Approaching its 11th birthday, the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival has remained one of the world’s most prestigious literary festivals. To celebrate their birthday in true Balinese style, this year the festival program has grown and diversified itself to include film screenings, photo-exhibitions, free yoga sessions and an entire section of the program dedicated to surfing and the surf culture that Bali has cultivated over the last forty years. For its inaugural year as part of the ever-expanding program the festival welcomes two veterans of surfing to ride the new wave of programming into shore: Phil Jarrat and Rusty Miller.
Phil and Rusty are obviously no strangers to the salt water, and indeed no strangers to the beautiful beach landscapes that Bali has on offer. In 1972 Rusty Miller came here and surfed Uluwatu for the first time with Morning of the Earth – the seminal surf movie of the 1970s, named by many as the best surf movie ever made. And Phil, apart from being named as one of Australia’s most influential surfers, he’s won Australia’s Surf Culture Award three times, written numerous books on the subject, and has visited Bali for weeks on end ever since his first trip here with Rusty in 1974. So for a first birthday party for surf culture as part of Ubud Readers and Writers Festival they couldn’t have picked two better ambassadors.
“The inclusion of surf culture this year largely came about because I interviewed Janet DeNeefe for my book in May of last year,” Phil says about how surf and literature was finally integrated into the Ubud program. “I said I would put together the elements of the program and also satellite program at another venue – like a fringe festival – and Deus Temple seemed like a logical place to do it. It’s on the coast, everybody knows it and it’s a great function space.”
“For the first time we have a fringe festival about surf and we have surfing related events in the festival and I think that’s fantastic.”
Both Phil and Rusty have appeared in Ubud previously, as well as other festivals around Australia and the pacific, and both agree “there is a total magic to the Ubud festival,” as Phil puts it.
“People can stroll around and there are no barriers so you can approach anyone,” he says about how Ubud compares to other festivals he has been a part of. “Your literary heroes are all around you and there is no bodyguards or anything, it’s just really cool, everybody is happy to be in the village.”
“People come to Bali to discover themselves; they can let go of themselves because they are away from their regular world; they come and look to discover something and Bali really has a spiritual element,” Rusty adds about the mystic vibes Bali brings, especially at the Ubud Festival. “I was here the first time in 1971 for Morning of the Earth and I always say that this is the place I started believing in magic, because the spirits are alive here, people believe in it, and everything is animated and has a certain spirit to it.”
“In ’71 we went out and had this beautiful experience and we didn’t get eaten, or hurt, we didn’t break our skin or get attacked by sharks … we always said that the Gods were with us and I think I learned a lot about myself since I came to Bali and I can see why people now come to Ubud for the festival.”
But the dynamic duo of Rusty and Phil aren’t just in Bali to soak up its spirit and indulge in its surf culture: both are here to launch their new books, host a panel and indulge in a screening of Morning of the Earth at the beautiful Deus Temple.
Phil’s latest book, Bali: Heaven and Hell, tells the tale of deceit, corruption, growing tourism and infrastructure problems that Balinese culture has faced based on his first hand experience, all contrasted against the island’s beauty and notorious surfing culture. A lot of old hands like to refer to the mantra “Bali is ruined”, but to Phil that isn’t the case. “I spend more time here now than I ever have in my life and I do that because I love the place and I love the people,” he says, though while he talks Rusty holds up a copy of the book and highlights the title: Heaven AND Hell. There’s always more than one version of the truth and Phil tells his version in the gonzo surf style that has made him one of Australia’s premier cultural journalists.
“Everything about this place captivates me, whether it’s the romance of discovery, whether it’s people doing drug runs or whether it’s the violent history that so few people actually know about or the social and environmental problems they face,” he says. “I find everything about this place just fascinating and I talk a lot about that in the book.”
As for Rusty, he’s been keeping busy too since his first visit here for Morning of the Earth. Originally a “dope-smoking surfer-boy with long hair” from Southern California, Rusty is no stranger to literature. He moved to Byron Bay in 1970 and started the first alternative newspaper in Byron and has since been teaching people to surf, breaking the surface every once and a while to launch a new book. His latest publication, Turning Point, is a 120 page self-published hardback documenting the surfing portraits of Bell’s Beach to Byron Bay between 1970-1971 which he will be selling independently at most of the surf events on the program.
Individually Phil and Rusty bring so much to the new program. As well as both being here to support their own books and champion the addition to surf culture to the festival, audiences will also be lucky enough to see the chemistry and beautiful friendship the two wax-heads share on stage in Breaking the Surface: a panel that delves into the surfing mecca Bali has become and how that culture has shaped Bali over the last forty years.
“We’ll probably just wing it,” Phil laughs. “No, I think we will probably just look at surfing in Bali and the social changes its brought and I’ve got a lot of questions I want to ask Rusty about way back when before I came here, then I think we will just move from that into forty years of surfing history.”
For those who have been fortunate enough to surf the breaks and waves of Bali’s shores over the years, Breaking the Surface is a panel that promises to deliver a lot of surfing wisdom and context of this mystic place and the development it has undergone over the years, specifically due to surfing’s impact. But more so, it is the chemistry between Phil and Rusty that makes the wave so much fun to ride.
“I always thought he was a bit harsh and hard in his journalism and very cynical, almost bitter,” Rusty says about Phil as Phil sits there with an uneasy look on his face.
“Don’t sugarcoat it, mate,” he snaps back across the table.
“… But, the way he has evolved he is my new hero with this new book. He’s got a real grasp of how to put history into social context,” Rusty says and Phil can’t help but force a smile. “Out of all the trials and tribulations that Phillip and I have been through over our years, surfing is what we call a common denominator and we will always both share that.”