Love story amid blood-soaked birth of nation

Desire for justice ... Beatriz (Irim Tolentino) searches for her husband, Tomas, among the men killed in the village of Kraras in <i>A Guerra da Beatriz</i>.
Desire for justice ... Beatriz (Irim Tolentino) searches for her husband, Tomas, among the men killed in the village of Kraras in A Guerra da Beatriz.

HISTORIANS often say the past is a foreign country but in East Timor it's a thread that runs through the fabric of daily life. Reminders of Indonesia's brutal 24-year occupation are everywhere: burnt-out buildings in central Dili; the absence of men of a certain age; a memorial at the city's Santa Cruz cemetery to the victims of the 1991 massacre by Indonesian soldiers.

It's no surprise then, that East Timor's first feature film, A Guerra da Beatriz (Beatriz's War), focuses on the horror of those times and how the Timorese coped with and resisted the occupation.

Due for release early next year, part of the film is set in 1983 in the village of Kraras where every male - estimated to be at least 200 men and children - was killed by Indonesian soldiers in retribution for an earlier attack by the Timorese resistance.

A Guerra da Beatriz, a co-production between a local film company, Dili Film Works, and Australian outfit FairTrade Films, has a Timorese cast, a majority of Timorese in the crew, and was shot in several stunning locations in East Timor.

It is a love story set during the occupation, about a young Timorese couple, Beatriz and Tomas. Tomas disappears after the Kraras massacre only to return years later, almost unrecognisable. The inspiration for the story came from a true 16th-century French tale about a peasant, Martin Guerre, who returned to his family after years away only to have his identity challenged.

The script was co-written by the film's lead actress, Irim Tolentino, who worked on Robert Connolly's Balibo and who has starred in many East Timor theatre and television productions.

Those involved in A Guerra da Beatriz hope the experience gained during the shoot and post-production will help kick-start a local film industry.

It's also exciting the story is told in Tetum, the native language of East Timor, says Dili Film Works co-founder and the film's co-director, Bety Reis.

''We want to continue [making films in Timor] because this is a new thing for us, to tell stories for a younger generation,'' says Reis who, with the rest of the production team, is now in Dili editing the film.

''We have a lot of ideas we want to produce for short films because in Timor we have a lot of stories to tell. There is a tradition of storytelling here. When we are small our grandparents always tell us stories; we don't get them from movies or books.''

The creative team wanted to do something bold that would attract a lot of attention in East Timor and overseas, says the co-director Luigi Acquisto, explaining why they melded the love story with recent Timor history.

''In Timor, from the beginning of independence [from Indonesia] there has been rhetoric about reconciliation and forgiveness, but the reality for many East Timorese is that … they don't want revenge but they want justice, the same way victims of other wars want justice.''

The love story - and whether Beatriz can accept the man who claims to be Tomas but may in fact have fought with the Indonesians - allows the film to explore ideas about forgiveness, reconciliation and justice, without preaching.

The whole production has been conducted almost ''guerilla-style'' says Acquisto, on a shoestring budget, with in-kind support from some local companies and the Timorese government, and financed in unorthodox ways, such as through a fan club, crowd-sourcing and regular film screenings in Dili.

Via their website, Acquisto and his partner at FairTrade Films, Stella Zammataro, who is also co-producer of the film, are aiming to raise $12,000 to help fund post-production work. But they could need at least another $100,000 by the time they finish.

The team encountered the usual logistical nightmares of filming in rugged and remote areas. During the two-week shoot in the village of Kraras, for example, water had to be trucked in for the cast and crew, toilets had to be built and everyone slept at the local school.

The many local extras deliver an extra layer of truth to the film, Acquisto and Zammataro say.

During some scenes involving the massacre, the extras - many of whom were widows of those killed in 1983 - were in tears or in shock because the story being told was their own, Zammataro says.

Part of the story involves a funeral. The local village women helped the crew organise the set and choose the correct flowers and candles.

''They started calling to the spirits. It was very powerful; it was real grief,'' Acquisto says.

The role of Celestino dos Anjos, who fought with Australian troops in World War II, is played by Commander Funu Lakan, a former Falintil resistance fighter who is now serving with the Timorese Army.

''He brings a real veracity to the role, especially when he is shot by the Indonesians,'' Acquisto says.

In the film, he is ordered to dig his own grave but refuses. ''I don't do surrender well,'' he told the crew when they were shooting the scene.

The story resonated even with those actors who had not witnessed the Kraras massacre.

Jose da Costa, who plays the adult Tomas, survived the Santa Cruz massacre but was arrested and tortured, and later fled to Australia by boat. Others in the cast were part of a clandestine resistance movement that operated out of Indonesia.

SBS TV in Australia and the World Movie Channel have acquired the film for broadcast and the team is talking to various film festivals.

After its debut in Dili next year it will tour the country, where it will be shown in schools using a digital projector.

Da Costa, a seasoned actor who had roles in Balibo and Answered by Fire (a mini-series about the lead-up to the 1999 independence referendum in East Timor), hopes this latest venture, of which he is a co-producer, will lead to more work.

''I like to express myself through acting,'' Da Costa says. ''I have a passion for storytelling, especially stories about Timor. It's in my blood.''

Go to for more information about the film and how you can support it.

This story Love story amid blood-soaked birth of nation first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.