The culture and ceremony around water buffalo racing goes back far, far further than well-known US horse races like the Kentucky Derby or the Belmont Stakes.
Filmmaker Marko Randelovic embedded himself with Bali’s buffalo racers in 2017 to learn about makepung, or Balinese buffalo racing. In the unique sport, winners don’t gain fame or fortune. But there are cups to be won and bragging rights to be had. So why race? As Randelovic explains, “they do it to get a place in the community.”
Makepung is a time-honored tradition in Bali. The racing didn’t start until the 1930s, but the culture and religion surrounding it goes back centuries. Randelovic chronicled the training, the lifestyle, and the races themselves to create an inspirational short film that captures the true spirit of one of Indonesia’s most unique traditions.
Matador’s No Blackout Dates podcast spoke with Randelovic about Makepung and the process of filming a documentary in Bali. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Matador: What is Balinese buffalo racing?
Randelovic: So, basically, it’s two buffaloes connected to a chariot. And a dude stands on the back of the chariot. He has a big stick, and they basically go at it. The buffalo is all decked out with crazy decorations – bells and trinkets. This sort of reminded me of something from Gladiator. The idea of capturing some slo-mo buffaloes; I thought that could look really good.
Then when I found out the history of makepung, the buffalo racing, and the guy that we met – he was so passionate about the sport, the culture, and how it’s intertwined with Balinese religion. The fact that he wanted to pass it down to his son so much — it just seemed like a great documentary subject to cover.
Matador: A lot of your work focuses in particular on Southeast Asia. Why is that, and what draws you to this region of the world?
Randelovic: I did the whole ‘traveling around Southeast Asia backpacking, Full Moon party” thing back in 2014. After that experience, I knew it was a part of the world I wanted to go back to. I wasn’t sure how I was going to go back there. I tried various different ways – web design, graphic design — but it wasn’t until I picked up a camera and started making a few documentaries back home that I realized that maybe I could head out to Southeast Asia and make documentaries out there. It’s a place I fell in love with back then and I’m still in love with it now.
Matador: What are some of the biggest challenges that present themselves when making films in remote locations?
Randelovic: The biggest challenge would be finding something that hasn’t been covered and something that offers a different perspective on Bali. You type in ‘Bali’ on YouTube or ‘Thailand’ on YouTube and you’re inundated with videos like amazing landscapes, amazing views. The challenge for me is to create a short documentary that addresses something that hasn’t been touched on before, and addresses different things.
So I’m always looking to try and find something that hits home or relates to cultural heritage or some kind of injustice that’s going on.
Matador: In Makepung, you’re following a group of Balinese through basically an entire custom – a season – that’s very important to their lives. How attached do you find yourself becoming to the people and to their customs?
Randelovic: Incredibly attached. The customs in Bali are so prevalent. Twice a day you’ll see women putting out offerings outside the houses [and] temples are everywhere. There’s always loads of traffic because people are out in the street doing a parade to a temple. It’s so in your face. Being part of that and being able to document that over the past couple of years, and being friends with Balinese people, has been the best part of it. Such great people, so friendly, so kind. They have such a cool perspective on life. It’s been something I’ve tried to bring into my own personal life, to think more like the Balinese in day-to-day life.
Hear more about Makepung from Director Marko Randelovic in his interview for Matador’s No Blackout Dates podcast.