Dr David Robie also blogs at Café Pacific
By David Robie
A YEAR after Indonesian troops killed more than 270 peaceful demonstrators at the cemetery of Santa Cruz in the Timor-Leste capital of Dili in 1991, news footage secretly shot by a cameraman surfaced in a powerful new film.
The Yorkshire Television documentary, In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor, screened in six countries and later broadcast in other nations, helped change the course of history.
Until then, countries such as Australia and New Zealand – in spite of a New Zealander being killed in the massacre – had been content to close a blind eye to the illegal Indonesian invasion in 1975 and the atrocities committed for a quarter century.
The cameraman, Max Stahl, who risked his own life to film the massacre and bury the footage cassette in a freshly dug grave before he was arrested, knew this evidence of the massacre would be devastating.
In a documentary made a decade later by Yorkshire Television’s Peter Gordon, Bloodshot: The Dreams and Nightmares of East Timor, that interviewed key players –including Stahl himself – in the transition to restored independence in 2002, Timorese leaders reveal just how critical this footage was in telling their story of repression to the world.
“When we knew that [the film crew] were safe with all the cameras, and all the cassettes were safe, we knew it would be a bomb,” recalls Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão, a former Timorese resistance leader imprisoned by the Indonesians for life (although he was freed after six years).
“And it was!”
“That’s what changed everything. We are not going to allow Santa Cruz to be forgotten,” says former President Jose Ramos-Horta, who jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Bishop Ximenes Belo in 1996.
“So Santa Cruz massacre was the turning point.”
Two years after In Cold Blood, investigative journalist John Pilger produced the documentary Death of a Nation: The Timor Conspiracy, which also used Max Stahl’s massacre footage. The savage scenes dramatically changed world opinion over Indonesia’s illegal occupation.
Fifty nine-year-old Stahl – his name is actually an alias for British journalist and television presenter Christopher Wenner, a moniker that he adopted to protect his Timorese colleagues – is today a hero in this Asia-Pacific nation.
But he is also one of a small group of expatriates who have committed their life to this emerging new state. He has established the Max Stahl Audiovisual Archive Centre of Timor-Leste (CAMSTL), recording a national digital history and training a new generation of young Timorese filmmakers.
He returned to East Timor in 1999 and filmed further atrocities by the Indonesians as troops and right-wing Timorese militia laid waste to towns and communities and murdered countless Timorese who had voted for independence in a United Nations-supervised referendum.
This coverage won him the 2000 Rory Peck Award for hard news in television – one of many awards his work has won in conflict zones, including in the Balkans and El Salvador. He has also been awarded the Medal of Freedom from Portugal and a presidential medal from Timor-Leste.
‘Village of widows’
I caught up with him and his CAMSTL colleagues, Eddy Pinto and Cristina Prata, in the town of Bacau on the way to the remote “village of widows”, Kraras, where more than 300 people were massacred in 1983.
This infamous massacre, not so well known internationally as Santa Cruz, but actually worse, has been portrayed in Timor-Leste’s first feature film, Beatriz’s War.
About 2000 people were gathering in a makeshift township built around the village to mark the 38th anniversary of the unilateral declaration of independence in 1975 and the 30th anniversary of the massacre.
Stahl journeyed to the village to record oral histories with survivors of the massacre and the historic celebrations.
He told me how vital it was for a country as traumatised by its past as Timor-Leste to not only record its history but to also document its evolving national development.
UNESCO has recently recognised the CAMSTL archives as a Memory of the World collection, and the French National Audiovisual Institute (INA) – regarded as the world’s best digital library – has made available about 1000 hours of Stahl footage in its public online archives.
“This is very significant for Timor-Leste,” says Stahl. “It recognises the importance of this CAMSTL collection. It takes a few steps to opening up other partnerships.
“We have very good relations with the French audiovisual library – but we’re very small, it is a bit like a partnership between an elephant and a flea.
Open up opportunities?
“Maybe this will open up other opportunities over project funding and collaborations. It is only in the past two years out of the past decade that the Timor-Leste government has actually started to financially support us.”
But delays in the funding have caused problems such as only receiving the 2012 grant a few weeks before the end of the year and hardly enough time to spend it.
“It is important to have an international dimension to our work – recording of the birth of this nation, one that has had such a traumatic struggle for independence and to exist, and how the struggle for justice evolves over time,” Stahl says.
“Local perspectives and information are so important.
“It is so important to record on film the landmark decisions and events in the country and how key issues are resolved.”
The centre is now looking forward to a permanent home after three temporary set-ups, including in the Independence Memorial Hall near the Dili lighthouse.
Currently it shares accommodation with a local sports institute, but hopes to be shifting across the street to a planned new wing next to the Resistance Museum dedicated to the guerrilla force Falintil that fought against Indonesian rule.
This museum, and the Chega! museum dedicated to the truth and reconciliation process and the Arte Moris (Living Art) centre, which has been dedicated to free expression through the arts, has contributed to developing Timor-Leste’s cultural and human rights identity.
In the UNESCO nomination, the CAMSTL archives were described as “very precious” for the East Timorese people.
“They gave voice to the resistance and constitute an important part of national memory. This filmed memory takes on an even greater significance because the country has been repeatedly devastated (1942-1945 by the Japanese, and 1975-79 and 1999 by the Indonesians) and populations fled or were displaced, resulting in the destruction and loss of many cultural and historical documents.”
Max Stahl explains about his centre’s work: “We try to do what we can with the kinds of political and social struggles and development challenges.”
CAMSTL seek to film and record, for example, international interventions; health issues, such as problems and solutions and support from other countries, including Cuban doctors; cultural developments – music, traditional culture, and martial arts groups ; and also sport – “the Timorese are passionate about football and development of a national league will go a long way towards uniting the country”.
“We tell the stories of the contribution of the people to their nation-building – their sacrifices.
“The anger, frustration of people who fought in the resistance, who struggled against the Indonesians. We have made a number of films about that.”
Max Stahl is also critical about the role of the media – both the international parachute journalists, and many local journalists who lack training, education and an awareness of history.
While he singles out a handful of journalists for praise, such as investigative journalist and former independence activist Jose Belo who helped him set up CAMSTL and carried vital underground reporting during the restoration of independence years, he is scathing about some elements of international coverage.
Media soap operas
“The international media chase the soap operas, without really understanding the real and deeper issues, and the complexities,” Stahl says when reflecting on how the story of popular renegade soldier Major Alfredo Reinado was covered.
Reinado and his rebel force hid in the Timorese jungles for two years until he was finally killed in an attempted assassination on the President Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Gusmão in February 2008 in controversial circumstances that are still unclear today.
“The media pursue the incidents without really looking at the wider issues of development and national decision-making, and the challenges – which are the really fascinating angles,” Stahl says.
“Why are they so indifferent to the real issues? No one began to ever really understand what this was really about.
In his own film about the Reinado affair, Stahl got somebody to follow the rebel group around.
“He was not a main guy, just a follower – brave enough to hang around, but just keeping in the shadows.”
One of the most challenging documentaries Stahl has made in recent years was a two-part programme called The Woman’s War, which investigated the maternity health sector and the high infant and childbirth mortality rate.
This is one of the crises confronting the country, yet politicians have brushed it under the carpet.
And the future? “Timor-Leste is the first country to have gained independence through an audiovisual war, not just through armed struggle alone,” Stahl says.
“It has been a landmark in the development relationship. Now we have the fresh challenges of employing social media, digital media and other media advances to help develop this nation.
“It is also important for the Timorese to see that they are not alone in this world, that their struggles can have parallels and to see other opportunities.”
Café Pacific publisher David Robie was recently in Timor-Leste for a month as a volunteer with the La’o Hamutuk development research and monitoring agency.