Mountain to the Sea’ were devoted to explaining Bali to the world. With ‘The Healing of Bali’ he wanted to show how the Balinese community, including foreigners, dealt with the crisis.
It is a remarkable film; both horrific and enlightening. The star of the film is an Australian, Nathalie Grezl Joniadi, whose father is the Australian Military Attaché in Jakarta. Nathalie lost her husband, Made Joniadi, in the bomb. Watching her recall the events and the ceremonies in the month that followed that nightmare night, we are led, by John Darling and Nathalie, through the Balinese world of grief management through ritual and a powerful belief in the afterlife. The other star of the film is a Kuta Balinese, of Javanese Muslim descent, whose father Om Pranoto, was a great friend of John Darling’s in the 1970s. His narration on the courtroom scenes of the trial of the lunatic bombers is harrowing.
By drawing on the Balinese, the Javanese and the expatriate communities in Bali, Darling has made a film that is balanced and comprehensive.
Bali’s legendary resilience is one aspect of the film. Another is the power of the culture to adapt and adopt; even Australians can get absorbed into the mix.

* * *

At the end of the screening of John Darling’s film, the previously staid but smelly auditorium erupted into a mêlée of self-righteousness: Jean Rouch was frothing at the mouth and exclaimed, "Margaret Mead was an old boiler" (or words to that effect); an African anthropologist protested; "it’s a scandal to spend so much on a cremation" (hardly the point of Darling’s film); Rouch’s handsome Tunisian escort said that the idea that Islamic and Hindu people can live together calmly is "a load of B.S." (His words exactly).
I left the reactionaries and revisionists to work out the meaning behind Darling’s film - and of life! - and went to ‘Willy’s’ to debate the correct pronunciation of ‘Katharane Mershon’ (the co-inventor, with Walter Spies, of the Ketjak) and to review the major revelations of the morning’s séance, to wit:

  1. That all the European stars - anthropologists and globe-trotters alike - were all at least bisexual and were all doing it to each other.
  2. That French grands seigneurs of the art world are a crabby bunch.
  3. That French intellectuals have a lot of gas.


*Jean Rouch died last month, aged 86, in a car crash in his beloved Africa.

Wednesday, 25th February 2004: to the Biasa gallery for the World première of ‘Bali: Hope in Paradise’ by Jane Walters and Padi Films.
The invitation states: "the film is a powerful story of a young woman, Sri Kebon, who has devoted her time and energy to help the Balinese widows (music contributed by Sting)."
So cynical have I become of altruism in New Age Bali that I don’t think the film has a ‘Hope in Hell’.
Dutifully, I cross the dreaded Wallis Simpson line from the real Bali, where I work, into Expatria, where everyone’s husband is also their best friend and Paul Ropp is on everyone’s lips, or hips.
John Darling had warned me that I was once rude to director Jane Walter’s Balinese husband and that Jeremy Allen of ‘Jakarta Jive’ fame will be presenting the film in shorts. In fact, as it turns out, both Jane and her husband are new to me and the film is presented, most professionally, by a Miss Tina, in sky-diving gear. Tina is not known to me either but she is obviously from the women’s film collective, as she seizes the moment to neatly fold in some ‘Vagina Monologues’, to the horror of the Indonesian officials’ wives present.
"I told you we should have left the children at home." I hear one say.
Sometimes New Age philosophy and New Bali join to achieve ‘closure’ on all levels, seen and unseen; even the unspeakable.

* * *

The film opened uncomfortably - with echoes of the classic pastoral opening of all John Darling’s films, replete with Gambuh Dance music - but quickly got into its own stride with some heart-wrenching interviews and uniquely horrific footage. Early in the film, the heroine, the delectable Sri Kebon, made her screen debut as the royal wife who would save the orphans and empower the widows.
Now this column has, in the past, been suspicious of the post-Kuta bomb outbreak of Caroline Chisholm Syndrome. This time, however, the charity in question has a true champion: someone local and focused, and in a position, through her Denpasar palace and police connections, to make a difference.
And the camera loves her!

Indeed, by accessing a time-honoured Balinese tradition - that ‘Beauty has its own rules’ (see the Stranger column of the same name, February 1999) - Sri Kebon, a feisty Kuta-Sydney hybrid, was soon taking on Legian madams and the Australian Immigration Department. Her first coup was to secure the release of two orphans whose mother had died in the blast, and whose Iranian father was in an immigration detention camp in Australia. She then took on the Australian Consulate, the Indonesia Department of Social Services, the Immigration Minister of Australia and eventually, over a football match, John Howard himself.
With the help of the world’s media she eventually won (see photo this page of Australian P.M. John Howard with Sri Kebon’s foster children). The film’s final scenes show the children re-united with their father.

The film’s director, Jane Walters, followed Sri Kebon’s quest, like a bloodhound with a Handycam, right up the Australian bureaucracy’s tight bottom in Michael Moore mode. However, she never allowed the narrator to judge. Through fast-paced inter-splicing of interviews, including one creepy musical number by Amrozi, the hated Bali bomber, and some excellent documentary editing, Walters and screen writer, Richard O’Brien, allowed the audience to judge for themselves, about Sri Kebon’s hope in hell.
And judge they did: There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The Australian Consul General, Brent Hall, led the cheers at the end of the film!
Bali has two new champions: Jane Walters and Sri Kebon.
Walters and Sri Kebon had ushered us all through an emotionally uplifting experience that was well crafted and well-balanced, with just enough ceremony, Sting music and sunset shots of Sri Kebon.
It has been a horrible period for the Kuta expatriates and, for once, they had a reason to cheer.


Jane’s film has been selected for this year’s New York Independent Film Festival.

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