DER Documentary

Sight Unseen

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by Nicholas Kurzon
color, 27 min, 1996




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Every morning at dawn, Ida Pedanda, a Balinese Hindu priest, sets out to gather flowers that he will use in religious ceremonies throughtout the day. His daily journey takes him by the houses of people he has lived near all his life. He walks by the ocean he has fished in for nearly as long. And, on his way home, he passes by the establishment of his newest neighbor from Kentucky &emdash; Colonel Sanders.

Ida Pedanda and his family live in Sanur &emdash; the heart of Bali's up-scale tourist resort district &emdash; in a small family compound surrounded by hotels and highways. Their physical surroundings suggest the sort of blatant juxtaposition of "different worlds" that troubles and fascinates many American and European visitors. Guidebooks to Bali decry the "cultural pollution" seeping into Sanur; one guidebook warns that nowadays even "revered Hindu Priests wear graffiti-art T-shirts."

But while Bali is indeed host to a convergence of outside influences, the relationship of Balinese culture and society &emdash; and of Balinese people &emdash; to those influences looks less like a clash of worlds and more like a complex and intimate interaction occurring at the level of neighborhoods, families and individuals.

The striking image of a barefoot Balinese Priest passing a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on his way to the ocean only begins to address the process of globalization that is underway on Bali. Such an image alone leads to a confusion, as one anthropologist put it, between "some ineffable McDonaldization of the world" and a much subtler process of cultural adaptation, resistance and exchange.

The idea of an "authentic" Bali is one that most visitors bring with them, in some measure, when they arrive on the island. In its most extreme evocation, authentic Bali is a Bali that is imagined to be a place characterized by timeless tradition, unchanging ritual, hand-made arts, music and dance. This is the Bali that has been doomed ever since Miguel Covarrubias forecasted in the 1930's that "Bali would soon enough be 'spoiled' for those fastidious travelers who abhor all that they bring with them." It is a Bali that travelers imagine to be incompatible with the "Western" influences that are finding their way onto the island through the channels of television and radio programming, and the marketing of products, fashions and technology.

In Sight Unseen, this touristic urge to classify and contrast the traditional and the modern is addressed with a montage of visual juxtapositions: a line of women in pakian adat (traditional clothing) parade before a Pizza Hut sign, a weathered stone statue grimaces in front of a bowling alley, and Ida Pedanda, a priest, is shown to bear an uncanny resemblance to the bespectacled and bearded Colonel Sanders. These are the sort of visual contrasts that intrigue any tourist on Bali, but they overemphasize superficial attributes of culture. The narrator of Sight Unseen questions the relevance of pointing out such contrasts by suggesting that it focuses attention on cultural products rather than cultural processes.

The presence of Kentucky Fried Chicken and bowling alleys on Bali are not a sign of the imminent destruction of an authentic Balinese culture. Those forms and commodities certainly do take up a place in the various landscapes of Balinese culture, but they do so by working their way into the processes of cultural reproduction, not by simply overwhelming or blotting out what existed before, like an overcoat of paint. The Priest's son has integrated the use of closed-circuit video broadcasts into his father's ceremonies. The film is aimed neither at refuting nor condemning the so-called "Westernisation" of Bali, but at demonstrating the intriguing problems apparent in an attempt to neatly summarize the process. And demonstrating, most of all, that Bali is not really a "mix" of anything at all. Bali is... Bali, now.

“It is a brilliant work. First, Kurzon's film has captured Bali in a way wholly unlike any other ethnographic film with which I am familiar (and I write as a specialist on Indonesia). It never lapses into self-indulgent reflexivity or exoticism, but maintains a poised engagement with a place (Bali) and its ever-shifting image ("Bali")...He doesn't try to resolve or do away with the tensions of cross-cultural encounter and understanding, but simply situates them so as to be able to live with them...I think it is a terrific film, one that ought to be shown to undergraduates in our introductory social anthropology course, and one of the best creative and scholarly projects I've been involved with at Harvard." — Professor Kenneth George, Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University "Fishing, Selling, Taking Pictures: A Statement about Sight Unseen" accompanies the film, and is available for review. It is a terrific companion work, and only underscores Kurzon's originality, hard work, and depth of engagement.” — Prof. Kenneth George, Harvard University

Related Resources
"Fishing, Selling, Taking Pictures: A Statement about Sight Unseen" by director Nicholas Kurzon
Sight Unseen a paper written about the film, by Nicholas Kurzon

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Top Prize Documentary, Athens Film Festival, 1996
Silver Apple, National Educational Media Network, 1996
Hoopes Prize, Harvard University, 1995
Bilan Du Film Ethnographique, 1996
Coolidge Corner Local Sightings, 1996
Cleveland Film Festival, 1996
Big Muddy Film Festival, 1996
Parnu Festival For Visual Anthropology, 1996
Denver International Film Festival, 1995
Hawaii International Film Festival, 1995



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