Tuesday night we attended the opening of the 2010 Balinale Film Festival at Cinema 21 in Kuta. This was the Bali premiere of Eat Pray Love, one third of which was shot in Bali, and the evening was touted as a gala event with a red carpet reception, VIP seating and a star-studded after party. We arrived spot on time. The red carpet was a truncated affair in every sense. The carpet itself was physically held in place with brown packing tape, there was no wall of stars, and the media were visibly absent. The carpet led to a table where we collected our bag of bumph (above), including an access-all-areas pass, three t-shirts, a wrinkly poster, and a beautiful new brochure for the Tandjung Sari hotel. What? No DVDs? No Strivectin? No engraved pink Nanos pre-loaded with the EPL podcasts? Oh well. This is Bali, after all, and apparently the national premier of EPL in Jakarta a couple of weeks ago took the wind out of the sails.
Film figures pay extra
There was a bit of a kafuffle on Facebook prior to the evening, when a local filmmaker whose work is in the festival expressed her dismay at not receiving an invitation to the opening. She then posted the festival’s response, informing her that she could attend, of course, by paying Rp 1,000,000 (USD 112) for a ticket. Other friends lodged similar complaints. It certainly wasn’t a case of SRO, because one third of the seats were empty during the screenings. And there was no VIP seating in evidence either, other than four or five white hoods over random seats in one of the two screening rooms. Now back to the “red carpet reception.”
Inside the foyer it was sweltering, and this at a cineplex where the screening rooms are so arctic we once ran out in the middle of a film to buy a jacket at Matahari department store across the parking lot. The “reception” amounted to a sweaty scrum in the foyer with no discernible focus, no entertainment, and no explanation of what was happening. VIPs (there were a few), were simply squashed in the scrum, looking slightly confused.
We chatted with Tjok Raka Kerthyasa (below) and his wife Jero Asri (of Biku fame), whose son was recently married to actress, Happy Salma in an uncharacteristically relaxed palace wedding. Kerthyasa is a member of the provincial parliament, and the majordomo of ceremonial and traditional life in the community of Ubud. We had the pleasure to meet again, the Governor of Bali, Made Mangku Pastika (above), who looked somewhat bemused to be abandoned in the midst of the melée. It must have been quite a day for Mangku Pastika, having earlier given a speech and laid a wreath at the site of the 2002 Bali bomb on the anniversary of the tragedy. To shift from a sad commemoration to the goofball provincial premier of a goofball movie is quite a feat of self-mastery. Other local dignitaries included A.A. Gede Agung, the Bupati of Badung, and Tjok Ace, the Bupati of Gianyar (step-brother of Tjok Raka, and creator-co-owner of the Bali-baroque Pita Maha resorts). Most of the Bali scenes in EPL were shot in and around Ubud, so Tjok Ace was of course, involved in making that work.
We also talked with Lawrence Blair, Cynthia Hardy and kids and friends, and Gianpaolo Nogaro of Warisan. A smattering of industry figures from Indonesia and abroad were present as well as a number of Indonesian actors. We enjoyed being introduced to Jajang C. Noer, a seasoned talent in Indonesian cinema (below).
I learned that Jajang and I share a fascination with the island of Sumba. (Note, she is wearing a traditional gold mamuli pendant from Sumba in the photo below.) She shared with me her experiences during filming in the village of Pau in Sumba, and we found we have a number of acquaintances in common from Pau. One of the young Umbus (princes) of Pau has adopted me and calls me “Mama” after I hired him to do some goldsmithing in my house, then diagnosed and arranged the cure for his chronic TB. I also taught him to wear a proper respirator mask when cooking the toxic chemicals used in refining and alloying gold. He didn’t understand that pulling the hem of a t-shirt over his nose as the fumes rose wasn’t up to OSHA standards. This fellow was so skinny and so wheezy, that even well into his 30s he hadn’t managed to snag a bride. That’s important for a Sumba noble, and his family were dismayed. A year later he was plump and fit, and married to a noble girl from a neighbouring fiefdom. But I digress.
Back to the red carpet reception-cum-scrum. It was supposed to last 30 minutes. After about 65 minutes Deborah Gabinetti, the less-than-eloquent festival director got up on a chair or something and announced there would be a delay, but there was plenty of wine and snacks, and we were advised to mingle and drink. The dignitaries mopped their brows and propped up their practiced smiles. We giggled and went out for a smoke.
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”
Communication has not been the strong suit of the Balinale this year. No one explained that the film EPL would be screened in two separate screening rooms, starting about forty minutes (one reel) apart in time. Nor did they explain that in Room 2 the screening would be preceded by speeches from dignitaries and the presentation of awards. When the moment to enter the cinema finally came, everyone elbowed through into whichever screening room they happened to find themselves in. Confusion ensued. I noted the absence of dignitaries in Room 1 and struggled back upstream through the crowd to Room 2, where I sat with Simonetta Quarti and Marco Lastrucci of Quarzia batik and actually enjoyed the speeches. Mangku Pastika’s was brief, poetic, and positive. He noted that among its many epithets, Bali is now known as the Island of Love, thanks to EPL, and in closing he reminded us in tones worthy of H.H. The Dalai Lama how essential love is in our lives and in society.
Speeches completed, we were ready for the film to roll, but it didn’t. Tina Ardie of Pro Motion events (below), who is the ringleader and lion tamer of almost every public circus on the Island of Bali, did an admirable job of rescuing the situation, by taking the mike and emceeing the interlude until the first showreel could be shunted over from Screening Room 1. As for the film, no review necessary. It was neither much worse nor much better than expected. Read the Guardian review. I can only add a few fresh comments here.
Characterizing the characterless
Bad editing is EPL’s downfall. Besides being just too darn long, with scene after scene dragging on interminably without anything happening at all, I noticed many bad transitions and jolting continuity errors. When Liz dismisses Felipe from her bungalow we get a cut, then suddenly she’s on screen in different clothes, with different hair, make-up, lighting and focus, calling to him from the doorway as he exits through the garden. Huh? The editing was a fiasco start to finish, and a third of the film should have gone on the floor. We also cringed at the creepily-sentimental overuse of edge-blur and soft focus. How very Hallmark. And it wasn’t consistent either. One shot would be blurry and warm with everything in the peripheries melting as if seen through tear-filled eyes, then when it cut to another angle all would be sharp again. Poor cinematography and gratuitous effects can’t wrench sentiment out of an unconvinced audience.
The script was a disaster in terms of the limp arc of the plot and the paucity of character development. But it wasn’t too shoddy dialog-wise. Julia Roberts made the best of a bad situation. I’m not a Julia fan, but I was impressed by her ability to give character to a characterless character. In a scene where Liz refuses a boat trip with Felipe, Roberts really kicked butt. Her performance was unorthodox and compelling. I almost “got” the Liz character at that moment. But I lost her again. Liz just doesn’t say anything, and she doesn’t have anything to say as a character, except to herself.
During the Bali sequence, someone down the row from me muttered, “The only way to enjoy this film is after a huge spliff.” Then Simonetta poked me in the ribs in time to see Marco on screen, making a four-second appearance in a market scene as the “Arguing Fruit Customer”. Yes, he is actually credited at the end as “Arguing Fruit Customer.” We giggled ourselves silly about that, and about other friends who we glimpsed in the market and beach party scenes. There was Carolyn Tyler in a turban, Cynthia Hardy pretending to party hard, and a handful of others blurring into the mush of this mushy movie.
What we white folk get up to
What I took away from the film was a lingering sense of trepidation. Sitting in a mostly Indonesian audience, I felt uneasy about how the film portrays foreign visitor-residents here (referred to in local patois as “bulés“). The Liz and Felipe characters will certainly be seen by many as indicative of “what bulés are like” and “what bulés are doing” and I’m not at all comfortable with that. They were both basically hedonistic, self-centred, slack, immature, and unfettered by the exigencies that drive and constrain most adults, Indonesian and foreign, here and abroad.
They partied, they navel-gazed, they cavorted (illegal in Indonesia unless you’re married), they were at best voyeuristic and at worst self-interested in their interactions with the local people here, the culture, and the place. They didn’t work, they didn’t have any real problems, yet they wrung their hands, pitied themsleves, and lived in dissolute splendour (Felipe’s “bungalow” is actually the main house at the Linda Garland Estate, which has been featured in Architectural Digest). Who gets to do that? And did either character exhibit any qualities that we can actually respect them for? Liz emailed a bunch of bulé buddies overseas to drum up money for a Balinese pal, and got a bundle with just one click of the “send” button. That also is a point of unease for me. The notion here in Bali that foreigners are walking ATM machines, and you just need to know what buttons to push, is counterproductive for the Balinese people who increasingly believe it, and alarming for bulés who don’t actually have the ability to send one email and get enough money back to build a Balinese person a house.
I thought this whole sequence was unconscionably facile. Liz was dealing with a cannily independent Balinese woman who had some hard luck, but was well above average in terms of livelihood, opportunities, and connections. If an English-speaking entrepreneurial woman in Ubud needing to own real estate is a high priority cause in Bali, we must be in grand shape here. This Liz lady personifies the floppy-skirted would-be do-gooders who come to Ubud and drive me round the bend with their naivety. That’s not to knock doing good, or trying to, but I think an informed approach might be more valuable. Bulés randomly handing out envelopes with $18,000 in them to lucky individuals is not a good model of global citizenship. It’s absurd. It makes bulés look like a state lottery with free tickets. Suck up to enough white folk, and your lucky number will come up someday. Well, hey, that’s a productive life path to promote, now isn’t it?
My trepidation only increased when I left the cinema and ambled over to the “VIP after party” at Planet Hollywood. I have never been to a Planet Hollywood or a Hard Rock Cafe in my life, so I was curious. This “VIP after party” consisted of warm Sprite and Bintang beer passed on a tray through a dark room occuppied by twenty live human beings and one life-size plastic statue of Schwarzenegger as Terminator. Fortunately, on my way out, I happened to see Jajang C. Noer again (above with festival committee), and passed the most pleasant and worthwhile moments of the entire evening right there in the doorway. Having met this remarkable woman, I can say the Balinale 2010 opening night was a net positive. For me, at least.