by Rio Helmi



A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Australian filmmaker John Darling’s widow, Sara, asking me to give an introductory talk to the screening of his (and Lorne Blair’s) classic Bali film, Lempad of Bali. I had little hesitation in accepting – Johnny was an old and dear friend who in some ways was something of a Bali mentor for me.


It was only after I started thinking about it that I realized that this was not really an easy task, to do justice to an extraordinary man who was so much a product of his cultural setting – he grew up   the scion of a well respected Australian family in the  fifties and sixties – yet at the same time so much an avid explorer of ideas extremely foreign to his background. A man who was an unwitting exponent of old fashioned values yet at the same time very much part of the avant garde.


In his bio attached to the invitation to the screening of his film for this coming Friday the 28th of June at Betel Nut, it says that John was educated in Canberra and in Oxford, majoring in history. This is technically true. But where John was really formed was at home and at Geelong Grammar, Australia’s most prestigious school. The two were for him almost inseparable.


His father was not only headmaster there for just over three decades, Sir James Darling was also knighted for his services to education and broadcasting (he was chairman of the ABC for seven years). No matter how much John rebelled (dropping out of university, living in a hut in the ricefields), his respect for his father was ineradicable. John couldn’t wait to get himself of “Geelong” but you couldn’t take the ‘proper cricket’ out of John.


Again the same bio calls him a filmmaker. Again, this is technically true, but Johnny to me was first and foremost a gentleman and a poet.  When we first met in the then mud-walled, dirt tracked, unelectrified, quiet village of Ubud in the very early seventies, John described himself to me as a poet.


Spending time with him on expeditions through Bali and at John’s neat little mudfloor bamboo hut convinced me that he was a real gentleman. I could tell, because I was still in my late teenage rebellion against it and knew gentility when I saw it. But with John it didn’t bother me: his was a mind that was open, exploring, searching, daring to fathom new depths. This was no stifled bourgeois academic. This was the real deal.


Johnny tried to be courteous even when he would occasionally lose his red-head temper. I remember even at the height of a heated disagreement with Lorne’s brother Lawrence over whether Lempad should be part of the Blair brothers’ Ring of Fire series or not  he struggled to maintain his sense of fairness and politeness. Lawrence had actually not really been directly involved in the film. However he felt, rightly or wrongly, that as Lorne had been an essential part of it, Lempad should be one of the series. John agonized for weeks  trying to find a “correct” way to solve his dilemma.


John could never have survived in a world of pure academia. It fed the intellectually inquisitive side of his mind but it didn’t fulfill the gentle romantic, the wildly vulnerable heart that was always ready to reach out, that always insisted on trying to be  fair to all – the cultural explorer in him that needed to do more than just catalogue and annotate. Johnny needed to live it.


Yet again, in the bio it says he was fluent in Indonesian and Balinese. At the risk of being struck as a speaker on Friday night, I have to say this is only half true. In real life his spoken linguistic skills in Balinese were halting at best and his accent in Indonesian was atrocious, though he did know the languages and the terms. However it was his honesty and evident kindness that made people trust him and allow him in, despite his perceived eccentricity. These qualities opened the doors to the most extraordinary experiences for him around Bali and Indonesia as a whole.


For a few years we shared the same ‘landlord’, if that is what you could call Gusti Made Sumung, Lempad’s son. In reality Gusti Made Sumung was a complex mix of landlord, uncle, wily fox, depository of Bali lore, a man whose career included being sedahan (a kind of overseer) of the dry fields north of Ubud that were part of the Subak system, an assistant to Walter Spies, and a stint as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s secretary/assistant. Gusti Made Sumung always had something in his hat for us, especially for John who was evidently much more of a willing student than the wild runaway boy from Jakarta. And Gusti Made Sumung knew how to broker win-win deals: John made a film that honored Gusti Aji’s father Lempad, but that also became the beginning of a whole new career for John.


[To me Gusti Aji interspersed his cultural spiels with pithy advice like “don’t blow your money on fancy restaurants and such, you should think of your future…” – I should have listened!]


John’s love for Bali and its culture was a lifetime affair, a marriage that lasted until death. Towards the very end of his life I am told he tidied up and arranged his library and reference books, then took care to have all his favourite Balinese gamelan music LPs digitized. As he lay dying it was plugged into the speakers of the hospice room, and he passed away surrounded by his wife and family listening to his favourite Balinese ritual music. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that my friend Johnny has been reincarnated somewhere on Bali.


For Made Wijaya’s reminiscences in celebration of John Darling, in response to this blog, click here