Art retelling life in Timor-Leste

Q&ALast night I attended a screening of Timor-Leste’s first feature film, A Guerra Da Beatriz (Beatriz’s War). The screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with the film’s co-director Luigi Acquisto, and co-producer Lurdes Pires.

It’s a very moving film. It presents a retelling of the old French tale of Martin Guerre, set against a backdrop of Timor-Leste’s recent history of conflict, with the invasion of East Timor by the Indonesians, the brutality of life lived under occupation, and of the early months of independence. In this tale, a man disappears during a war, returning many years later to his wife. All the others in their village believe he is who he says he is; his wife Beatriz realises that he is an imposter, but falls in love with this new man nonetheless. (I hope that’s not a spoiler; it’s a pretty well-known story).

The Q&A session offered some fascinating insights into the making of the film. The story is set alongside a number of real events that occurred during the years of Indonesian occupation. One of these is the massacre in the town of Kraras in 1983, when Indonesian forces killed all the men and male boys (including babies) in retaliation to an ambush on Indonesia soldiers by the Timorese resistance fighters. They filmed this part of the movie in the actual town of Kraras, and many of the members of the cast were members of the Kraras community. The female extras were women who had witnessed the massacre and lost their menfolk. The male extras included people who had been young boys at the time of the massacre who had survived the killing.

Luigi Acquisto told how the filming of the actual massacre had been delayed because members of the cast and crew, including at one point the Timorese co-director, Bety Reis, kept breaking down in tears. (He said, “I waited for her to regain her composure, all the while watching the clouds roll in…”, a reminder of how time-sensitive filming outdoor sequences can be, even more so perhaps in a location where electricity is limited).

In the film, the Indonesian soldiers march the men to a dried-up river bed, point their guns, and mockingly call to them, “Sing ‘Foho Ramelau’ now!” The Indonesians had banned the singing of this song, as it was the anthem of the Timorese resistance. Slowly, haltingly, reluctantly, the men and boys begin to sing. Then the Indonesian captain gives the order to shoot and they are mowed down.

The detail of the forced singing was only revealed the day before filming was due to take place. One of the women in the village remembered it. It had not been part of the script, because it wasn’t known. But it was such a poignant detail, an added piece of cruelty.

The camera pans across the men as they begin to sing. One man is cradling a tiny baby and singing gently. Luigi told the audience that this detail was also from the villagers’ recollections – the man holding the baby had himself been a tiny baby in 1983, held in the arms of his own father on the river-bed at that time. Somehow, both survived the massacre, and thus he could recreate his own experience for the film, now as an adult man.

A later scene shows the women from the village of Kraras, now relocated by the Indonesians to a village-prison on the coast. It is now a year after the massacre, and in the Timorese tradition, a ceremony takes place when the mourners remove their black clothing and declare the period of mourning to be over. This is called kore metan. In this scene, there is an older woman who speaks to the group and is the first to remove her black garments. She, like many of the other women in the film, is a member of the Kraras community, who witnessed the massacre in 1983 and who had suffered the loss of the men of her family.

In the Q&A, we learned that this particular woman had been wearing her black mourning garments since the massacre. The depth of her loss was such that she had not shed them at the one-year kore metan ceremony, but continued to wear black for the next thirty years. Amazingly, what we see in the film is this woman choosing to shed her mourning garments for the first time since the massacre. She chose that moment of filming to do this.

This suggests that there is an aspect of the retelling experience that can be cathartic for people that have suffered traumatic events. I heard similar stories during my research trip to Timor-Leste. People retell events in story and particularly in song, and somehow, through their creations, they are also able to process the experience, understand it, and perhaps be less constrained by it. A film-maker and journalist I met during my fieldwork last month told me that he had observed the way music, song, and even dramatic play assumed an extremely significant role in helping survivors of the Suai massacre (in which unarmed civilians were slaughtered following the vote for independence in 1999) to heal. Over 100 new songs about the massacre were written in the year after it took place. People of all ages wrote and sang these songs, children (many of whom had witnessed the violence first-hand and watched their mothers be raped and slaughtered) recreated the event in their play, and somehow, this direct engagement with the traumatic experience and its retelling seemed to create a healing space for individuals to be able to move forward in their lives and experience fewer characteristics of trauma.

Last night’s screening was the launch of the theatrical release of Beatriz’s War in Australia. The film had its world premiere screening in the village of Kraras in 2013 (on the exact date of the massacre, another poignant detail shared with us last night), and has travelled throughout the districts of Timor-Leste, played on screens in small villages as well as larger towns and cities, to audiences who had rarely seen their stories retold on the big screen. Many people asked to see the film a second time, immediately after their first viewing. They recognised people in the film, and also wanted more time to digest and experience this dramatic reflection of their own life experiences

If you are in Australia, do make the effort to go and see Beatriz’s War. The run in each city is only for a few days (see here for dates and locations). For those readers in other countries, keep an eye on film festival programs in your country. And for anyone in a position to support the fledgling film industry in Timor-Leste, Dili Film Works (the makers of the film) has other projects in the early stages of development, ripe for investor support.

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