Rio Helmi talked to award-winning film maker Daniel Ziv about his new home.
Ubud? Isn’t it a long way from home? Aren’t you a city boy? Did you decide to be one with the cosmos?
I think the concept of ‘home’ for anyone living somehow globally is more ambiguous and complex than ever before. Home was once where we were born, where our house was, maybe where our ancestors came from or perhaps where we had medical insurance. The world today is at once so scattered and full of possibility that home has become a far more intimate yet also intangible thing: for me it’s about family (who are similarly scattered), friends (some of whom by comparison make me seem settled), local community and a beautiful web of personal and professional relationships that completely transcend borders and cultures. And in Ubud I’ve found a community that – hula hoops and colonics and Eckhart Tolle books aside – I mostly adore.
I’ve also discovered that you can totally love Ubud for its nature, scenery, relaxed pace of life, global mix of people and colorful traditions, without needing for a moment to buy into a new age lifestyle, meditation, raw food or yoga. I’m not against those things, but I think it’s important to acknowledge a very real and wonderful side to Ubud that has absolutely nothing to do with ‘spirituality’.
So Ubud is home.for now. You’re even building a house here! Had enough of Jakarta, or will it continue to seduce you? Will you be faithful to Ubud, is what I wanna know.
I think it’s okay to be polygamous when it comes to cities; we can love them all in different ways. I left Jakarta after 10 exciting years because I needed to cleanse my lungs. I also needed to disengage from a city I feel is at risk of losing its values to conspicuous consumption and totally inequitable, unsustainable development. But I still love the place, and especially its people: they are drowning in corruption yet are mostly good-hearted and fun and hopeful, and this sort of contrast is what gives Jakarta its raw, crazy energy. Each time I arrive back on its streets I feel energized and fully alive. Then, 47 minutes later, I’m stuck in horrible traffic and that energy disappears and I miss Ubud like crazy.
You’ve been coming and going to Ubud for several years now. What do you think of the changes? (yeah I had to ask this…)
Ubud has undeniably been developing rapidly in recent years. I first visited Ubud 22 years ago as a backpacker. Was it different then? Of course. But not that much more different than any place was 22 years ago compared to today. And if you travel 500 meters away from any of Ubud’s main roads, I’m actually amazed and delighted by how little it has changed. If anything, my impression is that Balinese culture has strengthened in direct response to outside development, not grown weaker. I can hardly believe how many ceremonies still occur here each day, how dominant the rituals still are, how ornamental the landscape. There is no other place on earth where you are always almost stepping on a flower.
More specifically, which way would you like it to go?
Like everyone else, I’d love for Bali to go back to how it was 50 years ago, but apparently that’s not going to happen. More importantly, we need to acknowledge that it mostly isn’t up to us foreigners. There’s this disturbing tendency by many expats here to think Bali’s fate started to be determined the moment they stepped off the plane 18 months ago, and that it’s up to them to sort things out; that the lifestyle choices we foreigners make here are the deciding factor in the island’s future. It’s a very self-centered, detached, naive view, even if it’s rooted in good intentions. Sure, personal responsibility is important in any society, and as guests we should aim to do no harm. But we tend to exist in an Ubud bubble where we think our debates and interests are the debates and interests of the Balinese, and that’s just not true. Hugely powerful political and economic and social factors determine where this island is going, far more than whether expats separate their trash or have the luxury of time and space to grow their own vegetables. We can try to lead by example, but unless we’re far more engaged in Balinese society, hardly anybody relevant is watching.
You’re taking Balinese language lessons, yet anyone can order fried rice or spanakopita in English anywhere in this town. Are you trying to squirm out of the Jakarta identification associated with you every time you speak Indonesian and sound like someone from the streets of Kemang, or even Kota?
When I open my mouth in Indonesian here, my accent immediately betrays me as a Jakartan – not the best label among Balinese – so yeah, I need to compensate somehow. But apart from that, I’ve always believed in speaking the local language wherever you live. It’s not just about communicating (which you can do just fine here using Indonesian) but about getting under the skin of the culture. Language reveals so much about how a people think and feel, so understanding a language is like listening to their hearts. It’s no exaggeration to say that fluency in Indonesian has shaped the entirety of my experience of Indonesia. I cannot imagine knowing this country without it. So Balinese is the next logical step.
What makes Daniel Ziv really function at full steam? Deadlines? Or is it just pure inspiration?
Honestly, I rarely ever function at full steam. I’m disappointingly unprolific (6 years to finish one-and-a-half films), an awful manager of my own time, and far too easily distracted. So whatever I’ve produced until now has been despite my personal traits, not because of them. If you want to understand ‘full steam’, go interview fellow Ubudian writer Sarah Alderson. She’s published 10 novels in under 4 years, she’s damn good, and she never looks tired.
Inspiration has never been a problem for me. My head is full of ideas, I’ve never been bored in my life, and I’ve got a mental list of at least 15 creative projects I’d love to execute. But making these things happen requires discipline, focus, solitude and very hard work, and it’s rare that I can muster up all those things at once. So yeah, deadlines help, even as they terrify me.
You are all over social media, and Twitter has become part of your public persona, with over 50,000 followers. Was all this intentional? If so, why? If not, how did that happen?
The Twitter thing wasn’t planned. In fact before I joined the platform I smugly dismissed it as something like the ultimate dumbing down of human communication. But that was an unfair judgment. Now I regard Twitter as a value-neutral medium, much like other social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram, or indeed the Internet itself. It totally depends on how we use it.
In Indonesia especially, Twitter is where potent conversations occur on issues affecting society, and is to some extent an expression of the pulse of this country. So I’m grateful to have found a voice there, and some kind of strange following. And to be able to express that voice from anywhere at any moment is a pretty amazing thing. I get to directly interact with senior politicians, reporters, talk show hosts, business tycoons, novelists, pop stars, Islamic scholars, political commentators, movie producers and influential bloggers. They are all on Twitter here and, amazingly, they listen.
You have a much more in-depth experience of Indonesia than 95% of the expats on this island. Would you recommend a cure for them? Does it matter?
Ultimately, engaging the country and culture in which you live is a personal choice, and may not be for everyone. For me it’s incredibly rewarding and I can’t imagine missing out on that thrill. But just as we don’t tend to judge a native New Yorker who chooses to work at a suburban neighborhood bank and disconnect from the politics and culture of his country and city, I suppose an expat here can claim the same right. It only matters insofar as that the expat is missing out on entire layers of the place they live – usually the most interesting layers – and I think that’s part of what breeds bitterness, detachment or just discontent. And again it goes back to learning the language: once you speak the local tongue, a ton of stuff becomes easy and fun, and this whole other world opens up to you. I am sure this is true everywhere.
Photos ©Rio Helmi
To read more about Daniel Ziv and his film, see our previous blog here
Daniel will be showing his award-winning film at Betel Nut this coming Saturday, 9th November. For details, see here