On the cutting edges

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2007, 12:00am

In Tetum, the native tongue of East Timor, the word lianain means storyteller. In a land where oral history is paramount if a community's heritage is to survive, the lianain are guardians of history for a people whose existence has been threatened by the strife of Portuguese and Indonesian rule, and the trappings of modernity.

It's no surprise that James Leong and Lynn Lee named their production company after these storytellers, who provided them with so much advice and inspiration for their first full-length documentary, Passabe.

But Lianain Films is more than just a homage. 'We felt it described us well - we observe and tell stories,' says Lee.

Leong and Lee have certainly done justice to the name since quitting their full-time jobs (as a lawyer and television producer, respectively). Passabe, for example, provides one of the most vivid and humane accounts of the turbulence and reconciliation in East Timor after its independence in 2002. Their second documentary, Aki Ra Boys, focuses on another community coming to terms with the aftermath of war, telling the story of young boys injured by landmines in rural Cambodia.

Their work gives a voice to marginalised minorities left to fend for themselves. 'We're drawn by compelling characters, people in unique situations, perhaps struggling to come to terms with their past, or hoping to turn things around,' says Lee. 'These are powerful stories. The central characters may or may not succeed, but their journey is always interesting.'

Just such a journey is the focus of Homeless FC, the pair's latest documentary, which receives its world premiere at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on April 1. The title refers to the soccer team that represented Hong Kong at last year's Homeless World Cup tournament in Durban. Leong and Lee followed the team members for almost 14 months - from their selection to training, tournament, and then all the way back to their difficult lives in Hong Kong.

'It's been an incredible journey,' says Leong. Society for Community Organisation, the NGO involved, demanded a lot of the players. 'To qualify for a spot, they have to show that they're holding down a job, or are actively looking for one, that they're making an effort to find a permanent home, and that they're willing to turn their lives around.'

Lee says that 'because the policy is to accept anyone who is homeless, there'll always be troublemakers on the team - the ones who turn up drunk, the ones spoiling for a fight. We have a lot of respect for the social workers and coaches for managing so many different personalities. The players who did make it to the World Cup came back, I think, with a new lease of life. It was a pretty special experience.'

Although the team's endeavours in South Africa were covered by local media, Homeless FC probes deep into the players' lives.

'Sometimes, it was like watching an episode of Survivor,' Lee says. The filmmakers didn't see it as their job to try 'to iron stuff out or offer solutions', but they are clearly not without empathy.

The producers' faith and patience in the project paid generous dividends. Their approach adds authenticity to the film and helped them develop a strong rapport with the players.

'It wasn't enough to know that those things happened, or to have someone else describe the events after they happened,' says Leong, the son of New Wave filmmaker Leong Po-chih. 'We wanted to be there, filming, when things happened. We're not interested in sit-down interviews. We're interested in filming things as they unfold.

'Getting our key characters to allow us into their lives was a challenge. But by the time we left for South Africa, I think we'd managed to do that. The players had started calling us themselves to say, 'We're doing this or that, would you like to film [it]?''

Leong and Lee made some big sacrifices to complete Homeless FC, a project that, like Passabe (which they almost were forced to abandon midway because they ran out of funds), could have brought them financial ruin. 'We had a small grant from the Singapore government, but we funded the bulk of the project ourselves,' says Lee. 'It was a big commitment, moving everything lock, stock and barrel to Hong Kong.'

The warmth that radiates from their work is due to the long-lasting relationships built with their subjects. It's three years since they made Passabe - a documentary about reconciliation hearings on atrocities committed by pro-Indonesian militia in the East Timorese village in the title - but they're still trying to fulfil their pledge of showing it in Passabe.

Recent social upheavals in East Timor have scuppered plans to return, Leong says. 'We'll go back when things calm down,' he says. 'I've heard it's pretty hairy in Dili itself, but there have also been some problems at the border.'

Lee says they returned to Timor in January last year, hoping to screen the film. 'Unfortunately, the river was impassable during that trip and we never made it to the village.

'But we did show it to some of the other villages, and the same question emerged over and over again: yes, forgiveness and reconciliation are all well and good, but what about justice?

'The recent chaos shocked us, not least because we thought the Timorese really wanted stability.

'But I guess when social inequalities are glaringly clear, when there's corruption and self-serving politicians, when ordinary people feel marginalised, things fall apart,' says Lee.

With such passion for justice, the lianain in East Timor have surely found heirs to their work as custodians of history and integrity.

Homeless FC screens at the Hong Kong Space Museum, Apr 1, 6pm; Apr 4, 9.30pm, Hong Kong Science Museum. The filmmakers will attend both screenings