Subject: AFR: Timor Story Makes Politics Personal ['spellbinding; stunning; scathing']

also: AFR: Timor Story Makes Politics Personal

Weekend Australian Saturday May 20, 2006


Trouble in Timor

By Graeme Blundell

David Wenham and a cast of East Timorese amateurs are stunning in a new ABC drama about the bloody history of the world's newest nation

IT has been easy not to remember the tragedy of East Timor, so overwhelmed did we become by September 11, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and terrorist bombings in Madrid, Bali and London.

It was understandable that we did not recall the executions, massacres, torture, the cycle of rape and sexual violence that so marked East Timor during the past 30 years.

The unwilling colony was an abandoned and almost forgotten half-island.

In 1975, Indonesia under president Suharto invaded East Timor, uneasily controlled by its own population after the collapse of the colonial Portuguese empire.

The invasion was effectively condoned by the US and Australia as supposedly a pragmatic course of Kissingerian realism; a favourable deal on Timor's oil reserves, it was thought, would be easier to negotiate with Indonesia rather than an independent East Timor.

The decades of slaughter, some of the worst relative to population in recent history, hardly raised a political eyebrow in this country.

In 1999, East Timor won the right to vote for independence: a window prised open. The UN sent in volunteers to supervise the ballot and protect the voters, and promised the Timorese they would remain, regardless of the outcome. As we know, they did not.

The ABC's compelling two-part drama series Answered by Fire, co-produced with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, is the story of what happened. It's enough to make anyone who watches feel ashamed of our collective amnesia.

This series brings it all back with startling authority just as the ravaged country is facing new challenges. Director Jessica Hobbs calls this sober drama ''a story of parallels: a contrast of personal journeys set against a political background''. It covers the politics of covert intervention and overt abandonment on the part of the US and Australia, as well as East Timor's complex ethnic heritage.

David Wenham is Mark Waldman, a decent enough Australian policeman, a UN mission volunteer, commanding civilian police at the UN base at Nunura in East Timor's Bobonaro district, west of the capital Dili.

Alex Tilman is a brave young Timorese translator, Ismenio Soares, assigned to Wenham's unit, and Isabelle Blais plays Julie Fortin, an earnest Canadian policewoman on her first overseas mission.

Ismenio, his family torn apart by war, is cynical about the UN, He can only see a nightmarish fate at the hands of the Indonesian military.

''No one gets Timor,'' he says despairingly. ''It makes me crazy; no one wants to live like this.''

Waldman and Fortin, both unarmed, are emotionally unprepared for the barbarism of the militia terror campaign. Neither understands a situation in which the world expects them to keep the peace while ensuring the UN stays neutral.

Asked if he's a ''mission junkie'' early in the first episode, Waldman diffidently replies: ''Timor's a bit different for Australians. The East Timorese saved our arses against the Japanese in World War II. In 1975, we just stood by and let the Indonesians walk in and take the place. We owe these people big time.'' Fortin feels, initially at least, that she just wants the salary to pay her mortgage.

After 78.5 per cent of Timorese vote for independence, it all ends in violence by pro-Indonesian militias, UN abandonment and terrible guilt for the peacekeepers. The knowledge that Australian intelligence was aware of everything Indonesia had planned and did nothing, provides further cause for disillusionment.

Hobbs, a superb director, tells this story with a sense of creeping dread, avoiding histrionics and refusing to compromise with the integrity of her narrative.

''I felt it was important to work out what parts of this immense story we could do well and with the right authenticity,'' she says. Her aim was to make a program that would prompt people to say ''I want to know more about that''. And she wants them to think about it so it never happens again. '''Lest we forget' was my driving motivation,'' she says. ''A wake-up call, really, to what has been occurring just off our shores.''

Running throughout is a question that becomes increasingly difficult to answer as the series reaches its conclusion: how many generations will it take a community shaped by armed resistance and guerilla war, and reduced to shantytown poverty, to become a free and stable democracy, regardless of expected future oil and gas revenues of $13 billion from the Timor Gap?

The script by Canadian executive producer Barbara Samuels, who developed the idea in 1999 after one of her friends volunteered for the UN and was sent to East Timor, and experienced Australian screenwriter Katherine Thomson is focused, moving as a study of character, scathing as a political indictment.

But it is the acting by the cast of East Timorese, with no formal experience, that is spellbinding.

Hobbs pursued this project for two years, travelling across Australia, workshopping those interested in taking part. Some were Timorese activists and many were refugees.

''Their willingness to reveal the pain of their recent history was a revelation,'' she says. ''I listened to hundreds of stories of bravery, terror and hope. I don't remember a single person who had not lost someone.''

She found casting the Timorese militia leaders difficult; many of them are played by student activists and independence fighters who have fled Timor.

''They had been terrified and tortured by the same people I was asking them to represent. I gained strength from their insistence that these scenes must be accurate, as painful as they were to recreate.'' Watch, for example, for an incandescent performance from Jose de Costa as Sico, the local militia leader; haughty, murderous, sweating testosterone. In real life De Costa, having survived the Dili massacre (six of his siblings and his father were killed), was captured by Indonesian police and tortured. He spent four years in hiding and arrived in Australia by boat in 1995 as a political refugee. ''To be militia is evil,'' he says. ''I had to try and reverse my feelings of pain, anger and revenge, to use them for the role.''

The scenes between Wenham and de Costa are mesmerising. So is Felisberto Araujo as Ismenio's father. Hobbs says she can't forget the smile that broke across his face as he relived the experience of voting for the first time in his 70-year existence.

Wenham is the kind of actor who collaborates with the character he plays in order to create an inseparable fusion of fact and fiction.

It's increasingly difficult to detect where his characters begin and where Wenham evanesces. And he is terrific in this series, gravely intelligent and, out of respect for his fellow actors one suspects, decently self-effacing for someone so charismatic.

Asked how closely he had followed events in East Timor, the answer is emphatic: ''Very. Full stop. Or exclamation mark,'' he says in a phone interview. ''I saw a documentary, John Pilger's Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy, and it affected me and angered me, so I joined the Australia-East Timor Association to get information on what was happening there.''

Hobbs says that initially the Timorese were hesitant around the blue-eyed film star. But Wenham told her he felt as though each scene brought him down to earth. ''Don't be apprehensive,'' he told his Timorese colleagues. ''I have to get to where you already are.''

Answered By Fire, ABC, 8.30pm tomorrow, concluding the following Sunday.


Australian Financial Review Saturday May 20, 2006



Timor story makes politics personal

By Katrina Strickland

Filmmakers who use history as a basis for drama tread a very fine line, writes Katrina Strickland

There is a scene in the ABC's new mini-series, Answered By Fire, in which a journalist tells a couple of United Nations police that the Australian government received intelligence ahead of East Timor's 1999 independence referendum about the likelihood of post-ballot violence.

It is one of those issues that you expect to be developed further as the mini-series progresses. Did the government really know? Who, when and to what extent? What effect did it have on the main protagonists?

Strangely, the matter is not touched upon beyond this scene.

It is indicative of the difficulties facing filmmakers who use recent history as the basis for a fictional tale, that the makers of this TV show, the first drama to be filmed about East Timor's bloody road to independence, chose to include this reference without expanding on it.

Plenty has been written about the issue in the press, but to veer too much into politics, or to state as fact that which might still be contested, is to risk becoming a political football. If you're playing with distant history, the arguments over how accurately you have portrayed a situation will be mostly waged by historians. With six-year-old history, anyone who lived through it will have an opinion.

It's a problem that is particularly pertinent to Jessica Hobbs, who in directing Answered by Fire was dealing with a cast of 40-plus Timorese people who had not acted before and all of whom had either lived through the referendum, or had (or lost) family who did.

The two-part mini-series, which screens on the ABC next Sunday night and again the following weekend, tells the story of the 1999 referendum through the personal journeys of an Australian (David Wenham) and Canadian (Isabelle Blais), who work for the UN as civilian police, and their Timorese translator (Alex Tilman).

Hobbs says writers Barbara Samuels and Katherine Thomson did extensive research to ensure their fictional account was based squarely on fact, but that, primarily, they had written a personal tale.

"We didn't want to hijack the Timorese story with Australian politics, because that's another story," says Hobbs.

"It can start to feel like a polemic if you focus too much on what the Australian government did and didn't do, and that's not the point. For me it was always about setting a personal journey in a political landscape, so let's get the personal journey right. The cornerstones of that are the political history and you don't bugger around with them, but it is a story about how what happened affected individuals."

Hobbs says directing a cast with such personal connections to the story was one of the most difficult and rewarding jobs of her career.

By way of example she mentions Jose de Costa, a teacher in real life who plays a murdering militia leader in Answered by Fire. Costa's own father was a member of the East Timorese resistance, and Costa was himself locked up and tortured by the Indonesian police. A scene in which Costa has to shoot someone at point blank range took all day to film.

"He couldn't hold the gun up to him, his hand was shaking so much, he was physically ill," says Hobbs.

She had her own doubts about the ethics of dredging up bad memories for the sake of a fictional TV series.

"I was really wondering whether it was the right thing to do, whether it was appropriate or worth it, whether it would bring out things that could be damaging [to the cast members] in the long term," she says.

In the case of Answered by Fire there was an added incentive to focus on the personal and stay away from Australian politics; the two-part mini-series is co-funded by the ABC and its Canadian equivalent, with Australia accounting for 70 per cent of the $8 million budget and Canada providing the balance.

When the show screens in Australia there might be some interest in the Australian political angle; when it screens in Canada, most likely some time after October, there will be zero interest. Hobbs and the team who made the film were relieved to receive a positive response during screenings in Darwin and Melbourne earlier this month from audiences made up of people who worked or lived in East Timor at the time of the referendum.

A number of policemen attended the screening, along with the cast, members of the expatriate Timorese community and relatives of the Australian journalists who were murdered in Balibo in 1975.

----------------- Joyo Indonesia News Service

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