Subject: Fire in their hearts (Answered by Fire)


Fire in their hearts

By Debi Enker

May 18, 2006

A story torn from the pages of recent history touched all those involved.

IT'S a strange sensation, driving past Queensland cane fields, through the gates of the Horizon Shores caravan park and the Rudy Maas Marina, and straight into the Timorese village of Nunura. In the sprawling suburb of Steiglitz, amid the waterways at the northern end of the Gold Coast, production designer Nick McCallum and his team of 15 have created a remarkably convincing fictional township. The scattering of buildings includes an open-air market, a bakery, a few shops, a church and a walled United Nations compound. The village looks so authentic that some of the Timorese cast members working on the mini-series Answered by Fire burst into tears on encountering it for the first time.

Nunura is the primary setting for the two-part drama. It is an $8 million Australian-Canadian co-production that deals with the tumult in East Timor leading up to the 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia and the subsequent bloody campaign of violence instigated to terrorise the population. It's through the events that occur in Nunura that writers Barbara Samuels and Katherine Thomson have chosen to tell a complex story about the recent past. Through their fiction, they propose a view of Timor's broader history.

On a cold day in July last year, halfway through the eight-week shoot, the weather is making a mockery of Queensland travel promotions. Far from being beautiful or perfect, it's cold, wet and windy as director Jessica Hobbs moves through the mud to choreograph a scene in the UN compound involving the frantic efforts of the foreign civilian police and their local aides to protect the ballot boxes. There are fears that members of the militia sympathetic to the Indonesians will try to steal them.

David Wenham is at the heart of the action, playing Mark Waldman, an Australian policeman who has volunteered for the UN mission that is overseeing the referendum process. A senior officer, he's organising his troops, one of whom is rookie Canadian Julie Fortin (Isabelle Blais). Among the locals helping them are interpreter Ismenio Soares (Alex Tilman) and his sister Madalena (Fatima Almeida).

The Soares family represents the experiences of many Timorese. Ismenio, English speaking and university educated, is suspicious of the foreigners and sceptical about their usefulness as protectors of the population. His sister has taken up her dead mother's cause, secretly stealing away into the hills to provide assistance to the Fretilin forces fighting the Indonesian occupation. Their father, Joao (Felisberto Araujo, who is Fatima Almeida's real-life father), a respected village elder, is covertly campaigning for the locals to register to vote in the referendum. Meanwhile, their cousin, Sico (Jose De Costa), a member of the menacing militia, is fiercely pro-Indonesia.

Answered by Fire

Answered by Fire

"It's a microcosm story rather than the big picture of the struggle for independence," says executive producer Roger Simpson. Answered by Fire is the final project for Simpson and his long-time producing partner, Roger Le Mesurier, a pair affectionately known throughout the industry as "the Rogers". Simpson says that while an $8 million budget might be considered substantial, it's stretched when "you're recreating the events that we're recreating: UN compounds, the burning of Dili, various massacres and armies and militias going back and forth. It's a big story." The limitations of the budget are apparent when producer Andrew Walker notes that a choice had to be made between roosters or geese wandering in Nunura as the animals required separate wranglers and the budget couldn't accommodate both. The roosters won.

While the experiences of the Soares family form a major part of the drama, an additional focus is on the Westerners sent to Timor as part of the UN force, unarmed and sometimes with scant understanding of the complex and volatile situation that they would encounter.

Mark Waldman is a proficient and pragmatic policeman who discovers that the demands of this assignment are beyond his expectations. "He's confident, he's strong-willed, he's experienced in what he does," says Wenham. "East Timor isn't his first overseas mission and he thinks it's going to be simpler and more straightforward than it turns out to be. They're walking on a razor's edge the whole time.

"The great journey for Mark is that, for the first time in his life, he experiences failure because he can't achieve what he wants to do. He's frustrated by the organisation that he works with, he's frustrated by the fact that he can't help people that he's come to know and feel for. And when they're forced to evacuate and sent back to Australia, he's racked with guilt."

By contrast, Julie is a relatively green but keen recruit. The situation she encounters challenges her sense of certainty about the world. To a degree, the pair represent the well-meaning but sometimes clueless Westerners who discover to their dismay that they're out of their depth.

Canadian writer Barbara Samuels, who originated the project, says it was vital for her and Australian co-writer Katherine Thomson (author of the play Mavis Goes to Timor) that this not be a tale of a couple of Westerners finding romance in some exotic foreign trouble spot. "We didn't want the foreground to be about two white people who find love amidst a background in flames," she says.

As well as using David Savage's book Dancing with the Devil as source material, the writers spent two weeks in Timor talking to people about their experiences. The ABC's head of drama, Scott Meek, says that the work that emerged has "two stories that are simultaneous.

"One is from the Australian perspective, the story of the ordinary policeman who goes to help the UN with the referendum and discovers that the world is not entirely the shape he thought it was, that its hierarchies don't always function in the way that he thought they did, and that it's a much bigger, scarier place than he ever imagined. And it's the story of a young Canadian policewoman who is even more naive about the world but, in a strange sense, may turn out to be an even stronger person than he is.

"The other story is about a people's right to self-determination, of the Timorese believing they had a right to the referendum, believing they had a right to vote in it and a right not to be killed for doing so. And the consequences of that belief, both bad and good."

Describing the project as a labour of love, Meek says: "It's not just about the story, it's about three cultures working together to tell the story. If you were looking for a model of what two not-particularly-wealthy public broadcasters can do together, it's here: a story that happened in the real world in which Canadians participated and Australians participated, a story that has meaning in both places."

According to the Rogers, the co-production had a 70:30 ratio - 70 per cent of the money came from Australia and 30 per cent from Canada. Creatively, it was also split: a writer from each country, lead actors from each country, an Australian director, production designer and director of photography, a Canadian composer and editor.

The legislation governing co-productions required that the Australian participants were residents, which affected the selection of the Timorese cast. Hobbs and casting agents Lynne Ruthven and Alex Francis conducted casting calls around the country. "We organised meetings through any East Timorese association we could find," the director recalls. "We met people at barbecues, in homes and churches, and we put them on camera. We looked at 350 people and I made notes on every person and who they might play.

"Then we went around the country again with a bag of lights and a camera and set up workshops. We asked people to bring a personal object, something that was important to them or to a story about themselves, then we'd film some scenes with them." Nine were chosen for the featured roles.

None of the Timorese had any acting experience, although Hobbs and Wenham agree that they displayed an impressive natural ability. "You'd never know that those people had never acted before," says Wenham. "All of them were determined to be involved in the series and determined that the story should be as accurate as possible so people could see what their history has been like."

Hobbs found that she had an on-set barometer for how well scenes were playing: "If a scene was working, they'd laugh or react, and if it wasn't working, they wouldn't do anything. I had a very honest audience right on the set." She adds: "I learned a huge amount from working with them. It pushes you a lot more. With non-actors, you can't make assumptions, you can't gloss over things. They'll say, 'Hang on, I don't understand.' It makes you much clearer about your storytelling because you have to go with them every story beat, you have to explain that 'this is what we're trying to tell the audience', so they understand what it is they need to convey. I talked to them a lot about what the camera was doing, so they felt included in that process, and they responded to that really well."

Beyond the drama, the reality was that many of the Timorese had witnessed or been directly involved in the often horrific events being recreated. Many had lost family members, some had been victims of torture.

Meek recalls: "When the Timorese people joined the production, a truly wonderful thing happened. They were so emotionally invested in the telling of the story, and the necessity of getting it right for the other people of their culture that they completely infected the Australian and Canadian cast and crew with a kind of inspiration that they were doing something that really meant something."

Mindful as they were of the need for authenticity and historical accuracy, the creators of the drama were also keen to produce an engrossing story. "But, if you want to tell a story that has political or social motif, you can't lecture people," says Samuels. "You have to create compelling characters so that the audience can see it through their eyes, not through somebody telling you what's right and what's wrong and giving dialogue to people that explains the political situation."

For her part, Hobbs says: "You don't want it to just be worthy. You want it to engage people to the point where they think 'Oh God, it's extraordinary what happened to those people and I hope it never happens again.' That's what the job of it is."

Come Sunday night, Australians will get to see the results of this cross-cultural collaboration and a story torn from the pages of bloody recent history. Whatever the ratings show, there can be no doubting the passion and sense of commitment that many of the people working on Answered by Fire felt for telling this story. As Meeks says, "It wasn't just like working on any old piece of television".


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