|Subject: Bearing witness: John Martinkus
discusses ET documentaries
Metro Magazine, Spring, 2004
Bearing witness: John Martinkus discusses Carmela Baranowska's documentaries on East Timor John Martinkus
In issue 138 of Metro there was a piece by Mary Debrett titled 'Reclaiming the Personal as Political', which looked at three documentaries concerning the events in East Timor and that country's transition to Independence. Reading the article depressed me a great deal.
At one point the author states that Tom Zubrycki's film about Jose Ramos Horta 'provided a film about Timorese Independence at a time when filming in Timor was impossibly dangerous, following the murders of five members of an Australian television crew in Balibo'. This statement is not only wrong but deeply offensive to the handful of journalists who were working in East Timor in the period (the late nineties) that Debrett is talking about. What the writer has done is dismiss the testimonies of those on the ground in East Timor at the time, in favour of the work of those who were basically too afraid to go there, to see for themselves and record what was happening. Debrett is wrong when she writes that 'filming in Timor was impossibly dangerous', as there was somebody there doing it throughout 1999--Melbourne based filmmaker, Carmela Baranowska.
Baranowska produced two films in 1999 that covered the violent daily life in East Timor, as the population was subjected to a wave of Indonesian military-controlled terror to force them to support Indonesia, and when that failed, to punish the Timorese for supporting Independence. They were shown as two separate half hour documentaries on SBS Dateline and later combined into a sixty-five minute film entitled Scenes from an Occupation.
When Carmela first arrived in March of 1999 there was only five foreign journalists permanently in Dill, myself included. The Australian Aid workers in Dill had all fled in late February, following specific death threats against Australians by the then emerging militia leaders. The Portuguese media had fled following the beating and detention of one of their TV crews by the Indonesian military. With the UN yet to arrive, the Jakarta-based foreign media only came to Timor sporadically and the almost daily shootings carried out by the Indonesian military, police and militia, that were a feature of life in Dill, went on largely unrecorded. Filming in Dill and East Timor then, was dangerous, but not as Debrett says, 'impossibly so'; it just took someone with the commitment to the story to ignore the obvious danger and work around it. This is exactly what Baranowska did.
Working alone with a small camera she became more or less a part of the scenery in Dill at a time when the people in the capital felt so abandoned by the outside world that they welcomed any foreigner who was willing to try to record some of what the Indonesian military were imposing on them. It was her ability to blend in and work closely with the Timorese that meant Baranowska recorded the most revealing scenes of that period. The oft-used footage of militia leader Eurico Guterres, exhorting his men to attack and kill the pro-Independence supporters gathered at the house of leader Manuel Carrascalao on 17 April 1999, was shot by Baranowska for the first of her documentaries. Because she had been in Dill for more than a month she knew that the rally, at which the militia were parading in front of the Indonesian military commanders and the Indonesian appointed governor, was significant. This was at a time when the Australian government was still maintaining that there was no connection between the militia and the military, and the farce of the militia parade was lost on the newly arrived ABC crew, who did not film the entire rally.
In many ways the ABC journalists in Dill still believed what the Indonesian authorities said, that the militia were simply Timorese who wanted to remain a part of Indonesia and were not the paid thugs of the military that everyone in Dili knew them to be. The scenes Baranowska filmed, of Eurico exhorting his men to murder under the approving gaze of the Indonesian military command, were later used as evidence against both the leader and the Indonesian military.
There were other scenes in that first movie that could only have been captured by someone working with the trust of the Timorese themselves. In the clinic of the Motael church, where pro-Independence casualties were taken during that time, as the Indonesian run hospitals had shut down after the doctors fled, we see Timorese trying to treat severe bullet wounds with no anaesthetic and little equipment. In one instance a man who has been shot by the military has to be sent to the military hospital where his leg is amputated. The anger and helplessness of the Timorese is overwhelming and Baranowska doesn't allow the viewer to shy away from the untrained doctors' grisly task of probing around a man's smashed kneecap looking for the bullet, whilst the patient writhes in pain from lack of anaesthetic. Such scenes show the viewer exactly what it means to be shot in a conflict where the authorities control access to medical care on the basis of political allegiances.
Baranowska films the interrogation of some Timorese who have been taken in to the pro-Independence CNRT party headquarters in Dill. They are members of the militia who have joined for the money, and the CNRT members treat them as prisoners. At that time such a scene, in the wrong hands, could have been used as propaganda to discredit the pro-Independence party. But what you see is the frustration of the pro-Independence leaders trying to work for Independence whilst being subjected to an organized campaign of terror in order to silence them; a campaign which, at that time, was largely successful--the CNRT office was shut soon after.
The random and surreal nature of the violence in Dill, the aim of which was to terrorize the entire population into supporting the campaign for autonomy, was shown through the smiling incredulity of student leader Antero da Silva, as gunshots ring out in Dili's suburbs and the dead body of a man is discovered and then taken away by Red Cross workers, having being shot two hours before. It is clear that the violence is going on all around Baranowska and da Silva. The daily killings are actually taking place as you listen to the shots ringing out. That is what it sounds like, and the confusion, uncertainty and the jarring sudden cracks of gunfire, and the startled
It is the willingness of Baranowska to place herself in that environment--not just for a week or two but for the months before the UN arrived and then right up until their evacuation in September 1999--that has left this visual record. Other documentaries, such as the ones cited by Debrett, are in many ways only trying to recall and recreate what occurred through the testimonies of others.
The second film Baranowska made in 1999 told the story of how the United Nations and Australia abandoned the Timorese again, following the UN sponsored ballot. In other documentaries about East Timor's Independence, and indeed in most of the officially sanctioned histories of what happened in 1999, the UN and the Australian government have whitewashed the details of their evacuation and their reluctance to stop the Indonesian military looting, burning and murdering East Timorese in the wake of the pro-Independence result. In the triumphalist version of events put forward by the UN's PR machine and the Howard Government, the violence in the post ballot period was largely the result of 'rampaging militias'. In this version the Indonesian military was trying to deal with their 'rogue elements' who were out of the control of the command structure, and not really the responsibility of the Indonesian government. It was all tosh, and any official worth his own salt would tell you that at the time. Indeed many officials involved later resigned; some spoke out, and I know of at least one former UN police officer who committed suicide due to the official lies told about the UN's actions. However this did remain the official line, and it has, through the regurgitation and repetition of academics and certain journalists--in Australia in particular--come to be regarded as what actually happened.
The Indonesian military was fully responsible for the destruction of East Timor and the widespread killing of civilians that occurred in the wake of the pro-Independence result in East Timor. It was an enormous operation, and those of us who witnessed it unfold around us in Dili were left in no doubt as to who was responsible. That is what makes the second film Baranowska produced in 1999 such an important visual record. It shows what actually happened in the UN compound as the Indonesian military forced the removal of the foreign witnesses to what they were carrying out in Dili. With the foreigners out of the way they could lay the blame for the destruction at the feet of the militia, who were conveniently East Timorese. It is a line that the Indonesian military is still using as a very successful defense of its own conduct, and to deflect the prosecution of senior officers for crimes against humanity. So successful are these arguments that the most senior military man who presided over the Timor operation, then Army Commander in Chief, General Wiranto, is now running for President of Indonesia.
Appropriately, the second film begins with an American UN official explaining to a group of East Timorese that they have nothing to worry about, the UN will not abandon them after the ballot. The official speaks loudly and slowly, in the manner of people who are speaking to those whose language is not their own, and which also comes across as patronizing. To anyone familiar with what happened after the ballot in Timor the UN official's comments have an ominous ring to them. The viewer knows that the people will be abandoned as the Indonesian military takes revenge for the Independence vote, but the atmosphere is almost carnivalesque as the people prepare to vote.
Then we are back in the Motael clinic. A twenty-three year old man is dying from a bullet wound. They can't get the bullet out. People are talking about what happened. 'The police said it was a rock. They why did his brains come out here? It was a bullet', says one young man, exasperated. The Indonesian police are supposed to be looking after security for the ballot. The implication is that the same police who have been given responsibility for the security have shot this young man in the head. 'At the traffic lights they [the militia] were holding automatic weapons. The police did nothing', says another. This was what was happening. While the pro-Independence fighters had agreed to refrain from violence and restrict what few weapons they had to the cantonment areas in the countryside, the militia, with approval of the so-called 'neutral' police, were roaming about town with guns.
In another scene militia leader Eurico Guterres is dutifully attending a rally for the visit of then Indonesian presidential candidate, Megawati. It is a measure of how much Baranowska had become part of the daily life in Dili that Eurico doesn't try to hide his contempt for the paid supporters that he has gathered for the rally, and how he doesn't make any attempt to conceal that he is taking a call from his Indonesian military commander on his mobile. After a one-sided conversation in which Eurico mostly answers 'Yes sir' again and again, he jokes that the call was from the Commander in Chief: 'Does he think I have deserted or what!' The scene encapsulates his role as simply a functionary of the Indonesian military. This was at a time when many journalists or television news crews blamed the violence on the militia, and believed--to a certain extent--that they were solely responsible for it. The scene clearly exhibits that the militia were just a subordinate part of the Indonesian military program. The western media by and large took Eurico seriously, but Baranowska shows him for what he was--a paid lackey.
But the violence gets worse. We see young students reporting the deaths of three of their colleagues through military violence. They are attempting to ascertain whether a female colleague is still in the process of being raped by Indonesian soldiers. The girl's distraught father arrives, looking for information. He has nowhere else to go. The authorities themselves are responsible and these students have yet to inform the UN of what has happened or is happening. Either way the man is helpless. This all unfolds in front of the camera, not as a second or third hand story, but as it happens.
As the ballot result is announced we see the silent tears of joy and relief and fear on the faces of the ordinary Timorese family that has gathered around the television to witness this declaration. It is Baranowska's familiarity with the family that allows us to see the reactions of ordinary people to an event that will change their lives and end a war that they have lived with for twenty-four years.
The pace of events of the next few days--as Dill is depopulated, looted and burnt to the ground by the Indonesian military--is reflected in the film, as we see refugees being forced out of the Red Cross compound, buildings burning and then eventually the chaos of the UN compound. Baranowska, like the twenty or so journalists who remained in Dili as all the major news organizations fled, was rounded up by the Indonesian police and escorted to the UN compound. Once there, it the reality of the life or death choice for the Timorese who were trapped that Baranowska focuses on. They are seen in the process of deciding whether to leave and save themselves by fleeing through Indonesian gunfire, or whether to trust that the UN will not abandon them. In the end the UN does abandon them, and we see one official lamely offering the excuse that the 'decision was made in New York', as women plead with him to do something to save their children. It is horrible to watch because, despite all the reassurances given by the UN and the international community, all that mattered to the UN in the end was the preservation of their own people. The evacuation was delayed when some UN police and workers declared that they would stay.
The scenes in the UN compound that were shot by Baranowska earnt her international acclaim when she won the Rory Peck Award for Features in 2000. The award for News Footage in the prestigious UK-based awards went to the other person with a camera who was among the last in the compound, Max Stahl. The chaos of those few days, when there was constant gunfire directed over the heads of those of us who remained as the city was destroyed around us, is hard to forget. There was no food, little water and very little sleep for anyone in there. But that was exactly what the Indonesian military intended. They were trying to make us leave. Above all, there was a very real belief among many there that--in the words of one Australian Federal Policeman--there was 'a better-than-even-money chance' that the Indonesians would send their people over the walls.
Baranowska conveys that fear. The panicked faces, the screaming, the too-near sound of gunfire; the look on people's faces when they really don't know what is going on and whether they will be the next ones shot at. These are the things you get from these two films, and that make them, for me personally, very hard to watch. They bring back so much of the terror, that as a print journalist working in the confines of daily news, you can't convey to the reader. I say they are hard to watch for me because there are many aspects of that fear that I try to forget as time goes on. But for someone trying to understand what happened in East Timor in 1999 these two films encapsulate the scope and enormity of the crimes the Indonesian military inflicted upon all East Timorese people.
Unfortunately, both for documentaries in Australia and for the accurate understanding of what happened in East Timor, the work of the few who were there before the guns stopped firing has been drowned out by the many--and there have been many--who came along later when things were safe.
With so much at stake for the governments of Australia, Indonesia and the United Nations over their conduct in East Timor since 1975, it is inevitable that attempts have and will be made to rewrite the history of what happened and their individual roles. Individuals and organizations will try and reposition themselves.
Prime Minister John Howard has done a superb job of that in relation to his role in East Timor, as has the Indonesian military in avoiding prosecution and responsibility for the violence. That is why records such as these films are important. They help show us how the nation of East Timor has come about, away from the flag-waving and choreographed events that surrounded the 'official' granting of Independence by the UN to East Timor on 20 May 2001. Baranowska has been working on a feature length film, Welcome to Independence, covering the period since the nation came in to being, and promising a very different look at events since the world's media focus has moved on.
John Martinkus covered East Timor from 1997 until 2000 based in Dill for Fairfax, AAP and The Bulletin. In 1999 he was nominated for a Walkley award for his coverage and in 2001 his account of the period, A Dirty Little War, published by Random House, was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier's award for literature.
Letter to the editor
Metro Magazine, Fall, 2004 by Mary Debrett
In Metro No. 140, John Martinkus' article, 'Bearing Witness', about Carmela Baranowska's documentaries on East Timor, cites my earlier article on three documentaries about East Timor, (Metro No. 138) claiming my statement that 'filming in East Timor "was impossibly dangerous"', was 'deeply offensive to the handful of journalists who were working in East Timor in the period (the late nineties)'. He goes on to make several unpleasant inferences with regards to the films and filmmakers concerned in which it becomes apparent that he has thoroughly misread the context of my article and formed a number of assumptions from that misreading. I would like to clarify these.
Firstly, the reason my article, 'The Personal as Political--three documentaries on East Timor', was restricted to just three documentary makers was because it was a paper delivered at the Australian International Documentary Conference (AIDC) held in February 2003 and was thus grounded in an actual event. The paragraph I had written explaining this fact was unfortunately buried at the end of the article amongst the endnotes, instead of being inserted after the title where I had placed it. My paper was more about recent developments in political documentary than it was about East Timor. I had also anticipated that the article would appear alongside other papers from the AIDC conference, or that it would be framed as part of a series of papers from the AIDC. This would have set my discussion in an appropriate context for readers. Unfortunately, the way in which Metro chose to foreground the war, inserting a large and arresting photograph of an Indonesian soldier and another of an Indonesia demonstrator giving the finger to the camera--images unrelated to the films discussed--invited such misreading.
My discussion of political documentary was about the ground that documentary occupies in public discourse and how this has been made more difficult by the changed circumstances of the television documentary, due to the pressures now faced by public broadcasters and the blurring of the 'genre' with populist reality forms in an increasingly commereialized media landscape. The impact of the media concept of 'compassion fatigue', and fear of difficult subjects being an 'audience turn-off', now mean that broadcasters are reluctant to invest in political documentaries. While this is clearly not a desirable trend it is the reality. My article discussed this with reference to the documentary, Death of a Nation (John Pilger and David Munro, 1994), a political documentary attributed with having influenced international response to the Timorese situation, but which encountered difficulties in funding and exhibition, for the afore-mentioned reasons. My article then went on to discuss how three documentary makers had overcome these kinds of difficulties and succeeded in getting documentaries about East Timor into prime television documentary slots.
Martinkus begins his article: In issue 138 of Metro there was a piece by Mary Debrett titled "Reclaiming the Personal as Political', which looked at three documentaries concerning the events in East Timor and that country's transition to independence. Reading that article depressed me a great deal. At one point the author states that Tom Zubrycki's film about Jose Ramos Horta 'provided a film about Timorese independence at the time when filming in Timor was impossibly dangerous, following the murders of five members of an Australian television crew in Balibo'. This statement is not only wrong but deeply offensive to the handful of journalists who were working East Timor in the period (the late nineties) that Debrett is talking about. What the writer has done is dismiss the testimony of those on the ground in East Timor at the time, in favour of the work of those who were basically too afraid to go there, to see for themselves and record what was happening. Debrett is wrong when she writes that 'filming in East Timor was impossibly dangerous', as there was someone there doing it throughout 1999--Melbourne based filmmaker, Carmela Baranowska.
My paper discussed three documentaries made for Australian television. As the title indicated, this was not an overview of the documentation of East Timor's struggle for independence, and 'journalists who were working East Timor in the period' were not mentioned for the simple reason that this was outside the scope of the article. I would have thought the statement I made regarding danger amplified their bravery rather than denying it, although it has to be said that the visible appendage of a camera does make filming rather more dangerous than reporting for the print media. To interpret the term 'impossibly dangerous' as meaning it was impossible to face such danger is clearly a nonsense. That Carmela Baranowska returned alive, I suggest, does not disprove that filming was impossibly dangerous by many people's judgement. Anthony Hayward, in his book about the international journalist and documentary maker, John Pilger--In the Name of Justice: the television reporting of John Pilger--includes details of an interview with Pilger in which he relates the circumstances in which Death of a Nation was filmed. After their clandestine filming Pilger and Munro left Timor with the videotapes taped to their bodies, changing their departure arrangements rapidly at the last moment, after a chilling encounter with a suspicious Indonesian officer. This was 1994 and I suggest that by 1998, when Tom Zubrycki pitched The Diplomat at the Brisbane AIDC, the situation in Timor was no less dangerous. Yes, Carmela Baranowska and Max Stahl were doing it, but by most people's perceptions they were risking their lives. Whether you describe this as extremely dangerous or impossibly dangerous depends on your point of view. Nick Cowing of BBC World described Stahl as filming in 'an incredible, dangerous situation' in East Timor. (http://www.rorypecktrust.org/award00/stahl.htm accessed 25-5-04)
The assumption that those who made films about this period without venturing into the war zone were 'too afraid to go and find out what was happening' is deeply offensive to me, as I am sure it is to those filmmakers concerned. Such statements miss what documentary is about. A professional journalist, Martinkus appears to view news and current affairs and documentary as synonymous, thereby validating only one form of documentary, that of the documentary maker as on-the-ground witness. Documentary frequently engages by getting viewers to interpret, to ask their own questions. As an authored form which draws on the panoply of cinematic techniques, it is not simple journalistic reportage, but comes in many different styles and sub-genres, and in skillful hands can engage and affect viewers in ways that make both intellectually and emotionally difficult topics more accessible. As a case of near genocide, East Timor is an emotionally difficult topic for most people. Martinkus' own comment on Carmela Baranowska's documentary confirms this.
The panicked faces, the screaming, the too-near sound of gunfire; the look on people's faces when they really don't know what is going on and whether they will be the next ones shot at. These are the things that you get from these two films, and that make them, for me personally, very hard to watch.
Foregrounding his own experience again, Martinkus suggests that it is only he who has this problem. I suggest many Australians felt enormous grief and guilt about what was happening and Australia's role in all of it, and are no less affected by such scenes than he. Consequently, while records such as Baranowska's are undoubtedly extremely important, they are not what broadcasters are looking for to fill their prime-time documentary slots.
Later Martinkus reflects: Unfortunately, both for the accurate understanding of what happened in East Timor, the work of the few who were there before the guns stopped firing had been drowned out by the many--and there have been many--who came along later when things were safe.
With so much at stake for the governments of Australia, Indonesia and the United Nations over their conduct in East Timor in 1975, it is inevitable that attempts have and will be made to rewrite the history of what happened and their individual roles. Individuals and organizations will try to reposition themselves.