05 December 2008

British filmmaker takes on burden of history in East Timor

DILI (AFP) - From his terrifying footage of the 1991 massacre at Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery, British journalist and filmmaker Max Stahl has tracked every step of East Timor's transition to independence.

Having helped break the Timor story to the world, Stahl says it is now his life's mission to give East Timor an audio-visual record of its bloody split from Indonesia and its tumultuous first years of independence.

Without it, he says, no one will remember where the tiny half-island state came from or what values were there at its birth.

"It is enormously important because you cannot forge an identity without memory," says the 53-year-old, sporting a hat in the black, red and yellow colours of his adopted country.

Stahl's audio-visual centre in the Timorese capital of Dili is devoted to preserving that memory in digital recordings of events leading up to and after the 2002 declaration of independence.

Backed by the United Nations and the French national audiovisual institute, the centre aims to "gather and preserve East Timor's recent history and culture in audiovisual form," he said.

The story begins around November 12, 1991 when Stahl filmed Indonesian troops firing into hundreds of peaceful demonstrators in Dili.

Some 270 people were killed, another 400 were injured and 250 were listed as missing, according to East Timorese figures.

Stahl's exclusive footage shocked the world and humiliated Jakarta, which held a referendum on self-rule eight years later, which in turn led to independence in 2002.

The Briton has been there through thick and thin, seeing the euphoria of the declaration turn into violent infighting between the security forces in 2006 and an assassination attempt against President Jose Ramos-Horta this year.

He has not lost hope that East Timor, one of the poorest countries in the world, can become a viable country.

"It will take time but this country will become more mature," he says.

And if East Timor -- a country where almost half the population is under 18 years of age -- is to finally grow up it must first form an understanding of the past, he says.

"They don't have to forget that what unites the Timorese people is the struggle for independence against Indonesia," he says.

East Timorese technician Ivo Tilman, who works at the audiovisual centre, said he wanted to honour the victims of the independence struggle by preserving their stories for future generations.

"It is very important for us and for the next generations to know what happened," he said.

"I lost my brother, who was a clandestine warrior, after he was kidnapped by Indonesian special forces in 1995. We still don't know how he was killed. My mother lost six brothers during the occupation from 1975."

But despite the upheaval of 2006, which saw tens of thousands of people flee factional violence in Dili, and the assassination attempt in February this year, he said he was optimistic for his country.

"I am very optimistic about my country's future if we learn about our past and try not to repeat the 2006 crisis," he said.

Image: Max Stahl

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