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Movie Review: Bali, Hope in Paradise

Bali: Hope in Paradise. The Power of One. A Film Review by Renée Melchert Thorpe.

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(5/6/2004) wishes to express its sincere thanks to Renée Melchert Thorpe who contributed the following film review of Bali: Hope in Paradise, a film by Jane Walters, scheduled to be shown at the New York Independent Film & Video Festival on April 25, 2004.

In Bali: Hope in Paradise, Canadian Director Jane Walters documents recovery from a terrorist act by focusing on the specific actions of a single individual. Throughout the footage, there resonates a sense of the personal, contrasted against the broad backdrop of a mass murder. It is an engrossing film, as dramatic as any Hollywood thriller, yet its power comes from the resurrection of hope amidst the intrigue and pain of an actual recent tragedy.

The Bali bomb was an event so devastating that many bodies were unidentifiable without DNA sampling. On an island famous for its pantheistic religion, where daily life is ordered by strength of community, and in a nation ruled by consensus, individual will is rarely lauded. Yet in a societal atmosphere of post-trauma overwhelm and paralysis, Walters found one quietly powerful individual, taking humble steps towards Bali's healing. Her film documents instances of the pivotal specific: one island, one night, one princess, one world leader, one imbecile and his interpretation of jihad.

Walters introduces the mission of 21 year old Asriana "Sri" Kebon (Princess Jero Ngurah). It is as simple, if great, as this: she wants to help the Balinese victims of the Oct 12, 2002, bombing. Daughter of a Brahmin Balinese and an Australian, Sri is strikingly beautiful and disarmingly articulate. The viewer is reminded of charity figureheads Audrey Hepburn or the Princess of Wales, but Sri is not making photo ops for UNICEF or performing for any high profile charities.

She finds Australian Geoff Thwaites, who has conceived the Zero-to-One Foundation in memory of his 24 year old son, who was killed by the bomb while celebrating a victorious soccer match. Sri responds instantly to Geoff’s simple philosophy: recognize the healing power of taking one small positive step. "If you can go from zero to one, you can do anything," Thwaites announces. Sri is perfectly positioned to contact what she calls secondary victims of the bomb, its widows and orphans. The simplicity and humility in the taking of small steps, opens the powerful lesson to be learnt from Walter's 55-minute film.

It could be said that the most despicable aspect of the Bali bombing was the general-ness of the assault. Convicted perpetrator Amrozi said he wanted to target Americans, and so he chose a nightclub full of white-skinned foreigners, few of which were actually from the USA. While any act of terrorism is a wretchedly poor way of denouncing policy or politics, Amrozi's weapon was so recklessly deployed that he killed and maimed many fellow Indonesians. Howsoever much he thought he was targeting a specific evil, his act was wildly indiscriminate, wiping out en masse taxi drivers, tourists, waitresses, footballers, mothers, fathers, young and old. In a further lack of recognition of the specific and actual, Australia's victims captured headlines, while the scores of Balinese victims were largely ignored by the international press. Sri knew that suffering Balinese had simply "melted back" into their villages, and she is seen venturing into simple kompongs to meet them.

Sri had no grand plan, no desire to capture headlines or make a splash. She would have done what she did with or without a camera following her every move. Nevertheless, Walters' camera follows Sri to the doorsteps of bombing widows, and to the caretakers of two children who lost their mother in the blast. The latter situation is the film's most poignant case, and is ultimately a triumph of persistence and decency.

Sri is able to help rehabilitate the lives of the widows through Balinese religious customs and with the simple idea that a person can learn a new trade within the Balinese culture. This progressive assistance is recorded by Walters in touching scenes of beauty and transformation.

The children, Sabda and Sarah, are a different matter, and Sri must confront hardened bureaucratic fixtures to seek the protection and security of the children. Here Sri's actions are akin to those of matter-of-fact heroes who act without thinking. In impulsive acts of personal bravery, such as leaping from a high bridge to save a drowning victim, or rushing into a collapsing inferno to free a child, the extraordinary loses significance in the face of an emergency. Sri also acts without reservation in one surreal scene. Bribery is a practice so rampant in Indonesia, it is easily, shamelessly, demanded of Sri, who must literally buy the children's freedom from a brothel keeper. This quietly desperate, if fully selfless, leap by Sri is only one scene of many in which she must face some inane agenda standing in the way of the children's welfare.

In a set of circumstances that highlight the poor relations between western and Muslim nations, Sri works with the children's father, Ebrahim Sammaki, an Iranian refugee detained in Australia. He cannot be let out to freely claim his children without giving up his refugee status. Even when community and parliamentary leaders are moved to help, the future of the children and their father is held in limbo by an unresponsive Australian government, not altogether anonymous. For a time, it seems that the children are again being victimized by a political agenda that has no sane target, no thought for human life. A sympathetic magistrate holds Sarah's hand and asks the camera in frustration, "Look at her; what is she going to do against Australia's national interests?"

The pivotal moment for the children comes when Australian PM John Howard attends a football "friendly" staged in Bali to raise funds for Sri's charity. He is there without an entourage and without official pomp, simply as a keen private spectator. Press photographers caught Mr. Howard shaking hands with the children. When those images are broadcast in Australian media, Sammaki is magically freed from detention, and is granted Australian citizenship along with the children. The power of the individual presence, if not individual effort, is thus superbly illustrated.

On the face of it, this is the story of a woman with no more specific a plan than to bring succor, and who moved political mountains for the sake of a few. One enduring Buddhist message shines through beautifully, namely that the pure power of the individual can be enormous. Under the weight of an all-encompassing disaster, suppressed by enormous institutional barriers, the human tendency is to give in and give up. Yet given perseverance and hope, one individual's simple mission becomes unstoppable. It is a film that evokes questions about current destructive approaches to terrorism itself; do we treat evil with mass violence, and can whole nations be considered evil? Or are we to eradicate terror with small steps taken by individual human beings, towards other individual human beings?

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