The turning point

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 August, 2007, 12:00am

On November 12, 1991, a young British-Swedish reporter, Max Stahl, stood near a crypt in the middle of Dili's Santa Cruz cemetery as the then occupying Indonesian army massacred 271 of the thousands of civilians who were chanting for freedom while praying for a student activist killed two weeks earlier.

Until then, East Timor was a forgotten war.

The country was sacrificed by Washington, London and Canberra who, wrapped up in a cold war syndrome, gave Jakarta the green light to invade when Portugal, the former colonial power, set sail. That was December 1975. At least 200,000 East Timorese - one-third of the population - paid with their lives for the 24-year-long occupation that ended in a last orgy of violence in 1999.

It is generally acknowledged that Stahl's irrefutable footage thrust East Timor into the public consciousness. Governments, as well as individuals, mobilised in a wave of outrage. In Dublin, Ireland, for example, then bus driver Tom Hyland was so shaken he devoted the next 10 years to the East Timorese cause. 'There was something poignant about the video. It was powerful, raw and direct,' the 55-year-old said in Dili, where he now lives.

Looking back, East Timor's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Jose Ramos-Horta, 58, also saw Santa Cruz as a turning point. 'It was neither the first nor the biggest massacre, but it was the only one that was documented. Max did us a great service by standing firm,' he said.

Talking over lunch in a noisy Dili restaurant, Stahl, now 53, smiles. Recognition pleases him, but there is no narcissism in his version of the events. 'I am a storyteller. I work very hard to tell the story,' he said.

'Back then, I didn't have evidence of what I believed was massive abuse going on. Santa Cruz gave me that evidence. I was very shaken and angry, but as a filmmaker you have to stay focused, stand firm and film.

'Today, I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to document what was happening.'

When Stahl first landed in East Timor in September 1991, financial and bureaucratic constraints meant he was part of a Yorkshire TV crew. He had sold the idea of a film on East Timor linking it to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

'It was the time of the New Order, with Washington saying big countries could not invade smaller neighbours. That gave me the opportunity to talk about East Timor, which matched Kuwait legally in almost every respect, but had been sacrificed by the same western powers that went after Saddam Hussein,' he said.

'We finished the film, but I felt we had not told the story, so I stayed on when the others left.'

As Stahl recounted, this was a time when East Timor was smothered under a blanket of abuse and fear. 'It was the tensest place I had ever been. People were afraid to make eye contact or talk to you.'

At one level, the trajectory that was to take him to Santa Cruz started there. But, on a deeper level, the path had started several years earlier, when Stahl left behind a pampered life as the son of a diplomat, and potential fame as a budding TV star in Britain. Stahl pointed to his parents and the Catholic school where he studied as the strongest influences in his upbringing.

'They instilled in me the interest in issues of political, social and economical development.'

His decades-long career as a producer, director and cameraman included reports on guerilla groups and oppressed people in Central America, the Far East, Middle East and Europe. In between scooping up the industry's main awards, he had been reported dead three times and twice, each, kidnapped and seriously wounded.

'Today the horror of Chechnya compares with what East Timor went through,' he said.

What first attracted Stahl to East Timor was the struggle of a Portuguese-speaking country in Southeast Asia. What compelled him to return time and time again was the fight for human dignity of a proud people.

'The Timorese were fighting against a powerful enemy by embodying the struggle for human dignity,' he said. 'Here, the idea of the dignity of the human being was even more fundamental than life itself. It was a powerful idea and united the people.'

Santa Cruz ensured him a place in the history of journalism, but in this tiny Southeast Asian country, Stahl was also the first to film the leaders of the guerillas in the hills. He was one of the few who stayed behind after the referendum for independence in 1999 ended in chaos, with Indonesia-backed militia going on a rampage, killing 1,500 people and burning 70 per cent of the country's infrastructure.

His footage of dazed East Timorese fleeing into the hills, after the UN shamefully abandoned the island, won awards and prompted tears.

But it is Santa Cruz the filmmaker can't forget.

'I was on a bus from Baucau to Dili when I got the message about the protest. Once I arrived, I did not go to my hotel, but stayed in a house with some young people,' he said.

The Santa Cruz footage started early in the morning, as people prepared for the demonstration, hiding 'Viva Xanana' banners under their T-shirts.

Xanana Gusmao was this week named East Timor's new prime minister but back then he was the leader of the guerillas. Stahl described Mr Gusmao, who was elected the country's first post-independence president in 2002, as 'probably the most outstanding within a crop of heroes'.

But the filmmaker's attention quickly returned to that fateful day. 'It was clear the day was going to be an important one,' he said.

Stahl said the massacre followed disappointment over the cancellation of a visit by a delegation of Portuguese parliamentarians. 'The visit was one of those moments when many issues would come together. The Indonesians wanted to show there was no resistance, while the Timorese wanted to show that there was.

'The Timorese had prepared for this for two years and when the visit was cancelled, it was clear they had to do something.'

Stahl said the protest was organised by students who, by then, had taken the initiative in the fight for freedom. The focal point of the demonstration was the cemetery, where people wanted to commemorate student activist Sebasti?o Gomes, who had been killed in a church two weeks earlier.

Stahl first recorded the Mass at Moteal Church and then the swelling of the crowd, as young and old spilled into the streets to cry for freedom, in a country where public speech and assembly had been forbidden for more than a decade.

Out came the banners and the sound of 'Xanana Xanana' filled the streets as the camera lens focused on some of the young faces whose eyes were brimming with fear, excitement, pride and defiance in what had since been defined as 'the boldest act of public protest that occupied Timor had ever seen'.

About 5,000 people gathered at Santa Cruz. Some went inside to lay flowers on Gomes' grave, but most stayed outside.

Then gunshots broke into the footage. Young people were filmed running inside the cemetery, stepping on each other, hiding behind derelict tombstones, their T-shirts blood-soaked, their eyes pleading. The Indonesians fired several thousand rounds of bullets as the dead filled the ground of the violated graveyard.

Stahl stood firm and filmed, ducking only when a soldier aimed at him. 'It was butchery. It was a systematic approach into the cemetery. Once they got all those outside, they started to move in and stab people. Someone close to me was stabbed eight times,' he said. 'But he survived.'

Many were killed instantly. Others were murdered in hospital where some had their skull crushed by blocks, while others were forced to swallow formaldehyde pills. The final estimated death toll was more than 400.

In the heat of the bloodshed, Stahl managed to bury two videotapes in a freshly dug grave before he was arrested. After nine hours in custody, he returned to the cemetery and dug up the tapes under the cover of night. He then had them smuggled out of the country.

The rest is history.

Today, Stahl's respect for East Timor and interest in its development have converged, pushing him to start an audiovisual archive of the country's history.

'The story of the Timorese is remarkable and enriched by some truly inspiring leaders,' he said. 'During the struggle, photographic and video images were dispersed throughout the world' and now he wants to collate the images to produce a historical record.

'My ambition is to bring it all together and ensure the people of this small nation, deprived of a voice for so long, have access to their past.

'I'm interested in recording the progress of this young democracy. This is the first country of the new millennium. It's been an experiment in nation building. It is an extraordinary story, but it's badly served. Journalists come and go, and international organisations spin their reports.

'I want to record it as it is.'

The Max Stahl Audio-Visual Archive Timor-Leste already includes more than 1,500 hours of recordings. Stahl also provides training for young Timorese interested in filmmaking. But the going is tough.

'I'm not sure how we are going to survive, because it is difficult to get funding. But maybe among the young students there is another storyteller,' he said, smiling. 'That alone would make it all worthwhile.'