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

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROBERT CON­NOLLY JILL JOL­LIFFE

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

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