Bali’s Ubud Writers Festival goes hybrid

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival founder and director Janet DeNeefe, shown here in 2019, says Covid has forced the festival to be “braver” and “think outside the box.” (Photo credit: Vifick Bolang)

With travelers entering Indonesia still requiring quarantine, Bali’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival launched in hybrid form Thursday. With Covid easing in Bali, some events, running through October 17, are taking place live on the island, with some in Perth due to the difficulties traveling to and from key festival market Australia, some prerecorded and all available online and on demand, making content available globally. Festival founder and director Janet DeNeefe says the hybrid format presents new challenges after last year’s completely online event, but it doesn’t change the mission.

“We have a purpose,” DeNeefe says. “The writers and readers festival began after the first Bali bombings [of 2002]. It was an attempt to re-flower the community, to uplift the people, to boost the economy, to bring a bit of inspiration, create a platform for dialogue.

“That was how we began. And now more than ever we have to continue because this is what people need right now, some sort of event you can see. With the semi lock-down, there’s not a lot of action on the streets here. So, our job is to create the best face to face event as we can, given the situation. So we’ve become a hybrid festival.”

While it may be easier to get top writers to commit to a remote interview rather than spend hours traveling to appear in person, recruiting has become more difficult in some ways, DeNeefe says. “A good deal of the festival’s attraction is the sheer fact that it’s in Ubud, so you’re in this beautiful location with really warm, friendly, hospitable people, great food, great weather. We have so many wonderful aspects of Ubud that attract people, so suddenly when you’re online, you lose the very magic of the festival in a way.”

The 2021 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival welcomes live audiences after going completely online last year. (Photo credit: Anggara Mahendra)

A restaurant owner, chef and cookbook author before she began the literary festival – later adding a food festival – DeNeefe hopes to restore some magic by tapping into Bali’s innate creativity with an artisans market running during the festival’s two weekends. Many vendors are hospitality industry workers who’ve found new pursuits with Bali tourism largely halted for the past 18 months.

“It’s all a learning experience. Some of the aspects that we have learned about the online festival, we will take into this festival. We’re slowly morphing into a modern era,” DeNeefe says. “Of course it has its challenges, but it’s made us think outside the box and be a little bit braver perhaps as we’re venturing into a whole new territory.”

Former US diplomat and broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is a columnist for ICE 365, a contributor to Forbes and Inside Asian Gaming, columnist/correspondent for Asia Times, and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.