Dawn of a bright new era in land with a tragic past
A filmmaker recalls a memorable assignment in East Timor A family of hoteliers in Dili who refused to give up
IN 2009, I took a small film crew to East Timor to make the feature film Balibo, a story depicting the events surrounding the Indonesian invasion of this newly independent nation in 1975.
Twelve months earlier, I had headed to East Timor to meet and attempt to convince Nobel laureate and President Jose Ramos-Horta that making the film in his country, in the places where the tragic events took place, was worth supporting.
This trip and meeting were made more complex because the screenplay depicted RamosHorta as the much younger man he was in 1975, an infamous Che Guevara-like revolutionary, consummate womaniser and formidable diplomat.
Ramos-Horta refuses to live in a formal presidential palace; his home is a far more humble traditional structure just east of the heart of the nation’s capital, Dili, and a five-minute walk to the beach. Six months later, a failed attack would see him take three bullets in the gut in the very home we visited to argue our case.
I had sent the screenplay earlier, uncensored (despite mybetter judgment that softening the edges might have made our task easier), together with a DVD starring the actor we proposed to cast as his younger self.
‘‘This actor,’’ he began immediately after we arrived, ‘ ‘ I have shown his film to some close friends, women. ‘Is he good looking enough to play me?’ I asked them. ‘No,’ they all agreed. ‘Certainly not.’ George Clooney, I was thinking, would be better — what do you think?’’
A cheeky, playful twinkle in his eye betrayed his mischief.
He was curious about our first impressions of East Timor. The impact of Indonesia’s savage withdrawal in 1999 was everywhere: sprawling displaced-persons camps surrounded the airport, UN and Australian troops patrolled the streets, almost the entire infrastructure remained damaged in some way. At the airport in Darwin that very day, we told him, the Australian government had raised the security advice for travel to East Timor to only one step beneath post-invasion Baghdad.
The travel warnings clearly frustrated him; they discouraged tourism and investment. The US warnings were the same, he said. East Timor was, as we found while filming, as safe as Ramos-Horta had promised us that night over dinner. In one minor public joke to make a point, he had posted an official warning to East Timorese travelling to New York: ‘‘Please be advised that if you are dark of skin, using the subway in certain parts of New York is unsafe.’’
The shoot would require permission to film in the remote town of Balibo, where five young journalists had been murdered by invading Indonesian troops to conceal the truth of a covert military incursion. Ramos-Horta had been in Balibo in 1975 with the journalists and had warned them of the dangers before heading back to Dili to await the full-scale Indonesian invasion that would take place by sea and air only a few months later. The world would turn a blind eye.
Ironically, in the heart of Balibo, a statue looks down on the square where the journalists were killed. A relic from the Indonesian occupation, it depicts a manbreaking chains, the shackles of colonial occupation. After 400 years of Portuguese rule, the Timorese enjoyed only nine days of independence before Indonesia claimed this small nation as its own. Ramos-Horta offered that night to tear it down if it would make filming easier, and gave us the permission we needed to move ahead.
Balibo, a four-hour drive from Dili, sits on a strategically high vantage point looking down towards the Ombai Strait and the border with Indonesian West Timor. A 400-year-old fort built by the Portuguese continues to take military advantage of this extraordinary location, with Australian troops stationed there in 1999.
On the evening before we recreated the Indonesian invasion of Balibo and the murder of the journalists, Lieutenant Colonel Sabika turned up with Ramos-Horta’s blessing, together with more than 100 of his troops. Not only would they help depict the invasion by playing the invading soldiers, but Sabika himself would be our guide. As a young commander in the East Timor army in 1975, he had defended Balibo on the morning of the invasion. His troops camped in the fort for the night.
Looking down towards the sea at dusk, Sabika showed us where the boats had been positioned, where the troops had landed and the direction they had attacked from. It was humbling to stand there with a man who 35 years earlier had attempted to defend this town. We slept that night next to a small church beneath the fort; the five actors chose to stay in the house the journalists had slept in the night before they died.
On the wall at the front of that building, recovered beneath layers of paint, a picture of the Australian flag has been framed. The journalists had hoped it would afford them some protection.
Together, before daybreak, we all headed up to the fort to prepare to film. Never before had the idea of sunrise held such significance on set. A coronial inquest had explored the reasons the journalists had remained after Sabika and his men had retreated on that fateful day.
The journalists’ 16mm cameras required natural light to shoot some footage of the invasion. They had perhaps stayed until the sun had only just broken the horizon in order to film, but by then it was too late and they were murdered shortly after.
Cameras ready, we too waited for that moment, a soft light only j ust revealing the landscape. Among the many moments in filmmaking that are repetitive and dull, the more sublime moments, rare as they are, can be extraordinary. That morning remains the most moving of my career.
Standing by on that hill with the Australian and Timorese cast and crew poised, Sabika’s troops waiting down below to recreate the attack, the anticipation was overwhelming. The sun broke the horizon and we began to film. This is an edited extract from Lights, Camera . . . Travel! (Lonely Planet, $24.99; lonelyplanet.com), a new anthology featuring ‘‘rich, raucous, and intimately revealing on-the-road tales by 33 international actors, directors and screenwriters’’, edited by Andrew McCarthy and Don George.
Robert Connolly travelled to East Timor in 2009 to make the feature film Balibo. He was awarded the Timorese Presidential Medal of Merit as part of the nation’s 10th anniversary of independence celebrations. EAST Timorese hotel manager Alice Goncalves has survived many bad moments in the hospitality business. The worst was as a young woman in December 1975, when she found herself kneeling at gunpoint in the front yard of Dili’s Hotel Turismo with all the hotel guests.
‘‘These guys were the Indonesian army’s red-beret soldiers. I thought I would die,’’ she recalls. She was saved by her resourceful mother-in-law, Carolina Mascarenhas Goncalves, then managing the hotel, who had earlier confronted troops disembarking in Dili harbour to demand safe conduct from the commander, Colonel Dading Kalbuadi. ‘‘Maybe he thought my mother-in-law was funny,’’ Alice muses. ‘ ‘ Brave or funny, I don’t know . . . he gave her a pass and it saved our lives. That day when they were ready to kill us, she said, ‘Look, we have this paper’, and they let us go. She was a gutsy woman.’’
The near-execution occurred just three months after five former Hotel Turismo guests, the young newsmen later dubbed Balibo Five, had been killed in the border town of that name during an overland invasion preceding the Dili landing. Another guest, reporter Roger East, was executed at the Dili wharf on December 8, 1975; Alice remembers them all.
In 1977 she fled to Indonesia, where she was later assisted to freedom by a mysterious but kindly Indonesian general. With her husband, Rui, she won political asylum in Australia and lived here until the 1999 Indonesian withdrawal, when they returned to East Timor to revive the hotel’s fortunes. By 2005, she was manager.
In 2009, Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly commemorated the dead newsmen in Balibo, with many scenes filmed in the hotel. Since its construction in 1969, the simple art-deco-style building had housed an array of colourful guests, from j ournalists and generals to writers, spies and backpackers.
In its heyday as a favoured watering hole, Hotel Turismo was to Dili what The Strand was to Rangoon, Raffles to Singapore and The Oriental to Bangkok.
Alice survived, but the historic hotel didn’t. In January last year, it fell under the developer’s hammer after a deal between the Timorese government and a local investor abruptly ended the lease. Alice and Rui were ordered to leave along with all their guests, or face eviction by police. The old building has been razed and a new version, Hotel Novo Turismo, is under construction on the site. First impressions, to my mind, suggest vulgar grandiosity.
Undaunted, Alice and Rui have opened Tibar Beach Retreat on a peaceful bayside slope 15 minutes west of Dili. It features eight boutique bungalows with a garden stretching down to Tibar Bay.
Alice is training a team of young Timorese staff and chef Zaida Cardoso is cooking at its Ximangane restaurant (named after Rui’s pseudonym as a resistance fighter). Alice’s previous Hotel Turismo touches are recognisable in crisp white tablecloths, gleaming glassware and posies of tropical flowers.
Zaida, born in Portuguese Africa, emigrated to Lisbon at 19, where she learned her profession and worked at top restaurants. She describes her cooking style as ‘‘a fusion of Mediterranean cuisine with traditional Timorese’’.
Fresh fish is a menu strong point, including ikan saboko, or spiced garoupa roasted in banana leaves with bay leaf, ginger, lemon and black pepper.
Tibar Beach Retreat comes into its own at weekends when it is often packed with UN staff, aid workers and Timorese officials who like to linger over dinner, their conversations irrigated with fine Portuguese wines; Jose Ramos-Horta is an occasional visitor. Deep-sea fishing excursions can be booked, as well as trips into the mountains.
The eight bungalows are built of eco-friendly timber-milled coconut palms and the decor is quietly luxurious. For Rui and Alice it has been a long journey, but with determination they have prevailed against all odds, including Indonesian guns and postindependence deals.
Damon Gameau as Australian reporter Greg Shackleton in Robert Connolly’s 2009 film Balibo
Robert Connolly was determined to shoot Balibo in East Timor
Jose Ramos-Horta, right, was played by Oscar Isaac, left
Tibar Beach Retreat’s boutique bungalows
Alice Goncalves and her mother-in-law in 1976
Indonesian troops haul away an Australian journalist in the film