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The Road To Bali and Beyond

Indonesia isn’t Hollywood, but its history on the big screen reaches back almost 100 years. As discriminating audiences want to see more and more exciting destinations in films, expect to see more of Indonesia. If you haven’t seen these movies, be sure to add them to your list:

Goona Goona or The Kris (1932): This is a story about two young men, one a prince of royal Bali-blood and the other defined as a peasant. They are both in love with Dasnee, a slave girl possessing Bali’s sensuous charms. The prince marries a girl of his caste and the carpenter marries Dasnee. With the help of his sister, the prince gives Desnee a dose of goona-goona—a narcotic. The prince has his way with Desnee and leaves his sacred sword (a kris) in the bed. When the husband finds the sword, he rights the wrong in the traditional way. He avenges the wrong by killing the Prince with the kris.

The music is a mixture of Balinese and Western on an unsynchronized soundtrack. Filmed in Bali, it serves as an ethnographic film as much as one meant for entertainment. The movie is a charming depiction of life in Bali almost a century ago.

Legong, Dance of the Virgins (1935): Shot on location in Ubud between May and August 1933. It featured an all-Balinese cast. Upon release, it played for 10 weeks at the New York World Theater. Crowds were enchanted by the exotic culture that looked much brighter than war-torn Europe and a depressed America.

The UCLA Film and Television Archives reconstructed the film in 1992 using censored prints from the United States, Britain, and Canada. In 1935, scenes of nudity were trimmed for domestic release in the U.S. and shots of cockfights cut from the British prints. By splicing the remaining negatives, the film was restored to its complete length.

The Road to Bali (1952): In this musical/comedy, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby play two vaudeville performers working in Melbourne, Australia. After they realize that their local girlfriends are making wedding plans, they escape to Bali.

The duo joins a diving expedition led by the local island prince. They soon meet the Balinese prince’s sister (Dorothy Lamour), who rules the tropical island. When the divers uncover a treasure chest, the evil prince attempts to steal the treasure and the throne. The plot is a string of gags, one-liners and song-and-dance numbers, but the film helped build to Bali’s international fame and mystique, which helped put Indonesia on the radar for millions of new visitors.

South Pacific (1958): Based on James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific this production is a classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

Nurse Nellie Forbush (played by Mitzi Gaynor) of the U.S. Navy falls for middle-aged French plantation owner Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi), but recoils upon discovering that he is the father of two mixed-race children. When Nellie leaves him, the heartbroken Emile agrees to take on a dangerous espionage mission. In his absence, Nellie struggles to reconcile her prejudices with her love for him — and after she spends time with his children and comes to care for them, fears that Emile may not return alive.

Bali Ha’i was based on the real island of Ambae, which is located in Vanuatu. Many scenes were filmed on the north shore of Kauai. Mount Makana was used as Bali Hai and is still known as Bali Ha’i today. Other locations included the island of Tioman in Malaysia. No scenes were shot on the island of Bali and no references to Indonesia were ever made. Despite the mythical location and confusion, the movie has added to Bali’s international intrigue for decades.

Jungle Book (1967): Say what you want, but the only place in the world with orangutans, tigers and sun bears is Sumatra, Indonesia.In this Disney classic, based on Rudyard Kipling’s book, Mowgli, an abandoned child raised by wolves, has his peaceful existence threatened by the return of the man-eating tiger. Facing certain death, Mowgli must overcome his reluctance to leave his wolf family and return to the man village.

Krakatoa, East of Java (1969): Imagine a boring version of Titanic with a volcano and tsunami instead of an iceberg. The title is infamously incorrect because Krakatau (to use correct spelling) is west of Java. The makers were aware of the error, but left the title unchanged as they felt it sounded more exotic. Apart from the volcanic eruption, the plot is pure fiction. In 1883, a Dutch ocean steamer, Batavia Queen, sails from Anyer in West Java to Krakatau to salvage a cargo of sunken pearls. The captain is forced to carry a load of convicts for transport to Madura Island. Various soap opera sagas take place among the passengers, divers and crew. The children rescued at the end don’t look Indonesian. The cataclysmic eruption can’t come soon enough. Unfortunately, most of the main characters survive. The movie was filmed in Italy and Spain.

The Ring of Fire, an Indonesian Odyssey (1972): A series of four documentary films that follow the decade-long journey of filmmaking brothers Lorne and Lawrence Blair.

Max Havelaar (1976): Set in Java in the dark days of colonialism, this film is based on a semi-autobiographical book, which chronicles an idealistic Dutch administrator as he encounters corruption, cruelty and poverty. Filmed in and around Bandung, West Java.

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982): This epic profiles a love affair set in Indonesia during an attempted coup in 1965 as they plot to overthrow President Sukarno. When journalist Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) arrives in Jakarta, Indonesia, he forms a friendship with photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt). He meets British diplomat Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), who gives him key information about an upcoming Communist insurgence. Hamilton stays to pursue the story, despite the danger.

Mel Gibson is at his best, as he observes Indonesia falling into chaos and extreme poverty under president Sukarno. Linda Hunt won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She makes her final stand in a famous scene at Hotel Indonesia.

The movie producers planned to produce the film in Jakarta, but Indonesia denied permission, so the bulk of the film was shot in the Philippines and Australia. It was banned in Indonesia until 2000, after the forced resignation of coup-leader and political successor Suharto in 1998. The title The Year of Living Dangerously was the title of his Indonesian Independence Day speech of 1964.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983): This unconventional war movie features the late David Bowie. The story takes place in 1942 in a Japanese prisoner of war camp near the West Java town of Sukabumi. The film is about the real-life experience of Lawrence van der Post, a South African who served as a British Army officer during World War II. He was captured and incarcerated by the Japanese in West Java. Once again, Indonesia was not part of the movie production. The producers filmed the movie in the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

Farewell To The King (1989): The film starred Nick Nolte in his finest performance. Based on the 1969 novel L’Adieu au Roi by Pierre Schoendoerffer, it tells the WWII tale of an American deserter Learoyd (played by Nolte) who escapes a Japanese firing squad. Hiding himself in the wilds of Borneo, Learoyd is adopted by a local tribe of Dayaks, who consider him divine because of his blue eyes and blond hair. Learoyd ascends to the throne of the Dayaks. When British soldiers approach him to rejoin the war against the Japanese, Learoyd resists, and his own tribe becomes threatened by the invaders.

The movie was shot entirely on location on the island of Borneo. This was the first time a Hollywood film crew had ventured to this part of the world to make a major motion picture.

Director John Milius and co-producer Andre Morgan searched the world’s tropical areas for three months. Borneo became the perfect location.

“It was better than I imagined,” Milius said. “Misty mountains, winding rivers, ancient caves, beaches and incredible jungle.”

Unfortunately, they also discovered that bringing an international motion picture production to Southeast Asia was challenging.

“It was a nightmare to get everything and everyone to arrive in Kuching in time to film,” Morgan said. “Our crew came from Australia and England, the cameras and electrical equipment from Hong Kong, uniforms from Australia, guns and ammunition from the United States and actors from England, America, South Africa, Hawaii and Australia.”

Nolte, well known for the extensive preparation for every memorable character he creates on screen, arrived three weeks early to adapt to the environment and learn the customs of the Iban tribes.

“No one would come all the way to Borneo for some American husband and wife relationship tale,” said Nolte. “It has to be a pretty unique story to film here.”

The journey into the interior took two days and the nightly accommodations were in a traditional longhouse. When he got there, Nolte was informed that he was the first white man ever to stay overnight at that longhouse. And, as a part of the tribal culture, Nolte was told he was required to kill a pig with a spear.

“The ritual had to be done just right, without too much blood, or the spirits will not be happy with you,” Nolte explained. “It was like a party, but it had structure. I had to meet, greet and drink with each member of the tribe.”

The stunt team included Terry Leonard and Terry Jackson. When filming in the mountainous highlands finished, Leonard and Jackson stayed behind as guests of the natives. The men have never been seen again.

Endless Summer II (1994): In this sequel to the original surfing movie, documentarian Bruce Brown again explores choice international surf destinations, this time visiting locations such as Alaska, Indonesia, Fiji, France and South Africa. Accompanying Brown are renowned pro surfers Robert Weaver and Patrick O’Connell.

The movie showcased one of the most famous surf destinations in Indonesia—G-Land on Java’s southeast coast. The crew filmed surfing legends Gerry Lopez, Rizal Tanjung and Laird Hamilton—the best section of the entire film. In 1995, Quiksilver hosted the first-ever world tour event at G-Land, which went down in perfect four- to eight-foot surf. World champion Kelly Slater took the title.

Today, there are four surf camps at G-Land, featuring Wi-Fi, air-conditioned rooms, and fully stocked restaurants and bars. A week-long stay costs $500 to $1,000.

Paradise Road (1997): Based on true stories, the film follows a disparate group of expatriate women who flee Singapore in 1942, only to end up incarcerated in Sumatra. The women form a choir to lift their morale during three years of cruelty, deprivation and death. The real choir ceased when more than half of its members died and the remainder were too weak to continue. Filmed mostly in Malaysia.

Anacondas: The Hunt of Blood Orchid (2004): f you are a fan of reptiles, you must’ve seen this movie, the sequel of Anaconda (1997). Directed by Dwight H. Little, the film focused on the blood orchid, which only exists in this part of the world, and shot scenes in the mangrove forest in Kalimantan.

King Kong (2005): In this remake of the legendary movie, director Peter Jackson took the crew to Mursala Island in South Tapanuli, North Sumatra. The island was named Skull Island in the film, which won three Academy Awards.

Toute la Beauté du Monde (2006): Following a nervous breakdown, a widow travels to Asia to rediscover her zest for life…

The Fall (2006): Set in 1915, stuntman Roy Walker is hospitalized after a filming accident, when he meets a young girl recovering from a broken arm, and tells her a fantastical yarn that is visually depicted throughout the movie, with locations shot in exotic places around the world. Bali locations included the Tegallalang rice terraces and the Gunung Kawi temple in Tampaksiring, and with a rendering of the Kecak dance performed in front of it. Perhaps, the best way to cinematically portray the unique dance is against such exotic backdrops. The film won several international awards.

Eat Pray Love (2010): In this biopic Liz Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts) is a modern woman on a quest to see the world, while rediscovering and reconnecting with her soul. After a divorce, Gilbert takes a sabbatical and steps out of her comfort zone, risking everything to change her life. In her travels, she experiences the simple pleasure of nourishment by eating in Italy; the power of prayer in India, and, finally and unexpectedly, the inner peace and balance of love in Ubud, Bali. Brad Pitt was one of the producers.

First, she travels to Italy, where she snacks her way from Rome to Naples. Then, she heads to an ashram in India, where she meets a bride-to-be and a remorseful man, who nurtures her altruistic side. Her journey of self discovery ends in Bali, where she reunites with Ketut, the Balinese healer who encouraged her reflection on life.

Amphibious (2010): This was the first 3D movie to be filmed in Indonesia — in the waters of Batam (North Sumatra), Kelapa Gading (Jakarta), and Anyer (Banten). The film was shot entirely in Indonesia, and director Brian Yuzna involved a local film production team member, Ananda Siregar.

The Act of Killing (2012): The Act of Killing is a powerful documentary about the so-called communist coup in Indonesia in 1965-66. The producers profile the lives of some of the executioners who murdered accused communists on the island of Sumatra. These henchmen recreate the stories of their murders, while inching closer to a showdown with their own conscience.

The film focuses on the perpetrators of the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 in the present day. The genocide led to the killing of almost a million people, ostensibly for belonging to the local communist community. When Suharto overthrew Sukarno, the President of Indonesia, following the failed coup of the 30 September Movement in 1965, the gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry in Medan were promoted from selling black market movie theatre tickets to leading the most powerful death squad in North Sumatra. They also extorted money from the ethnic Chinese as the price for keeping their lives. Anwar is said to have personally killed 1,000 people.

Today, Anwar is revered by the right wing of a paramilitary organization, Pemuda Pancasila, that grew out of the death squads. The organization is so powerful that its leaders include government ministers who are openly involved in corruption, election rigging and clearing people from their land for developers.

Invited by Oppenheimer, Anwar recounts his experiences killing for the cameras, and makes scenes depicting their memories and feelings about the killings. The scenes are produced in the style of their favorite films: gangster, Western, and musical. Various aspects of Anwar and his friends’ filmmaking process are shown, but as they dig into Anwar’s personal experiences, the reenacted scenes begin to take over the narrative. Oppenheimer has called the result “a documentary of the imagination”.

Some of Anwar’s friends state that the killings were wrong, while others worry about the consequences of the story on their public image.

After Anwar plays a victim, he cannot continue. Oppenheimer, from behind the camera, states that it was worse for the victims because they knew they were going to be killed, whereas Anwar was only acting. Anwar then expresses doubts over whether or not he has sinned, tearfully saying he does not want to think about it. He revisits the rooftop where he claims many of his killings took place, and retches repeatedly while describing how he had killed people during the genocide. 

The film is directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and co-directed by Christine Cynn and an anonymous Indonesian. The film earned the 2013 European Film Award for Best Documentary, the Asia Pacific Screen Award, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. It also won best documentary at the 67th BAFTA awards. In accepting the award, Oppenheimer asserted that the United States and the United Kingdom have “collective responsibility” for “participating in and ignoring” the crimes, which was omitted from the video BAFTA posted online. 

After a screening for US Congress members, Oppenheimer demanded that the US acknowledge its role in the killings of “communists” across Indonesia. The United States helped fund the campaign that led to the removal of Sukarno (who courted support from the Soviet Union and China).

A companion piece to the film, The Look of Silence, was released in 2014. The film was ranked 19th on a list of the best documentaries ever made in a 2015 poll by the British Film Institute. In 2016, it was named the 14th greatest film released since 2000 by a poll of critics published by the BBC.

“The brilliant, Oscar-nominated film has prompted vigorous debate among Indonesians about the crimes and the need to hold responsible parties accountable, and suggests that it could have a similar effect in the United States, whose own role in the killings “has never officially been acknowledged, much less accounted for, though some of the relevant documents have been made available to the public,” said Bradley Simpson, historian at the University of Connecticut and director of the Indonesia/East Timor Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

Alex Cross (2012): The Alex Cross film series is an American film series of three thriller films, based on the fictional character Alex Cross, who originally appeared in a series of novels of the same name by James Patterson. In the 2012 version of the series, Tyler Perry portrayed Alex Cross. Although most of the film was shot in the U.S., the production crew shot several scenes on Bali and on Nusa Lembongan Island.

Savages (2012): One of the scenes in this movie was shot on Moyo Island, West Nusa Tenggara. Director Oliver Stone cast John Travolta, Salma Hayek, and Blake Lively, who all spent a few days on the island to shoot the crime thriller.

Java Heat (2013): An FBI agent teams up with an Indonesian police officer to combat terrorists in Yogyakarta. The production involved a number of Indonesian actors, including Atiqah Hasiholan, Ario Bayu, Tyo Pakusadewo, Rudy Wowor, and Rio Dewant. The lead actors were Kellan Lutz and Mickey Rourke.

The Philosophers: After the Dark (2013): The filming took place in Belitung Island (Sumatra), Borobudur Temple (Magelang), Prambanan Temple (Yogyakarta), Mount Bromo (East Java) and Jakarta. The director, John Huddles, also involved Indonesian actress Cinta Laura.

Blackhat (2015): Jakarta played a major role in this film about hackers, which featured Australian actor Chris Hemsworth and directed by Michael Mann. It includes scenes at Tanah Abang, Sunda Kelapa, as and the Monas National Monument.

The Perfect Wave (2015): This adventure film is based on the life of Ian McCormack, who was stung by five deadly box jellyfish and survived. Scott Eastwood stars as Ian McCormack and as he recreates the day that changed him forever. This move was filmed in several locations, including Bali.

Gold (2016): The Bre-X gold swindle, which took place in Central Kalimantan more than 20 years ago, is a fascinating story, but this isn’t a great portrayal. The movie, starring Matthew McConaughey was filmed mostly in Thailand, but includes some stock footage of Jakarta.

Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country has more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn where to go, what do and what to say.

Language and Travel Guide to Indonesia

Learn where to go, what to do and what to say. Experience more of Indonesia than the average traveler by speaking Indonesian. Simple courtesies and greetings will make your trip more productive and rewarding. Our phonetic style makes it impossible to mispronounce important words. Order your hard copy. Indonesians will sparkle with delight when you speak just a few words in bahasa Indonesia. Watch our Indonesian tutorial.

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Author: Gary Chandler