Ubud, Bali High Wedding (2011)
For most mothers, organising a lavish wedding is stressful enough, but what if you are also an Australian-born Balinese Royal Princess expected to supervise complex Hindu traditions stretching back centuries?
Princess Jero Asri Kerthyasa (formerly “Plain Jane” Gillespie from Sydney) is at the centre of Royal Wedding preparations for her son, twenty-nine year old Prince Tjok Gus. The bride-to-be is Happy Salma, adored Indonesian TV ‘soapie’ star. The traditional wedding rituals she’s taking part in at the Royal Palace of Ubud are a whole new world for Happy, a Muslim from Java.
Supervising proceedings at the palace is the head of the Royal House of Kerthyasa, Asri’s husband, Prince Tjokorda Raka. As the youngest son of his father’s tenth wife, the Prince was expected to marry within the Balinese Royal Family. Prince Tjokorda Raka refused to bow to family pressure and in 1978 made an Australian commoner, Jane Gillespie, a Balinese Princess.
It’s now thirty-two years on and while Ubud is still the cultural heart of Bali, it’s no longer a sleepy rural village. As hundreds of villagers donate their labour and prepare traditional offerings, this wedding promises to be a lavish event.
As the Royal Family prepare for the Big Day it becomes clear that for this Balinese Royal House ‘balancing cultures’ is a fine art. The groom, like his royal brother and sister, grew up largely in the northern suburbs of Sydney, and he’s as comfortable in the Palace as ‘Prince Tjok Gus’, as he is being just ‘Max’ with his mates down south on Bali’s surf coast.
After Balinese mystics are called in to prevent rainstorms, the wedding day dawns. The Royal Family assemble in their ceremonial regalia, while Princess Asri takes her new daughter-in-law under her wing.
Before thousands of guests, in two elaborate ceremonies lasting from dawn to dusk, a Javanese actress weds her Indo-Aussie Prince and becomes a Balinese Princess. Set against the backdrop of Bali’s high society, this Royal Wedding is a heady mix of love and fairytales across cultural divides.
As a filmmaker with over twenty years experience in telling real life stories, I am often on the lookout for good documentary subjects. This ‘fairytale’ is the result of a chance meeting, when I was not even looking to find a story. On holiday with an Australian friend who is living in Bali, we went to the ‘must visit’ tea house Biku, in the popular outhern coast tourist zone. Having been to Bali over twenty years ago, I was stunned by the pace of modern
This charismatic Australian woman married a Balinese prince 32 years ago in a very different Bali. I found Princess Asri’s story utterly compelling. When I discovered that her son, Prince Tjok Gus (a laid back surfer with an Aussie accent) was soon to marry a celebrity Indonesian TV soap star in a glittering Balinese Royal Wedding, I was hooked. After returning to Australia, I pitched the idea of Bali High Wedding at ABC TV: the story of Princess Asri, and her extraordinary Balinese-Aussie royal family, told amidst the unfolding drama of a lavish and very traditional Balinese royal wedding. It was current, full of fairytale and romance, and profoundly cross-cultural in ways that would prove to be surprising.
In the already stressful build up to an epic royal wedding, Princess Asri agreed to provide us with complete ‘behind the scenes’ access to everything and everyone. This was unheard-of access to all royal wedding preparations, involving hundreds of villagers, traditional ceremonies and private family occasions, culminating in ‘The Big Day’ at Ubud’s Royal Palace. As the complex preparations unfolded we were planning to follow Princess Asri and her husband Prince Tjokorda Raka (the Head of the large Royal Family), as well as the groom, Prince Tjok Gus and his celebrity bride, Happy Salma. It was a privileged entrée into the little-known world of Royal Balinese Hinduism as it smacks up against the 21st century cross-cultural and religious divide.
We arrived in Bali two weeks before the Royal Wedding, with two documentary crews from Tasmania, and hit the ground running. Luckily we had a Unit Manager in Bali who had already found all of us traditional Balinese clothing, suitable to wear at the palace. It was immediately put to use as we found out that anyone visiting the palace on wedding business needed to be wearing formal traditional Balinese outfits, and this apparently included filming. So, carrying our cameras and gear around in the stifling humidity, we at least looked well-dressed.
Preparations and rituals were well and truly underway, as we filmed a whirlwind of formal occasions at the palace in Ubud. Many hundreds of villagers prepared traditional offerings, then made daily processions to the Palace to present their gifts to the Bride and Groom. We filmed wedding parties and Hindu ceremonies at the royal temples and residences. We followed Princess Asri and the groom, travelling up and down from Ubud to their tea house in Seminyak, an hours drive away.
As we shot the ‘behind the scenes’ preparations, the mysterious world of Balinese culture and spirituality began to reveal itself to the cameras. In interviews with Princess Asri and her Royal Family, the story of a melding of cultures and classes began to take shape.
Unlike many documentary settings, just about everywhere we filmed looked like a lavish film set, so the challenge was to capture this rich visual feast and to make meaning of it for an Australian audience. There was so much happening, involving so many people, that it was important to follow the main characters and tell their story as we let the drama of the wedding take its course. The generosity and openness of the family was the key to our success. In giving ‘on the spot interviews’ at events and under pressure the family were always gracious and helpful to our two small crews, who were often struggling with the heat and the unfamiliar culture, rituals and languages.
With the Royal Wedding as the narrative spine of the story, it was possible to also tell the story of Princess Asri’s romance 32 years ago, and to build a picture of the family both in Australia and in Bali using family photo albums. We had to make some hard decisions about what to leave out, as the older brother of the groom, Prince Tjok Gde, and his sister the Princess Maya also have fascinating stories. Bali High Wedding became a tantalising glimpse into a world that is full of magical tales.