Writers & readers festival in Bali fosters collaboration and catalyses change


The 2016 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF), held on the Indonesian island of Bali, brought together an extraordinary mix of authors, journalists, poets, activists, and musicians from 25 different countries, gathered around the theme “I am you, you are me” (Tat Tvam Asi in Sanskrit).

Now in its 13th year, the five-day festival has grown into Southeast Asia’s largest and most renowned literary event.

This year there were more than 200 events in more than 40 different venues. More than 170 speakers took part.

Main issues on the agenda were identity and inclusion, migration, and how we encounter and counter extremism.

After the controversy that marked the festival last year, when the organisers were forced to cancel events related to the 1965 massacre of alleged communists in Indonesia, this year’s gathering forged ahead without obstacles.

The energy generated was powerful: audiences were delighted; tears were shed; complex issues were grappled with; and ideas, concerns, stories, and insights were shared.

Sessions were extremely diverse: one the first day, the subjects debated included “Being The Change”, “The Art of Reading”, “First Languages”, being a single woman, life in Bali, and translation.

On the following days, “Imagining India”, “Mystical Bali”, “Should Journalism Be Constructive?”, “Daughters of a Diaspora”, “Prison and the Pen”, “Ancient Texts”, and “Poetry Gets Loud” were just some of the sessions on the packed agenda.

shandra-woworuntu-wThere were heart-rending stories from speakers such as Shandra Woworuntu (pictured left), who told of her years in sexual slavery, her escape from her traffickers, and her work to help and empower other survivors.

Nigerian author Helon Habila talked to Australian radio journalist Michael Cathcart about the kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the town of Chibok in April 2014 and shared the stories of some of the girls who were released. He has written a book about the kidnappings, The Chibock Girls.

He says that when the Chibock girls were kidnapped, he was in the process of writing a novel, but he stopped. It seemed frivolous compared with the story of the kidnapping. “I just had to write this book. I wanted to write it more than any other book I have written.”

Habila is also the author of three novels, Oil on Water, Measuring Time, and Waiting for an Angel. In Oil on Water, which is set in the oil-rich and environmentally devastated Nigerian Delta, two journalists are sent to find the kidnapped wife of a British oil executive.


The speakers at this year’s UWRF ranged from internationally known figures like Anastasia Lin, who is the reigning Miss Canada, an award-winning actress and an outspoken human rights advocate, to young Indonesian authors attending their first ever literary festival.

Alongside such emerging writers as short-story writer Boni Chandra from Sumatra and Azri Zakkiyah from East Java, whose first book was published when she was in her first year of high school, were veterans like the revered author and journalist Seno Gumira Ajidarma, who draws inspiration from such diverse sources as Indonesia’s ancient wayang myths and traditional martial arts lore to today’s political turmoil.

This year’s theme emerged after last year’s censorship. At the launch of the festival, the event’s founder Janet DeNeefe said it was basically about compassion, “and the way we treat each other”.

Sexism, racism, and orientalism

suki_kim-uwrf2016-wJournalist Suki Kim, who went undercover for six months in North Korea, told audiences at the UWRF how her publishers turned a journalistic investigation that took her years to complete into a memoir.

Kim, who writes narrative non-fiction, was born and raised in South Korea, but now lives in the United States. She has covered North Korea for about a decade and has interviewed about a hundred defectors who, she says, “basically come from the bottom rung of society”.

Kim decided that, to get a full picture of the psychology of people in North Korea, she needed to go undercover. She posed as an evangelical Christian and an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and worked for six months at an evangelical university in Pyongyang.

Her 270 students were the elite of North Korea; they were the sons of high-level officials and were being groomed as future leaders.

Kim says she now wishes she had pulled out of publishing the book. Once it was released as a memoir, she says, she was systematically undermined and was accused of deception and lying. There was, she says, a wave of sexism, racism, and orientalism.

“I did not go on some soul-searching vacation to find myself in the biggest gulag nation in the world.”

Kim’s book became ineligible for any award, except in the memoir category. “Memoirs are an important genre, but they are about the writer’s awakening, about feelings and memories,” she said.

“Women are often not considered as experts. If I were a white male, would this ever have been considered a memoir?”

Kim says the inside information she obtained while undercover needed to reach a wider audience.

She wrote an essay in the New Republic, entitled The Reluctant Memoirist, which went viral. “I wrote at night, erasing the copy from my laptop each time I signed off, saving it to USB sticks that I carried on my body at all times. I backed up my research on an SD card, which I hid in the room in different spots, always with the light off, in case there were cameras. After six months, I returned home with 400 pages of notes and began writing,” Kim recounted.

“As the only journalist to live undercover in North Korea, I had risked imprisonment to tell a story of international importance by the only means possible. By casting my book as personal rather than professional – by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment – I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best.

“It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority – What do you know? – to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?”

Banned for speaking out


In 2015, Anastasia Lin was due to represent Canada at the Miss World pageant in China, but the Chinese authorities refused to give her a visa and declared her persona non grata because of her condemnation of the country’s human rights violations.

Lin’s father has been threatened by the authorities, who pressured him to tell his daughter not to speak out. His business, Lin says, is now in ruins. “His phone is tapped. There is no way for us to communicate and he can’t get out of China now; he is banned from travelling.”

When the threats started against her father, Lin says, she spent a week in a darkened room, eating ice cream. Not the best thing to be doing when you are supposed to be preparing for a beauty pageant, she points out.

Lin, who is just 26 years old, says that speaking out about human rights is everyone’s responsibility. “Those of us who have a voice, we must use it.”

She speaks of beauty as a platform for purpose and says she has gradually found her own voice, which has been very liberating.

“It’s about being authentic; being real. I feel like I no longer need to pretend. I no longer need to obey China’s policies on Chinese people overseas. I can be a true Canadian. I can be a true human being.”

p1090096-600x800Lin has been invited to the Miss World final in Washington DC this year and will use the event as a platform to speak up against human rights abuses, and in particular, the persecution of practitioners of the Buddha-school spiritual practice Falun Gong, and the horrific practice of “organ harvesting” from prisoners of conscience.

About one tenth of the Chinese population practises Falun Gong. “This is the largest group of prisoners of conscience in China,” Lin said, “and no-one is really speaking out for them.”

Lin says there is clear evidence that Falun Gong practitioners and other political prisoners are being killed for their internal organs, which are then sold and transplanted at enormous profit.

There are reports that corneas have been removed from thousands of Falun Gong practitioners being held in concentration camps.

In July 2006, two prominent Canadian human rights lawyers – David Kilgour and David Matas – published a 140-page report and drew the conclusion that the allegations about organ theft were true. The report was revised in 2007.

An updated 680-page report by Kilgour, Matas, and the American investigative writer and human rights defender Ethan Gutmann, who wrote the book The Slaughter, published in 2014, was released this year.

The authors concluded that the organ transplantation volume in China was far larger than official Chinese government statistics indicated (between 60,000 and 100,000 transplants per year as opposed to 10,000).

They said the source for most of the organs for transplants was “the killing of innocents” (Uyghurs, Tibetans, House Christians and, primarily, practitioners of Falun Gong), and organ pillaging in China was “a crime in which the Communist Party, State institutions, the health system, hospitals, and the transplant profession are all complicit”.

Lin says there should be an independent international investigation, and “organ tourism” to China should be banned.

She said of those persecuted in China, who include human rights lawyers: “Although they have had their dignity stripped away again and again; although they have faced arbitrary detention, torture and death … yet they persist. No matter what the danger is, they keep going, and they see that there is light and hope, and will never give up.”

Lin starred in a film “The Bleeding Edge”, which, she says, “talks about organ harvesting and Chinese prisoners of conscience, and involves gang rape, electronic batons, and bamboo sticks shoved under fingernails and other kinds of torture, and forced feeding”.

It was a hugely daunting task for her and she learnt how much pressure was put on actors, directors, and producers by the Communist party.

But, she says, “the forces of intolerance can never censor human nature; they can never censor creativity, or the spirit and the hope that is within us”.

In her keynote speech at the UWRF, she said the world was today in desperate need of the Tat Tvam Asi message.

“There is a universal, fundamental human experience that is ultimately the same and luckily, thanks to that, we are all connected in our core, our nature.”

Rapping for peace


Australian and Indonesian rappers – The Brothahood and the Kalawi Rap Crew – shared the stage with Brisbane-based writer Bri Lee for the “Make Art Not War” discussion, which turned into an impromptu performance.

The Brothahood use hip-hop to break down stereotypes and misconceptions about Muslims and convey positive insights through their music. They aim to convey to those whose knowledge of Islam comes solely via the media that it is not a religion based on violence.

“We fell in love with the faith on our own,” said Jehad Dabab.

Jehad and his brother Moustafa met Hesham Habibullah and the fourth member of the group, beatboxer and singer Timur Bakan, at a Muslim youth camp. “I think what made me fall in love with the religion was the brotherhood at the camp and the sense of belonging to a community,” Jehad said.

The four young men shared a passion for hip-hop. “Through our music we are trying to empower other young Muslims to discover the faith for themselves,” Jehad told festivalgoers.

Habibullah comes from a practising household, but Jehad’s parents only started to practice their faith fully after The Brothahood started to perform.

“Whether it’s our influence or not, I’m not sure, but I think it’s had a positive effect on our family and the wider family as well,” Jehad said.

The Brothahood’s audience was initially only young Muslims, but their reach has now extended to the wider community.

p1090240-600x800Habibullah (pictured left) says hip-hop generally has diverted from its core essence. That essence is still evident in underground hip-hop circles, he says, but it’s not as commonly seen anymore.

“It’s more commercialised. It’s more about hitting numbers than about capturing the essence of humanity or of civil rights, which is why it started in the first place.

“We’re just trying to get back to what it is and use it as a platform to build ourselves up as human beings and pave a way for the younger generation.”

Islam is a religion of peace and love, Habibullah says. “It is only in recent times that culture and malpractices that favour a few people have skewed it.

“It is the same thing that happened to hip-hop. It was something that was inherently good and was there to help people, but it has changed to suit a few people.”

Jehad says that, for The Brothahood, hip-hop and rap are a modern form of poetry. “We’re just telling our stories in our own way, and connecting with people.

In the early days, a minority of the community criticised The Brothahood, saying music was sinful and forbidden by Islam. “There is an opinion within Islam that music is forbidden,” Jehad said, “but it’s an opinion, and there are differences of opinion.

“The overwhelming majority of people in our community have supported us; they gave us a platform and backed us up; they really elevated us and that’s what helped us to keep going.”


Timur Bakan from The Brothahood provides sound effects for Australian poetry slam champion Philip Wilcox.

The members of the Kalawai Rap Crew, from Halmahera Utara on the Indonesian island of Maluku, met as children in a refugee camp, then started to perform rap together.

Their message is one of peace; the elimination of hostility, differences, and social inequality. Their lyrics, they say, are the most important aspect of their music.

Kalawai Rap Crew member Sony said he was witness to the killing of his parents during the conflict in Halmahera Utara.

Institutional sexism

Bri Lee, who is the founding editor for the feminist interview series Hot Chicks with Big Brains, spoke about inequality in the legal industry. Lee has written a book called Eggshell Skull, which is a memoir about her time as a judge’s associate in the Queensland district court, a job that she quit “in a blaze of glory” in January this year.

“While I was there I saw really institutional sexism, not only in the legal fraternity in terms of the people who work in the industry, but also, more importantly and on a much deeper and more insidious level, our justice system, which isn’t set up to hear and feel the experiences of women.”

Keeping events in living memory


One of the most powerful voices at this year’s festival was that of the Sudanese-American World Poetry Slam champion Emi Mahmoud.

Mahmoud, who is just 23 years old, has just graduated from Yale University, where she studied anthropology and molecular biology. She hopes one day to be able to help improve maternal and child health in disadvantaged communities around the world.

There is a very strong spiritual aspect to Mahmoud’s poetry. “I like to think that poetry is ministry … I think that, more and more often, what I am doing is brought back to me from the outside, and it causes me to become less and less self-absorbed over time.

“Poetry, and spoken word poetry, can be very vain and centered on the self, and even though it is necessary and an important process … when you start to realise how important it is to other people, you become humbled.

“People draw meaning from what I do in ways I could never have imagined.”

Mahmoud tells the very moving story of a cousin who was critically ill in hospital in Paris. “She talked about my poems and asked me to perform for her. I think the most important place that I ever performed was by her hospital bedside.

“She didn’t really understand English very well, but when I performed my poetry she was so overcome with joy. She passed away about a month later.”

Mahmoud writes about the horrors of the genocide in Darfur. Her family escaped from Sudan and went to Yemen when she was a toddler, and then went to the US in 1998.

In her poem Bullets, she writes about feeling guilt for having refuge in the US, and for having an escape while others don’t. She writes that her body should be lined with bullets, “one for each of my brothers and sisters who stopped a bullet for me”.

In her poem entitled Mama, she writes: “When I was 7, she cradled bullets in the billows of her robes.

“That same night, she taught me how to get gunpowder out of cotton with a bar of soap.”

She says she is talking about things that will be forgotten if no-one speaks about them.

“There was a time when Darfur was on the front page of the New York Times every single day, but now we’re in a time when some people don’t know anything about it.

“The things that happen to us, if we don’t keep them in living memory, it’s as if they didn’t happen, and then they become repeated over and over again.”

Mahmoud urges people to listen to the stories of those who are in crisis.

“When people are struggling, you don’t see them as yourself; you see them as the other. What’s happening is you are overriding your empathy, and, to be able to reignite that, you have to almost rehumanise the people who are seen as the other.

“That process is gruelling, but, once it’s done, it’ll be so easy for you to feel that the least thing you can do it listen.” But everyone, she says, has to work on the process together.

Mahmoud does bring humour into her work, like in the poem she wrote about Tarzan.

She says she chooses poetry as her medium “because it is one of the easiest ways to help people to see people as people on the most basic level”.

Poetry, she says, breaks away all the structures of language. “Because of that, sometimes even across languages, a poem could have effect. When the structure is different, you have to listen better.”

When Mahmoud performs a poem for the first time she says she feels like she has released a breath that she has been holding for a very long time.

All of Sudan, she says, is currently in turmoil. “The one millionth refugee just left south Sudan.

“Boko Haram is starting to go into the markets of Darfur and it is terrifying because the people are stuck between the government and these terrible groups.”

Tat Tvam Asi

p1090106-800x600On Day 1 of the festival there was a discussion about the event’s main theme. The Pakistani social ecologist Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib (pictured left), who combines writing with scholarship and development practice, debated the subject with Indonesian writer and women’s rights activist Dinny Jusuf; the award-winning Canadian poet and performer Tanya Evanson (pictured below), who is a student of Sufism; and Hotlin Ompusunggu, a dentist who spearheads a ground-breaking project in Indonesian Borneo that provides healthcare while combatting environmental destruction.


“We need the other in order to see ourselves,” Evanson said. “It’s so important to be of service. We’re all on this planet together. We are here to be of service to each other.”

dinny-jusuf-uwrf16-wDinny has created a line of clothing made with hand-woven fabrics in four weaving areas: Toraja and Mamasa in Sulawesi and the Adonara and Lembata islands in Flores.

She spoke about the Toraja tradition of people taking care of each other. The watchwords of her company and foundation, Toraja Melo, are community, quality, and compassion.

p1090132-800x600Hotlin co-founded the healthcare and conservation NGO Alam Sehat Lestari (ASRI), where there is a philosophy of radical listening; listening to everyone in the community.

She spoke of the principles of equality and dignity. “We started our programme,” she said, “with the belief that we are all equal. We believe that everyone can make a difference; everyone can be part of the solution.”

ASRI runs a clinic in Sukadana in West Kalimantan. If patients don’t have cash to pay for their treatment, they can pay with tree seedlings, which are used on ASRI’s reforestation site. They can also pay with manure, which farmers can then use, or with their own labour.

Patients can also participate in a health-care savings programme, “selling” their seedlings to ASRI for later use in reforestation, and building up credit at the clinic. “I think I am the only dentist in the world,” Hotlin said, “who gets paid with seedlings.”

People get reductions in the cost of their healthcare in relation to the reduction in logging in their villages. “If the community protects the forest, they get a discount of up to 70 percent.”

There has been a significant reduction in illegal logging in the Gunung Palung National Park since the project began. The park is precious habitat for orangutans. “One of the reasons people did illegal logging was to pay for medical emergencies,” Hotlin said. “If someone is going to die, you compromise your future for short-term needs.”

When asked what they needed, members of the community said they wanted affordable medical care and a 24-hour ambulance service. “In West Kalimantan, people may have insurance for medical care, but to rent a car from a very remote area costs a fortune.”

Villagers also wanted training in organic farming.

ASRI has now also set up a “conservation hospital”, which will be run on the same basis as the clinic.

“We cannot be really healthy if we do not have a healthy environment,” Hotlin told the audience at the UWRF.

Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib says a very slow and deep system shift is happening all over the world to counter the dehumanising and denaturalising effects of our times. “The change is in our voices and in our numbers, and those are very many.”

Being the Change


Another activist from Kalimantan, the indigenous Dayak film maker Emmanuela Shinta, spoke at a session entitled “Being the Change”. She was joined by Shandra Woworuntu, who is originally from Indonesia, and the Australian author, mechanical engineer, and ardent social advocate Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who founded the organisation Youth Without Borders.

Shandra told the story of her descent into sexual slavery in the US.

She had lost her job as an analyst and trader with an international bank in Indonesia, and had a three-year-old daughter to support, so decided to take work overseas.

When she arrived in New York in June, 2001, expecting to work in a hotel in Chicago, she was exchanged for a big envelope of money five times within a few hours.

She was told she had to stay overnight in New York, and was taken to a house where a man asked her to undress. “I refused, then suddenly he took a gun and put it against my head.”

Shandra was visibly upset as she continued with the story, and broke down several times.

“There was a baseball bat swinging in front of my face and the gun was still against my head and I saw a little girl with blood all over her face and I realised that, in a second, my life could be taken.”

In the hope of one day being able to see her daughter again, Shandra gave in to her captors.

Her passport, identity card and bag had been taken from her. “I had only the clothes on my body, a dictionary, a bible, a little money, and a copy of my passport that I had hidden.”

Shandra was sold to numerous traffickers under the name Candy. “None of the people in the community noticed that I was there; that I needed help. It was so hard. The traffickers demanded 30,000 US$ to give me my freedom.”

Shandra was drugged and drank whiskey and beer day and night as there was nothing else on offer and she didn’t even know if the tap water was safe to drink. She ate only plain soup and pickles.

She escaped by climbing out of a tiny second-floor bathroom window in a brothel in Brooklyn. By then, she weighed just 44 kilos.

She telephoned the number of someone she thought would be able to help her, but he turned out to be another trafficker.

She eventually escaped again, and after failing to get help from either the police or staff at the Indonesian consulate, she found an ally in a sailor she met called Eddy, and the FBI became involved. Her original trafficker, a Malaysian named Johnny, and several others were arrested.

Shandra’s daughter came to join her in the US in 2004 and Shandra was granted permanent residency in 2010.

Shandra also spoke about the Mentari support network and empowerment programme she set up to help women who had been trafficked into sexual slavery. She has also set up a catering company and a training centre in New York, where women are taught baking and other culinary skills. Her own house has become a shelter for sexual slavery survivors. It is awesome, she says, to see the women smile.

Barack Obama appointed her as the advisor to the US on human trafficking.

Shandra says she is still traumatised by what happened to her. She still sees a therapist, and still takes anti-depressants.

Forest fires

p1090137-800x600Emmanuela Shinta, who comes from Central Kalimantan, lived through the horror of last year’s horrendous forest fires in Indonesia. Central Kalimantan was one of the hardest hit areas, with the air pollution index level exceeding 3,000. (A level of 300 is already hazardous.)

There has been air pollution from forest burning in Indonesia for 19 years. Emmanuela told the UWRF audience about last year’s fires, which were described by conservation scientist Erik Meijaard as “probably the biggest global environmental disaster of the 21st century”.

She spoke about breathing in the poisonous air. “You couldn’t see anything because the haze was very thick. The sky was dark. The sky was yellow-brown.”

11223649_10100403721695379_599289048069909163_oPalangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan, in September 2015. Photo by Bjorn Vaughn.

Emmanuela spoke about the work she has been doing to raise awareness about the health dangers of the haze and the causes of the fires. She is the founder of the Ranu Welum foundation. which mobilises young people, engages in advocacy, and organises the provision of proper protective masks.

A “clean room” has been set up in Palangkaraya where people can go for respite when there is heavy pollution. The situation is not as bad this year as in 2015, Emmanuela says, but it is unpredictable.

The issue of forest burning was also highlighted by the director of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC) in Medan on the island of Sumatra, Panut Hadisiswoyo. Panut spoke about the drying out of peat forests, which are the primary habitat for increasingly endangered orangutans.

Most of the forest fires in Indonesia have been on peatland, which should be protected, but has been drained, mostly to make way for oil palm plantations. Once dried out, the peat is extremely inflammable. The fires burn underground and are very hard to extinguish.

The OIC has already rescued 26 orangutans this year, many of whom were kept as illegal pets. As their habitat gets destroyed, many others get trapped in small, isolated areas of forest surrounded by palm oil plantations.

In the most recent rescue, an adult male was found with 60 air rifle pellets in his body.

Youth Without Borders

Abdel-Magied was born in Sudan and was brought to Australia as a child. She was, until recently, working on the oil rigs in western Australia. She is last year’s Queensland Young Australian of the Year.

Her first book, Yassmin’s Story, is a coming-of-age memoir she wrote when she was 24.

“It is our duty,” Abdel-Magied said, “to make the world a better place.”

p1090167-800x722Abdel-Magied set up Youth Without Borders when she was just 16 years old. “It started out as an organisation that was about empowering young people to create positive change in their communities.

“Ultimately it was about collaboration, about how we get organisations to work together.”

The organisation’s first project was setting up mobile libraries in Indonesia.

“When it comes to development … it’s about empowering people to create their own solutions,” Abdel-Magied said.

“Ego does not have a place when we talk about making a change; when we talk about empowerment.”


On the last day of this year’s UWRF, there was a profound discussion about forgiveness. Journalist, professor, and prison rights activist Baz Dreisinger, Shandra Woworuntu, and author Ariel Leve, who wrote a memoir, An Abbreviated Life, explored the subject.

Leve’s book is about her traumatic childhood living with an eccentric mother whom she describes as “a poet, an artist, a self-appointed troublemaker, and attention seeker”.

Shandra’s emotions spilled over again several times during the debate. “For me,” she said, “forgiveness is a gift; a gift for yourself and a gift for your community and society.”

Releasing all her anger and sadness was “a practice and a process”, she said. Survival gave her strength and she started to forgive herself and others. “I had to show people that I wasn’t a prostitute; I was a victim.”

Breaking the chains took years, she says. “My struggle now is not about forgiving people; it is about how I cope with my own trauma. I cannot forget what happened to me, but I forgive. I am no longer a survivor; I am Shandra,” she told festivalgoers.

“I decided to make a change because I have to tell my story to make every one of you believe that, in every corner of our cities, human trafficking and modern slavery happens.”

Dreisinger quoted Bishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa, who spoke of “drawing out the sting and the memory that threatens to poison our entire existence”.

Leve defines forgiveness as a release. “I believe that, on a very personal level, it’s about letting go of needing to resolve something, and just being able to cope and move through your life in a way that allows you to feel free. It’s not so much about the other person as about yourself.”

After the festival, Dreisinger visited Bali’s notorious Kerobokan Prison. She talked about the power of art to change hearts and minds about mass incarceration and people in prison with members of the band Antrabez, whose name means “From behind bars”. The group is made up of six men and two women serving sentences of between three months and four years for drugs offences.

p1090305-800x600Another of the UWRF attendees from the US was author Mitchell S. Jackson, whose remarkable journey from drug dealer to author and professor of English inspired his highly praised debut novel, The Residue Years.

Jackson joined Suki Kim, Dreisinger, and the author of The Elements of Power, David S. Abraham, for a debate about the presidential election in the US.

He said he didn’t trust either candidate. While he would vote, he was disheartened to the point of being disengaged. His family had been disenfranchised for generations already, and neither Trump nor Clinton was going to change that.

There can be progress in America, Jackson says, but the country is built on race; “built on that conversation not coming to fruition”.

baz_dreisinger-uwrf16-wDreisinger said there was a profound malaise around the election that she had never seen in her lifetime; “a real sense of horror, humiliation, and disgust”. Watching the debates, she said, “you don’t know whether to laugh or cry or do both”.

The most distressing things for her, she says, has been Trump’s fearmongering. “When you make people afraid, really dangerous things happen.”

Indonesian cinema

One afternoon of this year’s festival was devote to screening the films of the young Indonesian film maker Wregas Bhanuteja, who won this year’s Leica Cine Discovery Prize for the best short film at Cannes. The film that won the award, Prenjak (In the Year of Monkey), is about a woman, Diah, who sells matches – for a high price.

A single match costs 10,000 rupiah (about 76 US cents) because the man who buys it can then use it to see Diah’s genitals. The movie is based on a practice that was common in Yogyakarta in the 1980s and 1990s. Women who sold wedang rondhe (a local drink) would let men see their genitals by lighting matches in exchange for money.

Wregas has financed all of his five short films with his own money, but, after winning the Cannes award, he was invited to France, where he will be helped to develop the script of his first feature film, which will be about film extras.


Inspiration, Wregas says, comes from a moment or an event that makes him so sad that he cannot forget it. “All my movies come from true stories. Film has become my therapy.”

The Wregas session was followed by a screening of Indonesia Calling, a film produced in 1945 by Dutch film maker Joris Ivens about the Black Armada – the Dutch ships that tried to sail from Australia to Indonesia carrying guns and soldiers, but were blocked by Indonesian strikers and Australian seamen and dock workers who supported Indonesia and its newly declared independence.

 Fostering critical thinking

The youthful spirit and energy at the UWRF was exemplified by comic book writer and artist Bonni Rambatan, who is the co-founder of the Jakarta-based, design-focused social enterprise, Rambatan Saddhadhika Design Firm.

bonni-rambatan-uwrf16-wBonni, who is also a freelance essayist, specialises in designing stories that foster critical thinking and social change. He sees comic books as an important gateway to other literature, especially for children and teenagers. “They are a very good way of getting across complex issues in an accessible way.”

Many people, especially in Indonesia, tend to read comics way before they start reading novels, Bonni says.

Comics are an emerging market in Indonesia, Bonni says. “Before this, it was all imported and translated comic books, but right now the local industry is looking very promising, and it’s growing very fast.

“More and more people are making comics and more and more people are reading local comics.”

Indonesia, Bonni says, is the biggest market for comics in Southeast Asia.

Bonni’s book Not My Hero is about human rights violations by governments. The main character is Dimas, a member of a super-hero team who quits the team to investigate behind the scenes. He asks questions the super heroes are not supposed to ask and realises that he has been defeating innocent people such as activists and journalists, who had been defending the weak and opposing corrupt governments and corporations.

Bonni’s latest project is a series of books about the environment and related issues. He received a fellowship from the Japan Foundation¹ to do the research.

The protagonists will be two young women who discover a mysterious journal and journey to disaster areas like the site of the 2011 earthquake in northeastern Japan.  They will engage in physical labour and rescues so will be role models for gender equality. The first book will focus on flooding.

Other comic book writers and artists do tackle subjects like human rights, but, for Bonni, such issues are the drivers of his work.

“Right now, the purpose of my entire studio, my entire start-up, is to explicitly tell these types of stories, with actual researchers, and working with other organisations. We want to make sure that the information in the books is correct.”

Bonni says comic books that tackle human rights issues are usually for people who already care about those issues. “They are more for a mature audience, whereas I am doing educational materials for teenagers and kids that explicitly deal with more complex issues.”

He is working on a book for elementary school students, and wants to reach out to younger children in kindergarten and early elementary school. “The issues will of course be less complex,” he said. “I’ll be talking more about such things as pluralism, tolerance, and bullying.”

Design researcher, toy and game designer, and illustrator Panida Tancharoen from Thailand, who joined Bonni at the UWRF “Side by Side” session, was also a Japan Foundation fellow last year and is now working on a board game about climate change and disaster management.

Enriching lives and livelihoods

Patron of the UWRF, the musician, singer-songwriter, author, screenwriter, composer and occasional film actor Nick Cave said of the festival: “From the quality of conversations to friendships forged, the forms of inspiration are many and the bonds are life-long.”

The UWRF is organised by the not-for-profit foundation, Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati, which DeNeefe founded with her husband Ketut Suardana.  The foundation’s aim is to enrich the lives and livelihoods of Indonesians through the development of community-building arts and cultural programmes.

Ketut says he hopes that, in a world full of conflicts, the spirit of Tat Tvam Asi will build awareness and understanding between cultures and religions and “make the world a better place”.



In his keynote speech, Seno Gumira Ajidarma (pictured left) said: “Tat Tvam Asi is a legacy from the past, but, with a new approach, we shall make it relevant again.”


1) The HANDs! (Hope & Dreams) Programme For Disaster & Environmental Education + Creativity, a youth exchange programme hosted by the Japan Foundation Asia Center.


Balinese dance at the UWRF’s closing night party (at the Blanco Renaissance Museum in Ubud).

Update: More than 30,000 people attended this year’s festival.


1= 5 euro, x 2 = 10 euro, X 3 =15 euro, etc.