After a successful debut last year, Rainforest Fringe Festival (RFF) is back to deliver the best of Sarawak’s art, craft, theatre, photography and culture to visitors from all over the world.

The 10-day spectacle – to be held in the heart of Kuching – starts on July 6. It serves as a lead-up event to the Rainforest World Music Festival (July 13-15).

The driving force of RFF is none other than Penang-based festival director Joe Sidek, who wants to reposition Sarawak as more than just an adventure destination, but also a cultural one abundant with diverse potential.

“The uniqueness of RFF comes from its storytelling; this year’s is a continuation of what makes the Rainforest so special.”

According to Joe, many people are still unfamiliar with Kuching.

“There is so much talent there,” enthuses Joe, whose name is synonymous with Penang’s George Town Festival (GTF). “Personally, I think Kuching is probably the sexiest city with its rich nature and history, with plenty of stories yet to be told.”

Throughout our recent interview in Kuala Lumpur, “sexy” is a word often used by Joe to describe art.

“I think audience-building is what a festival needs – and easy accessibility. Besides people who already appreciate the arts, we need to attract those who don’t. We must try to bring young people into these spaces, so you attract them by being sexy.”

For instance, one of the main exhibitions at RFF is titled Forbidden Fruits. Its provocative moniker aside, it is a rather noble project which highlights indigenous weaving communities in Sarawak.

“For the indigenous women weavers, the rainforest is their only resource,” explains Joe.

“The fruits of their labour are their beautifully woven crafts, yet their livelihood is being threatened by developmental work.” The art installation (July 7-15 at Borneo744) will introduce the weavers as artisans creating 60 uniquely individual “fruits”.

All of the art-related events offer free admission to members of the public. This is in line with Joe’s vision as a festival director.

“My treatment of RFF and GTF is the same; that there is something for everyone. We try to make most of the events free.

“I have been criticised before that I am not a good festival director because I don’t see art as an intellectual thing. I see it as a people thing. How can you make people – especially the young – understand and appreciate art, if you don’t make it accessible?” muses Joe.

He brims with pride when talking about RFF’s recently launched video Sarawak: A Movement (which can be viewed on YouTube).

“Basically, we wanted to create a movement for people to love their state. I asked 25 of the biggest names from Sarawak including Zee Avi and Tony Eusoff, and all of them said yes without even asking about the monetary aspect. It’s all about pride … Sarawakians are very proud of who they are.”

Speaking of pride, it obviously shows – alongside a hefty dose of passion – in Joe’s many accomplishments.

After helming GTF for eight years – and this is the last year of his contract – the love for his profession remains unabated.

“Where George Town Festival is concerned, I would love to continue because I feel my job is not finished,” he announces. His long-term goal is to make Penang (and now Kuching) hubs for the arts in Asia.

“Being a festival director is a dream job for me. Yes, you do worry about the funding, deadlines and staff, but it’s such a fulfilling job. These past eight years with GTF have been the best part of my life,” says Joe, who turned 60 last month.

Not surprisingly, Joe describes himself as a perfectionist.

“I am hard on myself. I love my work and I haven’t had a proper holiday in eight years. The ability to help an artist, to encourage creativity, that makes me feel like I’ve fulfilled my role.”

To young artists, Joe’s advice is: “You must have passion, don’t just do it for the money. Of course, we all need money to survive, but there needs to be a balance.”

What keeps him going, says Joe, is the people he meets.

When he speaks about an eight-year-old boy who emptied his pocket to donate money to a GTF production in 2012, tears well up in his eyes.

“Every year, we have students and orphans attending the shows for free. That particular year, we were losing money and someone suggested placing a collection box for one of the productions. This boy took out RM1.50 from his pocket to put into the box.

“Can you imagine this boy giving up his money, when you have CEOs who don’t even respond to our fund-raising efforts?”

Joe is also moved by another encounter, this time in Butterworth.

“Two years ago, this ordinary Chinese family approached me to take a picture. It made me feel like a rock star!”

He concludes: “When ordinary folks come up to me and express their thanks, that’s what keeps me going. When you know their lives have been changed by the arts, that is the biggest reward for me.”