There’s nothing like bad publicity to generate publicity.The Ubud Writer’s festival is on. Connoisseurs of the written word have flooded the city. The road leading into Ubud was clogged when I got back from swimming down at the river.

The event started today. Last night the the bars and bistros and cafes were dead. I was at the Commonwealth Bank near Delta shopping mall where I had my first glimpse of the festival. A middle aged Australian was withdrawing cash. “I just walked from town, most of the ATMS ran out of money.”

So are you here for the writing festival, I ask. No need for niceties.

“Yes, I was here four years ago on a press pass. They had me  doing all kinds of things. Now I’m a paying guest. I’m hoping to enjoy it more this way.” She asks me if I’m attending. “Nope, I wasn’t invited.” That put the conversation on brief hold. I asked her how much are the tickets. “Four day pass is US$400.” Not cheap.

Back at the family’s compound in Peliantan Sana has some couch surfers. Randy and Andy are volunteers. They are from Malang in Java. They paid their own way to the festival, to work for free at the Writer’s Festival. Randy is a graphic designer. “I was told by working the festival I could network and easily find work. “

Sana had to knock back another three female volunteers from Sulawesi who’d also paid their own way to Ubud. I glanced through the Festival catalogue. Glossy pictures of thoughtful writers. Lots of advertising. Lots and lots of advertising. How much are all these sponsors spending? The event was almost cancelled, said Randy. He is staying with Sana for five days. He has to pay for his room and rent a motorbike to get around.

Why was the event nearly cancelled? I googled. AFP, The Age, The Guardian, and a slew of other online papers jumped on the censorship bandwagon. This month marks fifty years since the anti-Communist purges and massacres of 1965 that  contributed to over 500 000 deaths. It was a bloody rampage  and  transitional time when Sukarno was overthrow by Suharto. The authorities said please don’t debate it at this sensitive time, or the Ubud Writer’s festival won’t get its permit. 

The director of the festival sent out a media brief. “I just wanted to let you know that the UWRF is being censored this year, and we have been told to remove all programs to do with ‘1965’. Or else next year they will not give us a permit to hold the festival.”

And the founder had her say. She started the festival after the Bali bombing to generate interest in tourism on the island. She knew personally people who were victims of the communist purge. All well and fine. Phil Garatt discusses this in great detail in “Bali, Heaven and Hell.” An admirable work, but I can’t find him on the guest list. Or any of many other authors whose books have kept me enthralled from one cover to the other.

I’d like to send out my own memo. Why aren’t you paying any of the volunteers? Exploitation of the locals is as heinous. As a tourist I loath the double price system the Ubud Writer’s Festival is flaunting as it bemoans curtailing of its freedom of expression.

A foreigner pays 4 million rupiah for an entry pass for four days. The Indonesians must pay 800,000 rupiah. The passes for Indonesians are not cheap. Don’t worry Ubud Writer’s Festival, stick to what you do best. And now the token edgy seminars on “the big issue” are out of the equation, the Festival can get back to what it does best. Making money.

There’s nothing like bad publicity to generate publicity. Your catalogue is full of advertising, the hotels are full of guests, and the ATMs are running out  of money. Let’s see if the cafes and bistros are busier tonight. Or are the guests staying at the sponsor run hotel and eating and drinking at the sponsor run restaurant?

Sana showed me the venue last night. It’s out of town and looks like a self-contained resort-a-verse. The venue for the Writer’s Festival is Casa Luna, Indus, and Bar Luna. It’s where real writers mix. And it’s owned by the founder of the festival. Right, now I get it.

“There’s nothing wrong with the Festival  making a profit,” said one of the guests I met near Casa Luna tonight. I couldn’t agree more. At least the Festival doesn’t pretend to be a non-profit organisation.


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