Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, January 2008)



The helicopters are hovering overhead and the sirens of the bomb squad vans are howling but I can't bring myself to write about global warming –I am still fuming about that serial jungle rapist who got off scott-free in Sumatra last month.

 Instead I am going to write about Bali's ultimate white man heart-throb, Dr. Lawrence Blair (keep your patchwork batik knickers on, eco-grannies!) and about an amazing soft-porn-enhanced cremation procession in Banjar, North Bali; plus the inaugural Bali Taksu Film Festival and Awards held at the palatial Cinema 21 in the Galleria Shopping Mall car park.

Now read on:

18 November 2007 : To Banjar Village for the famous dance of the Dawang-Dawang puppet giants and for a blast of North Coast vigour.
The culture of Bali's Buleleng regency along the North coast of the Island survives today with all its wild Chinese colour, fervid music and cheekiness. Southern and Central Bali have become petit-bourgeois by comparison: the southern sky, for example, now being dotted with big signs showing the ruling elite in form-fitting palace fashion.

Over the mountains the mood is still vibrant and authentically Balinese, with limited mass tourism influence. Singaraja, capital of Buleleng Regency, is still spacious and well-planned – a legacy of the Dutch colonial era when Singaraja served as the capital of the entire island. 

Topeng mask dancers ‘going for it’ in the main drag of Banjar village, Buleleng, North Bali.

Villages such as Bungkulan, Tianyar, Banjar and Pemuteran, to name but a few, still have amazing, action-packed gamelan orchestras with dancing drummers and psychotic cymbal-bashers – once the inspiration for the great Mario of Tabanan's terompong dance. The temple architecture of North Bali is all about flaming finials and ghoulish gates; eccentric dance rituals are frequently woven into the fabric of basic ceremonies.

Today I am invited to the palace of the Ksatria Dalem Blambangan family – the ancestral home of a clan of warrior princes who fled to Bali from neighbouring Blambangan (East Java) at the end of Java’s Hindu Era (circa 16th Century). I learn here today that the medieval Blambangan royal family ended up in Bunutin (Bangli), Klungkung, Karangasem and Banjar, North Bali; their Muslim mercenaries eventually settling in Negara. Rituals with a distinct Banyuwangi bent have somehow survived the centuries. East Java is historically famous for so much more than the Banyuwangi bar girls who today infest Bali's village ‘cafés’.

Over two days in the main drag of Banjar, I see things you wouldn't believe! Gob-smacked, I witness simulated, pneumatic anal intercourse by giant Dawang-Dawang puppet effigies and a mass post-Majapahit ritualistic military precision line-dance consumption of Red Bull. This precedes the passing of the 50 sawa spirit effigies from their temporary abode in the Palace’s peyadnyan (grandstand of the gods), to the towering bade (wadah) funeral pyre waiting outside. I see mystical Topeng mask dancers, swords drawn, strutting about like trance mediums as they check the spirit effigy ‘areas’ for demons, and I ogle at bevies of beauties with  acrylic eyelids in fabulous North Coast processional wear; a one-eyed gamelan conductor waving his cymbals about like  Von Karajan and  a troupe of deformed clowns dancing like demons. This last group includes a down-town ‘madam’, in aquamarine veil, who closes her eyes and thinks of England as the marching band crescendos and her cohorts have their way with her (see photo above).

A patih mask dancer checks out the funeral pyre at the cremation

A young Ksatria Dalem Blambangan noble in the cremation procession

The most extraordinary thing about the antics going on is the way in which the marching gamelan and all the onlookers, particularly the children, are willing participants in the riotous street theatre; egging on the dirty Dawang dancers. When, suddenly, the cremation procession swings into view I am jolted back into the sombre reality of the occasion.

Banjar is an unusual village as most of its inhabitants are either Brahmana or Ksatria caste. Stately colonial bungalows with spacious gardens –the Brahmana homes– line the upper, eastern reaches of the village’s one long road.

Banjar is famous in Balinese history for both the ferocity of its warriors and for producing learned Balinese scholars such as Pedanda Putra Kemenuh, my old guru in Balinese studies at the University of Sydney.

Superstar Indonesian actress and film-maker Christine Hakim, in front of her ‘star’, by artist Pintor Sirait

30 th November 2007 : To Cinema 21 for the opening night of the Bali Taksu Film Festival.
On the way to the cremation ground in Banjar two weeks ago, I met a talented graffiti artist lolling in a ‘lesehan’ food stall. His name was Komang ‘Bebek’ Wiramajaya and his hand was perfect for the series of posters of famous Balinese films - after Australian cartoonist Leunig (see right), which I had in mind for the coming film festival’s decorations.

I imported arctic blue Christmas tree lights from Central Java to sit in the penjor pole decorations. A red carpet was whistled up. For half an hour tonight glamour reigned supreme in the ghastly Duty Free Complex. We were then ushered into the two almost-packed cinemas to witness an intriguing bouquet of opening night films. The Seminyak ‘A’ crowd (Senior Division) was out in force to support the film ‘Rites of Peace’ –an admirable effort by Marcus Sean McBain (director), Mark Tuck (executively producer) and line-producer the Hon. Lucien Thynne, nephew of my old Bali buddy the Marquis of Bath. The film was narrated by the Horatio Heart-throb of the anthropology world, Dr. Lawrence Blair. (This documentary film tracks the amazing Madewaseraya ceremonies held last year at Pura Tuluk Biyu in Kintamani).

The footage was amazing but the narrative was riddled with errors of an historical and cultural nature; Dr. Blair’s charismatic channelling – of Yoda and David Attenborough and Bucky Fuller – in his otherworldly intonations, saved the day! The last film – a recently restored and re-edited series of home movies, from 1930, by cultural legend Miguel Covarrubias and his photographer wife Rose – bought credit to the event organisers, Yayasan Bali Taksu, headed by Deborah Gabinetti and Sarita Armawa, and to the Mexican Embassy that sponsored the screening.
On, on the Bali Taksu Film Festival!

Vaughn, the world’s prettiest Kiwi gender, burning up the red carpet at the 2007 Bali Film Festival

One of the eight film posters done by Messrs. Bebek and Badak

Left to Right: Mrs. Lawrence Blair, Dr. Lawrence Blair, Dean Tolhurst (the film’s editor), Lucien Thynne and Mrs. Licien Thynne

>> For more images of Bali Taksu Film Fetival <<

4 th December 2007 : Amazing Documentary on Aceh Tsunami Aftermath by Indonesia’s leading Actress.
We all love Christine Hakim, Indonesia’s sexy, Sumatran answer to Jodie Foster. We loved her as the heroine in the film epic Tjut Nyak Din, we loved her as Indonesia’s first ever jury at the Cannes Film Festival, in 2002, and now we love her for producing an awe-inspiring 75-minute documentary on post-tsunami Aceh. The documentary, directed by the rising star Garin Nugroho, is entitled ‘Serambi’ (Aceh has long been called ‘Serambi Mekah’ – the verandah of Mecca).

• • •

Tonight, the closing night of the film festival, starts with three ultra short documentaries made by the festival’s film students (expertly edited by Bali-based film professional Dean Tolhurst). The students all chose ‘Rubbish’ as their subject, which makes for pretty dull viewing. But it is fairly poignant, as today the Bali Post trumpeted about the new ‘Bali Road Map’, and about Bali as ‘Heaven on Earth’. (Someone needs to remind my learned colleagues at the Bali Post that Heaven does not have acres of tacky billboards filling in the airspace, nor hectares of self-combusting plastic!)

The short of it is that none of us is in the mood for a Tsunami film after all the depressing news on rubbish. However… from the opening bars of the soundtrack – the sound of giant waves crashing – we are all stunned. Stunned by the horror of the Tsunami, horrified by the complete devastation and, as the film progresses, awe-struck by the remarkable cinematography and the story telling. Most of all, we are amazed by the extraordinary Malay spirit portrayed by the stars of the ‘docu-drama’ (as Miss Hakim called it). The genius orphan Tari, the tortured poet Rizal, the traumatised fisherman Usman and his side kick, Jaelani, the indefatigable, live-wire dancer-comic-madman (P. Ramlee wannabe) who is the undisputed star of the ‘docu-drama’.

At the end of the screening there is not a dry eye in the house. We are all teary-eyed for the lost souls, of course… but also at the remarkable beauty of the Malay spirit laid bare in the film.

Indonesian filmmakers are usually better at parody than at introspection. Perhaps it takes the largest disaster in written history to bring out their best!

The drummers of North Bali’s gamelan troupes are known for their theatrics!


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