UWRF’15 and the Year-that-should-not-be-named

Ubud: the cultural heart of Indonesia’s Bali Island. Annually, this humble artistic hub hosts the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF), one of the most important literary events on the Southeast Asian cultural calendar. Sonia Mandeville, Gabriela Gil, Zachary Wu, Rashmie Sriraghavan and Nitya Vikrant, accompanied by Mr. Hara and Mrs. Placer, had the opportunity to attend this celebration of extraordinary stories and interact in discussions with prominent international writers and journalists.

At the centerpiece of the 2015 Festival is the theme “17,000 Islands of Imagination”, to represent an immense archipelago dotted with exotic tales. Beyond this theme, the Festival covers global issues from refugee crisis and human rights to everyday-life topics like animals and how we spend our free time. Myriads of contemporary issues were discussed with spices of historical insight through conferences over literature, film and artistic masterpieces. Over the four days, our JIS students and teachers engaged in dialogue with 160 inspiring local and international writers and intermissions of eclectic traditional dishes.

“I enjoyed it a lot this year! My favorite part of it was probably the workshop session taught by the national slam poet of Australia, it was really cool.” Gabriela Gil, grade 12 said.

Unfortunately, the festival, now in its 12th year, was marred by the Indonesian government’s censorship of event programs that talked about the 50th Anniversary of Indonesia’s 1965 anti-communist purges, inciting controversy.

1965 remains a relatively hushed topic; a deep wound that has only superficially healed.

A brief history: on the 30th of September, half a million Indonesians perished under the hands of their fellow anti-communist Indonesians. Following the massacre was a power struggle in which six senior army generals were murdered and a revolutionary council was formed, assuming leadership from first president Soekarno.


Scrutiny from local authorities prompted cancellation of three main program panel sessions dedicated to discussing the 1965 Communist repression, including: 1965, Writing On chaired by Adrian Vickers; 1965, Bali chaired by Vannessa Hearman; 1965, Bearing Witness chaired by Katharine McGregor. The government’s censorship extended to the last-minute revocation of screening Joshua Oppenheimer’s film The Look of Silence. Additionally, the arts exhibition was also reduced by one piece: The Act of Living. Balinese authorities prohibited two book launches — The Crocodile Hole by Saskia Wieringa and From Now On Everything Will Be Different by Eliza Handayani.

Nevertheless, frustration over the 1965- censorship panels dissipated in the face of an abundance of insightful conversations throughout the Festival. Nitya Vikrant, grade 10, said, “I do share the disappointment of the UWRF staff and panelists over the whole cancellation, but we shouldn’t forget the vibrant activities and engaging workshops that were going on.”

Despite having to steer around this volatile minefield, the Festival continues serving a platform for constructive conversations and thought-provoking ideas.

“Some advice to people considering this trip next year: BRING YOUR NOTEBOOKS! There are so many talented writers and content creators saying so many useful things that your brain can't even begin to remember it all,” Zachary Wu, grade 10, said as he thought of the ten pages of notes he wrote during just the first panel.

“[The Festival] is a ‘Lollapalooza’ for writers and their fans. It’s nice to know that I’m not too old, or too male, to be a ‘fangirl’,” says Mr. Hara.

This article was originally written for Jakarta Intercultural School's School Magazine, 
Feedback Vol. 23 Issue Nov 2015.
This piece was part of a Senior Writing Portfolio that received a Silver Key Award at the 2017 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

A fictitious story of a not-so-fictitious experience