Asia Sentinel, Written by Asia Sentinel with reporting from Jakarta Globe
Tuesday, 04 May 2010
Offended Officials Investigating Director of
muscular, dark and handsome, with shoulder-length hair, surfing skills
and winning smiles. And they are readily available to the tens of
thousands of single women who throng the beaches of Bali in Indonesia
every year. They take their name "Kuta Cowboys" from the tawdry Kuta
Beach tourist district, which teems with tourists out to have a good
time – which for some includes time on the mattress, both for boys and
For decades, young Balinese men have taken advantage of
the louche and laid-back atmosphere to find love and lucre from female
tourists – Japanese, European and Australian for the most part ‑ who by
all accounts seem perfectly happy with the arrangement. But now,
"Cowboys in Paradise," a film by Singaporean director Amit Virmani
do*****ents the relationships between foreign female tourists and the
local gigolos, causing seeming shock and amazement among officials in
Bali. Authorities appear to be astonished by something that is about as
common as coconuts on Indonesia's self proclaimed "paradise island." The
film has become big news recently, following a YouTube video trailer
and its premier at a South Korea film festival late last year.
reaction of the Balinese police to news of the film last week was to
immediately patrol the beaches of Kuta and bring in 28 of the cowboys
for questioning. Their second reaction was to announce an international
hunt for Virmani, ostensibly for making the do*****entary without a permit
to film in Bali.
"One wonders where all the Balinese officials
have been for the last 30 years," wrote Thomas Hogue, a local
commentator. "It does not appear that they have been on the island.
Maybe they just have not ventured out in a good long while."
have alerted NCB-Interpol to track (Virmani) down in Singapore," a
police spokesman told local media. "Every single witness we have
questioned said that when Amit shot footage of them, he said it was not
for the purpose of making a do*****entary or film. That's trickery." The
police said on Friday that the director would likely be named a suspect
in the next few days although on any given day hundreds of people can be
seen with video cameras all over Bali, none of them with a permit.
film, which has yet to be released commercially, was reviewed by the
Jakarta Globe, whose reporter also met Virmani, who is hardly in hiding.
It offers a peek into the minds of the cowboys, from lessons in how to
woo women and a rather naive outlook on sexually transmitted diseases,
to unusual sex tips, like tying horse hair to the tip of your penis for
enhanced pleasure. The film is essentially a tale of struggle and
survival with a twist: While the cowboys admit that they benefit from
women financially, they refuse to be called gigolos.
between the personal testimonies are beach scenes of tanned young men
with Western women engaged in activities like playing cards and
volleyball, as well as kissing and cuddling. "There's a lot of
frustrated western women out there," says a European woman interviewed
in the film. "I can understand why they come here searching for
something and suddenly this environment provides it."
to the men, they work on the beach. Most of them are self-taught surfing
instructors, while some got their start selling cold drinks. They smile
and laugh at the camera, even calling out to passing tourists. "You can
come with me tonight," says one laughing man with long hair, deep
muscles and sunglasses.
Virmani's film also offers the secrets
of the trade when the cowboys talk about what women want. One tip is:
"Shower them with attention." As one cowboy explains, "Ask them how
they're doing, how their day was, what they did last night." Most
important, he adds, "I make them laugh."
The interaction is not
so different from male tourists seeking the pleasures of bar girls and
go-go dancers throughout Asia. Starved for love back home, the tourist
finds himself – and herself – suddenly desirable to a younger, sexier
companion. That this comes with a price tag – implied or explicit – is
just part of the deal. "I don't think they are gigolos. I think they
just love women," says a young German woman on camera. "When you are
here and you have a boyfriend, it's for real."
"The women pay for
the food and drinks every day during their vacation," one cowboy says.
"When they leave, they usually give us enough money to pay for a few
One gigolo met during a trip to Bali – and he
introduced himself using the term – explained that the tourist van he
was driving and the house he lived in were bought with money provided by
one of his three regular women – a German, an Australian and a
Japanese. Each visits twice a year and pays him a monthly stipend, the
young man explained. The man explained that it was culturally off limits
for Balinese girls to sell their favors – most female prostitutes on
the island are from Java, where no such prohibition applies to the sex
trade ‑ but there was no restriction on the men. "It's better than
growing rice," the young man laughed as he showed off pictures of his
His parents, he said, knew about the arrangement
and accepted it. In the film, a woman says she is married to a gigolo
and accepts the arrangement. When he has guests, she says, I just don't
sleep with him for a few days.
Virmani told the Globe he agrees
that the boys are not gigolos, while acknowledging that this is not
always clear-cut. "You can find all kinds of articles calling them
gigolos," he says. "But I'm with the cowboys on this one. I see a
distinction and the film does what it can to make the point. Simple
reasons. They have primary jobs, usually on the beach or as tour guides
or whatever. And they never charge for sex. So they're not sex workers
to me. But they are part of the male sex trade in Bali for a host of
other reasons. Academics and health officials have started to regard
them as such. Not just the cowboys, but beach boys in different
countries. They are a high-risk HIV group.
The film is not
without serious moments, particularly when it discusses HIV/AIDS. Aside
from having multiple sex partners, the cowboys also admit to not always
using a condom. "I usually wear a condom, but sometimes when my partner
and I are too drunk, we don't use it," one beach boy says. "But I'm not
worried because Europeans are cleaner than Asians. They are also
disciplined about medical checkups."
"Cowboys in Paradise"
premiered at the DMZ Korean International Do*****entary Festival in South
Korea last October. The film has had limited special screenings in
Singapore. It is also scheduled to be part of the Melbourne
International Film Festival in July. Virmani says that so far, the
audience response has been "very gratifying." It has not been released
in Indonesia a but if past reaction to embarrassing do*****entaries and
films is any indication, officials in Jakarta are likely to ban it,
meaning that it will circulate widely in pirated DVD form before long.
now, Bali officialdom is continuing to fume. "This community conducts
its activities in a secretive manner or through covers, like acting as a
food or drink seller or providing other services on the beach," said
police spokesman Gusti Ketut. "Raids will continue. If we find anyone on
the beach who has no business there, we will process them."
sounds like some embarrassed police officers even want to ban hanging
out. That would really put a dent in the Bali lifestyle.